Social & Economic Issues

Gioconda Belli and Slavenka Drakulic: Contemporary women writers witness to totalitarian regimes

Gioconda Belli (1948) from NicaraguaAfrica and Slavenka Drakulic (1949) from erstwhile YugoslaviaEurope are contemporary women writers and social activists who witnessed totalitarian regimes somewhat different in ideologies: Nicaragua had a right wing dynastic rule from 1936 till 1979 while Yugoslavia was under left wing communists from 1946 till 1991. In this article, an analysis of these two women writers regarding their roles and experience under dictatorship will be made keeping in context the book ‘The Country under My Skin: A Memoir of Love‘ written by Belli and ‘How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed‘ by Drakulic.

Gioconda Belli narrates her experience of growing in an upper-class Nicaraguan family that was not approving of the Somoza totalitarianism but never imagined that their daughter (roughly aged 20) would sign up with the secretive Sandinistas as she continued her day job at a celebrated public relations agency. Anastasio Somoza Garcia imposed a dynastic rule in Nicaragua in 1937. Belli was a witness to tens and thousands of people celebrating the end of 45-year dictatorship with the fall of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979.

Belli was no sheer well-wisher or courtesan to a radical movement but revolutionary on her individual merit. She trafficked firearms, led blockades, materialized agreements between rebellious groups, explored tactics with Castro, and spoke for free Nicaragua at Third World summits from Moscow to Tripoli. Belli was encouraged by her family and especially grandfather to read books. Following significant achievements of the Sandinistan uprising, for Belli and her colleagues, the gain was no more than partial if women were once again reduced to caretaker status. According to Belli, she has been two women and has two lives: “One of these women wanted to do everything according to the classic feminine code: get married, have children, be supportive, docile, and nurturing. The other woman yearned for the privileges men enjoyed: independence, self reliance, a public life, mobility, lovers.”

Belli believes that it is only democracy under which people can really forge their destinies. Sandinistas, under which Belli fought her campaign to restore democracy in Nicaragua, put forward a philosophy that was, according to the author, a blend of ‘New Left socialism’, ‘cooperativism’, and ‘popular democracy’. Somoza’s dynastic rule ended in 1979. Sandinistas never really implemented democracy in a way Belli would like for. Censor of press amidst alleged US interference led Belli to comment that restoring democracy after years of dictatorship cannot be compared with democracy practiced in United States of America. According to Belli, even now in Nicaragua, more than two hundred million people are trying to find meaning to their lives. Belli mourns how years of dictatorship in Nicaragua deprived people of basic necessities: “Passing by the exclusive shops (in the US) where a dining room table costs more than one person in Nicaragua earns in an entire lifetime of hard labor under the hot sun.”

An interesting point to note about Belli is her evolution from a fighter with arms to appreciating heroism inherent in peace and stability. She writes that life has taught her that not every commitment requires payment in blood, or the heroism of dying in the line of fire: “There is a heroism inherent to peace and stability, an accessible, everyday heroism that may not challenge us from the threat of death, but which challenges us to squeeze every last possibility out of life, and to live not one but several lives all at the same time.” 

Author Slavenka Drakulic in her book ‘How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed‘ recollects that living under a communist rule was not at all a pleasant experience. As evidence, Drakulic cites that 45 years of communist rule in Yugoslavia fell short of producing suitable apartments or providing affordable telephone lines for citizens, sanitary items for women, or dolls for kids.

According to Drakulic, what unified ordinary people in communist countries in Eastern Europe was suffering: ‘the shortages,’ ‘the distinctive odors,’ ‘the shabby clothing’. Drakulic writes whether it was Yugoslavia, her home country, or Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, or Bulgaria, all ‘long suffered’ under the ‘same ideology’. These countries were under communist rule since the end of World War II.

Drakulic recounts how under the communist regime they were brainwashed not to expect change: “That is how you are trained in this part of the world, not to believe that change is possible.” Drakulic reminiscences they could not believe when they were first told that thousands of East Germans were crossing borders: “You are trained to fear change, so that when change eventually begins to take place, you are suspicious, afraid, because every change you ever experienced was always for the worse.”

Drakulic opines about women in communist countries, “And who should I find down there, most removed from the seats of political power, but women.” According to Drakulic, the biggest burden of everyday pain was borne by them and even if they ‘fully participated’ in ‘revolutionary events,’ they were ‘less active’ and ‘less visible’ in the ‘aftermath’ of those ‘events’.

Drakulic looks back at June 1991, the month when provinces of Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. This was one year after holding first free elections in Yugoslavia since the World War II. It was expected that restore of democracy in erstwhile communist countries in Eastern Europe would provide its citizens with peace and better living conditions. It appears to Drakulic that Europe has not learned its lessons from the horrors of the World War II. Once again, Yugoslavia was in midst of possible holocaust of ethnic Muslims and Croats in Bosnia.

Drakulic laments how expectations of women from democracy turned out to be just a delusion: “At the same time, they deluded themselves that the new democracies would give them the opportunity to stay at home and perhaps rest for a while. There was something else, too: somebody had to take responsibility for finding food and cooking meals, a task made no easier – indeed, in some countries made more difficult – by the political changeover.” According to Drakulic, after notable women participation in the revolution to overthrow communist regimes in Eastern Europe, they did not have time to be involved and distrusted politics. Communism is a state of mind that is yet to be deleted from those who experienced it: “We may have survived Communism, but we have not yet outlived it.”

In the book, Drakulic is seen visiting homes, enquiring fellow women about day-to-day issues faced. Belli from faraway Nicaragua is also too keen to establish a rapport with the larger group. As she writes, “It was my destiny to be drawn to the warmth of crowds.” Even after being married to an American and settled in the United States with kids, Belli still visits Nicaragua every three or four months.

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