Arana, Marie 1949–

views updated

Arana, Marie 1949–


Born September 15, 1949, in Lima, Peru; immigrated to the United States, 1959; daughter of Jorge Enrique (an engineer) and Marie Elverine Arana; married Wendell B. Ward, Jr., December 18, 1972 (divorced, 1998); married Jonathan Yardley, March 21, 1999; children: Hilary Walsh, Adam Williamson Ward. Education: Northwestern University, B.A., 1971; Yale University in China, certificate of scholarship, 1976; British University, M.A., 1977.


Home—Washington, DC, and Lima, Peru. Office—c/o Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, DC 20071-0002. E-mail—[email protected].


Journalist, critic, editor, novelist. British University, Hong Kong, lecturer in linguistics, 1978-79; Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, NY, senior editor, 1980-89; Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, senior editor and vice president, 1989-92; Washington Post, writer and editor, 1992-99, Book World, editor-in-chief, 1999—. Director and member of board of Center for Policy Research, Washington, DC, 1994-99.


National Association of Hispanic Journalists (member of board of directors, 1996-99), National Book Critics Circle (member of board of directors, 1996-2000).


Award for excellence in editing, ABA, 1985; Christopher Award for excellence in editing, 1986; finalist, National Book Award and PEN Memoir Award, for American Chica.


American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, Dial Press (New York, NY), 2001.

(Editor and author of introduction) The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work: A Collection from the Washington Post Book World, Public Affairs (New York, NY), 2003.

Cellophane: A Novel, Dial Press (New York, NY), 2006.

Editor of Studies in Bilingualism, 1978.


Marie Arana spent the first several decades of her career as a journalist, editor, and critic judging the writing of others. When her own work, a memoir titled American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, was published by Dial Press in 2001, Arana decided that it would not be reviewed in Book World, the respected weekly book review section she oversees for the Washington Post.

Arana's parents met in the 1940s when her father, Jorge Enrique Arana, was studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her mother, Marie, was a violinist. After they married, they returned to her father's native country of Peru, where Arana was born and spent her early childhood until the family moved to the United States in 1959. As Arana describes it in American Chica, it was a childhood "rooted to the Andean dust" in the family's hacienda in Cartavio, Peru. Her father was working as an engineer for the multinational corporation W.R. Grace. Her mother was not welcomed into her husband's culture, and when the couple returned to the United States and settled in Summit, New Jersey, Arana would first feel the sting of those cultural differences. She relates in her memoir that on a train ride west to visit her mother's family in Wyoming, another passenger looked at her and remarked, "Well, I'll be. She's a little foreigner." In New Jersey the Aranas were the only Hispanic family. One black girl told her, "You oughta go back where you belong." With a father who went back and forth between Peru and the United States and an awareness of the cultural gap between her parents, Arana realized early on that she would have to be adaptable, sometimes filling the role befitting her dark Peruvian features and sometimes the role of an American girl with an American heritage.

Arana studied Russian language and literature at Northwestern University, where she received her degree in 1971. Her early marriage in 1972 to Wendell Ward took her to Hong Kong, where she received a certificate of scholarship in the Mandarin language through Yale University in China and a master's degree in linguistics from the British University there in 1977, while she also taught linguistics. When she returned to the United States, she worked as an editor at Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich and at Simon & Schuster, dividing her time between New York and Washington, DC Focusing on nonfiction, she worked with such authors as Eugene McCarthy and Pat Moynihan, both former U.S. senators. She also enjoyed working on fiction and edited the works of such novelists as Stanley Elkin and Manuel Puig. By 1992 Arana had joined the Post as deputy book editor, and eventually she rose to editor of its weekly book review supplement, Book World.

Arana revealed in a Publishers Weekly interview with Joseph Barbato that it was a comment made on her first day on the job that marked a new beginning for her—thinking of herself as a member of a minority group. She told Barbato: "My first day on the job, the head of recruitment stopped when she saw on my forms that I was born in Lima. ‘Oh, are you a minority hire?’ she asked me, wondering how to put me down. ‘Well, I guess you could say so,’ I told her." Arana realized she was a member of a growing group of Americans, that of a minority, and she began to serve on various committees on diversity, working to get more coverage of the Hispanic population into the newspaper. As a panel moderator for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, she realized that her sense of her own Latina identity was not easy to define. "When I was in either place, Peru or the U.S., I felt one parent was a blip," Arana told Barbato. "My own experience was of blipping in and out; of belonging and not belonging." It was a fellow panelist, the poet Judith Ortiz Cofer, who afterward encouraged her to write a memoir.

For Arana, writing American Chica represented more than the publication of her first book. "I had done a good job of burying the child I was. As I wrote, I found there was something very rigid and false about the armor I had built around myself. I was always the professional businesswoman who was a certain way—who would never want to have anything but a perfect life revealed," she told Barbato. Writing the book not only transformed her emotions but brought about the end of her marriage when she realized she was in love with a fellow Post staffer, the book critic Jonathan Yardley, who was reading each chapter as she finished it. Yardley came to realize that he was in love with her as well. Their lives changed dramatically as they left their respective families and eventually married. All of this dramatic change was the result of writing a book she had not set out to write.

In 1996 Arana was on a one-month media fellowship at Stanford University. When she completed her project, she researched the story of Julio Cesar Arana, an infamous Peruvian rubber baron known in the early 1900s as the "Devil of Putumayo." He imposed cruel and unusual punishments on his workers, the thousands of indigenous peoples working the rubber plantations. His scandalous behavior was eventually exposed to international scrutiny by an Irish patriot named Roger Casement. Although Arana was told repeatedly by her family that he was not a relative, she nonetheless maintained the suspicion that he was. While sifting through the stacks of information she found at Stanford on this vicious man, Arana became absorbed in wondering what it might mean if he were a relative. And then she began to think about her childhood, caught between two different worlds.

When an enthusiastic book agent responded positively to sample pages of the book Arana had begun to write, she decided to take an eight-month leave of absence from her job at the Post in order to finish it. During that time she returned to the Peru of her early childhood to explore more fully the story of the possible ancestor. Not only did she find out that she was indeed related to Julio Cesar Arana, but she had the unsettling experience of being told by a local historian that she "had his face." It was then that she decided the book would be the story of her parents.

In her review for the New York Times Book Review, Wendy Gimbel characterized American Chica as a work that sometimes reads like "a collaboration between John Cheever and Isabel Allende. Arana's mother and father constantly lose their balance as they stumble over cultural minefields. Of free-spirited pioneer stock, the young wife feels shackled, the prisoner of Peru's demanding traditions. But her husband doesn't understand her need to turn her back on the past." Barbara Wallraff noted in her review for the Atlantic Monthly that "a person of a metaphorical turn of mind can read into this book the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, and if that's what you feel like doing, you'll suspect that Arana is abetting you. But the book also reads like a novel—almost. A fiction writer aiming for verisimilitude would have toned some of this material down. Surely no novelist would have had the narrator's mother marry so many times. And no one but Gabriel García Marquez would have dared to invent an adventurer uncle who lends the household a monkey and an anteater. American Chica tells a fantastical, spellbinding tale."

Arana noted that during the first four years of her life in Peru, a total of eighteen earthquakes shook the country. She saw those tremors, according to Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, as "emblematic of the forces that jeopardized her family's attempt to span the vast divide between North and South America."

Arana became a first novelist in 2006 with publication of Cellophane, a blend of magical realism and realistic fiction, set in the Amazon at the height of the Great Depression. Arana's protagonist is the successful engineer and paper producer Don Victor Sobrevilla, who has carved out a fabulous estate, Floralinda, in the Amazon region of Peru. There he lives with his extended family, on the cusp of a changing world. His great desire has always been to create cellophane, not paper, and when he decides to redirect his mills to that production, "his life and those of the people around him change in unexpected ways, both humorous and tragic," according to BookPage contributor Harvey Freedenberg. As with the transparent product at the heart of this novel, Don Victor's decision spawns an avalanche of honesty among his family: he confesses an earlier love affair to his wife, who, in turn, tells him of her own first affair at the same time Don Victor was courting her. Characters discover honesty and transparency are not always the best policies.

Cellophane, with its butterflies appearing out of a doffed hat and strange growths on the bodies of some of the characters, invited obvious comparisons to the work of other Latin American writers of magical realism such as Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For Clark Collis, writing in Entertainment Weekly, however, despite the book's "richly descriptive and, at times, darkly comic tone," Cellophane did not live up to such a lofty comparison. Other reviewers, though, had a more positive assessment of this debut novel. Pope Brock, writing in People, noted that even those readers who did not like magical realism "may fall under its spell when it's this well done." Brock went on to call Arana's novel a "great book." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman termed the same work a "bewitching story shaped by a profound understanding of the oneness of life," while a Kirkus Reviews critic found it a "pleasure to read." Further praise came from a Publishers Weekly reviewer who described Cellophane as "a tale as bawdy, raucous and dense as the jungle whose presence encroaches on every page," and from Miami Herald writer Fabiola Santiago, who thought it was "exquisitely written." Santiago concluded, "Arana is a finely tuned writer who knows how to harvest her worlds and bring them to the main stage, an intellectual who delivers insight and story in any genre." Liesl Schillinger, writing in the New York Times, was also impressed with Cellophane, commenting that Arana "has flown above her own history to construct a surreal but orderly pattern: a fiction that's stranger than her truth but shares its bones."



Arana, Marie, American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, Dial Press (New York, NY), 2001.


Atlantic Monthly, June, 2001, Barbara Wallraff, review of American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, p. 104.

Booklist, April 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of American Chica, p. 1511; November 15, 2005, Molly McQuade, "Marie Arana, Book Critic Turned First Novelist," p. 19; May 15, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Cellophane, p. 21.

Entertainment Weekly, May 11, 2001, review of American Chica, p. 74; June 30, 2006, Clark Collis, review of Cellophane, p. 166.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Ft. Worth, TX), August 7, 2001, Rebecca Rodriguez, "Visiting the Compelling World of an ‘American Chica.’"

Hispanic Magazine, September, 2001, Gigi Anders, "Marie Arana: American Chica."

Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX), August 22, 2001, Malinda Nash, "Life from Both Sides: Marie Arana Memoir Probes Her Family's Biculturalism."

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2006, review of Cellophane, p. 475.

Library Journal, April 15, 2001, Adriana Lopez, review of American Chica, p. 106, and Rebecca Miller, "Bridging a Bicultural Divide," p. 112; June 15, 2006, Jennifer Stidham, review of Cellophane, p. 54.

Miami Herald (Miami, FL), July 5, 2006, Fabiola Santiago, review of Cellophane.

New York Times, July 16, 2006, Liesl Schillinger, "A Wilderness of Mud," review of Cellophane.

New York Times Book Review, May 13, 2001, Wendy Gimbel, "Bilingual Education: Born to a Peruvian Father and an American Mother, Author Examines Her Hyphenated Life," p. 7.

People, July 3, 2006, Pope Brock, review of Cellophane, p. 47.

Publishers Weekly, April 2, 2001, review of American Chica, p. 48; June 4, 2001, Joseph Barbato, "Uniting Worlds Through Language," p. 51; April 24, 2006, review of Cellophane, p. 37.


BookPage, (December 18, 2006), Harvey Freedenberg, review of Cellophane., (July 15, 1999), Craig Offman, "Washington Post Book World Editor Steps Down."

Washington Independent Writers, (December 18, 2006), "Marie Arana."

Washington Post, (September 13, 2001), "Testimonials: Marie Arana."

About this article

Arana, Marie 1949–

Updated About content Print Article