www.ambiente.us  JULY | JULIO 2009

The Eminent Jaime Manrique

Interview by Charlie Vázquez

Award-winning author and Colombian-born scholar Jaime Manrique is a legendary
presence in the literary world and an icon to gay Latino writers and others. A former
professor of creative writing at Columbia University (and elsewhere), he has crafted
over a dozen fiction and non-fiction volumes such as
Eminent Maricones, Twilight at the
and Latin Moon in Manhattan (all by University of Wisconsin Press). During the
1970s and 1980s, Jaime befriended the exiled Latin-American writers Reinaldo
Arenas (
Before Night Falls) and Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spiderwoman), before they
succumbed to AIDS. These experiences, plus his fascinating research on Spanish
poet Federico García Lorca, make up the backbone of
Eminent Maricones—the most
notorious of all his gay-themed books. Jaime’s essay, “The Last Days of Reinaldo
Arenas”, has been recently republished by the University of Wisconsin Press in
American Autobiography: Writings from Whitman to Sedaris
(University of Wisconsin
Press, 2009).  I recently met with “Don Jaime” to discuss his literary achievements and
future projects.

Charlie Vázquez | Julian Schnabel’s movie “Before Night Falls” helped to

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immortalize Reinaldo Arenas; his persecution, alienation, sickness, and feverish
opinions. Did you sense that Reinaldo would become a queer icon when you knew
him, or did you suspect that his story would disappear, as has happened to so many
renegade writers ravaged by political exploitation?

Jaime Manrique | When I knew him he was already a very important Latin-American
writer—he had readers all over the world. Toward the end of his life he gave me a
manuscript draft of
Before Night Falls, his most famous book, and I realized that he’d
written one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century. And although he was
known as a “writer’s writer”, that book was very mainstream and was read by all kinds
of people, gay and straight.

CV| I was moved by the literary flamboyance you employed in Eminent Maricones
(University of Wisconsin Press, 1999)—in terms of your striking use of denuding
memoir and colorful biography on the other writers. Arenas was Cuban. Puig was
Argentine. Lorca was Spanish and you are Colombian. What besides the Spanish
tongue and your collective queerness is the thread that connected you all? Is there a
queer Latino/Latin-American aesthetic and was it a motivation for writing this book?

JM |At the time I don’t think there was a Latino/Latin-American homosexual aesthetic—
maybe there is one now, though. What we did have in common was that we were
isolated figures and each very different, in many ways, in terms of style. They were the
most important homosexual writers in the Spanish language as well. I had been
fortunate to know Puig and Arenas and their lives had a really profound effect on me as
a writer. Lorca was a different story because I couldn’t know him, but I was approached
by a publisher to write a biography on him.
When I wrote it and turned it in, it was rejected,
but I continued to work on it. So when I wrote
about Puig and Arenas, they seemed like they
could be published together. With Lorca it was
also more of a political piece of writing because
when I began researching his life, like fifteen years
ago, his homosexuality was barely acknowledged.
It was whispered about and there was family
censorship. So I wanted to deconstruct his work
and show how his homosexuality expressed itself
explicitly, and sometimes not. I wanted to write
something that once and for all showed that
Lorca was gay and that his work is not only great
in many ways, but also homosexual in nature.

CV | And also his heated affair with surrealist king
Salvador Dalí!

JM | That’s a very underwritten part of the story as well, which perhaps someone will
flesh out further.

CV | You pointed out that Lorca’s time in New York was a turning point for him, in terms
of his honesty, in regards to his gayness. He was painfully critical of New York and
bemoaned it harshly, but didn’t you point out that his work was more open after his
time here?

JM | Yes. Everything happened after New York; the love sonnets he wrote to a man later
in his life, and his two best plays,
The Public and When Five Years Pass. It was after
New York that he finally came out. In the same way it could be said that Puig also wrote
his most openly homosexual books here in New York, something he could not have
done in Argentina at the time, because of death threats.
Kiss of the Spiderwoman was
eventually published worldwide, including Argentina, yet Puig never returned.
                                 CV | I strongly identified with Santiago’s “double life” in
 Latin Moon in Manhattan (University of Wisconsin Press,
                                 1992)—his freer one in gay Manhattan, and his more
                                 traditional, painful, family-oriented existence in
                                 Queens. Latino machismo is a notorious fuel for
                                 homophobia, but do you think things are getting better
                                 in Spanish-speaking communities and in the Spanish
                                -speaking world as a whole—in terms of acceptance
                                 and not just tolerance?
El Diario-La Prensa (New York’s
                                 biggest Spanish-language newspaper) recently came
                                 out in favor of gay marriage, for example.

                                 JM |It’s changed completely. People who are
                                 homophobic, they may not be as likely to be as vocal
                                 about it now as they were in the past. So I think that
                                 homophobes have to think twice about expressing
                                 their views more openly these days. When I lived in Colombia many
years ago with my lover at the time, we were the only openly gay couple in Bogotá and
probably in the whole country. There were many other gay couples of course, but it was
all secret.

CV | I read Twilight at the Equator (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) after reading
your autobiographical opening to
Eminent Maricones. How much of this book is

JM | Everything we write is autobiographical, because everything we write is an
expression of our true selves and who we are. The biography itself, the way certain
events coincide with other events in my life—there are many points of reference, but
there are also things in the text that aren't autobiographical at all, since they didn't
happen. And I think that with Twilight at the Equator, the way I saw it and what I was
going through at that time in my life, I wanted it to be something between fiction and
autobiography. I don’t think there were many writers at the time who were deliberately
blurring the barriers between
biography and fiction—when they inform each other they create something more
interesting than what actually happened to you. A lot of that book was also shaped by
my travels and journals.

CV |The lesbian scholar Camille Paglia recently expressed that the gay marriage
movement looks “childish” and “not sophisticated” for making radical demands on
Obama, when the world is plagued with very serious crises—such as the global
recession, the political and social upheaval in Iran, and North Korea’s recent threats of
nuclear attack. Where do you stand on this hot-button issue, as a Colombian-born
writer living in America—as someone who lived through the AIDS crisis, which claimed
so many radical voices?

JM |If gay people want to get married they should get married. Personally, I don’t want
to, but homosexual couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples—
that’s a no-brainer. The gay movement is very white, upper middle class, and Ivy
League—and also profoundly conservative and conformist. Gays at one time found a
new identity, a new way of being in the world, but what many are doing now is trying to
replicate heterosexual models. I’m a socialist—I grew up in Latin America during a
time when Marxism was the predominant philosophy. I see the family as an
oppressive and patriarchal unit that mirrors the repression of the establishment. Many
families are like mini repressive states. That’s not to say that I don’t love many people
in my family. When I was growing up I was more interested in the relationship between
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They loved each other, screwed other
people, and never got married, they didn't even live together—but they were completely
loyal to each other. In a way that seems to me a more admirable kind of marriage.

CV | Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on now?

JM | For the last ten years I've been writing historical novels. The most recent one was
about the struggle for independence in South America and now I’m writing a novel
about Cervantes—but in a way they’re not that different. I don’t think Cervantes was
homosexual by any means—I don’t think the idea was even
perceived at the time. But, he was very much an outsider. He spent many years of his
life in jail and suffered as a lower-class boy in Spain—and perhaps also because he
was Jewish. So it’s the idea of the outsider that attracts me and it’s what I've always
tried to be—to question everything. I think that this is what Paglia is talking about. I’m
not attacking parenthood, but I don’t want to spend my life going to church and to PTA
meetings when we have so much injustice, famines, and wars raging all around us.


Jaime Manrique’s books can be purchased here:

Photo by: Ghassan Zeineddine, Oran, Algeria, 2007

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