You may have first encountered Deb Olin Unferth in journals such as Noon and McSweeney’s, to which she contributed tightly wound, very short stories fueled by high-octane prose. Many of those stories, which were gathered in the collection Minor Robberies, take place abroad, but all of her work, including her first novel, Vacation, treats the self as though it were a foreign country—a place of adventure, mystery, and often bafflement.
Like all good travelers, Unferth maintains a sense of humor, which serves her well in her new memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. Revolution tells the story of how, in 1987, Unferth dropped out of college to follow her evangelical boyfriend to Latin America, where they hoped to land “revolution jobs.” Armed only with their good intentions, they find themselves in the middle of the civil wars that rocked Latin America in the dying years of the Cold War. The absurdity of the situation is quickly apparent: They are without useful skills, they get in the way, they get sick. Full of droll self-mockery, Revolution tracks the blossoming and buckling of their youthful romance in a most unlikely setting.
In 2009, editor Ethan Nosowsky was chair of a Creative Capital Foundation panel that awarded Unferth an “Innovative Literature” grant. Here is his interview with Unferth, one half of that special literary treat known as The Rumpus Original Combo.
The Rumpus Interview with Deb Olin Unferth
THE RUMPUS: Your interest in Central American politics is portrayed, at least initially, as secondary to your willingness to follow George. But you also write about spending considerable time in Mexico with your parents as a child. Were politics a big part of family discussions when you were growing up?
DEB OLIN UNFERTH: If my interest in politics came from anywhere, it would be from my father and my brother, who used to argue about politics every night. My brother identified as a Libertarian, of all things, and my father is a Republican, but they were both quite liberal when it came to issues of human rights. My mother and I were always Democrats.
My father now lives in Arizona and has been immensely involved in the protests against the anti-immigration law. At many of the demonstrations, events, and meetings, he is the only non-Latino, and he must certainly be the only Republican.
RUMPUS: That’s the most heartening thing I’ve heard in ages. It almost makes a guy hope.
UNFERTH: Yeah, isn’t that nice? Over the summer he worked with Mi Familia Vota to help register Latino voters. He went door to door and stood outside grocery stores all day in 110-degree heat. He even had a minor brain surgery in the middle of all this and we thought he’d be laid up recovering for weeks, but a few days later he was back out again, registering voters and protesting.
I would suspect that he feels a kinship with Latinos partly because of the time we spent in Mexico, but also because he seems to have a strong sense of empathy. Many people don’t, I notice.
RUMPUS: It should be said that Revolution is very funny. How is it possible that comedy and geopolitical tragedies can be friends?
UNFERTH: I’ve always been interested in the intersection of humor and sadness, but this was a very big challenge: how to make war funny? There are precedents. Gertrude Stein writes hilariously about World War I in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. There’s Evelyn Waugh, of course. Twain wrote a brilliantly funny piece about trying to join the Confederate Army. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Soccer War has some very comical, strange moments. I realized early on that I needed to fit into that tradition somehow or else give up all hope of writing the book.
RUMPUS: You often balance banal details with the dead seriousness of your situation, whether that’s your own romantic travails or the way the people you meet just go about their daily lives amid such horror. I loved the Salvadoran woman who dusts the missile launcher that soldiers had set up in her living room.
UNFERTH: When I think about what it was like for these Salvadoran people who were just trying to live their normal lives with a civil war going on around them, it’s hard to fathom. And here I was, essentially a voyeur, a college kid getting in the way, while they had a war going on, they were fighting for basic human rights.
RUMPUS: You seem preoccupied by what it means to be “normal” in the book, but it turns out normal exists on a pretty broad spectrum.
UNFERTH: Yes, I do have an interest in that. I find that by looking at the normal, I am often better able to see the strange. It’s kind of a little writing trick I use. I try to very carefully record the normal thing happening in front of me—even just the way the wall looks. Or I write down exactly the words someone says.
RUMPUS: The experiences you had have been banging around your head for ages and the book partly reflects your struggle with how to talk about it all. Did you finally get to a place where you knew what the story was? Or did you write it to figure it out once and for all?
UNFERTH: I wrote the book because I realized that if I didn’t write it, I’d be trying to write it for the rest of my life.
RUMPUS: And does it feel done now? The book is only partly about 1987, the year you worked “revolution jobs”—it’s also about the many later trips you took to Central America. Do you see yourself going back there again?
UNFERTH: Well, I hope it’s done now. I mean, I’d like to go back to Latin America, sure, especially Nicaragua. But I do hope I can write about something else now. It was driving me crazy, that longing.
RUMPUS: I like the way you look at Young Deb as though you were holding her up to the light and studying her, almost as though she were someone else. You’re often hard on her, but what do you admire about Young Deb now?
UNFERTH: Yes, isn’t that funny? I’m fascinated that I used to be that person. I think for many years I was angry at myself for having been someone who would run away with a man, give up her own identity so easily. Then later, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t her anymore. It seemed so nice and easy—why couldn’t I find someone to give me an identity again?
Later I started thinking there was something very appealing in it, to be able to be someone who could give herself to someone else in that way. I liked that about her and felt I wouldn’t be able to have a deep relationship until I could figure out how to do that again. Also, I think Young Deb is more courageous than I am now—perhaps she was foolish, but there is something courageous in foolishness. The two are twins.
RUMPUS: A lot of the book seems to be about a misguided search for people to model yourself on. There’s a double meaning in the book’s title—it refers not just to the political situation, but to an “inner revolution” that you mention late in the book. You finally tell George that you need to leave to “find yourself.” But it seems to take a while. How’s it going?
UNFERTH: Yes, I was very confused for a very long time. Why is that? Was I typical of the time, just your average Gen X confused kid? Or are “kids” still like that? I often wonder. I look at my students and very few of them seem to be as confused as I was. They have moments of confusion… but mostly they seem quite confident and at least fairly directed. I think it would be very uncool to be as undirected as I was now.
I do think I’ve finally “found myself,” but it turns out not to be quite as exciting and revelatory as I might have hoped. In some ways the revelations all came while I was still searching.
RUMPUS: I was a great fan of your fiction before reading this book, and if you’d asked me back then I would have said you’d be one of the last people I would expect to write a personal memoir. How’d you get started?
UNFERTH: Aw, thanks! Yes, it was a strange book to write. I read a lot of memoirs, once I decided I was going to write one. I read a lot of the old autobiographies, like Paul Bowles’s Without Stopping, and Gertrude Stein, and Lenny Bruce, Nabokov. Then I read the classic memoirs, like Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr and Frank Conroy’s Stop Time and Ondaatje. Then I read as many interesting contemporary ones as I could find. Steve Martin’s was one of my favorites.
In some ways I had been writing this book for many years. When I decided to write it, I found I had many scenes already written in notebooks and on stray pieces of paper. There’s a scene where she’s lying in bed talking to a man about peanut butter. I swear that conversation was just like that. I have very early versions of it.
RUMPUS: William Burroughs called that Bowles memoir “Without Telling.” What’s appealing to experimentalists such as yourselves about the form? Or have you gotten to the point where it’s just all “writing” and categories such as fiction or nonfiction are irrelevant?
UNFERTH: I don’t think Burroughs had any right to call the Bowles memoir “Without Telling.” Why did he say that? The book is full of telling. Maybe he didn’t get into any serious sordid sex, but I, for one, being terrified of sex-writing, was fine with not getting that. I do notice that every time Bowles mentions Jane, after the first time or two, it is to criticize her or make fun of her writing. What a jerk. Despite that, I do love the book.
It is a special form, I think, so, no, it’s not all just “writing.” In fact I have a “memoir manifesto” coming out in Guernica where I talk about some of these very things… Memoir is very different from fiction or autobiography.
RUMPUS: What’s the difference between memoir and autobiography?
UNFERTH: Memoir is a recent form, taking shape in the last decades of the 20th century. I believe it grew out of the writer’s dissatisfaction with the limitations of autobiography, which tended to be more like lists of the events and people and conversations in the author’s life, with little regard for narrative shape. What you do get in autobiography is voice—Bowles, Stein, Nabokov. You hear their voices, but you don’t necessarily see motive or reflection. That came later, with memoir. Memoir is as much about the fragility of memory as it is about an author’s life.
RUMPUS: For all your purported amateurism, you and George were able to interview some iconic figures of the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America, including Ernesto Cardenal. Who were the people you were most inspired by there?
UNFERTH: Above anyone, I suppose I admired Father Uriel Molina, one of the great radical priests of the revolution. I went back to find him in 2000, ten years after the end of the revolution. I asked him if he still thought violence was sometimes justified. “Maybe not,” he said. “Maybe we were wrong.” Ha! I admired him for saying that too.
So he was first, but, hell, everybody inspired me. The women soldiers in Nicaragua inspired me. Ernesto Cardenal and all the priests we met.
RUMPUS: You guys seemed terribly isolated in El Salvador, and in the way. Then you went to Nicaragua and found common cause with a lot of like-minded first-worlders, where the so-called Internacionalistas had clustered. But the situation in El Salvador seems to have been much more dire. Was there anything foreigners might have done there to help, other than persuade the U.S. to stop backing military dictatorships with cash?
UNFERTH: If I could answer that question—if anyone could—it would be a different world. The situation in El Salvador was not unlike other military-backed dictatorships around the world. I don’t know how to turn those situations around. Nicaragua was special because it looked, for that brief period, as if the people of that country had done it, had found a new path, one of self-determination. That’s why everyone wanted to go. Nicaragua had done what no one during that time had done—not even Cuba, really, since Cuba was still a dictatorship.
Today, January 14, 2011, I’m reading about Tunisia, and how the president fled today in the face of popular protests. I wonder what’s going on there.
RUMPUS: Your last book was called Vacation. This one is called Revolution. Most chapter titles inRevolution lack articles. What do you have against definite and indefinite articles?
UNFERTH: Ha! In both cases—Revolution and Vacation—the titles were the result of misunderstandings. Each time I labeled my file with that single word, “Revolution” or “Vacation,” as just a placeholder, just to remind myself what file it was, and each time, when I sent the file to someone to read for me, the person thought it was the title of the book and said they liked the title, even if the rest of the book was a mess at that point.
I do like the clean word without the articles, however. You’re right about that. I feel as if I’m talking about the idea, as much as I am telling a story.