What can Spanish texts written four, five centuries ago teach us about how we define our identity?
A lot, according to Assistant Professor of Spanish Mina García Soormally.
García Soormally’s scholarship, including her most recent book, Magia, hechiceria y brujeria: Entre La Celestina y Cervantes (Magic, Sorcery and Witchcraft: Between La Celestina and Cervantes), focuses on the Spain of the 16th and 17th centuries. This is the time when Catholic monarchs ruled and the Spanish Inquisition was in full force and García Soormally's work compares the origins of certain issues on both sides of the Atlantic.
“What I study the most is how the institutions deal with the other,” explains García Soormally, a native of Spain. In the case of Spain, she looks at how the Inquisition and the Catholic monarchs dealt with concepts and ideas that were outside of their perception of national identity. “It was interesting to see how Spain started to define itself by excluding rather than by acquiring features of its own.”
She noted that the country, for instance, systematically excluded Jews, Muslims and a number of practices no longer recognized within the Catholic state, such as witchcraft and superstitions, giving rise to a number of marginalized groups.
With this in mind, García Soormally paid particular attention to the use of spells and charms in early Spanish literature.
“By using magic in different forms, sorcery or witchcraft, (the writers) create a periphery, a group of people who are not part of the norm who can find ways of intervening,” she explains. “It’s because they are thought to be enchanted or crazy or disguised in the form of an animal that they can actually find these spaces where there is not much control from the institution and actually shape social and economic relationships within their society.”
She discovered that despite all the monarchs’ efforts, Spain’s core identity was being defined by what was going on in its periphery and vice versa. Even more interesting, these types of negotiations continue to this day.
“Every time there is a clash between institutions and practices that are still not part of the norm, there is this clash until things become what is normative,” García Soormally says. “The clash defines both sides.”
She points to recent events, such as the 9/11 attacks or the Egyptian and Syrian uprisings, where an outside or marginalized group has threatened the center and how that tension defines both sides.
“There are always instances of struggle of what is institutionalized and what is not,” she says, adding that she hopes her scholarship helps question boundaries.
“Sometimes we study realities independent from each other and we don’t necessarily establish parallelisms or connections between things,” she says. “What I try to do is to establish connections, not just study things individually but try to make connections, try to create a wider perspective for the reader and for the students.”
Born in Málaga, Spain, Garcia Soormally earned a bachelor's degree in English philology and a doctorate in Spanish philology from the Universidad de Málaga. She holds a doctorate in Spanish language and literature and a master's in Spanish and Latin American literature from Duke University.