I left Nicaragua in September of 2018 with a twenty-kilo suitcase, a backpack, and my carry-on bag. I didn’t take many clothes, but I did make a careful selection of books for a trip I thought would be short, but that has actually stretched on for almost five years. I left like many of us were leaving at the time, fleeing political persecution that had left dozens of students and activists in jail that April after they protested against social security reform driven by Daniel Ortega. Over time, the force pushing thousands into the streets was not just this reform, but also the accretion of more than eleven years of discontent at an authoritarian government whose leader came to power when many of us were just kids. For us, that elderly man in a red jacket and blue pants did not represent the continuity of a revolution we never witnessed; rather, he embodied the impossibility of dreaming of a fairer, more prosperous future for all. At that moment, those of us who went to the streets to protest and organize did not imagine the repression would be so brutal as to change our lives forever. More than 350 people were murdered in those months, more than a thousand people have been charged with crimes or sent through the penal system over these past years, and more than a hundred thousand Nicaraguans have sought asylum in other countries, myself included.
The luggage that came with me had to weather a bus journey from Managua to Costa Rica and a couple of flights within Mexico before reaching the city that was my destination. It’s hard to fit a whole life into a twenty-kilo suitcase; that’s why the selection of books was so important, more important than clothes or shoes. They were pieces of the home I had to leave behind. In total, I must have packed around twelve or fifteen books, but the titles I remember best are an old edition of César Vallejo’s Poesía reunida I bought for less than three or four dollars years ago in the used-book section of the Mercado Roberto Huembes and a pocket edition of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, which I stole from the private library of some Jesuit priests-in-training. I’m not proud to say it, but if any of them ever reads this I want them to know the novel served a good purpose. I hope that’s enough of a reason for them to forgive me. I also brought with me a very low-quality edition of Tres tristes tigres by Guillermo Cabrera Infante; I had the terrible idea of lending the novel to someone else a year after settling in to my destination, and it never came back. I suspect this was owing to some strange sort of karma, tied back to book theft. Another novel that came with me on that unexpected journey was The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. Choosing this book out of several in my Clarice collection must have been, without a doubt, one of my most difficult tasks. The final bout was between her complete short stories and this novel. In the end, for both practical and sentimental reasons, the latter won out.
All of these titles, along with new acquisitions, live on a bookshelf I put next to my writing desk. The bookshelf is small, not only because my apartment is small too, but also because this piece of furniture serves as a meter that measures the maximum amount of physical books I can allow myself. The calculus of accumulation is based simply on my mourning for the personal library I lost when I had to leave my country. I was twenty-four years old when I left, and since my adolescence I had built up a varied collection of works. They weren’t the finest editions, but they were important because they had come into my life as gifts, swaps, or bargains at second-hand spots. Many were the result of pursuits that could last months in a country like Nicaragua, where bookstores often sell just paper and school supplies. You could count the places that actually sell books on the fingers of two hands, and I could list no more than five bookstores that offer literature of interest to a writer-in-training. The effort of putting this collection together was exacerbated by the limited budget of a young woman who left her small city to study at university and live in the classic, run-down student accommodations of the capital. After striving for years, I had accumulated a selection that filled me with pride and that I showed very seldom to others, to be sure no light-fingered, book-hungry student like me would try to steal anything.
Leaving behind my little personal library brought about a long mourning for me—one of many mournings I carried with me when I had to leave my country. This journey meant leaving behind my family, my friends, and the physical space in Managua I then called home. In the years since, I have fought to build something I might call the same thing, but in another country. Sometimes, suddenly, I’m overcome by nostalgia for things I never thought I’d miss: the noise of the cicadas, the torrential winter rains, the crushing heat at night and the lights of the city you can make out from the hill where my grandmother’s house sits. I still don’t know if I can call the space where I now dwell my home, and I haven’t given up on the idea of going back to Nicaragua whenever I can. In the meantime, I keep trying to refrain from accumulating too many books, so my suitcase won’t be too heavy on the way back. With luck, I will one day be able to retrace my steps with the books I brought with me that September morning, like the prodigal son going home after a long journey.
Writing again, after such profound uprooting, was painful but healing at the same time. In early 2018, I started working on the first stories of a book of short fiction that would travel with me, going down many paths along the way. This literary project has inevitably been marked by exile, pessimism, and the weighty legacy of the past, but it would be hypocritical on my part to deny the halo of hope and creative enthusiasm that have also come along with this work. Writing has become a way to take my life back. A way of showing that, even if they snatched my home away from me, I have not lost the will to create and imagine, albeit far from home.
Exile also means building a community: a mobile community that moves through different geographies but remains connected thanks to the wonderful world of the internet and, above all, thanks to our dauntless will to keep creating spaces of dialogue and expression. Not only for those of us on the outside, but also for those of us who are still within a country that grows ever more hostile to any intellectual or cultural action that does not align with the powers that be. As a writer, one of the most painful parts for me is seeing how a whole generation of young people have had their artistic and cultural projects cut short, just as they started to bloom, many of them created and sustained by youth themselves—projects that hoped to prosper in a context where many of us sought new focal points and ways to think about art. Despite all this, these same young people, whether from exile or almost hidden in their own cities, keep creating and conceiving of new ways to share their work. We keep dreaming we will someday have the chance to carry on the projects that repression forced us to pause, even if, by the time we go back, we might not be so young anymore. We hope, at least, we will still feel inspired. At the end of the day, to keep writing in the midst of repression and crisis is an act not just of rebellion, but also of life and freedom.