Sunday, September 18, 2011

Deb Olin Unferth on her Wild Youth Trying to Find Central America's Revolutions in the 1980s

When she was an 18-year-old college student in 1987, Deb Olin Unferth fell in love with a charismatic leftist Christian named George. Unferth became a Christian and followed George to Central America with the amorphous plan to join the revolutions that were exploding in El Salvador and Nicaragua. What Unferth found was that perpetual diarrhea, parasites and dysentery. She was thrown out of a Salvadorean orphanage for refusing to wear a bra and fired from building bicycles for the people of Nicaragua.

In her witty new memoir “Revolution: The Year I fell in Love and Went to Join the War” (Holt, 224 pp., $24), Unferth details her nine-month odyssey traveling through Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua with the earnest-but-overbearing George. Under rough conditions, their relationship deteriorates, as does Unferth’s idealism. Though they don’t ever join the revolution, Unferth finds herself changing and developing in ways she did not expect, and seeing the roots of her adult self.

Unferth, 42, is the author of the novel “Vacation” and the story collection “Minor Robberies.” She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in New York City.

Q. The book covers hardships from dysentery to a couple of attempted rapes. Why did you infuse the book with black humor about your situation?

A. I had this idea of memoirs as a confessional genre that engaged in a lot of self pity--”Poor me. My life was so hard at this time.” I really didn’t want to do that and I didn’t feel that way about my life. I was resistant to putting that tone in the book, but also I am a humorist. My two other books are funny. I had a hard time figuring out how to write the book. Life is not linear. There’s a lot of things going on at once. I had to figure out how to get a lot of balls in the air at once. When I thought of the vignettes, the short chapters, I found that the story was a lot easier to negotiate. When I was writing the book, I thought there might be a place for it because there is so little work there making fun of political idealism.

Q. You travel through the civil war in El Salvador and post-revolutionary Nicaragua. How did the experiences differ?

A. I had no idea the situation in El Salvador was so terrifying with their death squads. I got to Nicaragua, expecting more horror, and it was the exact opposite. They had won their revolution and were very proud.

Q. Why did you fail at finding work in the revolution?

A. I was 18. I really didn’t know how to do anything at all. We had a very hard time finding work we could stick with. I wanted to be honest in the book about the feeling that I wasn’t saving anyone. I changed a lot, though, and I think George changed. I as young when I met George. During the time we were together, I learned things about myself and the world. I started doubting some of the things George and I had decided together.

Q. Your idealism and your relationship started coming apart at the same time. How did you write about this?

A. I tried to parallel the ending of the Cold War with the end of my relationship with George. The two were not related by cause and effect, but narratively it worked for me.

Q. You lost touch with George in the 1990s and he basically disappeared off your radar. You finally hired a private detective to look for him. Why?

A. I realized that maybe the biggest reason for writing the book was to have an excuse to find George. I had tried to write this book many times and it wasn’t working. When it came together, I got really excited, for now I could look for George.

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in February 2011)

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