The PEN Ten: An Interview with Jaime Manrique
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Jared Jackson speaks with Jaime Manrique, who writes the foreword to the Penguin Vitae series edition of the acclaimed memoir by writer Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls (Penguin Classics, 2020).
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
I was born on Colombia’s Atlantic coast in 1949. My grandfather, on my father’s side, was a literate peasant who valued education and owned farms and cattle. The oral tradition as a way of educating children was important in that culture, and my aunt Aura—along with my grandfather—used to narrate folk stories at night. My aunt would tell me stories about animals of the forest who were personified, like the animals in the tales of the Paraguayan writer Horacio Quiroga, but without the gothic content; and my grandfather told stories about the magical thinking of the people of the region, who believed in witchcraft, the Devil, ghosts, and the terrifying evil creatures of the forest.
When I was eight years old, living in Bogotá, a young woman named Elisa, who had gone into service to help her family, would put my sister and I to bed, telling us stories from The Arabian Nights and classic European tales for children. She was a kind of Scheherazade, who could narrate these stories in a spellbinding manner, making them come alive in our bedroom. I would go to sleep with my head full of exotic people, in faraway places, in old times, and who had supernatural powers. So I can say that I was in love with tall tales before I started reading books.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
I’d be the first one to admit that I’m a strange kind of writer in the sense that I write fiction, poetry and essays, and I’ve written many books in Spanish (my first language) and in English. Everything I write begins with a word, phrase, or image I’ve read, heard about, or seen. From that first inchoate feeling, thought, or fascination, I’m intrigued and/or carried or swept away, until it becomes an obsession and begins to grow and—if I’m lucky—bloom in my imagination. Then, whatever it is, I must write it. That first moment is what I might call inspiration. But when I’m involved in a piece, especially a novel, I cannot rely on inspiration. It’s a matter of constancy, one day after the other, until the day comes (at least for me) that whatever I’m writing clicks and then it, sometimes just fleetingly, sings, flies, and soars. It’s more thrilling to do than the hard job of sculpting that goes into shaping a longer piece. The same applies, of course, to short poems or essays, although the process is not as exhausting.
“Everything I write begins with a word, phrase, or image I’ve read, heard about, or seen. From that first inchoate feeling, thought, or fascination, I’m intrigued and/or carried or swept away, until it becomes an obsession and begins to grow and—if I’m lucky—bloom in my imagination.”
3. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
I’m not happy with everything I’ve written, especially the work of my youth. I think there was a lot of posturing in some of it, but I don’t wish I could take back any of it.
When I was 25 years old, and living in Madrid was what I thought was the kind of down-and-out existence of 19th century dissolute Parisian writers, carrying on in loud desperation, I found myself so broke I had to sell my blood and engage in activities I’m not necessarily proud of. In the spring of 1976, I thought I was going to die of hunger or commit suicide—I wanted to be the Colombian Sylvia Plath—I wrote a novella that I thought would kill my father when he read it. The book, My Daddy’s Corpse, was the story of a parricide of the main character who was somewhat like me, and whose father was very much like my father. Of course, the tough old bird didn’t die, but he took it badly and was hurt deeply. I hated my father so much that I needed to kill him symbolically to become myself. The book was a huge scandal back then, but it is now a classic in Colombian literature. This year, there was a commemorative edition. Many people like that book in Colombia, but when someone mentions it to me, I have to say I’m now not the same person who wrote it: I don’t hate my father anymore. But I wouldn’t want to take back what wrote—I needed to write it to exorcise those demons and begin to free myself from my father’s legacy.
4. What advice do you have for young writers?
Eudora Welty, whose work I love, said something like she wouldn’t give any advice to writers because she never took any. The single most important thing a writer needs to do is find their own unique voice. And any writer who wants to have an original voice must find it on their own.
5. In the foreword to the Penguin Classic reissue of Before Night Falls, you describe reading the manuscript for the first time. Reading until daybreak to complete it, you go on to call the book, in the words of Reinaldo Arenas, a “force of nature.” You explain this is partially achieved because the book was dictated as opposed to written, due to his poor health at the time. Can you explain the urgency—the “need to be heard”—that is so apparent in the text, and what it does for the reader’s experience? As a close friend of Arenas during his life, would you say the beautiful and musical countryside accent you described, in a recent BBC interview, that Arenas possesses is present in the prose?
Reinaldo’s autobiography, which was dictated toward the end of his life, has the urgency of a confession on a deathbed, the confession of a desperate man who does not want to leave unsaid anything important to him. It can also be read as the final curse of a prophet or warlock, damning forever the people who persecuted him during his life.
Because the book is a testimony, it makes us listen carefully, commanding us not to miss a word of a dying man’s final whisperings. Reinaldo’s works of fiction, on the other hand, are the product of a sly intellectual postmodern writer, interested in techniques and dazzling experimental feats. The fiction is written by the mind; his poetry and Before Night Falls—which, despite the acts of brutality it describes, is a poetic work—was dictated by his heart.
“Reinaldo’s autobiography, which was dictated toward the end of his life, has the urgency of a confession on a deathbed, the confession of a desperate man who does not want to leave unsaid anything important to him. It can also be read as the final curse of a prophet or warlock, damning forever the people who persecuted him during his life.”
6. In what ways did Reinaldo Arenas affect the resistance movement of his time through his writing and the way he lived? How has his legacy continued to influence resistance movements?
Reinaldo made it almost impossible for the left, or the right, both in Latin America and the United States, to coopt him. He was a merciless critic of the repressive tactics of communism and its need to crush dissident voices; Reinaldo also was extremely critical of heartless capitalism. In Before Night Falls, he says that the only difference between Cuba and the United States is that in Cuba (an island/jail) you cannot scream, whereas in New York (another island/jail) you can at least scream loud. He was an extreme individualist in search of the truth, in opposition to any kind of tyranny. In that sense, I would say he was a total revolutionary.
Nowadays, many people accept that communism, like the totalitarian ideology it is, thrives on suppressing the voices of dissidents who criticize the atrocities committed in the name of “social justice.” George Orwell, another dissident writer, eventually arrived at that conclusion after his experience in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, although in his case, he was denouncing Joseph Stalin’s totalitarianism. But Reinaldo developed his political views when he was still a very young man, when he felt betrayed by the despotic policies of the Cuban Revolution.
7. How did Reinaldo Arenas’s identity shape his writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?”
Reinaldo, I believe, was a genius, and geniuses cannot be rationally explained. They are born with a disproportionate energy, passion and talent—Mozart, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Diego Velázquez, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Franz Kafka are names that come to mind. But everyone’s “identity” is the result of the forces out of their control that molded them. In Reinaldo’s case, I can think of several circumstances—he grew up poor and fatherless in the Cuban countryside, and with all that implies a lack of education, beliefs in superstitions and magical thinking, and violence against women and non-normative people.
Reinaldo felt betrayed by the Cuban Revolution when he was young. He was persecuted and incarcerated for his insolence, and above all else, for being a gay man who did not hide his sexual preferences. Although important intellectuals like Octavio Paz and Vargas Llosa admired him, he was largely derided by the writers of the left and the right both in Latin America and the United States. Finally, he lived in poverty in Times Square during the 1980s—the era of the yuppies, deep conformism, and the homophobic government under President Ronald Regan—and he arrived in the United States, shortly before the AIDS epidemic, of which he was a casualty.
8. You compare sexuality in Before Night Falls to Walt Whitman’s call to sexual liberation in Leaves of Grass because of its “insistence that it (sexuality) is the one force that cannot be repressed,” how it is essential for creativity, and how “it is the power that will free us from the shackles that enslave us to conformity.” In what ways does sexuality inform art? How did Arenas’ sexuality come through in his writing—content, language, and ideas?
Sexuality permeates everything Reinaldo wrote. Early in Before Night Falls, he talks about how sex was ubiquitous in the Cuban countryside. In the opening pages, there is that memorable image of birds copulating in the air. Our attitudes about sex nowadays are extremely different from what they were when Reinaldo started writing. Sex was a taboo subject. Writing about homosexuality could have a huge negative impact on a writer’s career. In the United States, when Gore Vidal and James Baldwin came out of the closet in their writing, they were met with a great deal of rejection in the publishing world and hostility in the culture at large. It took many years before their reputations recovered from that kind of treatment.
And it was much worse under communism, where according to the pseudo-Puritan party, homosexuality was a disease of Western decadent capitalism, which did not exist under communism. Reinaldo was a natural-born rebel, a secular John the Baptist. But like D. H. Lawrence, a great writer who’s not read very much today, he saw sexuality as a liberating force. I, for example, cannot seriously take his claim that he had sex with over 5,000 men. Plus, having lots of sex doesn’t make anyone a better writer, and his writing about sex was seldom graphic. Perhaps Reinaldo was saying that under soul-killing governments, promiscuous sex is a way of escaping the pervasive oppression and being a rebellious spirit.
“I’ve heard from other readers who say that we need more writers like Reinaldo today. I take that to mean writers who are fearless and indomitable, who do not censor themselves, and who have the guts to defend positions that are considered unpopular.”
9. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
Donald Trump is the first thing that comes to mind. As the leader of 40-plus million Americans who feel he expresses their frustrations, their general ignorance, and their deep prejudices, Trump has the same dictatorial tendencies of men like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Francisco Franco, Joseph Stalin, the ruling family of North Korea, Fidel Castro, and Vladimir Putin. Those men dealt with dissidents by creating extermination camps, the Soviet gulags, the ideological purges of the Cultural Revolution during Mao’s reign, and the forced labor camps in Cuba. But our present-day tyrants are more dangerous, in my view, because they have technologies at their disposal that are much more efficient at controlling people than the purges and pogroms. Look at China—the state knows everything about its citizens; they can get inside citizens’ computers, phones, and secrets. China is like a huge evil beehive, or an ant colony, where individuality must be surrendered to the queen—in their case, the Communist Party.
And since you asked: Yes, I’ve encountered many occasions when my right to differ has been met with hostility and reprisals. That goes for the right and the left, because neither side wants people to think differently—they just want people to agree with their “ideas.” Nuanced, intellectual thinking has become the enemy. Right now, despite our extraordinary technological achievements, we are not far from the times when just 500 years ago, people in “the civilized” world thought that the sun turned the earth around. Many people still think that in the United States. We are at a moment in history when we urgently need to seriously contemplate utopian alternatives. In an interview that Eduardo Galeano gave me about 15 years ago, he said that if we reject utopian thinking, we are doomed.
10. Why do you think people need stories like Before Night Falls?
A few weeks ago, a young writer who had just read Before Night Falls wrote to me to say that he thought Reinaldo’s autobiography was even more pertinent today than when it was written. I’ve also heard from other readers who say that we need more writers like Reinaldo today. I take that to mean writers who are fearless and indomitable, who do not censor themselves, and who have the guts to defend positions that are considered unpopular. Reinaldo is in that group of writers I admire—authors like George Orwell, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, and Arundhati Roy. They’re all public intellectuals who disturb our comfortable and passive ways of thinking and who are not afraid to speak truth to power, no matter how unpopular it makes them.
Jaime Manrique is a Colombian-born novelist, poet, essayist, and translator who writes both in English and Spanish, and whose work has been translated into 15 languages. His honors include Colombia’s National Poetry Award, a 2007 International Latino Book Award (best novel, historical fiction), and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a distinguished lecturer in the department of modern and classical languages and literatures at the City College of New York.