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
(The entire section is 291 words.)
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...
(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 Guardias Nacionales bringing dozens of prisoners into the fortress across the street from my home with their thumbs tied behind them with bits of cord, shoving them along with rifle butts. I remember the shots at night. I remember the Colonel striking a peasant who had his hands bound behind him, and my father running out of his clinic, his doctor's tunic flapping, to shout: 'Colonel, a real man doesn't hit anyone who can't defend himself
I remember the black cloud boiling up behind Santa Ana from the Volcáno Izalco, which was in continuous eruption during the uprising, the people walking along the street of Santa Ana with handkerchiefs over their noses, Volcanic ash dropping from the cloud to powder their hair and coat 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 firmly established in the US with the publication of her second book in the Pitt Poetry Series. Carolyn Forché translated Alegría's earlier Flowers from the Volcáno (1982), and the new book, Woman of the River, a collection equally elegant, brutal and mysterious, has been translated by Alegría in collaboration with her husband, Darwin J. Flakoll.
The rich political poems in the collection defy the foreign influences, mostly North American, which continue to damage the Latin American peoples and land. And with dramatic visual, oral and nearly clairvoyant majesty, they praise the known and unknown people, creatures and plush landscapes of Alegría's native Nicaragua and El Salvador. This is a book of...
(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 literature calls to mind a confusing jungle in which roads are tortuously carved or often actually incised. Published in 1987, Luisa in Realityland presents a problematic which treats that confusion and disjuncture in a passionately critical view of the totalitarian repression and violence in El Salvador, its link to Latin American violence more generally, and to the First World. In presenting such a view, Alegría's work can be situated with those of other Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elena Poniatowska, Antonio Skârmeta and Luisa Valenzuela. Like works of Valenzuela, Alegría's text attempts to collapse the physical and psychological marginalization that the politics of repression, violence and torture have...
(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, more than visionary, Luisa is revisionist, in that it offers new ways of depicting themes, images, realities—literally, a re-vision. Adrienne Rich offers a useful frame of reference for Luisa in Realityland in defining "re-vision" as "the art of looking back, of entering an old text from a new critical direction." Re-vision, Rich says, "is for women more than a chapter in a cultural history: it is an act of survival" ("When We Dead Awaken"). As the reader follows Luisa on her Alice-like journey, she sees that traditional literary forms are unable to contain Luisa's quest for survival—that several genres are ransacked along the way, and that the route Alegría chooses for Luisa maps a new territory, one which...
(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 relation to literature is very similar to the place the "disappeared" have within their repressive societies: "at the crossroads between history and fiction, or, better yet, at that limbo site of encounter between untold history and fiction." This site of encounter becomes in women's testimonials a site of resistance, offering the narrator/reader not only an alternative vision to history, but the possibility of her rearticulation in history. The process also foregrounds what Mary Jacobus (1979) describes as feminist metafiction: a "transgression of literary boundaries that exposes those very boundaries for what they are—the product of phallocentric discourse."
Encompassing issues of testimony, memory, boundary fluidity,...
(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 life." The poet, he observes, is born to a particular tradition and lives and breathes and creates within its boundaries; the savage acquires the elements of his song by listening to the shaman; the modern poet does do by poring over Horace and Baudelaire. Poetic creation only occurs within the poet's tradition. "Alií es donde crecen las variadas hechuras de la creación poética, complicándose según la tradición se acrece en volumen y densidad. Fuera de esa zona no hay más que el grito inarticulado del cuadrúmano, O el silencio inefable." (That is where the varied creations of poetic art thrive, growing more elaborate as the tradition increases in volume and density. Outside that zone there is nothing but the inarticulate cry of the...
(The entire section is 5467 words.)
Acevedo, Ramón Luis. "Claribel Alegría." In Spanish American Authors: The Twentieth Century, edited by Angel Flores, pp. 19-20. New York: H. W. Wilson Co., 1992.
Surveys the themes of Alegría's writing, in particular her poetry.
Sternbach, Nancy Saporta. "Claribel Alegría." In Spanish American Women Writers: An Annotated BioBibliographical Source Book, edited by Diane E. Marting, pp. 9-19. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Additional coverage of Alegriá's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 75; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Authors Module; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 15; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 66; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 145; and Hispanic Writers.
(The entire section is 114 words.)