Claribel Alegría 1924–
Nicaraguan-born Salvadoran poet, novelist, short fiction writer, biographer, essayist, editor, nonfiction writer, translator, and author of children's books.
Alegría is best known for writings in which she depicts the concerns, histories, and traditions of the peoples of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Mixing geographical, historical, political, and cultural references in her poetry and prose, Alegría attempts to create a literature of social and political awareness from a Latin American perspective.
Born in Estelí, Nicaragua, in 1924, Alegría lived there until she was nine months old. Due to her father's support of Nicaraguan guerrilla leader Augusto César Sandino, Alegría's family was forced into exile by Anastasio Somoza, a Nicaraguan politician who later became commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan army and eventually the nation's president. The family settled in Santa Ana, a small town in El Salvador that became the setting for much of Alegría's writing. In 1943 she traveled to the United States to study at George Washington University. While in America, Alegría married Darwin J. Flakoll, who became her frequent collaborator and later translated many of her works into English. Beginning with the 1948 publication of her first volume of poetry, Anillo de silencio, Alegría produced diverse works of poetry, fiction, biography, and history, yet her work remained untranslated until 1978, when she was awarded the Casa de las Americas poetry prize for Sobrevivo. She returned to Nicaragua for the first time in 1979 after the Sandinista Front for National Liberation overthrew the Somoza government. She continues to comment on Nicaraguan and El Salvadoran politics as well as write collections of poetry and nonfiction work. She has resided in recent years in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Mallorca, Spain.
Alegría's stated aim as a writer is to illuminate the political situation in Central America. War and its consequences are an integral feature of her poetry. In "Estelí," a poem appearing in Sobrevivo, Alegría addresses the effects of civil war on El Salvador, focusing on the image of the river that runs through the small town of her birth: "your channel has been filled. / With mud and blood / it has been filled / with empty cartridges / with shirts / pants / and corpses / sticking like algae / to the rocks." Latin American history also pervades her writings. In the bilingual poetry collection Flores del Volcán / Flowers from the Volcano, Alegría uses powerful imagery and language to dramatize the imperialistic forces that have exploited Latin America for centuries. A provocative mix of verse and narrative, Luisa in Realityland is considered a prime example of magic realism and one of Alegría's best known works. As the document of a young girl's upbringing in a family of "fabulous liars" who are able to convince themselves and others of the validity of their invented stories, Luisa juxtaposes personal perspectives and historical events. The work collapses the distinction between inner and outer worlds, emphasizing the importance of spiritual growth in the context of political struggle.
Throughout her poetry, Alegría emphasizes the value of individual experience, and the memory of that experience, in the face of political turmoil, military campaigns, and civilian massacres. It is this focus on her own experience that makes her poetry at once so intimate and so universal. Critics frequently talk about Alegría "bearing witness" or "offering her testimonial" to events in Central America. Recent critics note her deft treatment of feminist issues such as collectivity and continuity. Because of her interest in political issues, some commentators have asserted that she has neglected aesthetics aspects of her verse. However, recent critics, most notably the commentator Jo Anne Engelbert, reconcile this question by placing Alegría's poems in the European tradition of elegy—poetry that affirms the value of life in the face of death.
Anillo de silencio (poetry) 1948
Suite de amor, Angustia y soledad (poetry) 1951
Vigilias (poetry) 1953
Acuario (poetry) 1955
Huésped de mi tiempo (poetry) 1961
*Via única (poetry) 1965
†Aprendizaje (poetry) 1970
Pagaré a cobrar y otros poemas (poetry) 1973
Sobrevivo (poetry) 1978
Suma y sigue (poetry) 1981
Flores del Volcán / Flowers from the Volcano (poetry) 1982
Y este poema rio (poetry) 1988
Mujer del río / Woman of the River (poetry) 1989
Fugues (poetry) 1993
Variaciones en clave de mi (poetry) 1993
Umbrales = Thresholds: Poems (poetry) 1997
* This volume contains Auto de fé and Communicacíon a larga distancia.
†(This volume incorporates selections from Anillo de silencio, Vigilias, Acuario, Huésped de mi tiempo, and Via única.
Other Major Works
Tres cuentos (juvenilia) 1958
New Voices of Hispanic America [editor and translator, with Darwin J. Flakoll] (poetry) 1962
Cenizas de Izalco [with Flakoll] (novel) 1966 [Ashes of Izalco, 1989]
Unstill Life: An Introduction to the Poetry of Spanish Poetry of Latin America (anthology) [translator, with Flakoll] 1970
El detén (novel) 1977
Las encrucijada Salvadoreña [with Flakoll] (essays) 1980
Cien poemas des Robert Graves (anthology) [editor and translator, with Flakoll] 1981
Nuevas voces de norteamerica (anthology) [editor and translator, with Flakoll] 1981
Nicaragua: La revolución sandinista: Una crónica política, 1855-1979 [with Flakoll] (history) 1982
Poesía viva (anthology) 1983
Despierta, mi bien, despierta (novel) 1986
No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadoreña en lucha [with Flakoll] (biography) 1983 [They Won't Take Me Alive, 1987]
Luisa en el país de la realidad (novel) 1987 [Luisa in Realityland, 1987]
Albúm familiar (novellas) 1984 [Family Album: Three Novellas, 1991]
†† Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga (novel) 1991
Somoza: expediente cerrado: la historia de un ajusticiamiento, [with Flakoll] (history) 1993 [Death of Samoza, 1996]
Fuga de Canto Grande [with Flakoll] (history) 1992 [Tunnel to Canto Grande, 1996]
††Contains El detén, Albúm familiar, as well as Pueblo de Dios y de mandinga.
SOURCE: A review of Flowers from the Volcano, in Northwest Review, Vol. 21, Nos. 2-3, 1983, pp. 175-83.
[In the following review, Wright praises Alegría's poetic accomplishments as well as her commitment to political and social justice.]
With this volume [Flowers from the Volcano], Salvadoran poet-in-exile Claribel Alegría is finally able to join the ranks of Ernesto Cardenal, Miguel Angel Asturias, and other politically engaged Central American writers whose work is already available in English translation, and to be added to the still-meagre list of Latin American women poets—among them Gabriela Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, and Rosario Castellanos—who have achieved recognition both in their own countries and on the international level. This bilingual selection, from Alegría's many books in Spanish published in Spain and Latin America, is that of a mature and courageous voice which will expand the North American readers' awareness not only of the repressive and terrifying political realities of the last few decades of Central American history (already given prominence in the media), but also of the ways in which writers committed to social justice and humanitarian values are combatting oppression and institutionalized terrorism in their own countries and abroad.
Alegría herself confronts her nation's bitter history not with the fusíl (rifle) but with the testimony of her words. Instead of the lyrical decorum and formal grace of an earlier age, a la Rubén Dario, we are presented with a stripped and self-effacing language, a "llanto endurecido" (hardened weeping) which finds its motive throughout all of revolution-torn Latin America and Spain—from the Spanish Civil War and the murder in Granada of the beloved Federico Garcia Lorca, to the brutal slaying by military police of poet and folklorist Victor Jara in the Estadio Nacional de Chile, to the deaths of Alegría's own countryman, poet Roque Dalton, and the thousands of others in El Salvador and elsewhere. These savage events have already entered the canon of what could, lamentably, be termed the mythos of terrorism in the Spanish-speaking world—events about which a growing number of "people of good will" (as translator Forché has called them) share a common knowledge, as they do about the Naz Holocaust, the Soviet Gulags, and the Vietnam War. It is tragic that such must be the body of shared knowledge which serves to enhance the accessibility of Latin American poetry engagé; and we must also ask ourselves, as we must about the earlier horrors, whether we allow the familiarity of reference to blunt our responses to the reality that the poems represent. As Elie Weisel has said of the literature of the Holocaust, "every word must contain the whole truth," must be charged with a depth and resonance and psychic veracity that mere media coverage cannot begin to approach, so that we do not forget, that we are not condemned to repeat. It is to this task as well that Alegría's poetry has dedicated itself.
Most readers will agree that this poet's style—spare, honed, relentless in its rhythms and incantatory in its litany-like repetition of its "rosary of names" of the dead—is successful in its all-encompassing purpose: to serve as a repository for all that endures in spite of human inhumanity:
Their persecuted voices are one voice
dying by torture in prison … I am a cemetery,
I have no country
and they are too many to bury.
(from "We Were Three")
It is in memory of this poet in voluntary exile that the dead can "arise" and "rage" and reach beyond their prisons, torture and death toward resurrection in the consciences of all committed people.
Paul Celan, another Holocaust survivor, once said that "a poem can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the (not always greatly) hopeful belief that it may … wash up on land." Like Celan's bottle-messages, Alegría's poetry has gone forth into the world with no guarantee that it will be received; although she may not suffer from government-imposed censorship as she would within El Salvador itself, she also cannot reach the very people about whom she is writing. Only by indirection and in translation does her work have a chance to witness on behalf of those who are dead or silenced among her people. In this country, of course, her work will be received, but not necessarily with the same degree of passionate identification that it would be in her own land, her own language. The majority of North American readers will have available to them only the translation, the right-hand side of every page, although there seems to be a heartening increase in the number of those with at least a reading knowledge of the language of this hemisphere's second-largest linguistic group. Moreover, most readers in this country, blessed with relatively safe and sheltered lives, will not be able to empathize with the harshness depicted in poems such as "Eramos Tres" ("We Were Three"), the final sections of "Sorrow" and parts of "Santa Ana a Oscuras" ("Santa Ana in the Dark"), with the constant awareness of torture and death underlying these poems—poems which are given poignance and an even greater clarity of horror by being overlaid with images of ordinary human interaction and natural beauty:
America is a green, a living stone …
It is somber, green, difficult.
The jungle has it by the throat.
The sun seeds its deserts.
Its people are lost
between furrows and rivers.
From the evocative quality of this passage, reminiscent as it is of Neruda's Canto General, Alegría moves to the heart of her concerns, her obsessive awareness:
My America is spilled blood,
the theater of Cain and Abel,
a struggle with no quarter given
against starvation, rage or impotence.
(from "My Good-byes")
In fact, what gives these poems their power is not the violence per se of their subject matter, but the uncanny juxtapositions of violence and beauty, of the exquisite and the terrifying, that have always coexisted in the land and the culture. In the title poem, Alegría yearns for the fourteen Volcanoes of her "remembered … mythical country," but then abruptly reminds us that it is not only "green," but "more red, more gray, more violent" than other countries—not only in its recent political history but on the deepest levels of geography, natural history, and the myths of its pre-Columbian peoples. This land is shaken by Volcanic eruptions ("Izalco roars") and haunted by the still-living presences of the sanguinary Mayan gods ("Eternal Chacmol collects blood"), so much so that the present conflicts begin to seem like contemporary enactments of...
(The entire section is 2889 words.)
SOURCE: "An Interview with Claribel Alegría," in Index on Censorship, Vol. 13, No. 2, April, 1984, pp. 11-13.
[In the following essay, Alegría discusses her childhood, the pressures of living in exile, and the difficulty of translating poetry.]
[FORCHÉ]: Gabriel Garcia Márquez has stated that the most significant period of his life, the richest years, were those of his childhood, before he reached eleven years of age. Is this true for you?
[ALEGRÍA]: I think Garcia Márquez is correct in that what happens to one in earliest childhood is definitive. I was very much marked by the peasant uprising in El Salvador in 1932. I remember the...
(The entire section is 2802 words.)
SOURCE: "Lines of Pain," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 6, March, 1990, pp. 12-13.
[In the following favorable review of Women of the River, Vollmer lauds Alegría 's ability to appeal to a wide audience while preserving an "uncanny intimacy " with readers.]
For years I've looked for the inheritor of the traditions of Neruda and Mistral, for a poet who speaks to both South and North American audiences from her heritage and creates something new—what Alicia Ostriker has called feminist literature's "flying wedge of dissent," a wedge at the forefront of contemporary poetry. I have found that voice in the poems of Claribel Alegría, whose work is now...
(The entire section is 1049 words.)
SOURCE: "The Text as Tortured/Torture in the Text: Claribel Alegría's Luisa in Realityland," in Chasqui—Revista de literatura latinoamericana, Vol. XXI, No. 2, November, 1992, pp. 20-6.
[In the following excerpt, Saltz maintains that Luisa in Realityland qualifies as a "poststructural text," connects it to the tradition of insurgent political literature in Latin America, and explores poetic aspects of the work.]
Salvadoran writer Claribel Alegría's Luisa in Realityland is a tortured text. It aptly illustrates Angel Rama's observation that while a critical panorama of European literatures evokes a well ordered and cultivated garden, that of Latin American...
(The entire section is 3143 words.)
SOURCE: "Mapping a New Territory: Luisa in Realityland" in Letras Femeninas, Vol. XIX, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Fall, 1993, pp. 84-99.
[In the following essay, McGowan examines the visionary nature of Luisa in Realityland and praises Alegría's ability to find new ways of expressing ideas and experiences.]
Claribel Alegría's Luisa in Realityland is a truly visionary work; not only does it project the story of one woman's struggle and oppression into a "contagious peace" ("The Return"), in which she can, paradoxically, "return / to the future," but it challenges all known genres and refuses to be catalogued or restrained by any one label. Moreover,...
(The entire section is 6130 words.)
SOURCE: "Quasi-Testimonial Voices in Claribel Alegría's Luisa in Realityland: A Feminist Reading Lesson," in Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature: Critical Essays, edited by Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval and Marcia Phillips McGowan, Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1994, pp. 97-110.
[In the following essay, Boschetto-Sandoval relates Luisa in Realityland to women 's testimonials and contends that Alegría constructs literary relationships with her readers in order to foster cultural and political change.]
In a recent analysis of women's testimonials, Lilian Man-zor-Coats (1990) writes that the place of testimonio in...
(The entire section is 4137 words.)
SOURCE: "Claribel Alegría and the Elegiac Tradition," in Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature: Critical Essays, edited by Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval and Marcia Phillips McGowan, Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1994, pp. 183-99.
[In the following essay, Engelbert asserts that Alegría utilizes the conventions of Hispanic funereal poetry to lament the death and suffering in El Salvador.]
In his book on Jorge Manrique, Pedro, Salinas defines the poet's relation to literary tradition through an extended analogy. Literary tradition, he says, is comparable to "what in natural history is called habitat, the zone capable of sustaining...
(The entire section is 5467 words.)