Nicaraguan Gianconda Belli (born 1948), a respected author and poet, also took part in the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza as a Sandinista rebel.
Early Life and Education
On December 9, 1948, in Managua, Nicaragua, Giaconda Belli was born to a wealthy family. Her father, Humberto, was an industrialist, and her mother, the former Gloria Pereira, was the founder of the city's Experimental Theater. Belli had two brothers and two sisters. Since their parents wanted them to have a European education, all the children attended Catholic primary school at the School of Asunción in Managua and Catholic secondary school at the Royal School of Santa Isabel in Madrid, Spain. Belli did not enjoy either school, later calling them "cold and austere."
In the summers, Belli and her siblings visited England to learn English. She finished secondary school in 1964 and followed her father's advice to give up her ambition to become a doctor in favor of the "more feminine" career of advertising. She was accepted at the Charles Morris Price School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she took classes in advertising and journalism in 1965.
Belli returned to Nicaragua at age 17 and soon became the first woman advertising account executive in the country, working at the Alpha Omega Advertising Company. Having discovered her love of and talent for writing, Belli went on to study advertising management at INCAE, the new Harvard University school of business administration with campuses throughout Central America, and later took courses in literature and philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In 1967, Belli married Mariano A. Downing and hosted the reception at the local country club. She had her first child (Maryam) with him in 1969.
First Poetry Published
Belli's first poems appeared in the Managuan cultural newspaper La Prensa in 1970. Sensual and with many erotic references to the female body, the pieces caused considerable consternation in some circles (one critic from a report in The Guardian called the poetry "shameless pornography"), although most critics deemed the poems revolutionary. Also in 1970, she joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front (SNLF), like many artists and intellectuals of her generation. She had been introduced to the rebel group, whose goal was to overthrow the repressive and corrupt dictatorship of Anastasio Samoza, through a poet friend several years earlier. She would remember in a 2003 interview with Barbara Liss of The Houston Chronicle, "It was as if the guilt of privilege had suddenly been lifted from my shoulders." Despite her upper-class background, Belli enthusiastically joined in weapons training and other drills with her fellow comandantes, although one teased her that she "carried her submachinegun like a handbag." In 1973 she had her second child, Melissa, with Downing.
Her first book of poetry, Sobre la Grama (On the Grass), appeared in 1974. It won the first and most prestigious poetry award in the country at the time, the Mariano Fiallos Gil Award from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua. Also that year, as written in Hispanic Literary Criticism Belli later recalled, "I lived in constant fear of being discovered." In addition to her duties of transporting arms, carrying illegal mail, and broadcasting news of the Sandinista struggle throughout Latin America and Europe, the SNLF assigned Belli to the "clandestine intelligence" section of a logistics team that would carry out a commando action against the Samoza regime. She was in charge of stealing blueprints of the mansion where a key official was to attend a party. The plan was to kidnap the official and hold him hostage in exchange for the release of political prisoners. However, the plan went awry when Belli was spotted and followed. To prevent her imprisonment, she went into exile in 1975. (She was later tried in absentia, found guilty, and sentenced to seven years in prison.) In the Chronical interview, Belli recalled of this period, "It was exhilarating because you felt you were doing something important, yet on the other hand, it was very scary. But we were young and fear was quite manageable."
Lived in Exile
Belli lived in exile in Mexico and Costa Rica without her family for four years but continued her writing at a steady pace. Her marriage did not survive this trying period, and in 1976 she was divorced from Downing. She later described the union as "stifling." However, a new relationship followed quickly in its footsteps, and in 1977, Belli married Sergio de Castro, a fellow SNLF member, in Costa Rica. They would soon have a son, Camilo, together. Meanwhile, in 1976 she had taken a job as creative director at Garnier Advertising in San Jose, Costa Rica, where she would work until 1978.
In 1978 Belli published Linea de Fuego (Line of Fire), a collection of 54 poems that is perhaps her most acclaimed work. In the collection, she experiments with combinations of poetry and prose, surreal metaphor, and conventional imagery. The book won the coveted Casa de las Americas Prize in Poetry and launched Belli's reputation as a respected author. It also showcased her linkage of women's struggle for sexual, political, and personal freedom with the Sandinista revolution, often using each as a metaphor to describe the other. Critics of the period added Belli to a group of bourgeois female authors of about the same age who were all writing political poetry centered on exalted sensuality, disdain of society's treatment of women, celebration of the human body, and glorification of political revolution. They were known collectively as "the Six."
Returned to Homeland, Continued
Writing and SNLF Work
Belli would not return to Nicaragua until 1979, when the SNLF finally succeeded in toppling Samoza. Later that year she and de Castro divorced, and he won a bitter custody dispute for their son. Belli had been working as a member of the Front's Political-Diplomatic Commission since 1978 and continued to do so upon her return. However, in 1979, the Sandinista government, led by the Ortega brothers (Humberto and Daniel), appointed her as director of communications and public relations for its new Economic Planning Ministry. She served in that post until 1982, when she became the group's international press liaison.
Belli's cosmopolitan background gave her natural confidence during her liaison work. However, she was disappointed and appalled by how the male politicians treated her—especially those who supposedly supported the Sandinista credo of sexual equality. While in Panama, for instance, Panamanian General Omar Torrijos pursued her constantly, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro asked her suggestively, "Where have the Sandinistas been hiding you?" and repeatedly tried to seduce her. The "cult of machismo," as Belli called it, was pervasive and resistant to change among the revolutionaries. She would later chafe at the government's refusal to let women actively serve in the military, demanding, "How could they think such a thing when women had already proven themselves to be as able fighters as men during the war?"
Left Government to Write Full-Time, Married Third Husband
Belli published another collection of poems, Truenos y Arco Iris (Thunder and Rainbows), in 1982. She continued as SNLF liaison until 1983, when she joined the Nicaragua Writer's Union as its foreign affairs secretary. (She would hold that post until 1988.) From 1983 to 1984, Belli also served as executive secretary and spokesperson for the SNLF. She was appointed managing director of the National Publicity System in 1984, but that position eventually proved to be too time-consuming, and she resigned in 1986 to devote herself to writing full-time. Meanwhile, she had published Amor Insurrecto (Insurgent Love) in 1984 and cofounded the literary journal Ventana.
Freed from her SNLF professional obligations, Belli began writing and publishing at a faster pace. She proposed to American Charles Castaldi, a National Public Radio producer whom she had met during a previous trip to Washington, D.C., in 1987. The Sandinista government strongly disapproved of the relationship, since Washington was at the time supporting Nicaragua's counter revolutionary Contras in violent attempts to oust the Ortegas. However, Belli rebelled somewhat against her old allies, having become somewhat disillusioned with the double standard she perceived—it was common practice then for Sandinista officials to conduct open affairs with American women. She had also been long concerned about what she termed the "unscrupulous policies" of the Ortega brothers and wondered if the revolution had been for naught.
In 1988 she produced De la Costilla de Eva (translated in 1989 as From Eve's Rib), and in 1989 released her first novel, La Mujer Habitada (translated in 1994 as The Inhabited Woman). The latter, a semi-autobiographical story about a professional, politically ignorant, Latin-American woman suddenly possessed by an ancient spirit seeking an end to oppression, immediately received critical acclaim in Europe and Latin America. It received both the 1989 Friedrich Ebhert Foundation's Book Sellers, Editors, and Publishers Best Political Novel of the Year Award and the 1989 Anna Seghers Prize.
Belli published a second novel, Sofia de la Presagios (Sophia of the Prophecies), in 1990, writing about her disillusionment with the Sandinistas on feminist issues. Also that year, she and her husband moved temporarily to the United States so he could run his business more closely and she could begin research for another novel. El Oto de la Mujer (Through a Woman's Eye) appeared in 1991, followed by the poetry collection Sortilegio Contra el Frio (A Spell Against the Cold) in 1992. She also tried her hand at writing for children in 1994, with The Workshop of the Butterflies. Then her third novel, Waslala, a cautionary tale of environmental doom inspired by a 1988 toxic waste accident in Brazil, was released in 1996. During this time, Belli and Castaldi's daughter Adriana, was born in 1995.
Wrote El Pais Bajo mi Piel
While splitting her time between Nicaragua and her home in Santa Monica, California, Belli next began to write an autobiography. The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War was released in 2001 in Dutch, German, and Italian. The book debuted in the United States in English in 2002. It received rave reviews, earning the comment from fellow author Salman Rushdie, "The best autobiography I've read in years." Belli calls the book "an ode to romanticism, to believing that great dreams are possible," and laments, "The one thing lacking right now is imagination. There is no crazy dreaming anymore. The world has always gone forward when people have dared to have crazy ideas."
Contemporary Authors, Gale Group, 1997. Hispanic Literature Criticism, Gale Group, 1994.
Houston Chronicle, January 17, 2003.
"Author Q&A: A Conversation with Gioconda Belli," Random House Publishers website,http://www.randomhouse.com (December 17, 2003).
"Belli, Giaconda," Giaconda Belli website,http://www.giacondabelli.com (December 17, 2003).
Campbell, Duncan, "Daughter of the Revolution," The Guardian Unlimited website,http://www.guardian.co.uk (December 17, 2003).
"Daughter of the Revolution," The Guardian Unlimited website,http://www.guardian.co.uk (December 17, 2003).
"Gioconda Belli," Time Warner Bookmark website,http://www.twbook.com (December 17, 2003).
"Gioconda Belli: Bio," Las Mujeres website,http://www.lasmujeres.com (December 17, 2003).