Join us today in welcoming our guest Beatriz Hausner, author of She Who Lies Above!
She Who Lies Above is a book of verse and prose poems built around the figure of Hypatia, the Neoplatonist philosopher and mathematician who lived in Alexandria in the fourth century A.D.
Can you tell us more about Hypatia and her influence on She Who Lies Above?
Most of what we know about Hypatia can be gleaned from letters or fragments of letters written to her by her student and friend Synesius of Cyrene. What struck me about Synesius’ writings was the wide span of the topics they reveal. They can be personal and also philosophical, sometimes even mundane. Synesius’ letters to Hypatia, or the fragments which survived, felt more admiring and subtly loving compared to the letters he wrote to other people.
At the time of my reading Synesius’ writings, I was taking part in an international poetry festival held annually in Trois Rivières, Québec. Sitting there, watching the immensity of waters flowing down the St. Lawrence River, it occurred to me that Trois Rivières could very well stand in for Hypatia’s Alexandria, and that I could merge the present with that early period of Byzantine history.
It was there that I came up with the idea of inventing Hypatia’s side of the correspondence with Synesius. It felt strange and exciting for me, a writer formed in the traditions of Spanish and French literature, to emulate the diction of Synesius’ texts in English. (I was conscious that the texts I was reading were renderings, translations from the original Greek). Synesius’ letters to Hypatia and her answers to those letters were not enough for a full-length manuscript, so “plumped up” Synesius’ side of the correspondence, adding to it, by either borrowing from his other writings, or outright inventing, as I did for Hypatia.
I entered Hypatia’s world, not through her work as a mathematician or philosopher, but through readings about Alexandria, its history, its topography, its geographic markers, its demographics, architecture, and the physical spaces I imagine Hypatia would have inhabited. I delved deep into my passion for library history so that I was able to finally put to words my thoughts about libraries, librarianship, classification theory, knowledge-organizing and preserving. In the process, I discovered marvelous information about the history of bibliography, which I used to expand on my own knowledge as a specialist in Book History and Print Culture.
She Who Lies Above focuses on an invented relationship that develops through correspondence. Can you expand on your relationship to this type of surrealist prose?
The book slowly became an expression of my fantasies, and my own experiences as a poet, a librarian, and a woman living in a world that is terribly assailed by false ideas and violence, as was Hypatia’s. At the same time, She Who Lies Above is my attempt at conceiving of a new way of being in the world, where love and liberty are the vehicles for transformation of the self and the collective. In this regard, my book adheres entirely to the philosophy of surrealism.
Being a surrealist, I know for a fact that the entirety of reality is a continuum of associations among images that exist, images and ideas that we inherit, and images and ideas that we create as we merge reverie, dream, and wakefulness. My book is the expression of living and being in a state of surreality, that complete reality which we exist in, as we aspire to reach what André Breton referred to as “le point sublime.” Weaving itself through the book is the theme of alchemy, an art that serves perfectly as a metaphor for creativity and the extraction of meaning.
How does your writing take up hybridity?
In literary terms, She Who Lies Above is the result of an exploration of writing as a means of constructing mental spaces, where poetic diction can clearly express the many voices that inhabit each one of us. I do this by means of merging genres: poetry, fiction, and a kind of meditative prose or essay, to create several layers within the whole.
In this way, I create a world that can be inhabited by Hypatia and Synesius, by characters from the past and the present, characters that are factual and historical, and composites of characters I’ve invented based on the historical research I did for this book. She Who Lies Above also includes important players in library history, like Challimachus, who was both a great poet and a bibliographer, and lived much before Hypatia; or the modern classificationist Ranganathan.
The hybrid structure of She Who Lies Above finds its inspiration in some of the best works of André Breton, including his Ode à Charles Fourier, which I was reading at the time of my giving the book its final structure. I am also inspired by older works like Dante’s Vita Nuova, which is a strange combination of essayistic prose and poetry, coincidentally inspired by a woman who bears my name.
Beatriz Hausner was born in Chile and immigrated to Canada with her family when she was a teenager. She has published many poetry books, including The Wardrobe Mistress (2004), Sew Him Up (2010), Enter the Raccoon (2012), and Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (2020). Her prose and poetry have been published in many chapbooks and included in several anthologies, and her books have been published internationally and translated into several languages, including her native Spanish, French, Dutch, and Greek. She is an active participant in the international surrealist movement, and a respected historian and translator of Latin American surrealism. Hausner, who is trilingual, served three terms as President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada and was Chair of the Public Lending Right Commission. She was also a founding publisher of Quattro Books. Hausner lives in Toronto where she publishes The Philosophical Egg.