The Ladies of Managua
You know those books - the ones that grab you and don't let go? The ones that teach you about a place, culture, people? Such is the case with a new book written by Eleni Gage, entitled The Ladies of Managua. Eleni 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.
Eleni's life experiences and academic studies combine into an extremely interesting and readable book. It's a story of Nicaragua, of family, of love, of parenting, of change and revolution and life. It's also an inherently interesting read, given those topics! I couldn't put it down - and fell in love, myself, with the characters, stories, passions and struggles. I love books that draw you in and don't let you go - such is The Ladies of Managua. Eleni brings decades of living in Nicaragua to life, and fills the book with culture, interesting people, characters that you can relate to, and a story that will stay with you a very long time. Highly recommended!
We were lucky enough to catch up with Eleni, and ask her about the book, inspiration, culture, families, and more. Here's what she had to say...
Please tell us about your book, The Ladies of Managua...
The Ladies of Managua is the story of three generations of Nicaraguan women, each with her own secret. The ladies reunite in Managua for the funeral of the patriarch of the family, and have to face their complicated relationships to each other and to their homeland. As they uncover old wounds and set off on new adventures, they learn how to let love shape their futures.
What inspired you to write this book?
I married the first Nicaraguan I ever met! Emilio, my husband, is very close to his grandmother, Mamina. On one of our early dates he told me that she attended convent school in New Orleans, as did many Central American women of her generation, and fell in love with a Cuban man there. They were about to run off together until her family got wind of the plan and whisked her back to Nicaragua. As I came to know more about Nicaraguan history and culture, I realized that the women of Mamina's generation—who belonged to country clubs and attended convent schools—were the mothers of the young men and women who fought in the Revolution of 1979, and the civil war that followed, changing Nicaraguan history forever. There was an interesting tension there. When I started to write the story of Isabela, the grandmother, I realized that we needed to hear from her daughter, Ninexin, the revolutionary, as well. As a mother myself, I thought about how difficult it must be to be torn between raising your child and fighting for a cause you believe in; that led me to bring in the voice of Mariana, Ninexin's daughter, who was largely raised by Isabela. The three women love and resent each other passionately—as do most mothers and daughters.
How does culture (and politics, and revolution) inspire your writing?
I like to joke that I'm a lover, not a fighter. What I mean is that politics influence my writing to the extent that it affects the lives of my characters. We're all products of our time, and when a country is going through a transformative experience—whether it's the revolution in Nicaragua, World War II in Europe, or our own Civil War—the inhabitants of that country can't help but be affected. As for culture, it influences everything we think or do; it shapes how we live. I've realized that the reason I love writing about older women is because they are the ones who most embody the shifts in a culture. As women, many of us spend the first half of our lives trying to figure out the rules of the society we live in. Then, just when we think we've got them down, we realize that the rules have all changed. That experience fascinates me. I'm also drawn to the way an older woman has lived through so many cultural changes; she carries so many historical moments within her.
Families and relationships are powerful - was it hard to write this, with a small daughter and living in another country? Did you rely on family (and your mom?) to help you through?
It takes a village to write a book—and, of course, to raise a child. We lived in Granada, Nicaragua for seven months, during which I wrote the first draft of this novel. It's the second time I've been lucky enough to live in the place I'm writing about (the first being the village of Lia, Greece, where my travel memoir, North of Ithaka is set), and I have to say, it's really the way to do it. Granada was so inspiring and semi-surreal. There were parrots and turtles in the yard, religious parades in the streets, and a lake dotted with islands full of egrets and monkeys a few blocks away. Plus, I had very affordable, and amazing, child care, which really helps. I was freelancing at the time, and I would work on the novel in the morning while my daughter napped. Then, three times a week in the afternoon, I had a babysitter for four hours, a luxury that I couldn't afford in the US at the time. That's when I did my freelance work. As for my mom, she visited us in Nicaragua and we met up in Miami several times and she did care for my daughter while I worked on the manuscript. But she is a journalist herself, and she also gave me very useful advice on the book as I was revising it. (For more on Nicaragua, and my daughter, and some embarrassing photos of me, check out my mom's blog, www.arollingcrone.blogspot.com.)
How does your background in folklore and mythology influence your writing - and this book?
I majored in Folklore and Mythology in college, and it not only influenced my writing, but my whole life. The older I get, the more I'm convinced everything is folklore, not just rituals such as weddings, or superstitions like the belief in jinxes or the evil eye, but everything we believe. Take the way we eat. All the things we used to think were good for us (such as low-fat pasta) have turned out to be bad for us (carbs--the horror!). Maybe there's some science involved, but as far as I'm concerned, it's all the folklore of foodways, how we eat—and live—now. I love rituals, and I basically think that they're not just beautiful and soothing, they're a major psychological coping mechanism. In college I learned that societies develop rituals around transitions or liminal stages such as birth, death, the change of seasons, because change causes us anxiety. Having a codified way of celebrating and marking those life changes helps us process them and lets us know how to behave. But I'm all about superstitions as well. How could I not be? An Indian astrologer predicted my wedding date (10.10.10) and told me I'd marry "a soft-hearted businessman who wasn't born in the US" a year before I even met my future husband. Now here we are, two wedding ceremonies (one Catholic for him, one Greek Orthodox for me), two kids, and six years together later.
What's up next for you?
I'm feeling drawn to writing about Greece again. I was raised there for five years as a child, lived there for a year as an adult, and visit every year. And I really enjoyed writing in different voices, and toggling between different time periods for The Ladies of Managua, so I think I will employ those techniques in my next book, which I'm thinking will be set in the Ionian Islands, partly during World War II. In the meantime, I work as the Executive Editor of Martha Stewart Weddings (could there be a more perfect job for a person who loves rituals so much?). And our second child, a son, was born a month ago. So right now I've got my hands full!
Congratulations! Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Just that I think the mission of this site is so cool. Thanks for having me on it! And if anyone is looking for a truly immersive travel experience, I can't recommend Nicaragua—and Greece—more. In both places, it's pretty impossible to remain a spectator; you inevitably get drawn into the drama, pageantry, and ritual of each place. To really get sucked in to the spectacle, I'd recommend visiting Greece during Orthodox Holy Week (Orthodox Easter is Sunday May 1st in 2016) and Nicaragua during the Purisimas, the nine-day celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which ends on December 8th.
All photos courtesy and copyright Eleni Gage