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Portrait of an Artist: John Manuel Arias

John Manuel Arias.
John Manuel Arias. By Courtesy of John Manuel Arias/Nicholas Nichols
By Alejandro C. Eduarte, Contributing Writer

John Manuel Arias is a Costa Rican poet and fiction writer based in Washington, D.C. His debut novel, “Where There Was Fire,” is forthcoming from Flatiron Books. The Harvard Crimson spoke to him about his writing process, his thematic and historical concerns, and the importance of Central American literature.

The Harvard Crimson: I’m curious how you think about your practice of fiction versus your practice of poetry. Are they separate or similar in your mind?

John Manuel Arias: So with me, my poetry is a little odd. I know people sort of write a poem, they work on it for like 9 months or they write it like 9 times over. Poetry for me is like regurgitating: it just comes out in one sort of heave. It's a little painful, equal to sort of watch[ing] it explode onto the page. Fiction for me is a lot slower, it's a lot more observatory and less conceptual. Although I do think my fiction is sort of conceptual, because I always come up with really super weird plots. With poetry, it's a lot more self-introspective, whereas with fiction I really get a chance to not only look at the exterior of the world, but also the interior of other people.

THC: Your poems have really great titles, such as “Self Portrait As Tear in Tympanic Membrane Poolside at the Hostel in Dominical”. How do titles come to you?

JMA: I got the idea of having fun with titles from my very good friend Aziza Barnes. [Their collection] “i be but i ain’t” is one of my staples in my poetry library, and they have really fantastic, long, sort of irreverent, but very piercing titles. And so, because my poetry is less fun to read, I try to have more fun with the titles.

THC: Do you have a different process for doing that in your short fiction, or your fiction just in titles?

JMA: I think they're a little bit more straightforward. With fiction, you really can't reel someone in with a very long, irreverent title. I had a story come out earlier this year in Barren Magazine called “For the Love of Dior” because in Spanish it's “por el amor de dios,” but instead of the Dios, it’s Dior. I also had a story called “Yurássic Park”, and because it's centered around the Costa Rican staff on the island, they wouldn't be pronouncing “J” as in English.

THC: You got interviewed by Bidwell Hollow in March, and you said that in your fiction you're really interested in history. I'm curious how you choose the history that you want to engage with. Is it something that you actively choose or do the historical topics come to you naturally?

JMA: It's a little bit of both. My degree, besides literature, is also Latin American studies, so I've been very history-centric. Duke University Press has been really incredible. Their Latin American studies section is wonderful and they've helped me a lot with research. I try to be as precise and as meaningful with my insertion of history. If I decide to put something on a date, I will look up what happened that day in history. I will look up the moon phase. In order for someone to live their life, even if it’s not incredibly pressing, history is influencing the way that they’re carrying on their day and their life. If the United States is causing a coup, then someone making some rice in the morning is going to be affected by that. The fiction is a way to explore both the exterior, the political, the historical, the natural, the cosmic, while also exploring the interior with not only the psychological and emotional, but also on the cellular level. I have a copy of Grey's Anatomy, and so [when writing fiction] I need to see what muscles are doing, I need to see what vessels are doing — they’re all influencing the way that we operate.

THC: What's most exciting to you about your new novel “Where There Was Fire”?

JMA: Goodness gracious me, well, bring your bananas! The history of Costa Rica, which I think is absolutely fascinating. It has been my focus for probably the last eight years; I lived in Costa Rica for 4 years. Costa Rica has a very ignored history internationally, but it's absolutely fascinating. Many people don't know that Costa Rica is the first Banana Republic. This very quote unquote peaceful country is the birthplace, unintentionally, of the most violent corporation that the western hemisphere has ever seen. It's a fascinating dichotomous place.

Also, I just get in the brains of a bunch of ghosts from my life. There's a lot of family history in the pages, which has been hella interesting. It’s predicted a few deaths and a hurricane, it's also read the past in a lot of ways that I've confirmed by other family members. It's been this weird crystal ball into both the past and the future, which has been very uncomfortable to write at times, but [I’ve been] really getting inside the heads of these people and sort of letting them lead me.

THC: There's a growing awareness of various queer and Latinx literatures in the U.S. literary world. What questions or gaps that you think exist in that discourse right now?

JMA: The huge gap will always be Central America. It's ignored on two uncomfortable levels, the first being obviously the American white mainstream: The white gullet that devours our work, and by our, I mean very broadly Latinx. And then also these Mexican, Chicanx, sort of hegemony that happens within not only the literature community, but also is pervasive throughout the United States.

I do believe that Central America needs much more focus and room. I feel like the American gullet loves warfare and loves civil war [narratives for Latin America]. To be clear, it's very important to Salvadorian, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan people. But I think the American readership needs to calm their bloodlust a little, and not have violence be the center of a piece in order for it to be desired or readable. To have these narratives [of civil war] is natural and totally valid, but I want this very small circle to expand and allow people to explore other themes.

THC: How you have formed a community of queer and Latinx writers?

JMA: I love my Central American group chat. You just kiki with people! You talk politics, but sometimes you just like to talk s***. The natural chemistry and attraction is all of us being regular human beings, and then we are Central Americans, so we have a very specific lens through which we see everyone else and interact with everyone else. Yeah, that's more fun than anything.

Can I recommend some writers for you?

THC: Yes, of course!

JMA: Ricardo Alberto Maldonado's book “The Life Assignment” is an incredible work where there's an English version and [Spanish] language version; he is Puerto Rican and the poems are gorgeous and stunning. Also, Joy Priest’s “Horsepower.” I am always going back to Monica de la Torre’s new collection “Repetition Nineteen.” Whenever I need to feel like I can experiment with literally anything, I will go back to her. It has the freedom to absolutely blow my mind. And [make me think that] yes, I can also do that too; I give myself space to think outside of the box and break it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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