An Interview

Celebrated professor, novelist, translator, memoirist, and multiple Lambda Award Finalist, Jaime Manrique, discusses his new project, a historical novel based on Cervantes’ life, the future of Latino LGBT literature, the greatest novel written by a Puerto Rican, and Robert Rodriguez’s new film Machete.

Charlie Vázquez: Your most recent book is based on Cervantes. What was your motivation to write it? Was it a lifelong fascination with him?

Jaime Manrique: Definitely, but with Don Quixote more specifically and not just Cervantes. As a child, I used to read all the time and people in my family would tell me, “you’re going to go mad like Don Quixote,” since he went mad from reading all those chivalry novels.

I actually read Don Quixote for the first time when I was in my early twenties and I fell in love with the book. As for Cervantes, about ten years ago I was watching a program on television about him and I had no idea he’d lived such an interesting life. I remember mentioning to a friend of mine, the writer Esmeralda Santiago, over coffee, about how incredible his life had been and how someone should make a movie about him.

About eight years ago, when I started teaching at Columbia, the first seminar I taught when I became a full-time professor was on Don Quixote because he hadn’t been taught yet in that department—so I think that that’s where the idea was born. For the first time, I paid attention to the fact that this other guy had written a fake Don Quixote, the apocryphal Don Quixote, so it was around that time that it really began to percolate. Little by little, it began to grow in my imagination.

CV: A lot of young gay Latino writers consider your book, Eminent Maricones, to be much like a portal illuminating the chronological lineage of the Spanish-speaking gay literary aesthetic, beginning with Federico García Lorca. What are your thoughts on the link between past writers such as Manuel Puig and Reinaldo Arenas and the newer generation of gay Latino writers that seems to be flourishing?

JM: Which new gay Latino writers—like you and Manny Xavier?

CV: Well, the ones that you know of…

JM: Well, Emanuel Xavier is the one I know best, his poetry and so forth, and even his novel which I love.

And I’ve read a few things by you—I know that there are many, many others, but I know the work of the older generation more, like Mariana Romo Carmona, the lesbian poet from Chile.

It’s not that I’m not interested in the newer writers…I did the anthology Bésame Mucho which…

CV: Which also includes Rigoberto Gonzalez and Erasmo Guerra…

JM: And those are really fabulous writers. Erasmo is promising and Rigoberto—I love his memoir and his poetry…and who else?

CV: Well, I don’t know, but I did read it a while back! We’ll have to see when this new anthology Charles Rice-González and I are co-editing comes out.

There are lots of new voices out there that no one really knows about yet, so maybe it’s just hard for gay Latinos to get published, I don’t know.

JM: Extremely hard. And now it must be harder than ever because there are few houses left that have gay imprints.

Ten, fifteen years ago, all the major houses had a gay imprint and of course they were publishing mainly gay white writers, not Latino writers. For example, my first novel Latin Moon in Manhattan was rejected by everybody in the United States for four to five years.

St. Martin’s Press finally published it, but by that point, Latinos had a better presence in publishing overall, with books like The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos.

That book was such a huge success that all of a sudden Latino writers became hot.

Rechy was a classic, but I don’t think that he emerged as a Latino writer until much later. People talked about him as a gay writer, but not a Latino/Chicano one as much.

CV: So, what are you currently reading and how do you go about choosing books to read as a writer yourself? Recommendations through friends? How do you go about learning about the books that you dive into?

JM: I read all the time, non-stop. A lot of the reading I do is the work that my students produce. Sometimes, I’m asked to review books, but not as much as in the past; then there are my friends—my friends are always publishing books.

See, I have a bunch here. There is yours that you gave me, Toxicology by Jessica Hagedorn, Monique Truong’s new book—I try to read all the work my friends publish.

Esmeralda Santiago has a new book coming out next year that I got to read in advance, Conquistadora, which is over 600 pages. I read it in manuscript form and I think that it’s going to be hailed as the greatest novel a Puerto Rican has ever written.

And then there’s all the research I do, such as with the Cervantes book; books on the Golden Age of Spain, on the renaissance in Europe—books on culture, religion, education, the things you have to know about when writing historical novels. And I like to read poetry.

CV: Any specific genres?

JM: Not really, just contemporary poetry. When I travel to places like Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico, there are always lots of poets that I meet who give me their books, which I always read.

CV: What do you think is the future of Latino literature and how gay Latino writers will fit into it?

JM: Well, there are more Latino writers now than ever before, but most of the famous ones are heterosexual, and a few closeted ones, of course.

Famous Latino writers are a tremendous force. But I don’t know that people still think in terms of, let’s say, African-American literature and so forth.

It’s presented that way in schools sometimes, but people are just interested in them as writers and they can become part of the mainstream. So with the color thing, it’s just bad taste to use it, because they’re American writers foremost.

Look at Junot Diaz—he really transcends that category. He’s a writer who’s been read by millions of people because he’s a tremendous writer. The fact that he’s Latino has nothing really to do with that.

It’s like what happened with Latin-American writers—García Márquez is universal. He’s one of the great writers of the world, and people know that he’s from Colombia, but he’s not necessarily considered a “Colombian” writer.

So I think that a similar thing will happen with Latino writers in the United States, especially as we keep multiplying…

[Both Laugh Aloud]

JM: Have you seen the movie Machete?

CV: ¿Machete? No. Where does it take place?

JM: On the border. It’s a black comedy, very funny and gory—and very political. It shows the future where all these Latinos come to the border with machetes.

CV: To take over.

JM: [laughs] Yes, to take over.

Read more about Jaime Manrique at: www.jaimemanrique.com/



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