In the midst of these squalid living conditions, Unferth began taking trips back to Central America. She started trying to write about her experiences there: first as a book of stories; next, a book of essays; an autobiographical novel; a murder mystery.
"I had written this book so many times and I was so upset with it," she says. "I sent the murder-mystery thriller to my agent, and my agent said, 'This book is so bad.' And I kept saying, I'm not going to be a writer anymore, but then I would start writing again."
Finally she gave up and wrote a novel, Vacation, about a bereft husband who winds up in Nicaragua with a traumatic head injury. She thought she had left her original project behind, but she was wrong. "A friend of mine read it when it came out and emailed me and said, 'Congratulations! You finally finished that Nicaragua book!'"It was at that point that Unferth settled on writing a memoir. That decision didn't come easily. "I felt a lot of doubt about the memoir project at first," she says. "Many literary writers think that [a memoir] is not so literary."
Though Unferth no longer believes this, she might have had a point. The most visible memoirs tend to rely on sensational events, boldly written. Consider the way Elizabeth Gilbert consumes her way to epiphany in Eat, Pray, Love, or Jeannette Walls's triumph over the childhood horrors she depicts in The Glass Castle. While these books are irrefutably engaging, their neat resolutions ring a bit false. Hollywood endings don't have room for ambiguity.
Unferth lingers over the void. Halfway through Revolution, she describes a hot afternoon pent up with some naked feminists:
My coming-of-age story, if I had one, would be right here. It didn't involve a loss of innocence or man's inhumanity to man. It was me taking my clothes off and marching in a circle around the room. Somehow I knew — nothing specific, I just knew — I wasn't who I would be. More of me was coming. It doesn't seem like much, but there it is.
Rather than tidy lessons, Unferth gives her splendid voice. In finding it, however, she faced some challenges she hadn't encountered while writing her novel. "In a memoir, first of all, you know what happens in the end," she says. "The person doesn't die, obviously."
'THIS DEFINING THING'
Unferth finds her students to be career-oriented optimists unlikely to run away and join the revolution. "I would use the word 'corporate,' but that's not quite what I mean," she says. "I don't see them protesting and that kind of thing . . . but I don't think that means they're less interested in a kind of social justice. Protesting doesn't really work. It doesn't do that much. Maybe sometimes it does, but I think that the generation today is more interested in using resources like voting with their dollars or trying to divert resources into things that they approve of, like recycling. You don't want to get off of the train of success to go and join a revolution." She pauses. "How can you be on that train and also help the world?"