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Claribel Alegr�a, Central American poet who wrote of personal and political anguish, dies at 93

Claribel Alegría in 2017. (Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images)

Claribel Alegría was the daughter of a Nicaraguan rebel, a firebrand physician who was nearly killed by U.S. Marines for his opposition to his country's puppet government. She inherited a legacy of defiance, becoming a leading poet of suffering and anguish — a walking "cemetery," as she sometimes described herself, for the voices of people killed by Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s and by the crossfire of Nicaragua's long-running civil war.

Ms. Alegría, who was 93 when she died Jan. 25 at her home in Managua, Nicaragua's capital, was one of Central America's most celebrated writers. In more than 40 books of poetry, fiction and historical "testimony," she blended lyric poetry with prose that chronicled her own personal tragedies as well as the political violence that plagued her home countries of Nicaragua and El Salvador for decades.

"In Latin America a writer can't live in an ivory tower," she told the Economist in 1991. "Reality marks you. You can't shut yourself away."

Ms. Alegría received early support from José Vasconcelos, a prominent Mexican educator who helped her emigrate to the United States, and Juan Ramón Jiménez, a Nobel Prize-winning Spanish poet who became a teacher and mentor.

Many critics labeled her a part of Latin America's left-leaning "committed generation" of reform-minded poets and novelists.

Ms. Alegría had witnessed a massacre at age 7, when hundreds of peasants were executed by the military in western El Salvador after a failed uprising. She went into a self-imposed exile from the country in 1980, after giving a book reading at the Sorbonne in Paris in which she condemned the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero by an unknown gunman.

When her elderly mother died in El Salvador several years later, her brothers called to tell her to stay away. "Don't come," they said, "because there will be two funerals instead of one." Ms. Alegría avoided the country until 1992, when its civil war came to a close.

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With her husband, journalist and onetime U.S. Foreign Service officer Darwin J. Flakoll, she collaborated on several novels and historical works about Nicaragua's Sandinista National Liberation Front, the left-wing party that seized power in 1979 under Daniel Ortega.

Ms. Alegría supported the group, giving readings and lectures in the United States to counter the Reagan administration's support of the Contra rebels, but largely avoided partisan politics to focus on writing that addressed the daily lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.

"She tried to speak on behalf of those who were suffering, and didn't get too involved in the polemics of the time," said Carolyn Forché, an American poet whose translations of Ms. Alegría's writing include the 1982 poetry collection "Flowers from the Volcano," her first book in English. "She had a wonderful lyric cadence, very imagistic, incantatory," Forché said. "It was almost like a chant."

Ms. Alegría received a host of literary honors, including the 2006 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the Casa de las Américas Prize, considered a Latin American equivalent to the Pulitzer, for her 1978 poetry collection "Sobrevivo" ("I Survive").

Last year she was awarded the Queen Sofia Iberoamerican Poetry Award, one of the highest honors in Spanish-language poetry, by the Spanish government and the University of Salamanca.

Raised in a prominent coffee-growing family, she was born Clara Isabel Alegría Vides in Estelí, Nicaragua, on May 12, 1924. She said she later changed her given name to Claribel at the suggestion of Vasconcelos.

Her mother was Salvadoran, and the family fled to that country before Clara Isabel's first birthday, escaping attacks from a U.S. Marine detachment that was then stationed in Managua. Once there, her father continued his support of left-wing rebel groups.

In an episode Ms. Alegría dramatized in "Luisa in Realityland" (1995), he once hid the Salvadoran revolutionary Farabundo Martí from the army, disguised him as a beggar and smuggled him to the Guatemala border, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Ms. Alegría attended a progressive school founded by her uncle in Santa Ana, El Salvador, and recalled keeping her young love of writing secret. "It was still not socially acceptable for a woman to write," she told the Economist. "Boys wouldn't come near you. They thought you were either a pedant or completely mad."

She said she committed herself to poetry at 14, when she read "Letters to a Young Poet" by German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The book — a collection of letters sent to an aspiring poet, a young man who is unsure how or whether he should commit himself to the craft — presaged a pivotal letter Ms. Alegría sent to Jiménez, who was then living in Washington.

The future Nobel laureate encouraged her to move from Louisiana, where she had completed finishing school, to Washington, where he tutored her three afternoons a week and eventually selected the poems that appeared in her first book, "Anillo de silencio" ("Ring of Silence"), 1948.

Ms. Alegría graduated from George Washington University that same year and lived abroad — including stints in Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, Paris and the Spanish island of Majorca — before returning to Nicaragua after the Sandinistas overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979.

While drawing on Central American history and life for most of her work, she wrote some of her most critically acclaimed books while away from the region, including "Cenizas de Izalco," which she co-wrote with her husband in 1966 and published in English as "Ashes of Izalco" (1989). The book fictionalized the Salvadoran massacre she had witnessed three decades earlier.

Flakoll, her husband of 47 years, died in 1995. The wire service Agence France-Presse reported that Ms. Alegría died of a lung infection and is survived by four children.

Ms. Alegría said her husband's death spurred her to produce some of her finest work, including the bilingual poetry collection "Saudade/Sorrow" (1999). Addressing her husband's death in one poem, she wrote: "I don't know what seas / rivers / or secret passages / you have to cross / but I'm waiting for you today / at sunset / so we may listen together / to a Bach fugue."

Death, she said, was an increasingly central part of her work. "Since I was very young the two main themes in my writing have been love and death," she told School Library Journal in 2003. "When I was young, however, death was distant. Now death is near, especially since [Flakoll] passed away. Now death is my friend. I speak to her."

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