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  • The Country Under My Skin
  • Written by Gioconda Belli
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9781400032167
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The Country Under My Skin

A Memoir of Love and War

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An electrifying memoir from the acclaimed Nicaraguan writer (“A wonderfully free and original talent”—Harold Pinter) and central figure in the Sandinista Revolution.

Until her early twenties, Gioconda Belli inhabited an upper-class cocoon: sheltered from the poverty in Managua in a world of country clubs and debutante balls; educated abroad; early marriage and motherhood. But in 1970, everything changed. Her growing dissatisfaction with domestic life, and a blossoming awareness of the social inequities in Nicaragua, led her to join the Sandinistas, then a burgeoning but still hidden organization. She would be involved with them over the next twenty years at the highest, and often most dangerous, levels.

Her memoir is both a revelatory insider’s account of the Revolution and a vivid, intensely felt story about coming of age under extraordinary circumstances. Belli writes with both striking lyricism and candor about her personal and political lives: about her family, her children, the men in her life; about her poetry; about the dichotomies between her birth-right and the life she chose for herself; about the failures and triumphs of the Revolution; about her current life, divided between California (with her American husband and their children) and Nicaragua; and about her sustained and sustaining passion for her country and its people.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One

Where these memories, dusted with gunpowder, begin

Cuba, 1979

With each shot I fired my body shuddered, the impact reverberating through every last joint, leaving an unbearable ringing in my head, sharp and disturbing. Shame kept me from admitting how much I hated firing a gun. I would squeeze my eyes shut as I pulled the trigger, praying that my arm wouldn’t tremble during that brief, blinding moment. After every shot I would feel a sudden, overwhelming urge to throw down the weapon as if it were on fire, as if my body could only be whole again once I let go of that lethal appendage gripped in my hand and pressed against my shoulder.

January 1979. Morning. A brisk northerly wind blew through a clear, cloudless sky. It would have been a perfect day for going to the beach, for lounging on the grass beneath a tree, gazing out at the Caribbean. Instead, I found myself at a shooting range with a group of Latin American guerrillas. In my arms, an AK-47. Behind me, observing us as he spoke with a group of people, was Fidel Castro.

Barely half an hour earlier, in an atmosphere reminiscent of a pleasant elementary school field trip, we had arrived at the modern and well-appointed shooting range of the FAR—the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, the Cuban armed forces. Inside the munitions warehouse, where we were to select our weapons of choice, we were like children in a toy store, touching and studying the astonishing array of automatics, semiautomatics, machine guns, and pistols laid out before us. I had only shot with pistols before, and I wanted to know what it felt like to fire a rifle. After choosing our weapons, we went out to the field, and lined up to aim and fire at our targets, which were located directly across a ravine. For the first time in my life I felt the pounding in my shoulders, the power of the machine gun blasts, and the way the body loses balance if the feet are not planted firmly in the ground for support. The others began firing away enthusiastically, but I felt dazed and bewildered, floundering through a world of muffled sounds, as if underwater. These weapons gave me no thrill at all. In fact, they had precisely the opposite effect, for I emerged from the experience with a feeling of profound, visceral revulsion. Was I the only one who felt absolutely no fascination for these instruments of war? What would I do when it was my turn to enter combat? I continued firing, furious with myself. By the time I was finished, I was face down on a mound of earth clutching a .50 caliber machine gun, its long barrel rotating on its axis. I remained there, using my thumbs to pull the lever that activated the trigger. It was the most lethal weapon there. As I fired, I heard a dry, sharp boom and this time it didn’t pound through me and I was undeterred.

“I see you liked the .50, didn’t you?” Fidel mused with a malicious grin when I saw him a few days later. He had come to the hotel to visit the Sandinista delegation and we had’ been summoned to the presidential suite. I said nothing. I smiled at him. He turned back and continued talking to Tito and the other compañeros who had been invited to Havana for the Cuban Revolution’s twentieth-anniversary celebration.

I sat back and watched him. It was inevitable that the sight of Fidel would stir a collage of memories in my mind. Fidel was the first revolutionary I had ever heard of. When I was a child I had followed his rebellious feats as if they were episodes in an adventure novel. Sprawled out on our parents’ bed, my elder brother, Humberto, and I devoured the Life magazine issue with the story on Fidel in the Sierra Maestra. In our house, among the adults, passions always ran high when it came to Fidel.

Around this time, Humberto had perfected his a cappella imitation of Al Hirt’s trumpet. His greatest pride, however, was his masterful rendering of Daniel Santos’s singing. Santos, a Puerto Rican, had been catapulted into fame thanks to his nasal rendition of the anthem of the Cuban rebel movement. Humberto’s voice boomed through the house as he broke into song either in the shower or during other moments of sudden inspiration: “Adelante cubanos, que Cuba premiará vuestro heroismo, pues somos soldados que vamos a la Patria liberar” (“Onward, Cubans; Cuba will reward your heroism, for we are the soldiers who will free the Motherland”). It was listening to that song that I first experienced the call of patriotism. I would repeat it to myself, secretly thinking of Nicaragua’s tyrant, Somoza. To me, Fidel was a romantic hero. In Cuba, he and his bearded, fearless, daring young men were accomplishing things that nobody had been able to achieve in Nicaragua—neither my cousins, who were involved in the struggle, nor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro (the opposition leader), nor the Conservative Party. I was only ten years old when Fidel achieved his victory, but I remember how thrilled I felt. I applauded the Cuban Revolution as if it had been a victory for us as well.

Soon after, of course, all that enthusiasm vanished, as if spirited away by a magic spell. I don’t know exactly what happened, but between the nuns at school, my parents’ friends, the newspaper reports, and the conversations in my house, it began to appear that Fidel and his cronies had fooled the entire world, making themselves out to be good Christians when they were actually dangerous communists.

“Can you believe it?” my mother said. “Fidel appeared in Life with an enormous crucifix hanging from his neck, and now he calls himself an atheist. It’s an outrage!” The nuns told us horror stories about Cuba: about young children torn from their parents’ arms and sent to institutions where the state would reeducate them as communists who would know nothing of God. To be a communist was a terrible stigma—it was a capital sin, the surest path to hell. I remember feeling awful for all those poor Cuban children—that is, until I overheard something my maternal grandfather, Francisco Pereira, said to a Chinese friend of his who came to visit every day. Together they would sit back and enjoy afternoon drinks in their rocking chairs in front of my grandfather’s house in León. “It’s all lies. They’re inventing it all to sabotage Fidel,” my grandfather said. He would draw upon his encyclopedic memory and recite, word for word, excerpts of Castro’s speeches broadcast on Radio Havana that to me sounded like the homilies I’d heard in church offering solace to the poor. But with so many different perspectives before me, I didn’t know quite what to make of him. I was further confused when President Kennedy—my mother’s idol—turned to Luis Somoza Debayle, who ruled the country after his father’s death, to launch the Bay of Pigs invasion from Nicaragua. I couldn’t fathom how or why a president like Kennedy could maintain friendly relations with a government like ours.

Who would have ever guessed, then, that one day I would find myself seated on a fluffy sofa in Havana, talking to Fidel? But we come into the world with a ball of yarn to weave the fabric of our lives. One cannot know exactly what the tapestry will look like, but at a certain moment one can look back and say: Of course! It couldn’t have been any other way! That shiny thread, that stitching couldn’t have led anywhere else!

From the Hardcover edition.
Gioconda Belli|Author Q&A

About Gioconda Belli

Gioconda Belli - The Country Under My Skin

Photo © Charles Castaldi

Gioconda Belli’s poetry and fiction have been published in many languages. Her first novel, The Inhabited Woman, was an international best-seller; her collection of poems Linea de fuego won the prestigious Casa de las Americas Prize in 1978. She lives in Santa Monica and Managua.

La obra de Gioconda Belli, novelista y poeta nicaragüense, ha sido ampliamente traducida y ha ganado numerosos premios internacionales, entre ellos el Premio Casa de Las Américas de poesía en 1978; el premio a la mejor novela del año en Alemania en 1989 por La Mujer Habitada, el premio de poesía internacional “Generación del 27” en el 2002.
“El País bajo mi piel” fue seleccionado entre los mejores libros del año en 2002 por Los Angeles Times y fue nominado para el Los Angeles Times Book Award en el año 2003. La autora divide su tiempo entre Santa Mónica, California y Managua, Nicaragua.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Gioconda Belli, author of THE COUNTRY UNDER MY SKIN

Q: Your book begins in the chilling setting of a Cuban Armed Forces munitions warehouse in January 1979, an AK-47 cradled in your arms as Fidel Castro observes your Sandinista delegation on the shooting range. Yet, there is something about this morning that seems charmingly naïve — you describe the experience as "…an atmosphere reminiscent of a pleasant elementary-school field trip." Did your patriotic thrill make the weapons training seem less dangerous or the prospects of an armed future seem less daunting?

I was both anxious and fascinated at the idea of being in a shooting range. Most of the men I was with, however, were just thrilled with the idea. In the book, I reflect about the contrast between my fear and the nonchalant way everybody else seemed to approach the military training. In those days in Latin America, military dictatorships had closed the possibilities of a democratic opposition. People were jailed and killed for their political views. Armed struggle seemed the only viable path of resistance. Coming in contact with weapons, getting ready to participate in armed struggle was empowering and felt like the right thing to do. I didn’t look forward to it. I was afraid, but I felt it was the only way to be true to my commitment to my country’s freedom.

Q: The Sandinista movement was a composite of socialism, cooperativism, popular protest, pride and poetry. What made Sandinismo so compelling?

That we were fighting for a just cause. After forty-five years of dictatorship, of betrayal by the political parties, massacres, censorship of the press, utter misery for the majority of the population, people both in Nicaragua and abroad couldn’t help but admire and respect a group of young guerrillas who, defying all odds, took it upon themselves to depose a tyrant.

Q: What was the genesis of your political philosophy? How did you transform yourself from upper-class wife and mother to "Comandante Belli"?

By the time I joined Sandinismo, when I was twenty, I had seen enough blood-shed and abuse to feel I just couldn’t remain indifferent and continue with my privileged life. It might have been that my political philosophy began with my Catholic upbringing. I was taught to care about other people, to be compassionate. Then, when I began writing poetry, I came in touch with people my age who were actively involved in trying to change things in Nicaragua. It was also a time of upheaval everywhere in the world. There was the anti-war movement in the U.S.; the student rebellion in Paris was still fresh.... My generation felt it had the power to make a difference.

Q: As a prize-wining poet, and a dedicated revolutionary, which do you feel has been more seductive: poetry or politics?

Given where I am now in my life, I would have to say that writing turned out to be my calling. But I see writing as an activity that is intimately connected with society. Writers are witnesses, prophets–as the Greeks use to think–critics, and forces of change in a community. Writing, in so much as it relates to the life of the "polis", is always political. So I haven’t felt I have had to give-up one passion for another. I have just found the way to reconcile the two. I am still a political animal.

Q: Men in the movement often preferred to relate to you as a woman, and not as a companera. What role did machismo play in the revolution?

I joined the guerrilla movement at the time when the women’s liberation movement was still young. Men were just learning to accept women in the roles traditionally reserved for men. Inevitably, there were these episodes where men just saw me as a young woman, as prey. But it was not always the case. During the struggle I would say women, for the most part, were treated as equals and respected. But, of course, there were those quite flagrant exceptions I talk about in the book. Usually the more powerful the men, the less they were willing to accept a woman as their equal. I guess sexual advances were their way to put a woman in her "place".

Q: How were you instrumental in resisting the propaganda war the Reagan Administration waged against the Sandinistas?

In spite of the fact that we had the machinery of the Reagan Administration depicting us as a "threat" to freedom, democracy and even to the national security of the U.S., we were able to get out enough information about the true nature of the revolution that large groups of people all over the world rallied in our favor and opposed the Contra War sponsored by President Reagan. Hundreds of American citizens, artists, and intellectuals came in those days to Nicaragua to see for themselves, and then came back and spoke out in favor of the revolution. I ran the Sandinista international information office and tried to make sure that journalists got the real story of what was going on in Nicaragua.

Q: As a representative of the Sandinista government, you were a witness to and participated in some of the key events honoring 20th century political radicalism–you met North Vietnamese war heroes and attended state anniversary celebrations of the Bolshevik, Cuban and Algerian revolutions. You were offered an insider’s view of the Soviet Union, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Libya–socialist communities that have since been transformed beyond recognition. What has been the legacy of your political struggle? Do you still believe in a revolutionary future?

Socialist ideas were popular in Latin America because the gap between rich and poor has been so abysmal. We were attracted to the idea of distribution of wealth and a State that would minister to the needs of its people. Under the dictatorship, we had not had much freedom and we thought the first freedom people needed in our country–where 70% of the population under Somoza was illiterate–was the freedom from ignorance and hunger. We were more interested in finding out how those revolutions had fought colonial oppression, foreign intervention and how they had dealt with issues of poverty and reconstruction. The Nicaraguan Revolution did not follow any model. We wanted to be original and free. But we were thrown in the same sack with all other revolutions by the Reagan Administration, which began to fund the Contras. To defend ourselves, we had to impose certain restrictions. Even so, as revolutions go, Nicaragua’s was, by far, the most democratic. People were free to travel, to have any religion, to associate, to write, to start political parties. The Sandinista Revolution held elections and turned over power to the opposition in 1990. Nicaragua is now a democratic country thanks primarily to the Sandinista Revolution. Sandinismo is the second largest party in Nicaragua still. The freedom Nicaragua enjoys now is our legacy. So, I feel it was a worthwhile struggle. Nowadays I don’t think we need another revolution to push forward. We need to strengthen the democratic institutions, which are still quite feeble.

Q: You lost so many dedicated and heroic colleagues. How do the cataclysmic events of the late 1970s appear through the filter of history?

Unfortunately, as history shows, often patriots have to die to free and defend their countries. I think my friends didn’t die in vain. Things didn’t turn out exactly as we hoped, but the country is better off now than it was under the dictatorship.

Q: What was your greatest disappointment in the struggle?

I had hoped my children would never have to live through what I lived through, but during the Contra War, I had to take them to funerals for some of their young friends who died in the war. We suffered from scarcity. We were constantly at the brink of war and threatened by a U.S. invasion. It was a very difficult time. I saw my dreams shattered very early on.

Q: "Once again her toothbrush is gone." This is how one of your daughters began her college application essay, writing about your absences from the family. Did it break your heart to read these words?

I was so absorbed by the struggle and my own personal problems that I didn’t realize until later how hard it had been for my kids to share my life. When I read that I couldn’t stop crying. All of a sudden, that sentence, the scene I imagined reading it, filled me with overwhelming empathy and sorrow for what they went through. At the same time, I don’t think it could have been otherwise. I know that now they not only understand what I did, but feel proud of me.

Q: You write: "I have been two women and I have lived two lives." One of your lives is governed by tradition, marriage and family; the other by yearning for and achieving the privileges men enjoy: "…independence, self-reliance, a public life, mobility, lovers." Can the two lives co-exist simultaneously, and do you feel fulfilled in your accomplishments in each life?

It seems wild to me now that I was able to do everything I did, while, at the same time, raising three kids, falling in and out of love and working to support my family, but I think that, as human beings we have an incredible capacity that is unleashed when we are called to rise up to meet a challenge. My book is also a reflection of how people can overcome so many odds to pursue a goal that is bigger than each person individually–how happy it can make us to feel this sense of community and purpose. I now think that I am not only two women; I am three or four, and I feel that this constant balancing act between the multiplicity of things I am keeps me alive, keeps me happy and curious and passionate.

Q: You are married to an American now. How did that come to be? Did you ever think you would end up living in the U.S.?

My husband was the National Public Radio correspondent in Central America. I met him in Washington, DC on one of my first trips to the U.S., as head of the Sandinista International Information Office. We weren’t supposed to fall in love and it was quite difficult to navigate through all the obstacles we faced. Initially I was reluctant to the idea of coming to the United States because of the role it had in the demise of the Sandinista Revolution, but eventually I felt I had to accept that my husband was also entitled to love and want to live in his country. We came to a compromise. I now divide my time between Nicaragua and the U.S. In my years in the Revolution it never crossed my mind I could end up in the U.S., but even though it has been hard for me to reconcile such different realities, I think I have learned a lot and come to appreciate many things about this country. I realize that, domestically, the U.S. has achieved many of the things I dreamed we could achieve in Nicaragua when we had our revolution. But I still have many misgivings about the role the U.S. plays in the world.



“A poetic, penetrating and revelatory tale of love and war, literature and politics. . .lyrical, dramatic and incisive, Belli’s soulful self-portrait and paean to her beautiful, beleagured country is at once timely and timeless, tragic and life-affirming.” –The Chicago Tribune

“Love and revolution have rarely been so splendidly and provocatively intertwined than in this heretic memoir of a woman's sensual and intellectual voyage of self-discovery in Nicaragua.” –Ariel Dorfman

"Gioconda Belli's memoir reads better than a novel. It recounts her larger-than-life experiences as a revolutionary, lover, and mother with honesty, passion, intelligence and, above all, poetry. The Country Under My Skin is as much the story of Nicaragua as it is one extraordinary woman's dreams.” –Cristina Garcia

“The poet and novelist Gioconda Belli has written no ordinary memoir. This book is about American history, North and South; about power and the seeds of revolution; about one woman's life and choices entangled among many lives--and deaths--expended in the unkillable hope for human freedom and love. If her life seems romantic, she writes with the strength and clarity of a realist.” –Adrienne Rich

“Unravels [the] contradictions. . .all too common among powerful women–with characteristic candor and dignity. . .Often joyous, surprisingly fluid.” –Salon

“Engaging. . .When Belli speaks from the depths of her woman’s insight. . . her prose pierces the heart. . .A window to one woman’s extraordinary journey.” –San Antonio Express

“A surprisingly frank picture of the movement. . .Belli presents a complex picture, revealing the ego clashes and massive blunders as well as moments of incredible bravery under fire.” –Los Angeles Magazine

“Belli recalls with engaging candor the course of a life lived to the full. In its twist and turns, moments of danger followed by intense romantic encounters, Belli's memoir can resemble exuberant historical fiction. . A luminously written, always insightful account of one woman's encounter with personal and political liberation.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Gioconda Belli has had a unique place in modern Nicaraguan history. . . . [Her] progress through her various love affairs mirrors Nicaragua’s history during the same period. . . . Introduces us to an astute veteran of two eternal wars, one between the sexes and one that pits the world’s poor against its rich.” –The New York Review of Books

“A lush memoir.…both intensely personal and informatively political.…An honest, insider's account of the very real debates surrounding this major revolution would be valuable in itself, but Belli offers more: a frank examination of her struggle for love.” –Publishers Weekly

“A tribute to beauty, valor, and justice. Belli’s giving and clarion book is also an antidote to fear and apathy, and a reminder that freedom is always a work in progress.” –Booklist

“Romantic and engaging.” –Philadelphia City Paper

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