Deb Olin Unferth likes to change it up. Her first book was the story collection Minor Robberies, then came the novel Vacation, and this winter she published a memoir. Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, like much of her other work in other forms, tells a daring story rife with humor and touched with melancholy, desire, and regret.
Revolution begins in 1987, when Unferth meets a boy, George, a Christian. They leave college and decamp to Central America to find “revolution jobs.” The memoir recounts her disappointments, thrills, and realizations then and now, more than twenty years later and after several return trips to Nicaragua. Unferth explores in fresh prose and searing detail idealism in love and politics, the joys of adventure, belonging and alienation, and being mysterious to one’s self.
Read below “Popular Priest,” an excerpt from the book, and a Q & A between Unferth and The Common’s editor Jennifer Acker.
My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area—there were several—but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.
George and I were walking through a shantytown. Two weeks into Mexico, the beginning of our trip, and we were outside Mexico City. An American priest walked ahead. He was saying hello to people and taking their hands. He was saying good-bye to them and waving. Que te vaya bien. Adiós. Dios te bendiga. They chimed back. We walked a long way, following this priest.
It was 1987, and at that time these little liberation theology institutes were set up all over Latin America, “popular churches” they were called, short chapels with small gardens, places for people to get together and help usher in the revolution. The priests were in charge and they could be from anywhere—South America, Spain, the States—but most were from down the street. We liked to drop in when we found these setups. We interviewed whoever happened to be hanging around and we borrowed books from their shelves and got the people to take us out. We liked to get the scoop.
So we’d met this priest at his instituto and he’d brought us to the shantytown. He was doing some work, fixing up some floors. He thought we just might like to see.
When you think of a shantytown, you imagine a few square blocks of board and tin, some chickens running through, but it’s a whole city, a thousand thin paths, kilometers and kilometers of housewives standing outside askew miniature-sized houses, not a window pane in sight, the air moist and buzzing.
“These people are born and die here,” the priest was telling us. “They have no way to get out.” He raised his hand to show us where they had to stay.
“Well, at least they’ve got their little houses,” I said. I was impressed with how tidy it all was. “Some have less than that.”
The priest looked over at me.
Then he was gone. Just like that. Left George and me standing by a flower of electrical cords coming out of a pole.
We waited a while. Roosters called to each other in the distance. Then we started puzzling around the shacks, trying to find our way back. We were soon lost. We felt stupid and rude walking along, a couple of idiot gringos slapping at the mosquitoes and grinning. We were sad about the priest. Why had he gone away? He’d left us and we deserved it. We’d been bad-mannered. I’d been bad-mannered, according to George. George knew better than to say a thing like that. Oh yeah? I said. Then why had the priest left George here with me?
These priests for the liberation. You did not want to mess with them. Latin America was swinging to the left, hoisted on pulleys by these radical priests, and some said the Vatican was to blame. In 1962 the pope had summoned the world’s bishops to Rome for the Vatican Two Council, to talk about how to renew the Church, how to be relevant to the lay people. The story goes that the bishops met each fall for four years. They talked about things like how perhaps they should not say mass in Latin anymore because no one understood it (although the entire conference took place in Latin). Some of the South American bishops and priests thought that one way to renew the Church was to organize the lay into groups, maybe even guerrilla armies, and then rise up and overthrow their governments. Soon a continent of priests was storing weapons and reading Marx in the name of Vatican Two. They turned their churches into revolutionary enclaves and invited students to come live in them like a herd of hippies. Some priests held secret meetings with guerrilla rebels. Some manned radio frequencies that kept tabs on the national guard. And when the skirmishes began, some priests came out shooting. Every day their chapels filled with citizens and the priests never stopped talking about Vatican Two, the theology of liberation, how the Church was a socialist soldier for the poor, and how grateful they were for this mandate from God. Of course the pope didn’t mean to produce an infantry of gun-touting South American priests, and he said so, but it was too late.
Late for the pope, but early for me and George. This priest was the first of his kind we’d found. We walked, lost, through the shantytown. Houses tacked up to each other with clothes hangers, a cobweb of roofs held down with tires. Outhouses winged out over the river. Lightless rooms, cardboard town. We began getting upset at seeing how poor the people were, now that we were looking more carefully. Ladies and kids stopped us and pointed in different directions, laughing behind their hands. A few folks followed us. We handed out all of our bills. We didn’t see how we would ever find our way back. George was taking us in circles. Oh, right, he said, he was taking us in circles, perfect. We began to panic.
Suddenly the priest was there, stepped out in front of us. Ho ho. He’d stopped in to look at a floor he and some friends had put in. Lost track of us.
What, had we been nervous about getting stuck here? he wondered. About not being able to get out?
“Okay, okay, we get it already,” we said, though we did not.
A few questions for Unferth on writing Revolution.
The Common: You write in Revolution that living in Nicaragua in 1987, as an Internacionalista supporting the Sandinistas, made you “strange.” Strange how? Did you notice this process as it was happening or only after you returned?
Unferth: I returned from Central America, and in 1988 I went back to a gigantic public university in the middle of the country. In the past year I’d wandered through a war in El Salvador, I’d seen the revolution in Nicaragua, I’d been in Panama City during the protests against the Noriega dictatorship. Yeah, my perspective had changed.
I first noticed the strangeness when I was still in Central America. A friend sent me a letter through the lista de correos, a way of sending mail abroad at that time. The letter talked about her summer on the beach, her new boyfriend who rode a motorcycle, her fashion-design major. I felt the new distance keenly. But mostly I felt how deeply similar I was to my friend, compared to what I was seeing in Central America, and that understanding—understanding that I understood that—was distancing.
Early in the book, you write this about George, the boyfriend who convinced you to join a Central American revolution: “He was just a typical guy in a typical place, and he made choices, and each choice changed him, and each change began to close off other possibilities, seal shut other rooms, exclude other people he might become, one by one, until he could no longer be anything but what he was.” Do you think about the experiences you write about inRevolution this way, as events that changed you and pushed you toward becoming a particular kind of person?
Yes, but it wasn’t the events that changed me. It was my choices and the consequences of those choices. What I meant in that passage is that it’s the combination of choices and consequences that make a person. I was already sort of the sort of person who would drop out of school and leave the country with a boyfriend. Choosing to do it made me even more of that sort of person, and less of the sort of person who wouldn’t.
After you and George got engaged (on the side of the road waiting for a bus) you call your family to tell them the news, but you can’t bring yourself to do it. In that moment it seems you felt more connected to them than to George, despite being in love with George and not having been very close with your family. You felt “a deep sense of belonging.” Was there any Central American place you visited or lived in that year in which you felt you belonged?
Well, those countries weren’t mine. I spoke Spanish, so I felt comfortable with the language, and I’d spent a lot of time in Mexico as a child, so much of the culture was familiar, but I didn’t feel like I belonged exactly, although I sometimes felt comfortable. But later I felt alienated back home and for years I missed Nicaragua in particular, and when I went back, I felt as if I was returning to a place where I’d once belonged, though I never really had.
It’s complicated, this idea of “belonging.” You can feel alienated and also like you belong. And sometimes the feeling of alienation itself is so familiar that it feels like a sense of belonging.
What about now? Where do you belong?
Well, I’m generally a little better now. I fit in my own skin and belong there, whereas I didn’t used to.
Is there anything you thought you learned about yourself, or revolutions, at the time that you now think is completely false?
I don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God. I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit or the miracles or that there is a Lord who has a plan for me and the people I know, or any of that. Those stories all seem bizarre to me now. They did then too, but I believed them.
You were eighteen when you and George joined the revolution in Nicaragua. More than ten years later, you returned to Central America several times. What drew you? How were places different from your memories of them? Did you feel in some small way like you were going home?
If I could have said in a simple manner what was drawing me out of my country into that one, I think I wouldn’t have had to write the book. It didn’t feel like going home. It felt like searching.
You write that it took you twenty years to write about this period in your life. Was there a moment in which you thought, “Now I’m ready to write this story”?
Mostly I thought, “What is the matter with me that I can’t write this story?” Or, “What is my problem that I keep trying to write this story?” It wasn’t until after the book was finished, printed, and distributed, and an interviewer said, “Why did it take you so long to write about this?” that I thought, “Oh, I guess I finally wrote about it.”
What striking event or moment did you have to leave out of Revolution for the sake of the shape of the book?
In 2000, I went back to Managua and I contacted Father Uriel Molina, one of the great priests of the revolution, a man we interviewed back in 1987 and whom I write about at some length in the book. My visit to see him in 2000 was pretty incredible. I tried to write it as a separate essay but I couldn’t finish it because I thought, No one’s going to believe this. I tried to put the story in the book but it was too long and it distracted from the rest of the story. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the material and I wound up throwing it all in the trash. So no one but me and him and a certain taxi driver will ever know what happened when I went to find Uriel Molina, the heroic priest, ten years after the end of the revolution.
You teach undergraduates. Would you urge any of them to join a revolution—or advise against it?
Join. I tell them all: Go. Find your fortune. Seek adventure. Come back and tell me your tale. Take a grammar book along. Study the correct use of “lay” and “lie.”
Have you heard from George?
Not directly. I did hear from a source that he thinks I could have come up with a better name than George. He also wondered if he was due any royalties.