Marie Arana: 1949—: Writer and Editor Biography
The conflict between roots and assimilation is a staple in the literature of American immigrant experience, but rarely has it been so inventively explored as in American Chica, Marie Arana's memoir of her Peruvian-American background and upbringing. Arana, the editor of the Book World section of the Washington Post, was inspired to write the book almost by accident, after finding herself overwhelmed by childhood memories in the course of a research project on the lives of Peruvian women. Undertaking an excavation of the buried layers of her own life and those of her parents and ancestors, she uncovered a one-of-a-kind story that earned her a finalist nomination for the National Book Award in 2001.
Arana was born in the Peruvian capital of Lima on September 15, 1949, but the American aspect of her story had begun long before that. Her father, Jorge Enrique Arana, came to the United States to study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jorge Arana seemed to be on a comfortable path toward becoming a U.S. citizen, landing a job with the industrial conglomerate W. R. Grace and marrying a woman from Wyoming named Marie Clapp. Unhappy in the States, however, he moved his family back to Peru for a period corresponding with much of Marie Arana's childhood. He managed a W. R. Grace-owned sugar factory there. Marie's American mother, in turn, was unhappy living in Peru.
Thus American Chica is in part an account of a Peruvian childhood, of growing up in a country where the past, both Spanish and Native American, shadowed the present unusually closely. Arana wrote of exploring an Inca fortress with her brother, of a fortune-telling witch with braids that "undulated like snakes," of (as the Houston Chronicle put it) "a world of tradition, dust, animals, vines, bones, butterflies, earthquakes, stories and saints." And the book likewise sketches the marriage of Arana's parents, who, she told the Columbus Dispatch, "never go a day without bickering or without letting each other know just how much they love each other."
The Arana family returned to the United States in 1959 to a conventional middle-class American life in suburban Summit, New Jersey. "By the time I was grown," Arana wrote in American Chica, "I knew there were two women I could be—the Latina or the gringa—and that at every juncture I would need to choose one." For a time, she tried to bridge the gap by exploring new languages and cultures. She graduated from Northwestern University in Illinois with a B.A. in Russian language and literature in 1971, and went on to study Chinese. Living in Hong Kong for several years in the late 1970s, she earned a master's degree in linguistics from the British University of Hong Kong and served as editor of an academic journal, Studies in Bilingualism. In the interim between her undergraduate and graduate studies, Arana married Washington banker Nick Ward and started a family.
In 1980 Arana landed a job as an editor with the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishing firm and began an ascent in that business that brought her a vice-presidency at Simon & Schuster in 1989 and a writing and editing position at the Washington Post in 1992.
In 1999 she became editor-in-chief of the newspaper's weekly book review section, one of the most powerful critical posts in the journalistic world. Yet she felt unfulfilled. "You know that kind of clean emotion that you have as a child—that kind of pure fire?" she asked the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "By the time you get to middle age, it is so changed and compromised. I really wanted it back, so, so badly."
Furthermore, she wrote in American Chica, she felt that her high-flying editorial career reflected her American side, not the Latina woman who "burns incense, prays on her knees to the Virgin, feels auras, listens for the spirits of the dead." Her journey back to that Latina side came in stages. One early hint came when a personnel officer at the Post inquired whether she could be considered a minority staff member. Arana answered yes, but began to reflect on how little she had thought about the question. She began to write about Washington's Hispanic community for the Post and then won a one-month Stanford University fellowship to investigate the ways women in Peru coped with the poverty in which they lived.
In the course of doing that research, Arana discovered that she was related to Julio Cesar Arana, a ruthless South American rubber manufacturer who enslaved and slaughtered thousands of Native workers—a fact her family had always denied. And then, she told the Times-Picayune, "I had one of those experiences that people have, though it sounds silly. Sitting there in the dark corridors of the library, cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by books, I had a whole rush of memories. I had this series of flashbacks from my childhood—images of a woman I was convinced was a witch, and an old black man."
American Chica grew out of that experience; after going through several drafts, the book was published in 2001. Even beyond the range and originality of Arana's narrative, the book was notable for its unusual style, seemingly influenced by South America's Magical Realists. "As a child, I saw the obvious parallels: Jesus and the sun gods, witches and Buddhas," Arana wrote. "What was Jesus if not inti, the Inca thresher of earthly light? What was a witch if not hunger, a longing for order, a hand in the dark?" Critical reviews were enthusiastic, and American Chica became a finalist for that year's National Book Award, losing to Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections.
Arana's family, however, was less easily won over. "My father was absolutely livid," Arana told the Columbus Dispatch. "His copy of the manuscript was delivered back to me through my sister, and on the top of the first page was written in hot pink: … ' Fantasmagoria!' He said the book was a total hallucination. On almost every page of the manuscript he had scrawled in that same hot pink." After some months, however, her father reached a point where he could quote from the book admiringly.
The writing of the book also dissolved Arana's marriage; she divorced Ward and married her Post colleague Jonathan Yardley—and this experience, too, she interpreted in bicultural terms. "I was a good Latina in my first marriage, going to the altar with the first man who ever touched me, hanging my future on his, never reaching for him in bed," she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "And then I was a good gringa in my second, throwing out all the rule books and following my heart." Believing that, as she told the Times-Picayune, "I've written enough about myself now," Arana was at work on her first novel in 2002.
American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood (memoir), Dial Press, 2001.
Columbus Dispatch, February 12, 2002, p. E8; February 16, 2002, p. E3.
Houston Chronicle, July 29, 2001, p. Zest-18.
Library Journal, April 15, 2001, p. 112.
New York Times, June 14, 2001, p. E3.
Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2001, p. Book Review-12.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2001, p. Review-68.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), March 20, 2002, p. Living-1.
—James M. Manheim
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