Author of American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood
by Bella Stander
Marie Arana, editor of Washington Post Book World, is the type of woman I love to hate. She's beautiful, slim, impeccably tailored and apparently ageless, with gloriously thick hair and the graceful bearing of a ballet dancer (as a teen she planned to be "the next Margot Fonteyn"). She also plays the piano, used to sing opera, has degrees in Russian, Chinese and linguistics, and even speaks in complete sentences, for crying out loud. But I can't hate her-and not just because I occasionally write for Book World. First of all, she's kind and easy to talk with. Second and more important, she's written a fascinating, insightful memoir that reads like a novel: American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, published last year by Dial Press.
You'd never guess from Arana's dry, Northeastern tones that her native language is Spanish. In American Chica she tells about growing up in Peru and then New Jersey in the 1950s and '60s, a living "bridge" between two vastly disparate cultures. Yet Arana didn't plan to write a memoir. While on a fellowship at Stanford, she happened across documentation of Julio CÚsar Arana, an infamous rubber (and robber) baron in early 20th century Peru. She set out to write about his brutal exploitation of the Amazon, but gradually realized that he was a relative, albeit a distant one, which her Peruvian family had always staunchly denied. Arana discovered that the story she needed to write was about the effects of that denial, which included the sometimes shaky union between her "enormously different" traditional Peruvian father and fiercely independent American mother.
"I believe that history that people can't see is playing out in their lives," says Arana. "I wanted to capture the sense of all the things that exist beyond the parameters of what we can control, that make one's life what it is."
Arana began by writing "blather" longhand into notebooks, which she would transcribe and "edit the hell out of" the next day. "Writing for me is a sedimentary process. You put down a sentence and then you end up with a many-layered thing." The most important thing you can do when writing, she says, is "not restrict yourself, be willing to make an idiot of yourself. The editor in you always wants to prevent you from looking a fool, but I think that the good writer is willing to go that extra distance and maybe look a little foolish in the process."
"People say you can write a book and go to work at the same time. I just can't imagine doing that," confesses Arana, who took a leave from the Post while she wrote American Chica. "Writing is too hard and so devouring. I couldn't do anything but sort of exist in this jellylike stage; I literally sat in my pajamas for seven months. I'm in awe of people who do this day in and day out, and produce book after book." Nevertheless, she's started a novel while still working at her day job.
When asked whether writing her own book has changed the way she reads the work of others, Arana responds, "I realize more than ever how even a glowing review can wound an author. Get something wrong, misrepresent a character, use the wrong tone, and it can be crushing. My parents were deeply insulted by what I considered my best review, in which the reviewer called our family 'dysfunctional.' Dysfunctional! There's no such label possible in the Latin family. We'd all be 'dysfunctional,' I guess."
What's been amazing to Arana is "the people who come out of the woodwork," like the retired Mexican-American professor who had been given her book for Father's Day. He not only had lived in Peru but had grown up in her mother's hometown of Rawlins, Wyo., and wrote her a "long, beautiful letter" with fond memories of her grandfather. "I would never have known him if not for the calling card of the book," she says. "It's been enormously delightful to see the connection with other people's experiences."
© 2002 Bella Stander