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Woman of the Revolution

Gioconda Belli is the author of seven books of poetry, three novels and a children‘s book. She currently lives in Santa Monica with her American husband and youngest daughter. But not so long ago, she was a revolutionary in Nicaragua. Belli’s turbulent political past is hard to reconcile with her amiable presence at Westside dinner parties, where I‘ve met her a number of times. But this very disconnect was the impetus behind Belli’s new book, The Country Under My Skin, a memoir about her personal and political involvement in Nicaragua‘s revolution and counterrevolution.

“Writing the memoir,” Belli said during a recent interview, “was a kind of ritual I had to perform to bring my past with me into this very different life I am now living. I couldn’t and didn‘t want to break with that part of me, I needed it to become part of this life, of my identity here.” What’s most remarkable about The Country Under My Skin is not only the timely and cautionary story of what happened in Nicaragua from 1970 to the mid-‘80s, but also Belli’s audacity in telling it and the integrity of her perspective: She writes about the history and revolutionary politics of Nicaragua from the inside at the same time that she writes about sex, love, motherhood and marriage.

L.A. WEEKLY: The Country Under My Skin is intensely personal. It‘s the story of the Sandinistas’ revolution as told through human relationships. This wider, juicier perspective seems to me both a woman‘s perspective and a more fully human approach. Did you have a sense that you were writing about war in a new and vital way?

GIOCONDA BELLI: Men have been taught to think of war as a “rational” development in a crisis. Even though it affects them and shakes them up, they try to keep this distance from war to justify it to themselves as a rational action. Women, instead, see war from the perspective of self-defense and are more aware of what’s going to be lost of the human component.

I found that in war, we women strive very hard to salvage a semblance of normalcy, to maintain the rhythm of life. I, for example, was possessed by the desire to have a child in 1978 when the war was entering its last stages. It was a fierce need I felt in my body. Very primitive, maybe, but very life-affirming. But war strips life of everything superfluous and of every artifice, and you realize that, apart from food and shelter, what matters most are the relationships we have with other human beings and our ability to keep life going on.

Yes, and your life certainly went on apace: In the years covered in your memoir, you‘re working in advertising, writing internationally acclaimed poetry, having babies and passionate love affairs, meeting world leaders, and helping to create a revolution -- a truly radical example of multitasking.

I wanted to tell it as I had lived it, as everybody lives it: as a personal transformative experience that happened in the context of a historical event; about how I had to constantly juggle the personal and the political, the public and the private. I think that’s what makes the story interesting, what makes it real.

We don‘t live history in a parenthesis where every personal event is suspended. On the contrary, it is in the intense periods of history when our personal lives acquire a density that makes us question ourselves and take personal leaps. That’s what I wanted to show and write about. And maybe, yes, I dared to do it that way, rather than the “objective, detached” way men do it, because I am a woman and I am constantly struggling to blend the personal with everything else that goes on in my life. If we all did that, I think the world would be a better place.

This book might scandalize some people for the very reason that other people will love it, and that‘s because I am writing without regard to convention; writing about my love life and my body in the same breath that I discuss the Sandinista strategy to oust the tyranny of the Somozas.

You’ve written very frankly about your parents, your husbands, your love affairs. Many of the people you write about are still living. Was it difficult to find a comfortable level of disclosure?

I think even the most private writer has an exhibitionist streak. That‘s part of the profession: to reveal, to disclose. If we are to reveal and disclose things about others, we should be willing to do it with ourselves.

As a woman the disclosure of my private life is a form of rebellion. In the introduction to my first poetry book, the Nicaraguan poet Jose Coronel Urtecho said that the woman who reveals herself is a rebel. Since I began writing I decided to be honest, to write what I felt and not what I was “authorized” to feel or write. How could I be honest as a woman and not write about the central things in my life like love, sex, childbirth?

I can’t believe we still cannot accept our flesh with as much reverence as we accept our spirit. We have had a sexual revolution but what we have done with sex is become permissive without freeing it from its “sinful” connotations, and I think there‘s a very tight link between the notions we have of sex and the status of women in the world. We remain sexual objects. We might have become powerful sexual objects, but we are still struggling to have our contribution to society fully recognized, and to free ourselves from the dangerous aura that our sexuality surrounds us with. Look at Muslim women. How is it that sanctions are not imposed on countries that keep their women in that kind of submission, in that sort of apartheid?

The Country Under My Skin is dedicated to several women -- who are they?

They are the women who worked for me in my house and helped me take care of my children, change the sheets, do the laundry, cook the meals, baby-sit my kids when I went to work or went out at night to my clandestine meetings. I couldn’t have done what I did without them, and I wanted to recognize that; that in this imperfect world behind every “liberated” woman, there is an army of women, an essential support network.

When I think about my (admittedly limited) involvement with radical politics in this country, I am always struck by how dour and humorless the people involved were. In your book, however, it seems that along with the hard, risky and often tedious work of the revolution there was also much laughter and humor.

My friends and I often refer to Nicaragua as Sisifo‘s country. Sisifo [or Sisyphus] was condemned to haul a boulder up a mountain, but the boulder would always roll down just as he was reaching the peak. We have lived through so many disasters in Nicaragua that had it not been for our sense of humor we could have never survived. I think the essence of this is tolerance and a wisdom about the fallible nature of human beings. Very often people fail or make mistakes, and one has to be willing to cut them some slack and make light of it.

It’s true what you say about the frequent lack of humor of certain radical thinkers in developed countries especially. I often find them very unforgiving. Too fixated in their own notions of right or wrong, too dogmatic. Revolution and dogma don‘t go together. That’s why so many revolutions have failed. A friend of mine during the war said something very beautiful to me: We must be willing to give our lives for this, he said, our lives, not our deaths. The Nicaraguan revolution was full of Eros, full of life. We wanted to make everybody happy. We had to be a good example.

THE COUNTRY UNDER MY SKIN: A Memoir of Love and War By Gioconda Belli | Knopf | 380 pages | $25 hardcover