Deb Olin Unferth

Deb Olin Unferth, who recently published a memoir chronicling her teenage adventures in revolutionary Central America, speaks with writer Nathan C. Martin.

Credit Margaret Olin Body

Photo by Margaret Olin.

Deb Olin Unferth led a fiction workshop I took part in a few years ago at the University of Kansas. We hit it off and would banter after class. One night my pale, thin, slightly mousy teacher who seemed most at home slinking among the corridors of academia told me that when she was a freshman in college she had taken up with a boyfriend who convinced her to run off and join the socialist revolutions happening at the time throughout Central America. She spoke of it comically, saying she had been fired from every revolution job she tried, that the bicycles she built for guerrillas fell apart as they pedaled them down dirt roads with machine guns strapped over their shoulders. This had happened in 1987, and although she had been published widely in literary journals, not a word of any of her stories concerned any uprisings, armed cells, or Sandinistas—nothing. She said she was reluctant to write about the revolution, that she didn’t know how. Her anecdotes were so funny, absurd, and contrary to the past I had imagined for her, I told her she must.

Shortly after, McSweeney’s published a collection of her short stories, Minor Robberies. A year later they published her first novel, Vacation, for which she won a Creative Capital Grant from the Warhol Foundation, the Cabell First Novelist Award, and the attention of Wesleyan University, where she got a new job teaching creative writing. Last month, Holt published her first memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. It chronicles her trip with “George,” as she refers to her former boyfriend, on escapades through slums in Mexico, checkpoints in Panama, a slew of Internacionalistas in Nicaragua, and a series of revolution jobs, including assisting at an orphanage in El Salvador where children screamed in their sleep at the gunfire erupting all night around them. Throughout, Unferth emphasizes the inadequacies—especially her youth and her foreignness—that prevented her from succeeding in revolutionary life. She does so with the dark humor, tight sentences, and deft insights that those familiar with her work expect, and that those who are new to it will likely relish.

We conducted this interview via email over the span of a week in February, and in person the day after the people of Egypt succeeded in ejecting Hosni Mubarack from his 30-year presidency.

Nathan C. Martin I thought we could start by talking about Egypt’s Arab Spring. On your Facebook page you said it reminded you of the Sandinistas. It seems like it would be ludicrous for an American college student to show up in Tahrir Square with the idea of helping the Egyptian revolution, but you portray your own collegiate-revolutionary experience as pretty ludicrous. Do you see a difference?

Deb Olin Unferth Well, my understanding is that there have been some foreigners in Egypt helping organize the protests. Not American college students. But there weren’t many foreigners in Nicaragua right at the time of the revolution, in 1979. Once the revolutionary government was established, and once it was determined that the country would be socialist, then all of the international people started coming to Nicaragua to help. So it wouldn’t shock me if a similar thing happened in Egypt.

NM People interested in cultivating democracy throughout the Arab world may be converging on Egypt trying to shape the mold.

DOU Maybe so. The Nicaraguans didn’t immediately announce themselves socialists when the Somoza family left the country. It was only once the Sandinistas started accepting money from the USSR that they began identifying as socialists. And then the Internationalistas wanted to come, thinking of Nicaraguans as their socialist brothers.

NM Your book makes it seem like the Internacionalistas in Nicaragua were silly sandal-wearing hippies who nobody took seriously—and they didn’t really help. Is that true?

DOU I don’t know. I think that one thing the Internationalistas did is validate the Nicaraguan revolution, give the Nicaraguans a sense of pride. Imagine: suddenly people were turning up from all over the world, coming to their country, writing about them, photographing them, trying to figure out how to help, taking them very, very seriously. I think it meant a lot for a tiny country in abject poverty to be taken seriously in that way, even considering that some Nicaraguans may have seen the Internacionalistas as arrogant. I’m sure some Internacionalistas did do good. Of all the people who went to help, I was probably among the most useless.

NM In retrospect, do you think there’s anything you and George could have done to make yourselves more useful?

DOU That’s a good question. Considering who I was, maybe not, but if I had been someone different, yeah. For example, if I had been someone who could have stayed at the orphanage in El Salvador and been helpful, they certainly did need extra hands. It wasn’t the kind of work you needed a lot of training to do, making sure kids got their breakfast. So if I had been a little more mature and less afraid, better able to cope with being in a war zone, then yes.

NM I admire the work of lots of writers who have managed to render from their seemingly “ordinary lives” outstanding literary art, and I remember you telling me once that, no matter how you live, it’s impossible to avoid experience. But it seems preferable to me to have extraordinary experiences—like going off to join the revolution—and using those as a basis for stories. What do you think? What is your preference?

DOU Most of my favorite writers didn’t go out and perform extraordinary feats besides writing. I suppose one reason it took me so long to write this book is that I felt a little self-conscious about the fact that here I had this “experience” I could write about, while my favorite writers were writing about mailing a letter or driving by a house or looking at a bug. Lydia Davis, Diane Williams, Beckett, Proust, and so on, to mention a few. One notable exception is the Polish war correspondent Ryszard Kapucinski. In his case it seems like his extraordinary experiences drove him to become an extraordinary writer. But I never think, while I’m experiencing something, Wow, I could use this in a story. I’ve heard other writers say it, and I’ve had many people turn to me and say, laughing or with a sigh, “Well, more fodder for your stories!” or some such, and it has always chilled me. I have never in my life thought, while experiencing something, that I could use the experience in a story, and I think I would feel cheap if I did.

NM What’s a good memoir about ordinary experiences?

DOU Nicholson Baker has written at least one book that is labeled as a memoir, U and I, about his obsession with John Updike. That one is excellent.

NM You ended an essay called “Don’t Tell it Like it Is,” which implores writers to not try to imitate real life in fiction, by contradicting yourself and saying, “If you want to write something really interesting, tell it like it is. Embrace the mimetic fallacy. Write the slow walk to the water fountain. Describe the refrigerator. Record each time you see your shoe. There it is again. And again. And again.” Could a person write a memoir about the slow walk to the water fountain?

DOU I don’t think you could write about the slow walk to the water fountain unless that walk created a sense of urgency within you. If there was something about walking to the water fountain that was formative for you, and that changed you deeply in some way, and that showed you something about the world, so that you returned from the water fountain never being the same again, then yes. If I think about the John Updike book that Nicholson Baker wrote, the fact is that literature has been the most important thing in Nicholson Baker’s life, obviously—from reading his books you can tell it’s the one thing that has resonated deeply with him. If, over the years, he was pretending to have an internal relationship with John Updike, just from sitting in his room and reading his books, and that experience was formative and caused him to grow and change and feel disgust with himself and heroic and sad at various moments—all of that can be in there, then yes. For me, it just happens that the experience that had the most urgency was this trip I took when I was 18 years old.

NM So maybe it could be a goal to acquire such a dynamic and vibrant inner life that watching a bug generates enough urgency in you that out of that experience you can create great art.

DOU I think great art is created out of feeling an initial urgency. It’s not that you necessarily need to look for it. Everyone has an “object.” Gordon Lish talks about the “object”: what is the thing you’re going to bring with you into the grave? It’s not so much about looking for it; it’s about feeling it. If I look at you and your life, for instance, I can see the urgencies. I’ve read your work and I’ve known you a long time. They’re there. Utterly. You don’t need to go looking for them.

NM So everyone already has their urgencies.

DOU If I get to know people very well, then I can start to see them. Everyone’s alive inside.

NM How much do you subscribe to the Lishian idea of composition, where you have no map, don’t know where the plot is going, you let the language secrete from the language and it will guide you to places you could never have conceived were possible? Do you take much stock in that?

DOU I do, but, you know, Lish said that doesn’t apply to the novel. You have to know where you’re going with a novel. But I think what he would say is that it does apply to the pieces of the novel. Both in Vacation and in Revolution, when I was originally writing each piece of them, I did allow myself a lot of freedom, I tried not to direct myself while I was writing them. That’s how I do all my writing. The first draft of everything, just about, is automatic writing, or free-writing, and then I have to go back and shape it.

NM In his essay “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” George Saunders outlined an idea of what a story is for that I relate to a great deal. It’s his theory of the black box. The story is a black box: when you start to read it you go inside the black box, and you’re in it while you’re reading, and once you’re done reading you come back outside and you’re a different person.

DOU Yes, the story is about creating empathy. You go into that box and you see the world from someone else’s point of view. You’re forced into his or her position, and when you come out your worldview has shifted because of your empathic response.

NM In that essay, “Don’t Tell It Like It Is,” you wrote: “In real life, the inside of the mind is, frankly, a mess. It’s a chaotic swampland of shady motivations, strange guilts and joys, incomprehensible connections. When one writes ‘Y thought X,’ the writer is identifying only a single thread in a hypothetical mind tangle, isolating one random stick in the stack.” The essay is specifically talking about writing fiction, but this passage and others apply to memoir writing as well, perhaps even more so than to writing fiction. Another one, for instance, reads: “The narrative we live makes little sense no matter how hard we try to slide it into slots we are much more familiar with: the fairy tale, the novel, the Kleenex commercial.” How did you approach sliding your life into the slot of this book?

DOU It was hard! I tried to build my uncertainties about clean narrative into the text itself in a few different ways. I have a sort of series of endings, for example, in the final 40 pages or so of the book, so that hopefully the reader’s understanding of what happened widens with each page, and the story becomes more layered and complex. The idea being that there are several ways to look at what happened, to interpret George’s actions and my own, to think about Nicaragua. I also tried to present events and images impressionistically throughout the book, often without interpretation or analysis—the parade in San Salvador, the man who loved Jews in Panama, for example—so that the facts are there on the page and hopefully the complex emotions one might feel in such a situation arise in the reader naturally, instead of my trying to list all the different things I was feeling and thinking at that moment.

NM I realized recently that two of my favorite novels—Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World—are both fictionalized accounts of actual historical events. You’ve dabbled in doing this, to a more abstract extent—I’m thinking of your short stories “Minute Lives of Great Composers” and “Frank Lloyd Wright”—and although you stick very close to your own perspective in Revolution, you do some necessary work to put things in historical perspective. You mention that some of the Jesuit priests you interviewed were later assassinated by Salvadoran paramilitaries, etc. Did you make a concerted effort to limit or control the amount of information you provided about the broader scope of the situation? What sources did you reference to fill in historical blanks you couldn’t remember or didn’t experience?

DOU Once, years ago, I thought I might write some nonfiction pieces about what became of the revolutionary priests of the ’80s. I went back to Central America and interviewed the priests and politicians I could find, and what I heard from them amazed me, but I realized pretty quickly that even a mediocre journalist would do as good or better a job than me at writing serious informative articles. I really didn’t see much point in my doing that and I wasn’t interested. It took me a few years to figure out that I could apply my voice and style to nonfiction—you pinpointed some early examples, the Frank Lloyd Wright piece, the composers, and there were others. But the fact is, I did a tremendous amount of research for this book—I’ve been reading books and articles and interviewing people for years and years—and I already knew more about Central America than most people I’ve met. Still, I always forget how little people know. Someone writing a short piece about me a while back said that I had, at 18, “joined the Contras.” Ha! I showed that to my father and he was enraged! He said I should sue! But, hey, the person who wrote it was probably 22 years old and had no idea what the difference was between the Sandinistas and the Contras—just a blur of something about Oliver North and a scandal involving Iran—which I would almost think was cute, if it didn’t make me sad, because to me the Sandinistas of the ’80s were true heroes. So I decided I better put a little history in the book, get a few basics in there, but I wasn’t interested in writing a history or reportage.

NM There’s a chapter in Revolution in which you talk about how you used to go mountain climbing with George, and how the whole point of the grueling endeavor was to get to the top and hop around and sign your name to a list in a metal tube under a boulder. Then you say, “Later, when someone would ask what kind of a dumb idea that was, going to El Salvador during the civil war—their civil war—I’d think of that.” In making this derisive comparison, you’re belittling the adventuresome experience.

DOU Yes—or at least questioning the heroism of the adventure.

NM If it’s not an adventuresome experience or some feat of physical ability or will, what’s an experience that you wouldn’t belittle?

DOU I think what the Egyptians are doing, I couldn’t belittle that. What the Nicaraguans were doing, I couldn’t belittle that. What the Salvadorans were doing. But it occurs to me that maybe some of those people would look back at themselves and question their actions for some reason that I wouldn’t understand. Maybe everyone looks at their 18-year-old self and wants to scold them and send them to their room. But there are many things in my life that I wouldn’t belittle. My teaching. I love my students and I love teaching. My writing, I don’t belittle that. I’ve taken that seriously, I’ve worked hard at it, and it’s who I am. But there are a lot of things that I could belittle about myself. Or perhaps I wouldn’t use the word “belittle.” I think I would say “approach with a touch of irony and humor.” My entire set of romantic escapades from the time of my first date until the present, for example.

NM We had a conversation, it was in Kansas at your going away party, and we decided that everything one writes—fiction, essay, memoir, everything—should be a sort of manifesto.

DOU Oh, really? I do not remember this.

NM We’d been having some champagne, I think. If you were agreeing with me in an inebriated state then my question isn’t relevant.

DOU No, it’s true. I like that. But what is a manifesto? What does that mean?

NM I think a manifesto is a statement of belief designed to influence others’ opinions about a certain issue.

DOU Hmm. My idea of a manifesto is that it is a statement of belief, a proclamation, almost. I just looked it up online and the first definition is “a public declaration of intentions.” So its purpose is not necessarily to convert people—although that may be a desired byproduct—but rather to assert the individuality of a particular belief set, to distinguish it from other belief sets, and to assert it as a better one. But to answer your question—everything we write, should it be a manifesto? In a sense there’s something heroic in the word manifesto. And it may be quixotic as well, because it’s a little ridiculous. There’s something absurd in the word manifesto, as opposed to, say, constitution, because a constitution implies that you have backing, that someone is going to follow this thing. Whereas a manifesto, maybe no one’s going to follow it. Yes, there’s something humorous in the word manifesto, and yet there is something very earnest, and it almost necessarily implies urgency, an urgency and a dedication. So yeah, I would hope that all my work is a manifesto.

Nathan C. Martin writes propaganda for a private religious university in the South. His work is ubiquitous, though you wouldn’t know it.