Marie Arana

Photo © Paul Kline

Marie Arana

Marie was born in Lima, Peru, the daughter of a Peruvian father and American mother. To friends and family, she is known as Marisi. She moved to the United States at the age of 9, and grew up in Summit, New Jersey. She completed her BA in Russian Language and Literature at Northwestern University, her MA in Linguistics and Sociolinguistics at Hong Kong University, and earned a certificate of scholarship (Mandarin language) at Yale University in China. She began her career in book publishing, becoming Vice President and Senior Editor at both Harcourt Brace and Simon & Schuster publishers in New York. In 1993, she started work at The Washington Post as Deputy Editor of the book review section, "Book World." She was promoted to Editor in Chief of that section, a position she held for 10 years. Currently, she is a Writer at Large for The Washington Post and a John W. Kluge Distinguished Scholar at the Library of Congress. In 2008, "Washingtonian" magazine called her one of the Most Powerful People in Washington. In 2009, she was Northwestern University's Alumna of the Year.

Marie is the author of a memoir about her bicultural childhood American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, which was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award as well as the PEN/Memoir Award, and won the Books for a Better Life Award. She is the editor of a collection of Washington Post essays about the writer's craft, The Writing Life: How Writers Think and Work (2002), which is used as a textbook for writing courses in universities across the country. Her novel Cellophane, about the Peruvian Amazon, was published in 2006 and selected as a finalist for the John Sargent Prize. Her most recent novel, published in January 2009, is Lima Nights. She has written the introductions for many books on Latin America, Hispanicity and biculturalism. Currently, she is at work on a biography of Simón Bolívar, which is on contract with a major publisher.

Marie has served on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. For many years, she has directed literary events for the Americartes Festivals at the Kennedy Center. She has served as an organizer for the Library of Congress's National Book Festival. She has been a judge for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award as well as for the National Book Critics Circle. Her commentary has been published in The Washington Post, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, The Week, Civilization, Smithsonian magazine, The National Geographic, and numerous other publications throughout the Americas.

Marie lives in Washingon, D.C. and Lima, Peru, with her husband, the literary critic Jonathan Yardley.

Coming in 2013

Bolivar: American Liberator

Simon & Schuster, 2013

A sweeping narrative worthy of a Hollywood epic, this is the authoritative biography of the warrior-statesman who was the greatest figure in Latin American history.

A larger-than-life figure from a tumultuous age, Simon Bolivar ignited a revolution, liberated six countries from Spanish rule and is revered as South America's George Washington. Bolivia was named after him; the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela still basks in his glory. And yet he remains little known to North American readers, in part because there has been no first-rate popular biography of the Great Liberator—until now.

Drawing on a wealth of primary documents, novelist and journalist Marie Arana brilliantly captures early nineteenth-century South America and the explosive tensions that helped revolutionize Bolivar. In 1813, he launched a campaign for the independence of Colombia and Venezuela, commencing a dazzling career that would take him across the rugged terrain of South America. From his battlefield victories to his ill-fated brief marriage and legendary love affairs, Bolivar emerges as a man of many facets: fearless general, brilliant strategist, consummate diplomat, passionate abolitionist, and gifted writer. A major work of history, Bolivar colorfully portrays a dramatic life even as it explains the rivalries and complications that bedeviled Bolivar's tragic last days.

Lima Nights

A Novel

Dial Press, 2010

"Erotic, catastrophic . . . Arana's novel of taboo passion, tragic misperception, and life's hidden dimensions is as shattering as it is seductive."

A man and a woman meet in a seedy tango bar in Lima. She is poor, indigenous, beautiful, and far too young to be there; he is white, middle-aged, bored, and formerly very rich. As she lures him onto the floor for a tango, he cannot know that the dance will take him through equal portions of love, suffering, and betrayal that will last for twenty years. The story of Carlos and Maria is the age-old tale of forbidden love, but in Arana's hands it is a spare and powerful instrument that takes on profound questions of racism, faith, and the hidden recesses of the human heart.

Carlos Bluhm leads the good life in upper-class Lima: He attends social functions with his elegant wife, goes out drinking with his three best friends, and has the occasional, fleeting assignation. Then he meets María Fernandez, a dancer at a tango bar in a rough part of town. The beautiful fifteen-year-old intoxicates him. An indigenous dark-skinned Peruvian, she represents everything his safe white world does not, and soon he can't get her out of his mind. They begin a passionate affair, one that will destroy his marriage and shatter the only reality he's ever known.

Flash forward twenty years: Against all odds, Carlos and María have remained together. But when María finally presses for a formal commitment, feelings long suppressed erupt in a tense endgame that sends both of them hurtling toward a dangerous resolution that will forever alter their lives.


A Novel

Dial Press, 2007

Don Victor Sobrevilla, a lovable, eccentric engineer, always dreamed of founding a paper factory in the heart of the Peruvian rain forest, and at the opening of this miraculous novel his dream has come true—until he discovers the recipe for cellophane. In a life already filled with signs and portents, the family dog suddenly begins to cough strangely. A wild little boy turns azurite blue. All at once Don Victor is overwhelmed by memories of his erotic past; his prim wife, Doña Mariana, reveals the shocking truth about her origins; the three Sobrevilla children turn their love lives upside down; the family priest blurts out a long-held secret....

A hilarious plague of truth has descended on the once well-behaved Sobrevillas, only the beginning of this brilliantly realized, generous-hearted novel. Marie Arana's style, originality, and trenchant wit will establish her as one of the most audacious talents in fiction today and Cellophane as one of the most evocative and spirited novels of the year.

The Writing Life

Writers On How They Think And Work

PublicAffairs, 2003

Featuring a gathering of more than fifty of contemporary literature's finest voices, this volume will enchant, move, and inspire readers with its tales of The Writing Life. In it, authors divulge professional secrets: how they first discovered they were writers, how they work, how they deal with the myriad frustrations and delights a writer's life affords. Culled from ten years of the distinguished Washington Post column of the same name, The Writing Life highlights an eclectic group of luminaries who have wildly varied stories to tell, but who share this singularly beguiling career. Here are their pleasures as well as their peeves; revelations of their deepest fears; dramas of triumphs and failures; insights into the demands and rewards.

Each piece is accompanied by a brief and vivid biography of the writer by Washington Post Book World editor Marie Arana who also provides an introduction to the collection. The result is a rare view from the inside: a close examination of writers' concerns about the creative process and the place of literature in America. For anyone interested in the making of fiction and nonfiction, here is a fascinating vantage on the writer's world--an indispensable guide to the craft.

American Chica

Two Worlds, One Childhood

Delta, 2002

In her father's Peruvian family, Marie Arana was taught to be a proper lady, yet in her mother's American family she learned to shoot a gun, break a horse, and snap a chicken's neck for dinner. Arana shuttled easily between these deeply separate cultures for years. But only when she immigrated with her family to the United States did she come to understand that she was a hybrid American whose cultural identity was split in half. Coming to terms with this split is at the heart of this graceful, beautifully realized portrait of a child who "was a north-south collision, a New World fusion. An American Chica."

Here are two vastly different landscapes: Peru—earthquake-prone, charged with ghosts of history and mythology—and the sprawling prairie lands of Wyoming. In these rich terrains resides a colorful cast of family members who bring Arana's historia to life...her proud grandfather who one day simply stopped coming down the stairs; her dazzling grandmother, "clicking through the house as if she were making her way onstage." But most important are Arana's parents: he a brilliant engineer, she a gifted musician. For more than half a century these two passionate, strong-willed people struggled to overcome the bicultural tensions in their marriage and, finally, to prevail.


Lima Nights

"Spare, unsentimental.... [A] finely tuned human drama."—Publishers Weekly

"An erotic, catastrophic love story that grows more mysterious by the page, Arana's novel of taboo passion, tragic misperception, and life's hidden dimensions is as shattering as it is seductive."—Booklist, starred review

"Unflinching ... compelling.... Intelligent."—Library Journal

"Arana's prose soars with poetic imagery, evocative description and moving characterization."—Rocky Mountain News




"Memorable fiction.... Arana brings a freshness to the style that is all her own, elegant and lyrical but at the same time sparse, and no doubt enriched by a vocabulary infused with the rhythms of her two languages."—The Miami Herald

"Rich in themes, symbolism, conflict and character.... It's also, for those who just want a good tale, a brilliant piece of storytelling that combines magical realism in the tradition of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez with comedic looks at human foibles and misunderstandings a la Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream."—The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"Exuberant and virtuosic.... Conflict takes on a teeming array of forms in Cellophane: whites versus natives, religion versus magic, feudalism versus revolution. It's a vision of the rain forest as a place where every strain of human drama grows as tangled as the encroaching vines—and in depicting this, Arana has wound her themes together with an energetic, subtly controlled wildness."—San Francisco Chronicle Books

"Marie Arana's sumptuous, often erotic and wholly enchanting novel, Cellophane.... owes a debt to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende.... A superb example of the magic that a gifted storyteller can work with ink and paper."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Arana's writing is both lush and funny.... This is a great book."—People

"An absolutely spellbinding tale.... Arana's prose is captivating, and she provides some incredibly beguiling moments."—Philadelphia City Paper



The Writing Life

"A sprawling, addictive addition to a seemingly bottomless category..." -- Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2003

"This book is truly good...What makes the book especially interesting is Arana's two to three-page biography of each author..." -- Houston Jewish Herald Voice, May 2003

"[a] splendid collection of fifty-five essays...For students and beginning writers, the essays are rich in useful advice and examples." -- ForeWord Magazine, May/June issue

"a fascinating array of talent and revelation... the essays are both instructive and amusing...vividly enlightening and entertaining." -- Library Journal, April 1, 2003.



American Chica

"Lush, mystical ... a memoir that blends family historia and the puzzling deadly politics of Peru."—USA Today

"American Chica is a fascinating blend of autobiography and soap opera, memoir and meditation. ... full of larger-than-life characters and stranger-than-fiction situations. ... delightful."—Washington Post

"Arana's intimate and intelligent memoir captures exactly the pulse of a changing America. ...[C]learly demonstrates her ability to write crystalline prose and make erudite cultural observations."—Library Journal

"Part history, part family memoir ... American Chica reads like a collaboration between John Cheever and Isabel Allende.... One of the many reasons the reader can't put this memoir down is the author's impressive command of her craft.... Arana has left her own imprint on her material, while at the same time displaying virtuosity in the storyteller's traditional gifts: spareness, clarity, and a passion for allegory."—The New York Times Book Review

A South American man, a North American woman—hoping against hope, throwing a frail span over the divide, trying to bolt beams into sand. There was one large lesson my parents had yet to learn as they strode into the garden with friends, hungry for rum and fried blood: There is a fundamental rift between North and South America, a flaw so deep it is tectonic. The plates don't fit. The earth is loose. A fault runs through. Earthquakes happen. Walls are likely to fall. —from American Chica

Marie Arana Speaks at the Embassy of Peru — May 2010

Author and Washington Post critic Marie Arana speaks at the Embassy of Peru on being a bridge between cultures on May 1, 2010.

Also visit Marie's personal website for her latest news and events.