Q&A with John Manuel Arias, author of Where There Was Fire

John Manuel Arias is the author of Where There Was Fire (Flatiron Books). His poem “Juana Attempts an Abecedarian” was published in The Offing’s Poetry department on May 31, 2023. Q&A conducted by Patrick Mullen-Coyoy, Deputy Editor. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Patrick Mullen-Coyoy: Hi John! I’m glad you have time to talk to us a bit today about your book. Before we dive into Where There Was Fire, your poem “Juana Attempts an Abecedarian” was published in the past couple of months in The Offing and was just recently nominated for Best of the Net from our team. I’m curious — what does this poem in particular mean for you? 

John Manuel Arias: So “Juana Attempts an Abecedarian” was a chance for me to have a lot of fun, which is what poetry does for me. Spiritually it allows me to have a lot of fun, and so challenging myself to do an abecedarian with each line also having alliteration — so let’s say, an alliterative abecedarian — was a joy. And it’s fun. It’s heavy. The rhythm is really great for me, and it allowed me to play in a way that prose doesn’t always allow me to play, and that was a joy.

PMC: Were you able to bring similar kinds of play to the work you were doing while writing the novel? 

JMA: I tried my best as well. I took a lot of cues, I mean, not only from poetry and poets. Specifically Mónica de la Torre, who is a very playful poet, and she’s super smart. She does somersaults, she plays with English and Spanish. And Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, she also plays with language in a way that a child creates a universe for itself. I really wanted to do that as well, I wanted to do somersaults in the sentences. I wanted to propel the reader forward in a way that was also pretty joyous.

PMC: As a reader of the novel, I definitely did feel that compulsion to keep reading, to keep going. You talk too in other interviews about being an associative poet, and how those associations came out in Where There Was Fire. Could you talk about that a little bit?

JMA: Of course. So I don’t believe either culturally or artistically in linear time. And abandoning chronology and linear time in the book meant that I needed something besides sentences to push the reader forward. They had to get through the novel. And how were they going to piece together the plot? I thought that from chapter to chapter, scene to scene, I would create anchor images or anchor associations, so that the reader could hopefully, flawlessly go from scene to scene, or chapter to chapter, arc to arc, whatever it is. 

A lot of readers are super resistant to it, especially American readers. I feel like a Latin American reader also abandons the idea of chronology. It is not as integral to their understanding of the world. I think [a lot of American readers] are very resistant to jumping through time in a very postmodern, Gabriel García Márquez kind of way. But that’s the way that I like to tell the story, because life doesn’t happen in a straight line, our histories don’t happen in a straight line. We learn them piece by piece from different perspectives. And so that’s what Where There Was Fire really does.

PMC: In reading works where characters are maybe speaking in a different language, but it’s rendered in English, I’m always really curious how that decision-making happens on the author’s part. We have inverted punctuation at moments. We have moments where a word is introduced in Spanish, and then glossed in English, to use that translation term. We’ll talk about a tortillera, and then there’ll be a moment where it’s mentioned that that kind of means “a lesbian.” How did you think about how Spanish shows up in this book that’s written in English?

JMA: I tried to eliminate most of the Spanish words or elements, unless it was absolutely necessary. The book is set in Costa Rica and it’s happening in Spanish, so the reader needs to understand that this book happens to be written in English because my mastery [and] comfort level is in English. With that in mind, any Spanish words that show up are because they’re sort of untranslatable even to other Spanish speakers. 

So a “guachimán” is a phenomenon in Costa Rica. It’s these guys who “watch cars” even though no one asked them to. And it’s a really rough, bastardized phrase of “watchman.” In the rest of Latin America, that idea doesn’t necessarily exist, or a tortillera doesn’t really exist as sort of like — I’m not gonna call it a euphemism, but it’s also not a slur — as lesbian, right? So those parts definitely showed up in Spanish. However, I always wanted the reader to know, with that upside down punctuation that the characters were speaking, that the narrative was happening in Spanish at all times. 

PMC: We’ve talked a little bit about what’s going on in the construction of the novel, but for someone who hasn’t read it yet or hasn’t gotten a chance to pick it up: could you tell us a little bit more about what Where There Was Fire is about on a basic level?

JMA: It begins in the 1960s on this banana plantation owned by this very sinister American Fruit Company, and one night this banana plantation burns to the ground in the midst of a cover-up. And with that fire, with that burning plantation, goes the future of a family of Costa Rican women. And three decades later we have our matriarch who is left, but she is estranged from her daughter, and during this freak hurricane they have to reconnect in order to build a future together.

PMC: There’s a great deal of magical realism in this novel too. I’m curious — when you were thinking about building up this world, what role did magic or magical realism play in constructing this reality?

JMA: Ingrid Rojas Conterras talks about it being like a very cultural understanding. I think of it as a cultural inevitability for Latin Americans or people who are indigenous to other countries, whether here in the Americas or Africa, parts of Asia, even parts of Europe, too, because this sort of porous nature of the two worlds where magic can enter happens in a lot of places. Specifically, I believe that magical realism as a literary genre is a really interesting tool to get you, as the writer and as the reader, where you need to go. 

Magic realism uses tropes — for example, ghosts — not in a way that horror uses ghosts. It uses ghosts as a way of uncovering what has been buried. The ghosts are pointing to something that has been erased, and they are revealing themselves in the corporeal world in order for the living characters to finally discover and acknowledge it. Magical realism is a way of mythologizing something that has been forgotten, and in that mythology the reader is now unable to forget it, because it is now myth. And so magical realism is a savior of memory.

So some things are just going to be told [using magical realism]. They’re just going to happen that way. It’s just another tool in my tool belt and something that is important, also, culturally. I think my ability to use it, or another Latin American writer’s ability to use magical realism, is only bastioned by culture, and them being used to it and living in it and believing it. So I used it mostly as a tool and a mode to get to where I needed the reader to go.

For example, there is the appearance of this cane toad [in Where There Was Fire], which is this toad that’s native to Costa Rica, and it is, you know, very exaggerated. It’s three feet tall, it is croaking and hideous, and it’s spewing poison from its back. The novel also talks a lot about this pesticide used on this banana plantation, and this cane toad is called a cane toad because it lives in the sugar cane fields. And what does it do? It eats the pests that are threatening the crops. This cane toad is also toxic and poisonous to humans. I thought, “What else protects the crops? What else is poisonous to humans?” And it became that pesticide. It allowed me to use a metaphor to bring it to life right in front of the characters, because they don’t know about this pesticide. But they do know about this toad that is before them. 

PMC: I’m glad I’ve never seen one before. 

JMA: No, they’re super scary. Zero out of ten, don’t recommend.

PMC: Great metaphor, though. Gorgeous metaphor. I’m interested in hearing a bit more about how you wrote up this family. We see this family tree open at the beginning of the book, and we focus on a few key characters. Where does this family come from for you?

JMA: This family has a lot of roots in my own family history. I borrowed a lot from reality because I just loved the characters in life so much that they couldn’t not make an appearance. I loved these characters, and I say it in the acknowledgments as well. I acknowledge their existence, and I say that hopefully they’ll forever be loved on the page. Neighbors, great aunts, a little bit of my grandma, etc., show up, come to life, and I had a lot of fun with reimagining them in a parallel universe. And I hope the reader does too.

PMC: I was wondering a little bit about how you thought about the relationship between Lyra and Carmen as sisters throughout the work. Spoiler alert: we lose Carmen relatively early in the narrative, but she’s still very present throughout the rest of the novel. How did you think about that relationship the two share to one another?

JMA:  Being a woman in Latin America is incredibly hard, and being a daughter is incredibly hard, but being a sister is a lot of pressure as well. Lyra is a very fiery personality. She is very gung ho, very independent, and she is estranged from her mother because she rejects her mother because of her mother’s sort of  “emotional crimes,” let’s say — her keeping secrets, her lying, her abandoning. And [Lyra’s] bitterness is a very strong personality, which allows Carmen, who is very emotional and very sensitive, to bloom into this puddle of emotions. It was important to contrast them to see how this love between this fiery personality and this very watery personality could exist. But the ways in which they could also hurt one another really badly.

PMC: You mentioned that Teresa, at some point, does abandon her daughters. She’s gone through some of the worst experiences of her life, and she packs up to go to Washington, D.C. Why did it feel important for you to give us this moment with her living in the United States?

JMA: I was born and raised in D.C. My grandparents left their children to work in D.C. My grandmother was the maid of the ambassador’s wife, and my grandfather was the chauffeur of the limousine. These rich Costa Ricans — the ambassador, his wife — were evil people. Bad, abusive, abused power, abused everyone around them. And the way that immigrant communities come into the United States, where they specifically decide to set up shop, has always been really fascinating to me. 

And to imagine your own family, to imagine characters participating in American history is also really cool. The book is set in the sixties. It’s a lot of political, tumultuous times — the MLK riots and Washington, D.C. being on fire was really important to me as well, because my family also lived through that. My grandparents actually drove through all of these protesters and these broken-hearted people to save their friend and bring her back to southeast D.C. Being first generation or being an immigrant and imagining your family participating in U.S. history is really interesting, and I thought it was really important to put on the page.

PMC: Absolutely. I really appreciated the way it opens up Teresa’s world to some degree, but also, if it’s not clear yet, it opens it up into this very transnational story. This is not just about Costa Ricans and Costa Rica but the United States too. 

JMA: Right? Because the United States also has a lot to do. You know, this very sinister company is called the American Fruit Company. It’s about American exploitation, American agribusiness, and the poisoning of workers by Americans. The United States always exists as a shadow in the book. And for this short time we get access to Teresa being in that shadow, but face-to-face.

PMC: In line with that: as I was reading, I was coming across stuff I didn’t know about the fruit companies in Costa Rica. Maybe a name was changed here [or there], but these poisons did exist and the ways these things happened did come from real life. I’m curious, what level of research did you have to do to write this pseudo-history or pseudo-reality, based on what actually happened in Costa Rica? 

JMA: There’s tons of research. I’ve been calling [the novel] speculative historical fiction, because these fruit companies did really horrific things politically [and] agriculturally at a local level — meddling in governments, local governments, national governments, slave labor,  pesticides. A complete exploitation of people. It was really important for me to create in the American Fruit Company this amalgamation of what these fruit companies were capable of, what they had actually done without getting sued. You can’t really name them, because, you know, that’s a lawsuit. We understand [them] as meddling in developing countries, interests, and all of these things. But they also have the most powerful lawyers in the world. They are very high powered, they are very methodical, and they don’t care. They will come after you. They will destroy you. 

I went back to Costa Rica earlier this year, and I was talking about a part of the novel, about this pesticide that in real life was used. It’s called Nemagon. It sounds like a very cartoonish villain, and they’re using it as this very toxic pesticide. I was telling people about what I was writing about, and they stopped and they were like, “They’re going to send you to jail.” Latin Americans know the consequences that come with talking about these kinds of things, let alone writing about these kinds of things. So I needed history to properly point the finger. I needed that research. I needed lots of historical texts, personal interviews, all of these things in order to properly build my case against these fruit companies without exactly naming them.

PMC: We focus a lot around matriarchs in this work. We’ve got Teresa, we’ve got Lyra, we’ve got Amarga, and in a lot of ways it’s their story. But it’s also the story of these men in their lives. 

José María has a lot on his plate. We’ve got the instances of violence that he enacts, and he also had the violences he’s experienced that get revealed to us over the course of the story, some only towards the end of his narrative. What space or role did you want him to have in this story?

JMA: It was hard to include a man in the narrative. But the novel is critiquing and it is damning machismo and patriarchy, so I needed a man in there. He is the manifestation or the tool of [it] even if he tries to fight against it, because people all can try to fight against the systems that either privilege us or marginalize us. 

What happened with this pesticide was it was sterilizing men. Even if these men were agents of patriarchy and machismo, they were also experiencing [reproductive] violence from a greater level. So it was really important to include José María. It was never about giving him the benefit of the doubt. With every single one of the characters, I thought it was really important to give them a lot of room, and to give them a lot of grace and a lot of dignity to do what they did. Even the women make really bad choices, but they’re always given the grace and the dignity to do so, to repent, because life doesn’t always do that. So Jose Maria is also given an equal amount of grace, even if he is unable to do what is right.

PMC: Absolutely. I mean, these characters are very messed up, John. But I think you do give them a lot of grace and a lot of interiority that allows us the space to understand where it’s coming from. 

We spend a lot of our time with Teresa and Lyra, following them around, seeing what’s going on. And there’s other characters that we only see for one brief moment or chapter. Thinking about trying to handle this relatively large ensemble cast, when did a character for you feel like they rose to the level that we needed to focus on them for this little moment?

JMA: I wanted to focus on all of them equally, and my editor was like, “No, you can’t do that. You cannot tell the story that way, they cannot all have equal weight in this story.” So all of these characters were human. It was really important to make them round and dynamic, but these characters were all used in different ways, and a way that they could be used was to highlight and to understand other characters.

So we understand Teresa from her own POV, we understand her from Lyra’s POV, which is also tinged with resentment. But then we also have the three Marias, who were her childhood best friends, and the godmothers of her daughters, to understand her in a way to balance Lyra’s idea of her mother, to balance Teresa’s own defensiveness about herself, and to really get this multidimensional understanding of the character through other characters. But even these characters are their own people. I’m talking about giving dignity and grace but also allowing these characters to have humanity, so it was a lot of balancing.

PMC: I know we’ve talked about the great tragedies in this story, and we talked earlier about play. What were the moments that felt a little bit more fun or light or playful in the novel for you?

JMA: I thought it was so important, because it is a heavy book. Like you said, the characters are really messed up, and there’s a lot of tragedy. I could not make a reader go through 280 pages without adding some jokes, without adding some joy. And I couldn’t make these characters live their lives without little sparks of joy. Because why go on if there are not little sparks of joy? As a writer, too, why would I go on in this story without some sparks of joy? I also need a little bit of a laugh to continue, because life is very beautiful. It’s very tragic. It’s very fucked up. But there are these little moments of ebullience.

I had a lot of fun with the newscasters for the news channels. ‘Cause this freak hurricane happens and Costa Rica’s not used to hurricanes, just because of geographically where it is. So [we’re] having these news channels and these weathermen deal with this kind of freak thing, and midway through the hurricane viewers know the hurricane by different names. It goes through the list of these very ridiculous names, because these newscasters are hoping that if they can identify this storm, they can ask for it to stop. One anchor is getting very drunk, and he’s saying that this hurricane will hover over Costa Rica for a hundred years and drown the bridge between North America and South America and get rid of it once and for all. 

It’s kind of, you know, these little moments of absurdity. I love absurd plays. I love the absurdist movement because there’s a lot of comedy. There’s a lot of ridiculousness happening in those pages in those plays and those books. And I thought it was really important to do what you said and to play a little bit.

PMC: The moment that stands out for me is when Teresa’s visiting a basilica, and there’s the Virgen de los Ángeles, who’s kind of just stuck there. She’s pissed. She’s mad. She doesn’t wanna be there anymore. And I just remember reading this like, “Oh my God, how fun!”

JMA: I mean, it worked for a perfect metaphor. Do you know what I mean? For the readers who haven’t read yet, the patron saint of Costa Rica is the Virgen de los Ángeles. This Virgin Mary materialized as a little stone statuette, and it was to tell the clergy that this is exactly where the basilica to her needed to be built. And for centuries they didn’t listen to her — all these basilicas fell. Finally, they did it on the correct spot, and the Virgin Mary, rather than being allowed to go perform miracles somewhere else, is then sort of housed in this coffin to be put on the shrine, right? And to be worshiped but also to be confined. 

It’s this function of machismo in Latin America, called Marianismo, which is the pressure for a woman to live up to the example of the Virgin Mary — to be pure, to be graceful, to be the perfect mother, to be the perfect wife, to be virginal until she’s not. And this Virgin Mary, who’s trapped in this gold sarcophagus, is just like, “What did you all do? Why would you trap me?” And she’s pissed about it. That was a really fun moment to write.

PMC: I’m an epigraph girlie — I love a good quotation at the beginning of a book. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about what brought you to choose these Eunice Odio quotes that show up at the beginning?

JMA: Eunice Odio was a very fascinating human. I mean, you read her poetry, and it is wild. She was in a completely different world. She was doing things that were far beyond her years, or even maybe more ancient. Things that had been done and maybe forgotten. She has this really fabulous 4 volume epic poem called The Fire’s Journey. And she was this fabulous woman poet in the mid-century in Costa Rica who was ostracized by her peers just like many Costa Rican women artists were, and she moved to Mexico in order to have a little bit more freedom in Mexico City. In Costa Rica, the male dominated artistic world has done that to myriad women, including Chavela Vargas. Chavela Vargas is from Costa Rica, and because she was a lesbian, and because she was a woman, she was ostracized, and she had to go somewhere else in order to bloom. And that’s the same story with Eunice Odio. 

She’s pretty forgotten and unknown in Costa Rica, but there has become this very new cult following. I am a part of this cult following, and I love the translation that was done of The Fire’s Journey. It came out a few years ago. And Eunice was doing such bananas things on the page that just spoke to what my work was also trying to do — really break a lot of barriers and really become its own sort of mythic entity.

PMC: A bananas poet for a bananas book, right? 

JMA: Yes, absolutely. 

PMC: You remind me, in mentioning Chavela Vargas being lesbian — you’re Costa Rican, but you’re also queer. And in reading this book, I think often we’re looking for a character or a moment or some big, bright, flashing neon sign like, “This is like a queer character.” For a lot of the book, queerness shows up, but it tends to be kind of in the periphery, or a little bit more subtle, or it doesn’t underline itself for readers, necessarily. I’m wondering how you thought about where queerness fits into the world of Where There Was Fire.

JMA: Queerness as sexuality is a little bit sparse. There is an almost-relationship between two men. There are these sapphic undertones to women’s friendship. But being a queer author, anything that I write is queer. Queerness is not only the sexual aspect of it, the desire. It is also the critique of cisheteropatriarchy, which is what the book tries to do. It tries to dismantle, tries to critique, and to analyze and to liberate these characters from the system, and really point the finger at the real-world systems. So queerness in that way was really important, and I think really integral to the novel.

PMC: Absolutely. And I will say, for my part, I loved seeing those moments where we’re getting hints of things here and there. I just remember being like, “Is this gay?” 

JMA: All of it is gay! 

PMC: It really is! On a very gay note: why does Martha Stewart play such a central role in your marketing for this novel?

JMA: You know, it started as an inside joke to myself. Martha Stewart is the original influencer. For the last 30 years she has been telling people how to better live their lives, and she moves products, and people iconized [her].

There’s this one photo that she did during the pandemic where she really blew up on Instagram, where she took that really kissy selfie in the pool, and everyone was recreating that picture. I recreated that picture, and I’m just like, “Oh, she’s kind of the move. She’s kind of it.” And I started leaning more into including Martha Stewart into my own branding and then the branding of the book. I have a monthly mood board [on Instagram], and the first picture is always Martha Stewart holding a really badly edited version of my book in her hand. I don’t know. It became this kind of meme. I made a meme of it.

She’s so iconic but also so absurd. She’s like 80 years old, but she’s, like, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and she looked great, and she is high as shit all the time, and she went to jail, and she didn’t snitch. She’s just kind of like this really fascinating amalgamation of contradictions. And I find it really endearing, and I find it really cool.

PMC: What a beautiful icon to represent a book that’s full of contradictions!

I think usually we would ask, what’s next? But I’m a little more curious about what’s been on your back burner for a while? What’s the project that you would like to do one day, but haven’t gotten to yet?

JMA: I started, but I have not fleshed out this novella about La Cegua. La Cegua makes an appearance in the book, and for those who don’t know, La Cegua — or in other parts of Central America, La Ciguanaba — is this woman demon who punishes men by turning her face into a horse’s skull and frightening them to death. 

She’s really cool. I love the folklore around her, and I’m writing a novella imagining her in the current day. So instead of her riding on men’s horses in the middle of the night, she’s in their Ubers. [It’s about] what it’s like when she calls an Uber driver and what it’s like drinking a beer named after her.  [It’s] this commercialized, new version of herself and a background, also, of how she became La Cegua in modern day. It’s called Segua, Cegua, Tzegua, and it’s spelled in the different ways that it is known. All of these iterations of fascinating folklore.

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