World Literature

Claribel Alegria

 

BORN: 1924, Esteli, Nicaragua

NATIONALITY: Nicaraguan

GENRE: Poems, novels

MAJOR WORKS:

Ring of Silence (1948)

The Talisman (1977)

I Survive (1978)

Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution—a Political Chronicle, 1855-1979 (1982)

They Won’t Take Me Alive: Salvadoran Women in Struggle for National Liberation (1983)

 

 

Claribel Alegria. Alegria, Claribel, photograph. AP / Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Poet and novelist Claribel Alegria is a major voice in the struggle for social change and freedom in Latin America. An outspoken advocate for women in her native Nicaragua and in El Salvador, Alegriia addresses the challenges faced by Central Americans through both poetry and ‘‘emergency letters.'' Exiled from Nicaragua as a child, her own dramatic life forms a backdrop for her narratives and poems, which focus on poverty, civil rights, and justice for women.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood in Exile. Alegria’s struggle for civil rights began in her own childhood. Born on May 12, 1924, as Clara Isabel Alegriia Vides in Estelii, Nicaragua, she moved to El Salvador along with her parents when her father, Daniel Alegriia, was exiled for his political views on the American occupation of Nicaragua and his support of revolutionary forces. The family moved to El Salvador, the homeland of Ana Maria Vides, Alegria’s mother. Vides belonged to a wealthy coffee family and had grown up in a privileged environment. When Alegriia was only seven years old, she and her family witnessed the horrors of the peasant uprising known as La matanza or ‘‘The massacre,’’ in which thousands of lower-class Salvadorans and indigenous Pipil Indians fought back against a military seizure of the government which was supported by United States aid. After the rebellion was quashed, the remaining rebels were invited by the government to a mass pardon that proved instead to be an ambush; anywhere from ten thousand to forty thousand citizens were killed by government forces. This event greatly influenced Alegria’s views on Latin American politics and United States influence in Latin America, as shown in her later work.

An American Education. Alegria had access to a large library and began to explore writing early in her life. After reading poets like Santa Teresa d’Avila and Romulo Gallegos, Alegria decided she, too, wanted to write poetry. She was further inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which convinced her that her passion was in the written word. However, this career choice stood in opposition to what was expected of an elite Salvadoran girl, so she went to the United States to study at the George Washington University in 1943. As a student, she met her mentor, the Spanish poet and Nobel Prize winner Juan Ramon Jimenez, who taught Alegria discipline and oversaw her early work. His open criticisms were sometimes hard to bear, but he pushed Alegriia to produce work she could be proud of.

During her time in Washington, Alegria met Darwin Flakoll. Their marriage in 1947 began a lifelong partnership that would include writing, family bonds, and residence in six countries. The expatriates met and collaborated with several writers and poets, but Alegria had her own aspirations. Ring of Silence (Anillo de silencio) (1948), Alegria’s first book of poetry, was published in 1948. Jose Vasconcelos, a Mexican poet and philosopher who wrote the book’s prologue, suggested that Alegriia adopt the pen name of Claribel Alegria.

With a new name and a new husband to support her, Alegriia embarked on a literary career that included narrative fiction (Three Stories, originally titled Tres Cuentos, 1958;) and a family career that included four children (Maya was born in 1949, followed by twins Patricia and Karen in 1950, and Erik in 1954). Flakoll was in the U.S. Foreign Service, which meant he had to move often: the family would live in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Paris over the course of the next several years.

Cuban Revolution and Remembering the Past. The year 1959 marked a major milestone in Alegria’s life and career when the Cuban Revolution sparked a new interest in Latin American politics. Inspired by the Cubans’ rejection of United States interference and impressed by the political and social change that followed, Alegria felt a new hope for Central America’s future. Her poetry became political, taking on topics such as the economic situation of Latin American women. She also began to identify with the growing community of Latin American writers inspired by events in Cuba.

During her time in Paris between 1962 and 1966, Alegria became increasingly obsessed with Latin American politics and literature. Her friend, Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, encouraged her to write a novel based on her memories of the 1932 peasant uprising in El Salvador. The events behind the novel were hard for Alegria to relive, and she decided to write the book along with her husband in their first fictional collaboration. Ashes of Izalco (Cenizas de Izalco) was published in 1966 to critical acclaim.

The book, which is one of the first by a Salvadoran writer to face the country’s violent past of peasant uprisings and government brutality, dealt with themes of mothers and daughters, the lazy and insensitive elite class, political repression, and foreign intervention that would echo throughout Alegria’s later work. While researching the book, Alegriia was surprised to find that the Salvadoran government had destroyed many newspapers and archives containing information about its bloody past. Not only did she relive her childhood memories when writing the book, but she was horrified to find that the past was being misrepresented in her adoptive country.

Alegria’s family did not like the portrayal of elite life as shallow, and they burned almost every single copy of the first edition. As a consequence, Ashes of Izalco was not widely read in El Salvador until ten years later, when the Salvadoran government accidentally included it in a print run of Salvadoran authors.

A Focus on Social Issues. Alegriia did not shy away from strong and violent themes in the work that followed. While living in Majorca, Spain, she published several volumes of poetry and The Talisman (El deten), a 1977 novella dealing with violent sexual abuse. The subject matter of this book reflects Alegria’s growing concern with women’s issues, pointing to a new era of Salvadoran fiction that was less focused on technique and experimentation and more focused on social issues of the day.

Social issues would continue to obsess Alegriia, who won the prestigious Casa de las Americas Prize for I Survive (Sobrevivo), a volume of poetry she published in 1978. I Survive dealt with political and social issues in her homeland, with Alegriia acting as a witness and a voice for the oppressed in her poems about torture, imperialism, and human suffering.

Return to Nicaragua. In 1979, the Sandinista rebels gained power in Nicaragua. Alegriia returned to her home country for the first time since she was a baby. Delighted at the end of her political and personal exile, Alegriia set out to document the Sandinista revolution through Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution—a Political Chronicle, 1855-1979 (Nicaragua: La revolucion sandinista—una cronica politica, 1855-1979) (1982). The book was a five-hundred page collection of testimony and history and represented another collaboration between Alegriia and Flakoll, who spent six months traveling through Nicaragua and even longer writing the book.

While she was in Paris writing the book in 1980, another milestone occurred. Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in El Salvador. Alegria had been scheduled to do a reading at the Sorbonne, but at her husband’s encouragement she spoke out against Romero’s assassination and the existence of death squads in El Salvador. Her words made it dangerous for her to return to El Salvador, and she was even advised to avoid the country when her mother died in 1982.

Now in unofficial exile from her adoptive country, Alegria would become more interested in the idea of testimony throughout the 1980s. Not content to write specific stories, she preferred to document the struggle of an entire group of oppressed people, such as Salvadoran girls and political prisoners. She collaborated with her husband on two such books: They Won’t Take Me Alive: Salvadoran Women in Struggle for National Liberation (No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadorena en lucha, 1983) and Breaking the Silence: Resistance and Struggle in Salvadoran Prisons (Para romper el silencio: Resistencia y lucha en las carceles salvadorehas, 1984).

Though she has been exiled from two countries, shunned by her own family, and devastated by personal losses, Alegria’s body of work has survived along with its author. As more of her novels and poetry become available in translation, Alegria is finally enjoying international renown and critical acclaim. Alegria continues to speak out against oppressive social regimes and violence against women, and her list of publications continues to grow.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Alegria's famous contemporaries include:

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927- ): Colombian novelist, political activist, and Nobel Prize winner known for his magical realism.

Jean Rhys (1890-1979): Caribbean novelist who rethought traditional literature with her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

Fidel Castro (1926- ): President of Cuba until 2008 and central figure of the Cuban Revolution.

Toni Morrison (1931- ): American author famous for her epic novels about the African American experience.

Maria Callas (1923-1977): Famous Greek-American operatic soprano known for her dramatic interpretations.

 

Works in Literary Context

As a child, Alegria was inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke, poets of the Spanish Golden Age such as Santa Teresa d’Avila and San Juan de la Cruz, and Latin American writers including Roi mulo Gallegos and Gabriela Mistral. During her lifetime, Alegria edited and collaborated with a number of significant Latin American writers and poets, among them Juan Ramon Jimenez, Carlos Martinez Morelo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortazar.

Imperialism and Occupation. Alegria saw the effects of U.S. imperialism and occupation during her own lifetime and was an outspoken critic of foreign manipulation of Latin American politics in her poetry and prose. As a rebellion against what she saw as foreign occupation of her native lands, Alegria often used native myths and early Central American history as part of her narrative structure in books like Ashes of Izalco.

Social Justice. For Alegria, a commitment to social justice is a writer’s duty. Alegria believes that writers must take sides. To illustrate that point, she has come down firmly on the side of Central America’s oppressed and tortured citizens, from Salvadoran women in They Won’t Take Me Alive: Salvadoran Women in Struggle for National Liberation to political prisoners in Breaking the Silence: Resistance and Struggle in Salvadoran Prisons. Alegria has described her poetry and prose after 1965 as letras de emergencia (‘‘emergency letters’’), impassioned works that touch on political and social strife in her home region.

Women and Feminism. Alegria has always identified as a feminist writer, and much of her work concerns the plight of Latin American women. In books like Ashes of Izalco, she uses mother-daughter relationships to illustrate the conflicts of Latin American society. Alegria’s portraits of women are examples of the ways in which Latin American society restricts women’s freedoms and rights; for example, Ashes of Izalco deals with a woman who must come to terms with the social restraints that have affected her mother and herself. Alegria has also addressed issues like sexual abuse in El deten and continues to speak out against anti-woman policies in South and Central America.

 

Works in Critical Context

Though Alegria has had a lengthy and distinguished career, her work has been little known outside of Latin America. However, an increasing number of translations and renewed interest in Latin American writers points to a new age in criticism of Alegria’s work.

Critics have taken note of Alegria’s use of testimony and her attempts to give voice to those who have no political means of expression. Teresa Longo calls Alegria’s writing ‘‘a poetic reconstruction of places torn apart by injustice and repression,’’ noting that Alegria writes in a dual role as writer and activist. English-speaking critics also paid major critical attention to Saudade/Sorrow, hailing it as sad, but ‘‘neither sentimental nor confessional.’’

As more of Alegria’s work is translated and brought to the attention of the Western world, the critical landscape will grow and evolve. Until then, Alegria will remain part of the first generation of Latin American writers to challenge their governments and re-create their history through words.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Part of Alegria's mission as a writer is to awaken readers to political and social injustice in the world and inspire actions with her stories and poems. Here are a few works that have produced similar effects:

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a political novel that influenced American attitudes toward slavery and is thought by many to have helped bring on the Civil War.

Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (2004), a film directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, is a documentary about prostitutes' children living in the red light district of Calcutta, India.

The Country Between Us (1982) by Carolyn Forche is a book of poetry that centers on human rights issues during the civil war in El Salvador. Forche was able to travel to El Salvador as a human rights worker after translating Alegria's work and winning a Guggenheim Fellowship. The book includes the prose poem ''The Colonel.''

An Inconvenient Truth (2006), a documentary film presented by former vice president Al Gore and directed by Davis Guggenheim, deals with the coming effects of global warming.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Alegria’s works use the mother-daughter relationship to answer important questions about society, culture, and feminism. Can you think of three Western novels or films that deal with similar questions through their female protagonists?

2. Alegria was influenced by the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the social changes in Cuba that followed. Yet soon after, Cuban president Fidel Castro turned Cuba into a Stalinist dictatorship and imprisoned writers who dissented against his regime. How does this affect your reading of Alegria’s works? Are her passionate cries against violent human rights abuses in Latin America compromised when she overlooks the repression of Communist regimes?

3. Alegria is a feminist who also writes about historic economic injustices in Latin America. Are the two concerns ever contradictory? Examine the sexual politics in Alegria’s works and see whether she ties together economic injustice and sexual politics or whether she separates the two themes.

4. Alegria and her husband, Darwin Flakoll, shared a great artistic tradition of collaboration between a husband and wife. Using your library and the Internet, write an essay on another couple who collaborated together on a film, piece of music, or work of fiction.

5. Alegria believes that writers should take sides and never be neutral. Do you agree? Why or why not? Should a writer be an observer or an active participant in history? Write a paper that reflects your personal opinions about a writer’s role in society.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Boschetto-Sandoval, Sandra M., and Marcia Phillips McGowan, eds. Claribel Alegria and Central American Literature. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1994.

Moyers, Bill, ed. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets with Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Periodicals

Longo, Teresa. ‘‘Claribel Alegria’s Sorrow: In Defiance of the Space Which Separates.’’ Latin American Literary Review 39 (January-June 1992): 18-26.

Velasquez, Antonio. ‘‘Claribel Alegria.’’ Hispamerica 29, no. 86 (2000): 83-92.

Volpendesta, David. ‘‘Enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven: A Conversation with Claribel Alegria and Bud Flakoll.’’ Poetry Flash 206 (May 1990): 1, 11, 23.

Yiidice, George. ‘‘Letras de emergencia: Claribel Alegria,’’ Revista Iberoamericana 51 (July-December 1985): 953-64.