I was a teenage Sandinista

Deb Olin Unferth left college in the '80s to become a Communist Freedom Fighter. It didn't quite work out that way.
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  January 31, 2011

Sandinista_Deb_main
As a freshman philosophy major at the University of Colorado, Deb Olin Unferth fell in love with a junior named George. A pious Evangelical, George felt it was his duty to help his Communist brethren in Central America fight against their capitalist oppressors. So he did, and Unferth went with him.

"My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution," she would later write.

We couldn't find the first revolution.

The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.

We went to the other revolutions in the areas — there were several — but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.

We ran out of money and at last we came home.

I was eighteen. That's the whole story.

That's not quite the whole story. There's also the man who mistook her for a prostitute. The shantytowns. The war orphans. The guerillas armed with M-16s who demanded to see their papers. The dysentery. The hotel filled with giant, hairy spiders.

"I don't think that I ended up doing a whole lot of good in Central America, despite all my good intentions," Unferth told me recently from her home in New York City. "I learned a lot, but I don't know if anybody got anything out of my being there."

Central Americans aside, contemporary US readers will profit from Unferth's memoir, Revolution, out February 1 from Henry Holt. The book is sly, devastating, and savagely funny, with style to spare.

Unferth might be the latest in a tradition of writers who ran away to join a revolution, but she's no throwback. Unlike Hemingway or Bolaño, she went on to get an MFA and teaches creative writing at Wesleyan University. These disparate influences have resulted in a strange, powerful voice. Oh yeah, and unlike her predecessors, she's a woman.


'AN ARMED CIRCUS'

Unferth wasn't thinking about writing a book when she headed south; she wasn't thinking very deeply at all about what she was doing. Early on in Revolution, she explains:

We had wanted to go to Cuba, but we didn't know how to get there. George and I had very little money, and we weren't resourceful, and it was illegal to go, which was awkward. Besides, there was no action there anymore. Just parades and congratulations and prisoners. Nicaragua had a very good revolution too. They'd won their revolution, for one thing, and they were in the papers all the time, and we could ride the bus there. They also had Russians.

Since the late '60s, the struggles of Central American socialists have commanded the attention of the international left. In the 80s in Nicaragua, the CIA funded an opposition who drew yet more attention by committing sundry human rights atrocities. These revolutionaries also had their share of hipster cachet — a few years before Unferth lit out for the border, the Clash released a triple-album called Sandinista!.

Unferth and George fell in love at an anti-CIA protest. As is the way with freshman-year couplings, they spent every waking moment together. In spite, or perhaps because of the fact that Unferth was raised in a secular Jewish household, she adopted his Christianity. Their attachment intensified when they joined the revolution. "If he wasn't with me, I was pretty scared," she says. "I didn't want to be by myself. He was a few years older than me and he had organized this trip. If he wasn't next to me every minute, he wasn't taking care of me."

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