Silvio Sirias was 11 when his family moved to Nicaragua. Born to Granadinos living in Los Angeles, the would-be writer was uprooted and transplanted to the Gran Sultana, which he immediately adopted as his new hometown.
In California, Sirias had been taught nothing of his Nicaraguan heritage. But once in Granada, he fell in love with all that was different about the new environment and was fascinated by the stories of his adoptive country. Still, as a man straddling two worlds, Sirias, who later moved to Panama, was always somewhat of an outsider.
“These days I feel as if I’m an outsider wherever I happen to be—in the States, in Nicaragua, and in Panama, where I now live. Panamanians consider me a Nica,” Sirias told The Nicaragua Dispatch this week. “When I’m in Nicaragua, I’m viewed as a gringo. And when I’m in the United States, I’m seen as a Nicaraguan or a Panamanian.
“But the feeling of living like someone who’s in exile is not as unpleasant as it may seem,” he adds. “In fact, as a writer, it gives me certain advantages. I can observe events and people dispassionately, yet I can grasp the cultural, political, and historical nuances. That makes my perspective less tainted with local biases and allows me to examine the matter at hand through a wider lens.”
Sirias’ two published novels, Bernardo and the Virgin (2007) and Meet Me under the Ceiba (2009), as well as his forthcoming third novel, The Saint of Santa Fe, are all stories borrowed from real-life events and then woven into fiction with Sirias’ distinctive style of blending fact and imagination.
Sirias’ first novel, Bernardo and the Virgin, is set in 1980s Nicaragua and focuses on the story of Bernado Martinez, the man who witnessed an otherworldly glow around the statue of the Virgin Mary in his local church in Cuapa. Bernardo’s story is intertwined other fictitious characters from the end of the Somoza era and into the years of revolution.
The novel touches on topics that may not be exclusively Nicaraguan, but feel distinctly Nica to those who have spent time in the country. The tale of Bernardo, who eventually receives visits and advice from the Virgin (who tells him to “burn bad books”), was among a handful of heavenly events certified by the Catholic Church in the last century. Sirias can’t pass up the opportunity to remind his readers that Bernardo, a sacristan, was once a devout young Catholic who was denied a path to the priesthood because he lived in poverty.
In his second novel, Meet Me under the Ceiba, Sirias takes another Nicaragua news story and turns it into a tale of fiction. The novel deals with Nicaraguan machismo, anti-gay sentiments, and a mother who profits from her daughter’s beauty by auctioning off her virginity and then pimping her. She finally marries off her daughter to the richest old man available to escape her life in the market, but the plan fails when her daughter leaves her brutal older husband for a lesbian and is then murdered. Sirias captures the strangely jealous and gossipy nature of Nicaragua as his journalist character (who not-so-accidentally resembles the author) investigates the murder in search of some form of truth.
Sirias’ third novel, the completed and forthcoming The Saint of Santa Fe, is set in Panama and inspired by the real story of a young Colombian priest who disappears in Panama in 1971. The priest had been assigned to a remote mountain area and his work helped to change the lives of his parishioners. But the clergyman ran into problems with the land-owning gentry of the area, and it cost him his life.
The author is currently working on his fourth book, The Season of Stories, a young adult novel set in Los Angeles and loosely based on his memories of the last year he lived there before moving to Nicaragua.
“I am experimenting with different settings,” he says. “I would love to write more novels set in Nicaragua. God knows I have a surplus of ideas. But there’s the financial aspect to consider. I’d have to spend a few months in the country to research the details, and the tab for that adds up quickly.”
Degringofied in Granada
While Sirias may have something of an outsider’s status wherever he goes, there was a time when he was made to feel at home. When he speaks lovingly of his youth, it is not about his early days growing up in Southern California, rather his formative years spent in Granada.
Says Sirias, “When I moved to Nicaragua at age 11, my parents enrolled me in Granada’s Colegio Salesiano. At the time, my Spanish was atrocious. Because of this, my schoolmates teased the “gringo” without mercy. I did not, however, find their jokes about me being an outsider the least bit funny. To counter their remarks, I chose to assimilate. Completely. I became one of them—tan granadino como el vigorón del Parque Central.
“What helped me adjust quickly was my new extended family, on my mother’s side—the López-Mirandas. In particular, two great-aunts, both elderly single women, indoctrinated me in the ways of Nicaragua. This included teaching me about local expressions, cultural traits, spiritual beliefs, traditions, acceptable behaviors, and, more importantly for me as a writer, they told me countless stories about this wonderful country.
“I soaked everything up, loving every second of my education. Within six months, I had assimilated so successfully that my schoolmates forgot I was a ‘gringo.’ They accepted me as if I had gone to school with them all my life. It also helped that—thanks to my gene pool—I look Nicaraguan. I didn’t stand out physically. In fact, my assimilation was so successful that in my own mind I became 100% Nica. This provoked a painful identity crisis when I moved back to the States years later to attend college. That crisis lasted for decades, but that’s an entirely different and rather long story.
“What I enjoy these days is that it doesn’t take long for Nicaraguans to determine that I’m the product of an odd blend of cultures.”
Sirias says that blend makes Nicaraguans feel easy about opening up to him to share their stories—“and I siphon these eagerly.”
Finding his place in US-Latino literature
Sirias and his wife lived in Nicaragua from 1999-2002, during which time he says he enjoyed the company of “some terrific Nicaraguan writers.”
“I admire their work immensely,” he says. “However, I was definitely an outsider when I was among them. Where I am beginning to be claimed by readers, and where I claim to reside as well, is as a writer of U.S. Latino Literature. That’s where I feel a strong kinship with other authors.
“I’ve had wonderful discussions about the craft with Rudolfo Anaya, Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia, Virgil Suarez, Raul Ramos and other U.S. writers of Latin American heritage who also write in English, but from a unique cultural perspective.
“They understand perfectly what I’m doing and they are always very supportive. The biggest difference between us, however, is that I’ve chosen to live and write in Latin America, while they have their feet firmly planted in the States.”
Blending fact and fiction
Sirias has a proven knack for twisting fact and fiction and enjoys the challenges of introducing real characters to imagined events. But at first, the author had a hard time pulling fiction out of thin air.
“I had tried my hand at writing fiction that originated exclusively within my imagination, but failed…completely,” he says. “Then I read In the Time of the Butterflies and a bright light went on in my head. I loved what Julia Alvarez did with a true story. I had long wanted to tell the story of 20th Century Nicaragua for English-language readership, and she provided me with a model.
“When I met Bernardo Martinez and heard his tale, I knew at once that the apparitions in Cuapa and the role the incident played in the conflict of the 1980s was the perfect vehicle. Bernardo’s story gave me a broad canvas on which to paint an epic account. In Bernardo and the Virgin, however, I had to be extremely careful about getting the historical facts correct. The research and all the double-checking of details proved arduous work. But it paid off in the end because there hasn’t been a single reader who has pointed out a factual mistake.
“In Meet Me under the Ceiba, I was free to alter the details of the actual murder case as I saw fit. I lied throughout for the purpose of telling an engaging story. The court records, news reports, and one groundbreaking interview provided me with a terrific blueprint. But not once did I feel that historians would be looking over my shoulder. I was almost totally free—at last—to write ‘fiction.'”
The Nicaraguan who writes in English
Despite his childhood ties to Nicaragua, Sirias’ novels are all written in English. He has a doctorate degree in Spanish from the University of Arizona and, at one time, wrote exclusively in Spanish. But now his work now comes to him in English and, unfortunately, none of his novels have yet been translated into Spanish, despite the obvious audience.
“The day a local or regional publisher commits to printing and distributing my work, I’ll happily sign the contract and start on the translations,” he says.
“At one point in my life, when I identified fully as a Nicaraguan, I wrote only in Spanish. In fact, after I had just returned to the States, my first English professor in college told me that my writing was hopeless. That intimidated me to the extent that I refused to write in English for a couple of years. But eventually my brain rebooted itself and I returned to my childhood language—English. I started to have fun proving that professor wrong. And when I saw other U.S. Latinos seducing an English-language audience with stories similar to mine, I just had to join in the fun.
“Now my goal as a writer all boils down to a matter of ego. I want to leave behind as many books of high quality as possible. My writer’s mantra is something one of my heroes, the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno, once said: ‘I write because I want people to remember that I was here.’”
Troy Fuss is the co-owner of Lucha Libro Books, in Granada. Though he stocked up for this event, he had no way of anticipating the overwhelming response Sirias’ visit was going to get, and is now losing hope of still having the visiting author’s books in stock by Friday afternoon.