A kind of controlled chaos has overtaken Gioconda Belli's spacious Santa Monica home on a recent Friday afternoon. In an upstairs bedroom, her daughter and another toddler struggle for control of a well-stocked toy box. Across the hallway Belli's husband, Charlie Castaldi, does some noisy interior decorating while teen-age son Camilo makes several dutiful trips from the garage to the top of the tile stairs.
Gloria Estefan blares from a living room stereo, adding to the cacophony.
Some writers require the peace and solitude of Trappist monks, but Belli thrives on disorder. From her earliest poems, written beneath the clouds of revolution in her native Nicaragua, to her first novel, begun at the height of the U.S.-supported Contra war against Managua, Belli learned to work without the luxury of stability.
So while she makes attempts to blend into her quiet, upscale neighborhood here, the clamor within the house feels as Latin American as the banana tree in the garden.
"I like it because it's more like me," she says of Southern California. "Every time I look outside I see the banana leaves, and it's very comforting. (And) seeing so many people that appear from Central America gives me a sense that I can belong here."
The transition from Third World to First may have been easy, but Belli's recent shift from poet to novelist has been a challenge. But then challenge--and contradiction--is what has long defined Gioconda Belli.
Raised on the debutante balls and country club parties of Managua's upper crust, she grew up to help lead a bloody insurrection on behalf of the poor. Educated in a conservative Catholic school, she went on to write some of the most scandalous poetry ever published in Spanish.
"She's contributed a lot to the new way women are thinking in Latin America," says Marjorie Agosin, a professor of Spanish at Wellesley College and a widely acclaimed Chilean poet in her own right. "The poetry she wrote is very important. Her writing celebrates political freedom and the joys of sexuality."
While her poetry may have been an artistic success, her prose may prove a commercial one. Her first novel, "The Inhabited Woman," has sold more than 500,000 copies. In Germany, it was honored as the best political novel of 1989. The book has been translated into six languages, including Turkish, Finnish and Greek; the English version, released by Curbstone Press in April, is required reading at four universities.
A second work, "Sofia of the Omens," is also available in several languages. But Belli wants to keep it off U.S. bookshelves until her novel-in-progress, which she believes will have wider commercial appeal, is published.
She gave little thought to such marketing strategy when she began writing poetry 25 years ago. Although that early work broke important ground, it was largely unknown in the United States except to professors of Spanish literature or women's studies, or to close followers of the Nicaraguan revolution. Still, Belli says it was her desire to attract a larger audience, not a larger royalty check, that motivated her to tackle prose.
"My poetry, I think, is very intimate," Belli says. ". . . It is all filtered through my own experience, through my own body, through my own love life. So there came a point when . . . I felt that I could not say in my poetry what I wanted to say about the collective experience."
Many of Belli's poems deal with equality--sexual and political. The first of her five collections, released in 1974, dealt largely with society's hypocrisy toward women. Despite its provocative theme for the time, the book earned Belli a national poetry prize given by Nicaragua's largest university.
A year later, her focus widened. Her work on behalf of the clandestine Sandinista National Liberation Front had forced her into exile in Mexico, where she felt free to begin addressing politics.
During her first four months there, as she was being tried and convicted in absentia for plotting against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Belli wrote much of what later became "Linea de Fuego" ("Line of Fire"), a 1978 poetry collection that won the Casa de las Americas prize, the most prestigious award in the Spanish-language literary world.
Feminism and progressive politics remain the major themes in Belli's work. In "The Inhabited Women" her protagonist, Laviana, whose adventures largely shadow Belli's, confronts both the brutal repression of the government and the machismo of the \o7 guerrilleros.\f7
Naomi Wolf, meet Che Guevara.
"I think that there is a tendency in feminism and in feminist literature to talk about the ordeal of the woman and the woman as victim," Belli says. "It's an ongoing discussion still. (But) what I am trying to do is talk as a woman who is a maker of history and not just an object of history and a subject of history."