I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Gioconda Belli is one of Nicaragua’s major political and intellectual voices. Born in Managua in 1948, Belli studied advertising and journalism in Philadelphia, and then returned to her country to get involved with the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. In 1970, she joined the FSLN (the Sandinista National Liberation Front). After the Sandinista’s triumph in 1979, she occupied several posts in the revolutionary government, all the while publishing poetry, novels, children’s stories, and numerous essays in national and international newspapers.
For her second collection of poems, Línea de fuego, Belli won the prestigious Casa de las Americas Prize in 1978. Her poetry and fiction incorporate the political and social struggles of Nicaragua, with a particular emphasis on questions of gender oppression in Nicaragua and throughout Latin America. Her first novel, The Inhabited Woman , sold over 500,000 copies and has been published in the United States, Spain, Mexico, Denmark, Argentina, Nicaragua, Finland, Holland, Greece and Turkey.
Profoundly affected by the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1989, Belli, like other Sandinista intellectuals (such as former vice-president and poet Sergio Ramírez), called for the renovation of their party’s power structure. Today, Belli is considered by Nicaraguans to be one of the most independent, critically engaged intellectuals in the struggle for democracy. She is married to an American and divides her time, as well as her subject matter as a cultural critic, between Nicaragua and the United States. She has lectured at Princeton, Columbia, Boston College and the University of California at San Diego, among other universities. Her latest project, The Country Under My Skin (Fall 2001, Knopf) is a memoir about her life, her involvement in Nicaragua’s civil war and politics, and an exploration of the risks and possibilities in constructing personal and social utopias both within the context of the Nicaraguan Revolution and the climate of late capitalism.
When Belli and I met at her home in Los Angeles this fall, we discussed the complexities of her privileged and contradictory position as a leftist intellectual who still believes in and is willing to struggle for a better society.
Kenia Halleck I would like to start with your background. Identity is a relational concept. As a Nicaraguan woman and a third-world intellectual, in relation to whom or what do you define yourself, and to which locations?
Gioconda Belli I have often written about my body as a geographical metaphor for my country. When I return to Nicaragua, as I often do, there is that moment when I see the familiar landscape and I have the clear physical sensation that my soul has reentered my body. I have a symbiotic relationship with that particular landscape, maybe because my sense of self developed in the context of the epic struggle of the Nicaraguan people to topple a dynasty of dictators that ruled the country for 45 years. Until I became involved with the Sandinista Liberation Front in Managua in 1970, I lived in a mirage. I grew up privileged, went to the best schools, studied in Europe and the U.S.—but I was basically an adolescent woman fulfilling my parents’ program. When I came in contact with the underground Sandinista movement, my whole life changed. By then I had gotten married and, at 19, had my first daughter. It was not until I severed my ties with what I had been programmed to be that I gained a self. So my identity was constructed on a political affirmation that empowered me as a citizen and as a woman of a particular country at a particular time in history. That is why my identity is defined by a place: I am Nicaraguan. The fact that I live half of my time in the United States—an apparent contradiction—doesn’t change that. My husband works in Los Angeles and so I choose to spend time with him. It’s a good place for my writing life. My political life, however, doesn’t take place in L.A. I believe that the world’s interconnectedness allows us to move to different places without losing our personal identities. Nowadays, people move around in the world without losing their sense of connection with their birthplace. And without necessarily immersing themselves in another culture and embracing its values. They can stay within their own identity and enrich themselves with another culture, while maintaining a link with their place of origin.
KH But isn’t the ability to do that a question of privilege? When I say privilege, I am referring to the economic constraints of retaining your culture and your links to it. Many people cannot afford to go back to their country. Even being able to come to this country, to live here, is not an option for many immigrants. How can we think about those things within globalization? And if the purpose of globalization is to turn everyone into a homogeneous population, how can we, who celebrate difference, deal with that?
GB I agree that moving around can be considered a privilege. But I would also say that immigrants, especially those from Latin America, have been very resistant to immersing themselves in this culture, even after several generations. The Gypsies have been able to keep their culture within their own boundaries even though they have been nomadic for centuries. I have been thinking about the American expatriates in Paris during Hemingway’s time; they never considered themselves French or thought they had to stop being who they were and embrace French culture and values. They were in Paris, mixing with others who were there at that same time in history, and then they came back to their country enriched by that experience. But they never ceased to be Americans; they never lost their identity.
KH You live in Los Angeles, an amazing place where many cultures can either be themselves or become assimilated. How do you see the Latin immigrant community enriching itself and also enriching the city by being here?
GB I have to confess that I live in L.A. pretty much like a recluse. I love the city’s different layers, especially the complicity there is among Spanish speakers who are like the secret owners of the city, the ones entrusted with its soul, so to speak. I have a problem, however, with assuming a “minority” identity and acting on it. I have never considered myself a minority. I still have trouble understanding the American mania to classify people according to their origins or color. This is done, paradoxically, as an affirmation of the “melting pot” idea: separation in the name of unity. I think it’s counterproductive. There should be more openness to integrating each part of the whole. At book fairs, for example, instead of having a panel with Latino writers talking about Latino themes, why don’t we mix the mainstream American writers with the mainstream Latino writers with the mainstream Asian writers? A writer is a writer is a writer, in whatever language and whatever culture. It should be enriching and fascinating to see, side by side, how each cultural influence manifests itself in the way each of us writes. The emphasis on national or ethnic characteristics creates artificial barriers by assigning a fixed place to each group. I reject this, especially because it applies to certain groups and not others. Marguerite Yourcenar lived in Mt. Desert Island in Maine for many years, yet I am sure she wasn’t invited to writer’s conferences to be “the French writer.” She was Marguerite Yourcenar, period. It’s not an issue when writers are European nationals. It’s only an issue with certain groups and it lends itself to confusion because in the case of Latin America, for example, we are not an ethnicity. Like the United States, we represent a conglomerate of immigrants. We have all kinds of influences: Spanish, French, English, German, Italian…plus what resulted from the mix of newcomers with the original inhabitants of our countries, mestizaje. But the reality is that on the American continent, we are all Americans. I don’t have to leave my place of birth to become an American. I am an American from Nicaragua. I don’t have to be an American from the United States. I share the same basic history of this continent. There is a common bond that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed by assigning us a separate category or trying to reduce the “American” experience only to the U.S. I refuse to be labeled. I refuse to accept that my experience sets me apart. I am not going to folklorize my experience. It is part of the totality of human experience.
KH A very important point you’re making, which is not usually addressed when people talk about globalization, is the long historical process—which doesn’t start in the 1980s. The history that you are addressing as a Latin American is a postcolonial condition.
GB Absolutely. Our history is what has made us who we are. It is our cultural genome. To counter the negative meaning of globalization—homogeneity, loss of identity—we need to know who we are, our different identities, our different cultures. Now that we can interrelate more openly and more easily we should be able to enrich one another with our differences instead of resigning ourselves to historical forgetfulness in order to embrace a mass culture made in the U.S.A. I don’t have a completely negative view of globalization. I think we as intellectuals have to face it as something that is happening whether we like it or not. We shouldn´t make the same mistake intellectuals made when television was first introduced, by not wanting to dirty their hands with something aimed at the masses, thinking that it was too commercial, and unworthy. The Internet and global communication networks should represent a challenge for us. The challenge has to be how can we humanize these things, how can we fight this tendency to make everything homogeneous, how can we, as intellectuals, take advantage of the possibilities of such massive, intercultural, global communications.
KH You are one of the most important intellectuals of your era, and an organic intellectual in the best sense of the word. And you have always been a political activist. So how do you think we can make this inhuman face of globalization more human? How are you dealing with that in your writing, and as an activist?
GB I think many things are going to force the world to look upon itself as one community. It’s not going to happen soon, and not out of goodwill, but out of need. The environment affects us all; the health of the poor will start to be an issue for rich countries. Malaria is now here in New York, and with the spread of AIDS, the world is going to have to think hard about how to end this horrible gap between the first world and the third world. The majority of people live in the third world, and with an interconnected world the catastrophes of the third world are going to impact the first world. This last meeting of the Group of Eight (leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States) was interesting to me because they had a very progressive discourse about how to help poor countries. There is an excellent book by Amartya Sen, an Indian economist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998. His book, Development As Freedom, lays out a new philosophy for development that my sources tell me has been touted by the World Bank. He’s become their guru and that’s very telling, because basically he’s saying we have to measure development as the capacity of people to achieve happiness. The indicators we need to look at are not gross national product but life expectancy, literacy, freedom. In this regard, for example, the neoliberal policies in Latin America are disastrous. Where the state once guaranteed that people would have programs to address their needs, now that same state is being dismembered.
KH Because of the global market.
GB This is disastrous for the poor, for the majorities. And it’s an incentive for corruption, because as the state is reduced and privatized, more bureaucrats get involved in financial scams and obtain commissions under the table.
KH In your last novel, Waslala, you don’t have a very optimistic view. The novel seems related to what you’re saying right now, about politics and the third world, in this case Nicaragua.
GB I really worked very hard on that novel, gathering information about futuristic trends and trying to project and imagine a future. I am often amazed to see that the things I imagined are slowly coming to pass. That novel presents a vision of the future as seen from the third world. We are used to a science fiction image of how things will be in the first world. But how will the future be lived in the third world? It’s not very uplifting; it’s an apocalyptic vision of smugglers, war lords, contamination, isolation. At the same time, however, the novel deals with this other element, which is the human spirit, the human longing for something different even in the most dire circumstances. I think it’s within human nature to react heroically in the face of life-threatening challenges. In moments of crisis, we rise to the occasion. I am an optimist. I do think that these challenges are going to be faced, but that, as a species, we will work through them positively. We are at a moment in history where we are realizing a number of things: the finiteness of the world, the fluid, vulnerable and changing nature of relationships, the ethical questions about the use of technologies, our limits but also our immense possibilities. I think human consciousness has experienced an evolutionary leap in the last one hundred years. We have to wait and see how it will crystalize.
KH I only see the institutional policies; if we could actually see the social movements I would have a more optimistic view, but it’s really hard not to be pessimistic. For instance, in Mexico right now drastic restrictions on abortion are supported by the party in power. And in Nicaragua, there are laws against homosexuality, against abortion—you cannot have a legal abortion anymore.
GB That is a reaction to globalization. When communities feel that their identities are going to merge into something bigger, they grab at what they were, they grip onto traditions. There is a tribal reaction to globalization, and we are seeing it in many ethnic conflicts, and in religious conservatism. Those are reactions against what is perceived as a tidal wave: we are all being thrown into this caldron, and we are no longer able to keep the barriers between ourselves and those who are different. It’s not perceived quite so distinctly by most people, but it’s there when people talk about family values; they have the perception that they are losing control. We are going through a historical period where the forces of the market are going to whip us around, and that is going to have serious consequences; there will be a reaction. Right now, that reaction is to stick to conservative values, because the formulation of new possibilities is not yet there. It’s just beginning. What we have to grapple with is how we can take these forces and use them positively. There are quite a few books coming out that are dealing with these issues, and soon there is going to be a solid body of knowledge that will address these things.
KH These are very sensitive issues about how all of us react to the constraints and the violence of globalization and capitalism pushed to the extreme. We will articulate new theories and new ways of thinking, maybe a post-Marxist way of thinking, or maybe back to Gramsci, or something akin to popular social movements. Latin Americans have always been in the vanguard in that respect. Some people say that Latin American intellectuals have been the voice of the voiceless, while others think that they have never been, that the masses already have their own voices. How do you position yourself as a writer within this conflict? And how do you face that problem?
GB I face it two ways. I face it by choosing certain subjects for my literature. And in my own life, I’ve been very close to movements of social transformation. My literature reflects those ideas; I try to grapple with them through my writing. I think one must be involved politically, or connected to her community, or to some cause. What worries me about intellectuals nowadays is that globalization has isolated us, and we have to look for ways to rekindle the communication that used to exist, and the influence that intellectuals used to have in their societies. Many intellectuals renounced their commitment when the Left failed. When socialist ideology showed itself to be a failure in the way it was applied in the Eastern countries such as Russia, a wave of shame came over the leftist intellectuals. Many went back to the trenches, this time to hide, swearing, “I won’t get involved in politics anymore. I’ll just be in my ivory tower writing and doing my thing and that will be my contribution.” Thus the critique of the Left was entrusted to the Right. The Left hasn’t renounced their idea that there is a need to transform reality, but since it hasn’t found alternatives to go about doing this, it has either silenced itself or embraced Marxism, Maoism or Leninism in fundamentalist ways. But there is hope. I think slowly but surely a debate without guilt is emerging. As someone who occupied several positions in the Sandinista party and the revolutionary government, I can see this happening. The official Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, confiscated the party and stifled intellectual debate within its ranks, but there’s a new kind of Sandinismo taking shape. There is Sandinismo beyond the FSLN. When we engaged in social transformation through the revolution in Nicaragua, however many mistakes were made, it was a contribution. Now we have to find out how to get to the next step, because the issues that gave birth to Latin American revolutionary movements, the poverty and misery, are still there. I, at least, do not think of Leninism as the solution anymore. I question many of the beliefs that I used to have. I’m convinced there’s a synthesis to be made in the 21st century from the experiences of the 20th, and that we have to be open to what has worked in any system, be it social democracy, capitalism or socialism. This past century was so convoluted, but at the same time it has shaped and defined our future.
I have just written a personal synthesis, a memoir, The Country Under My Skin. It’s coming out in Europe in the spring of 2001 and in the U.S. in the fall, published by Knopf. And my intention in writing it was to reflect on how these complex intellectual issues translate into emotions. How does a woman who has spent her adult life believing in change, fighting for it at the same time that she was raising children, falling in love, etcetera, reconcile with defeat and dissapointment? How does one find hope after dreams are shattered? What can we save of ourselves and the experiences we lived? How do we explain our fascination with that past?
KH So what did you learn writing your memoir? Was it a painful process?
GB It was painful and joyful. The Nicaraguan revolution enriched my life incredibly. When you transcend your immediate reality and your individual needs, your life becomes so much richer. That was one of the things I wanted to explore with the reader in the memoir. I can remember the immense happiness that I experienced during the years when we were struggling, and how contradictory this feeling often was, considering that a lot of people were dying. Many of my friends, and a man that I loved died. It was very hard, but again there was also a feeling of elation, of incredible satisfaction, seeing the best of you come out, the best of everyone. The amazing thing for me has been to see how people who were heroes during the war years returned to being petty when they stopped being part of that epic struggle. That happened in the case of people to whom we owed power; it’s very visible, that transformation.
KH A consistent theme I’m seeing in your thinking today is historical memory. Your memoir evokes the historical memory of the Americas, and its long history of fighting, within the context of your own personal history. Globalization aims to erase all of this, and make us feel that those who used to exploit the very people you were defending are now one of you.
GB Well, I wanted to write that book because it’s also about the value of idealism. I am a staunch defender of my own brand of romantic idealism. The world has grown and become what it has because people have dared to dream crazy things that looked impossible in a given moment. We should dream and we should want more than we have, and we should think that the world can be better, and we shouldn’t give up. That is the core of my philosophy. Writing this book has made one thing very clear to me: I would never exchange my experience for the life that I would have had had I not gotten involved in the revolution. That experience was very important for all Nicaraguan people. It was a defining experience for good or for bad, and it was a legitimate struggle to make something out of a dire situation.
KH You said it has been a struggle to keep the dream alive. What was the price you had to pay as a woman?
GB Well, I don’t like to think of it in those terms, because since the beginning I was willing to pay that price. But put that way, the price has been that I went through exile. I was tried by a military tribunal and sent to jail. I was separated from my children. My husband at the time, the father of my children, threatened to take my children away from me. I had to fight for them and I won. Then I lost many people I loved. It’s meant disappointments; it’s meant sometimes feeling everything was done in vain. Sometimes I am incredibly depressed that we had all this possibility in our hands—the possibility of change that had been achieved through so much sacrifice—and we let it escape. On the positive side, I think I gained enormously as a human being. I see it in my children as well, in their strong social consciousness. They have grown to be very nice people, and they have a will to change the world and that for me is fantastic. And I see that some of the good things have remained in Nicaragua. After Hurricane Mitch, I worked with some community leaders, campesinos, very poor people, and I was amazed at their ability to organize, to mobilize, to struggle for themselves. That’s a legacy from the revolution, as is the eloquence with which people express themselves—certain words they use that let you know immediately where they are coming from. That is pretty amazing, as is the love for culture, for reading, the curiosity to find things out. The Nicaraguan people suffered, but they have a sense of dignity now that was lacking when I was growing up there.
KH And are people protesting?
GB Yes. It’s not new in Nicaragua, but what has been interesting in the past year has been to see the kindling of the young people’s participation in big protests like the one against the World Bank in Seattle. People are beginning to assert their needs for things that are not just individual vindications, but are more global. They are beginning to say, We want a cleaner environment; we want poor countries taken into account; we want the third world dealt with more fairly. For me that is a symbol of a movement. It’s not perfect, or super well organized, but this type of consciousness, that people have to struggle and get together, is beginning to emerge again.
KH What are your new projects? Are you writing poetry or working on a novel?
GB I’m in the first phase of my next project. I want to write a novel based on an experience I had in Nicaragua with a group of women who called ourselves the party of the Erotic Left. It was a small group of women, from different sectors of society, and we would meet and build common strategies for dealing with issues that concerned us. Some were community organizers, others were working in the government, in the media, etcetera. We came together to discuss ways of introducing women’s issues to our different areas of influence. At one point we had an idea of running for elections as a women’s party, as the party of the Erotic Left, and we wrote out a program of what women would propose to society. I am starting the novel at the point where these women win the elections.
KH I hope that’s a prediction.
GB The premise of the novel is fun; I’m not going to be extremely serious about it. But it is going to have a serious, thought-provoking, basic proposition: how would women wield power? One of the big problems with us trying to have more influence in society is that we follow the pattern of male power. How would women in power who did not follow those patterns and would not exercise power in a traditional male way handle things? This conflict of how to keep a woman’s nature in a man’s world also comes up in my memoir. I am interested to see what the reaction will be, because I tried to be very honest. I’ve disclosed a lot of things that are very intimate, and I think my life is interesting for women—particularly because one of my big struggles has been how not to renounce my power as a woman, while struggling politically in the public arena.
KH How would you define your power as a woman?
GB It comes from the biological and emotional complexity that made me fit to bear life and reproduce. It comes from a system of ethics developed through centuries of observation, conciliation and caring. It comes from my sensual and sexual self, from my sense of responsibility, my emotional intelligence. My power as a woman is being a woman who does not think power lies in behaving as a man, or in adapting myself to a male world. It’s having the power to be whatever you want. Being a woman is not a burden, but an added advantage.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee