Riffle Backstory: Q&A with Eleni N. Gage, author of 'The Ladies of Managua'
by Janelle Ludowise
The Ladies of Managua is the story of three women: Isabela, a grandmother, a widow, and a woman with a secret about her girlhood in New Orleans; Ninexin, a Sandinista in the Nicaraguan Revolution, politician, and a mother who has always been torn between her country and her family; and Mariana, Ninexin's daughter and Bela's granddaughter, who feels that her mother may love Nicaragua more than she loves Maria. When Maria's beloved grandfather passes away, Maria travels to Managua to be with her mother and grandmother. As Ninexin and Maria struggle to strengthen the bond between them that has grown weak through distance and the loss of Maria's father, Manuel, Bela remembers a lost love she knew in New Orleans in the 1950s. In Managua, the three women come together to honor those they have lost, relive memories, and forge new bonds together. The Ladies of Managua skillfully explores the relationships of these three women and asks questions about family, identity, and the nature of love.
The Ladies of Managua is available now and can be purchased here. Eleni N. Gage was kind enough to answer my questions on inspiration, writing, and her beautiful new novel!
RF: I was very taken by the three different voices and stories of the women in this family—Isabela, Ninexin, and Mariana. I’m curious, did you have a favorite character to write when creating The Ladies of Managua? Was one more difficult to write than the others?
EG: My favorite character to write was Isabela—hers was the voice that rang the loudest in my head. I love writing from the points of view of older women because they contain so many younger selves within them, and they’ve lived through so much change. As women, I think we’re always trying to figure out the rules of the world we live in, and by the time we’ve gotten them down, the rules have all changed. That’s a very interesting tension to imagine, and especially so in the case of a woman who went to a convent school where she learned to get in and out of cars most elegantly, but raised a daughter who became a gun-toting revolutionary guerilla fighter. The most difficult character to write was Mariana; I liked her and sympathized with her from the get-go, but it’s hard to write a character who feels a lot of resentment without making her seem whiny and unappealing. I revised Mariana’s sections quite a bit to try to get to a place where she was still strong in her complicated feelings toward her mother, but wasn’t so strident that people wouldn’t want to travel with her as her story unfolded.
RF: Where did you meet the characters of The Ladies of Managua? Are they inspired by real people or imagined?
EG: Isabela is based on my husband Emilio’s grandmother, a sassy eighty-something lady everyone calls Mamina. She did in fact go to Sacred Heart in New Orleans, where she fell in love with a Cuban her family wouldn’t let her marry. We actually brought her back to the city for her 80th birthday, to fulfill her one birthday wish, and went on a tour of the school. After she leaves school, Isabela’s life story spins off significantly from Mamina’s, but it was a juicy place to start! To write Ninexin, I read a lot of oral histories of female Sandinistas (specifically, Margaret Randall’s Sandino’s Daughters and Sandino’s Daughters Revisited), and was very influenced by the work of the Nicaraguan writer and former revolutionary Gioconda Belli. Mariana is my contemporary, so she sort of just appeared in my head, ready to hang out. She’s a bit what I imagine my friends would be like if they grew up in similar circumstances.
RF: At one point in the novel, Ninexin says she thinks a mother feels “torn…between her child and everything else she loves.” Oftentimes in The Ladies of Managua, a character is being pulled in multiple directions at once: Isabela is torn between what did happen and what might have been, Ninexin between her daughter and her country, and Mariana between America and Nicaragua, her grandparents and her mother, and her future with her boyfriend Allen or without him. What drew you to this theme of being “torn?”
EG: Show me a person who’s not torn between two opposing passions! As far as I’m concerned, it’s the human condition. But it’s true that each of my books is partly about developing one identity while being torn between two cultures. That’s the tension at the source of Other Waters, which is about an Indian-American psychiatrist who thinks that her family has been cursed. I think the preoccupation all stems from being bicultural myself; my father is Greek and my mother’s American, and we lived in Athens, Greece for four or five years when I was a child, so I always felt a bit like an outsider in each culture. That insider-outsider status can be uncomfortable to live in, but it’s a great place from which to observe a society. I think most writers—and most people—can relate to that situation.
RF: I found it fascinating that the novel is populated by so many wonderful and nuanced relationships between women, but haunted by the absence or loss of relationships between these women and the men in their lives—whether as fathers, grandfathers, or husbands. What inspired you to explore these different types of relationships—or absence of relationships?
EG: Interesting point! The irony is, the book sprang from my relationship with a man, namely, my Nicaraguan husband. At the same time, I knew I wanted to write about mother-daughter relationships because they’re so primal and so influential; everyone’s first relationship, in utero, is with their mother. Once I settled on these three women, the men fell into place (or, in the case of Manuel, fell away). Ignacio is just a very typical husband of that generation; he and Isabela don’t share a meeting of the hearts and minds, but they do build a life together and work well at that joint endeavor. Ninexin and Mariana’s lives are shaped by the absence of Manuel, and his loss shows the dark side of a political passion; it’s an example of why revolutionaries make bad husbands, because they put a cause above being with their families at all costs. It’s Allen who may or may not break the pattern of absent men, and one of the questions Mariana is considering is whether she should leave Allen first, before she loses him.
RF: What film, piece of art, or music did you have in mind when you were writing this book? Or rather, what artistic inspiration were you using to drive your writing process?
EG: We were living in Granada, Nicaragua, when I wrote the first draft of the book, so my surroundings were my inspiration. Granada was this lush, quasi-magical-realist setting with parrots and turtles in the yard, sherbet-colored churches on every corner, religious parades and cultural festivals in the streets, and angels in the architecture. I loved living there. But I did more academic research as well. Along with nonfiction books about Nicaragua, I also read a few novels that played with different voices and points of view, such as Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies; novels about mothers, daughters, and granddaugthers, including Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement; and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which describes a siege in a Latin American country experiencing a revolution.
RF: The majority of The Ladies of Managua takes place in Nicaragua. How much research did you have to do about Nicaragua? What is the strangest or most interesting thing you learned while researching/writing The Ladies of Managua?
EG: Since we were living in Nicaragua at the time, I was researching every second, whether I was aware of it or not. People would let slip details of their lives in conversation and they’d end up inspiring a moment in the book. But on a conscious level, I did read everything I could find about the country, from nonfiction (Shirley Christian’s Revolution in the Family and Omar Cabezas’ Fire from the Mountain) to Gioconda Belli’s novel An Inhabited Woman. I tried to find more novels about Nicaragua but there really aren’t very many out there. Along with Belli’s novel, I also read her memoir, The Country Under My Skin. And I traveled to areas that are described in the book, such as the archipelago of Solentiname, which is remote and hard to get to but so worth the trip.
The remainder of the novel takes place in New Orleans, and I traveled there three times during the course of the writing, read novels written in the 1940s and 50s that were set in the city, and toured Sacred Heart, the school which Isabela attends. The school has published a history of the institution on its centennial, Legacy of a Century: Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and that proved incredibly useful and fun. In terms of the strangest, most interesting things I learned, it was all interesting, so it’s hard to pick! Seeing the artwork of one of the families on Solentiname was a revelation; it made me think about how we each reveal our psyches and our souls in everything we create. Attending the Purisima celebrations for the Virgin Mary in December was fascinating, and I loved it that we were given the traditional gifts of fruit, sugar cane, and the like in Tupperware adorned with an image of the Virgin. As for interesting trivia about New Orleans, here’s a little known fact: the actress Salma Hayek was expelled from boarding school at Sacred Heart because she’d been harassing the nuns.
RF: You have traveled all over the world and written much about these experiences. What do you love the most about travel? What is your favorite place that you’ve visited?
I studied folklore and mythology in college, so what I love most about travel is immersing myself in a new culture; I never feel more myself than when I’m a stranger in a strange land. My struggle with travel is lack of time: with a limited number of vacation days (I work as the Executive Editor of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine), how do you choose between going back to someplace you love and discovering a new destination? My family lived in Athens for five years when I was a child; I also lived there as an adult while writing my travel memoir, North of Ithaka, which describes the year I spent living in the tiny mountain village where my father was born, overseeing the rebuilding of my grandparents’ home, which had fallen into ruin after the Greek Civil War. And I’ve gone back to Greece every summer since I was fourteen, except the year I gave birth to my daughter in August. Now that I’m married to a Nicaraguan, we visit that country each year too. It doesn’t leave much time to explore new locales! But in both countries there are still so many places I want to visit but haven’t yet. They actually have a lot in common; both are small countries with wildly varied landscapes and really vibrant cultures that suck you right in—neither place lets you stay a spectator for long. I also love traveling in India, where my second book, but first novel, Other Waters, is set. Many of the experiences the protagonist has—bathing in the sacred, fetid River Ganges, or attending a wedding—are modeled on things I did in my travels. It seems I’ve now set a pattern: if I love a place, I write a book about it!
RF: What do you do to get ready to write each day? How has the process changed since your first novel—has it changed?
EG: I used to think that you needed several hours of uninterrupted time to write something usable. Then the more I wrote, and the more complicated my life became, the more I realized that you can write your best work in small snatches of time, too; the important thing is to write. When I was working on The Ladies of Managua, I’d write while my daughter took her morning nap. I didn’t know if I’d have a half hour or two hours to work, but I did know that if I didn’t use that time, I wouldn’t get to write at all that day. So that’s the secret. Sit down and start typing.
RF: What was the most challenging part of writing The Ladies of Managua? And what was the most rewarding part?
EG: On a practical level, the most challenging part of writing this book was finding the time—stealing it away from my freelance work, and then, once I went back into an office, carving it into my free time away from my job, and balancing writing with spending time with my daughter. The most rewarding part? Aside from getting to travel around Nicaragua and dive into the culture (and write off all my trips off on my taxes!), I genuinely came to love hearing these ladies’ voices in my head. At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I miss them now that we’re not together every day.
RF: What is your greatest fear as a writer?
EG: Not being committed enough. Writing is a big investment of time, and, when you add up the child care costs and opportunity costs of the more lucrative things you could be doing instead of writing, a big investment of money, too. Now that I have two children and a job and a mortgage, I worry that life will get in the way of writing, when really, they should fuel each other. Writing is like a relationship; you have to work at keeping it alive.
About Eleni Gage
ELENI N. GAGE is a journalist who writes regularly for publications including Travel+Leisure, The New York Times, T: The New York Times Travel Magazine, Dwell, Elle, Elle Décor, Real Simple, Parade, and The American Scholar. Currently Executive Editor at Martha Stewart Weddings and formerly beauty editor at People, Eleni graduated with an AB in Folklore and Mythology from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two young children.
The Ladies of Managua is available now and can be purchased here!
The Ladies of Managua: A Novel
Other Waters: A Novel
In the Time of the Butterflies
The Valley of Amazement
Bel Canto (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
Sandino's Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle
Sandino's Daughters Revisited: Feminism in Nicaragua
Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family
Fire from the Mountain
The Inhabited Woman (THE AMERICAS)
The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War
Legacy of a century: Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans
North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots