PEN WORLD VOICES - INTERVIEW - The Page is My Home:
Giaconda Belli - Nicaraguan Poet, Writer and Public Intellectual
For Nicaraguan poet, journalist, novelist and activist Gioconda Belli, writing is a form of activism. From her first collection of boundary-breaking poetry to her 2008 memoir chronicling a young mother’s devotion and dangerous participation in the 1970's Nicaragua's Sandinista movement, Belli's writing exposes personal and political truths.
Of her first volume of poetry, Sobre la grama (1970). Belli describes the collection as “a female celebration of her senses, the wonder of her body,” which nonetheless “created an uproar.” Sobre la grama was denounced by the “the matrons of upper echelons of Managuan society” as being “vaginal poetry” and “shameless pornography.”
"I wasn’t saying anything that had not been said before by men," writes Belli. "but I was a woman. It was not done.”
Belli's second book of poetry, Línea de fuego covers “the erotic and the patriotic” in equal measure, expressing a vision of a world in which women speak about their bodies and desires without being silenced, and of a country whose beauty and glory remain uncrushed by the tyranny of dictatorship. Belli’s defiance of conventional limitations led renowned Nicaraguan poet José Coronel Urtecho to refer to her as a rebel, although at the time he was unaware of her involvement with the Sandinistas.
The Inhabited Woman (1988) places feminism in the context of revolution, demanding emancipation for women as they fight alongside men for the liberation of their country, while Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand (2008) explores the creation myth of Genesis itself and transforms Eve’s “sin” into a powerful creative act that upholds human independence and a life-enhancing thirst for knowledge.
If knowledge is the forbidden fruit with which Eve dared a new world to exist, Belli’s writing demonstrates just how powerful a weapon literature can be.
“I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world. It is possible,” Belli observes in The Country Under My Skin: “It is the age-old vocation of all humanity.”
The theme of knowledge as a weapon is one that emerges in much of Belli’s writing, but which is most fully developed in Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand. There, the Serpent warns Eve that “Knowledge causes disquiet, nonconformity. One ceases to be capable of accepting things as they are and tries to change them.”
Like a modern Eve, Belli confronts the forces of knowledge and possibility. Utimately, it is not just the responsibility of the artist to dream up worlds—it is also the artist’s duty to “dare them to exist.”
WRR: Your own writing has spanned memoir, fiction and poetry. In what genre do you feel most at home?
The page is my home. As long as I am there and working with words, I feel productive and sane. The memoir was a once in a lifetime experience and it lacked the sense of discovery I feel when I write novels or poetry that only take shape as I struggle along and divine their secrets. But I also enjoy writing political essays, op-ed pieces. I guess I am a word junkie.
WRR: What was you first favorite book and what made you fall in love with it?
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. I fell in love with the suspense of the writing and the imagination that since then makes me wonder when I see the opening of a cave whether it might lead to the secret passage Verne talks about.
WRR: You once hoped to attend medical school but your father felt it was not an appropriate career path for a woman. You write in your memoir, The Country Under My Skin: "I have been two women and I have lived two lives. One of these women wanted to do everything according to the classic feminine code: get married, have children, be supportive, docile, and nurturing. The other woman yearned for the privileges men enjoyed: independence, self-reliance, a public life, mobility, lovers. I have spent the greater part of my life trying to balance and blend these two identities.
Do you feel that many women are still pulled in these opposing directions? What advice would you give to young women today?
Young women today, at least in the Western World have many more resources than I did then. I would advise them to make a plan for their lives and think ahead to where they want to be in ten, twenty years. Even if their plans change in the course of time, a woman needs to set personal goals for herself and be consistent about creating the conditions, both in work and in life that will bring her closer to those aims. Women have to plan because, traditionally, we have been part of somebody else’s plan and made to fit into those. We have to plan so that we can make decisions that will insure we can balance love and family with the self fulfillment we are entitled to. We must be aware that we are responsible for realizing our full potential as human beings and not settle for less.
WRR:Pamela Tanner Boll, Academy Award Winning Filmmaker of Born into Brothels and Who Does She Think She Is? questions the way in which we usually narrow our interpretation of "success" to material and financial acquisition (traditionally more of a masculine value system) rather than human relationships and creativity (traditionally more of a feminine value system). She suggests that the "heart is the driver for creative work."
What drives you emotionally in your work as a writer, mother and activist?
I am very passionate about the things I do, and quite optimistic. I probably owe my energy to the sense of possibility that I feel in life. I believe that change is always possible, I believe in love as an enormous human force that has to be honored and I have a strong sense of responsibility with my time, with the gifts I have received. I want to live a worthy life and make the most of my time here on Earth.
WRR: You write in your memoir, in The Country Under My Skin, "I don't know what came first--poetry or conspiracy... I could no longer believe that change was impossible" In your memoir, you describe swearing allegiance to the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua (committing your life to the cause of liberty and the freedom of your country. You gave this oath when you were pregnant to another pregnant woman.) You also describe your belief that "you couldn't truly commit to the cause of freedom if you hadn't freed yourself first." How would you sum up this turbulent time of your life and your immersion into poetry and revolution?
Dickens phrase comes to mind: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” It was living through all that made me who I am today and probably what has given me strength to still keep my hopes up even in these times that I find are so trying in many ways. Paradoxically, I find it much harder to live now than when my life was in real danger, because then the sense of community and purpose was so clear. Nowadays we are so isolated and often powerless when faced with the complexities of the world around us. I don’t write as much poetry now. Before I felt I was channeling a common sentiment which gave value to my words and provided a means of finding a common language. Nowadays I feel very much in the Tower of Babel. I feel we are losing the intimacy of shared meanings.
WRR: You reframed the Creation myth in Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand. At the end of your book the serpent says to Eve: "The end for Aklia's descendants will be to reach the beginning. To recognize it as the persistent memory of what they thought they would find in making and destroying their own history...They will know that the only real Paradise will be the one in which they possess freedom and knowledge."
What inspired you to recreate the characters in the Garden of Eden?
The need to understand the mythology than set in motion our current understanding of the world and of the role of women in particular.
WRR: What kind of feedback have you received? What message is most important to you in this book?
Readers have reacted very strongly to this book. Not in a religious way however; no one has contested my interpretation of Genesis. They have reacted much as I expected they would: by reflecting on human nature and what makes us do what we do. I have gotten very enthusiastic comments on the poetic language of the book.
WRR: In its protection of free speech, PEN upholds writers and artists as profound agents of change. What do you see as the roles and responsibilities of the modern writer?
I feel writers are good interpreters of people’s feelings for the most part and can give voice to the deepest aspirations, doubts and concerns we all feel. Writers are usually well informed and have access to media, and because they are not politicians and have more rounded view of human nature, their participation in the public discussion is important. Unfortunately writer’s opinions are not taken into account as much as they were in the sixties and seventies. That is not the case in Latin America, though, where the role of the writer as public intellectual is still respected.
In a poem entitled "Still" featured on the PEN American Center's Facebook page, you write:
Human beings as the beginning and the end,
The Alfa and the Omega
My faith rests with them
Against all reason.
Would you elaborate on your faith in human beings against all reason?
Rationality cannot always explain the social “miracles” that we have seen in history and that often have meant the dawning of crucial historical changes. I have faith that humankind possesses a basic wisdom that will eventually lead it to a better existence. That is, however, a matter of faith because if we see how destructive and foolish we can be with our resources and talents, it is also easy to believe we are bound to self-destruct. I prefer to have faith that we will save ourselves. That is what the poem essentially says.