Queens College professor examines findings in latest book

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The women’s studies department held an event on Oct. 21 in Rosenthal Library to showcase Barbara Simerka’s book, which applies cognitive theories to gender, class and identity in early modern Spanish literature.

Simerka is a Spanish professor, who has published over twenty essays focusing on interdisciplinary and feminist approaches. She is also a founding executive board member of GEMELA, a group that focuses on medieval and early modern Spain and colonial Latin American women’s writing and culture.

Simerka’s latest book, “Knowing Subjects,” draws on the theory of mind in order to analyze early modern Spanish literature, such as works by Cervantes and Gracián. Theory of mind is the ability to predict another’s actions by being able to put yourself in their position and attempt to understand their current situation.

Simerka explained her analysis of works by Maria de Zayas, who wrote during the Golden Age of literature in Spain.

“Maria de Zayas is best known not for the play that we’ve been discussing, but for her two novella collections,” Simerka said. “They’ve gotten attention for their groundbreaking explorations of domestic violence.”

The works of De Zayas goes into graphic detail about the abuse of women, ranging from torture to murder, which was unusual during the early 1600’s. Simerka explained that the characters in the novellas explicitly demonstrated their empathy toward victims of violence, inviting the reader to empathize.

“De Zayas uses empathy as an emotional and cognitive tool to encourage readers to question patriarchal social codes,” Simerka said. “When I teach these novellas, I encourage students to analyze the connections between empathetic responses to suffering and debates concerning gender equality in the real world.”

Experiments have made clear that brain functions on the preconscious level are implicated with lived cultural experience, according to Simerka.

“Contemporary authors like Alice Walker create literary works with characters of minority groups that invoke empathy in the reader, increasing empathetic responses in real world situations,” she said.

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