When she was 18, native Chicagoan Deb Olin Unferth dropped out of college and followed her boyfriend, George, to Central America. The idea was to support the populist uprisings in countries like El Salvador. But once there, Unferth found her efforts ineffective and her life rudderless. The Wesleyan prof talked to us from her home in New York about her new book Revolution, liberation theology and embracing your teenage self.
This happened more than 20 years ago. What made you decide to write the book now?
I had been trying to figure out a way to write it for a long time. I had a lot of doubts about the genre of memoir; I didn’t know if it was intellectually solid. I kept trying; I wrote many, many drafts of a novel. I wrote it as a spy thriller set in Central America with multiple shootings and deaths. I tried to write it as essays, stories, none of it worked. I eventually read some memoirs and realised that it’s a fantastic form and it’s very new, so it’s a very exciting genre.
Many of us look back at ourselves at the age of 18 and cringe. Did you find it hard to access your 18-year-old self?
It was hard. I have journals from that time. Reading them is so painful for me. I keep saying, ‘You’re an idiot, stop that!’ That comes out quite a bit in the book, that I’m constantly second-guessing myself, and at some points in the book I’m saying to myself, ‘Be patient. Quit yelling at this poor 18-year-old girl who’s trying to figure things out.’
You seem kind of unimpressed by the story. At one point you write, ‘I was 18. That’s the whole story.’
It was such a formative story for me, personally. But when I think about what those people in those countries were going through, the acts of heroism they were committing – like in Egypt today – and then I was bumbling down to Central America with my boyfriend, it makes me not want to take myself too seriously. I had to take the whole story seriously, I kept returning to it and returning to it. But I didn’t want to take myself too seriously.
Did you have an urge to do straight reportage about what was going on?
Not while I was there. But later I wanted to, and when I went back to Central America I interviewed a lot of people, including some of the people I interviewed before. I wanted to write some sort of set of essays about the state of liberation theology 10 years later. But it turns out I’m not very good at that, I don’t know how to do that. Revolution is extremely well-researched, though I didn’t want that to be at the forefront.
Interview: Jonathan Messinger. Revolution is available in stores now.