In his first novel, Bernardo and the Virgin (Northwestern University Press, 2007), Silvio Sirias takes the reader to the village of Cuapa, Chontales, in central Nicaragua. The book fictionalizes the story of a campesino to whom the Holy Virgin appeared in 1980 while providing a vivid slice of recent history through the eyes of everyday Nicas.
His latest book, Meet Me Under the Ceiba (Arte Publico Press, 2009, winner of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize), is also a work of fiction. It takes place in the tiny twin villages of La Curva and Pio XII, in the hills south of the capital. Maybe I’m biased since I actually lived in Pio XII as a Peace Corps trainee in 1998 (as Sirias writes, “…very few people in Managua had even heard of this miserable little town”), and I can vouch for the book’s authenticity. Ceiba is based on a true crime that occurred in 1999, and on the intolerance of Nicaraguan culture to homosexuality. I wrote a short review of his book here, then had the opportunity to sit down with the author (he in Panama, where he teaches literature, and me in Colorado).
JOSHUA BERMAN: I’ve been to the places you’ve written about in your books and I’m amazed by your simple-yet-accurate portrayal of these communities and the characters. Is part of your goal with these books to give readers a true Nicaraguan experience by showing them the thousand little details that makes it such a unique country? Or is the setting always secondary to your narrative?
SILVIO SIRIAS: My top priority when writing a novel is develop a strong plot—the storyline has to hold a reader’s interest from the opening sentence through the concluding one. But I’m also convinced that a good tale must have interesting characters; and interesting characters require an interesting setting. So, as you can see, the setting is a key ingredient in my fictional mosaic. But I also want the reader to experience life in Nicaragua as vividly as possible. As you well know, Josh, Nicaragua is a place of wonders. Yet for me to take the reader there successfully story, character, setting, and cultural authenticity must each be dealt with meticulously, as well as lovingly.
JB: You seem to have the ideal cultural/linguistic background to be able to provide a cultural bridge between Nicaraguans and your readers. In this respect, I’m curious how you see yourself. Are you Nica-American? Are you Nicaraguan first? Does how you describe yourself depend on where you are at any given moment?
SS: Because of the unusual circumstances of my upbringing—born in Los Angeles to Nicaraguan parents but having spent my adolescent years in Nicaragua—I feel at home straddling the hyphen, the dash between my Nicaraguan and American identities. Yet, in all honesty, when I’m in need of a break from my cultural and linguistic schizophrenia, I seek refuge on my “American” side as I find English the language in which my brain likes to relax.
JB: Tell me about your decision to use the professor as the narrator of Ceiba. Why did you use his thoughts and interviews to tell the story, rather than a straight narrative of events?
SS: Truthfully, Joshua, this character arose as a novelistic self-defense mechanism, of sorts. I wanted to tell the story in Meet Me under the Ceiba in a non-linear fashion, but at the same time didn’t want the reader to get lost, not once. Achieving those goals posed quite a challenge. To do them successfully, I needed to be in total control of the narrative. The ideal vantage point to tell the story, then, would be the one from where I’d be able to see, and most clearly, every twist and turn of the plot. That obliged me to place the professor, an alter ego, in the driver’s seat. Through that character I was able to remain in command of the storytelling.
JB: Article 204 (the Nicaraguan anti-sodomy law) was repealed in March 2008. Do you have any insight into why/how that happened? Do you see this as a huge step forward for gay rights in Nicaragua/Latin America, or is it a tiny drop in the bucket of the battle that remains? Is it true that Panama is the only remaining Latin America country with an anti-sodomy law on the books?
SS: By the time the anti-sodomy law was repealed in Nicaragua, I was already living in Panama. Therefore, I am not privy as to what the factors were that made it possible. But I do know that Aura Rosa’s death did much to unite Nicaragua’s gay community, and that unity must have undoubtedly brought a lot a pressure to bear on the country’s legislature. Panama repealed the law that made homosexuality illegal four months later. Not surprisingly, when I conducted a little research into the origins of the ludicrous anti-sodomy law—which defines sodomy as “any sexual behavior a community finds scandalous”. I learned that it dated back to the time when the region today known as Central America was still a Spanish colony. What’s more, the organization responsible for the implementation of that law was the Inquisition. Although its repeal constitutes a victory, the long, protracted battle of educating the public remains ahead. There is centuries-worth of religion-imposed prejudices to contend with. So the struggle for gay rights in Central America is just beginning.
* * *