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Jaime Manrique, 1993


A Latino Voice: Talking with Colombian Author Jaime Manrique
 

By Owen Keehnen

 
St. Martin's Press has just released one of the most popular gay novels of the year in paperback. Jaime Manrique's Latin Moon in Manhattan (1992) is the wonderful, charming, funny, and often poignant story of Santiago Martinez, a gay Colombian who feels he is an outsider to both the gay and Colombian communities. This "quite autobiographical" novel is a triumph for author Jaime Manrique, who conquered the language and his doubts and wrote a touching and funny coming-out novel. Recently I had a chance to talk with Manrique about his life, coming out, his writing career, and his intent to master the language.

[Since this interview, Manrique has published two volumes of poems, My Night with García Lorca (1995) and Tarzan, My Body, Christopher Columbus (2001), the novel Twilight at the Equator (2003), and the memoir Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me (1999). With Joan Larkin, he has translated Sor Juana's Love Poems (1997).]
 

Keehnen: I know you wrote at least one novel, a political thriller, prior to Latin Moon in Manhattan. Is this your first gay book?

Manrique: Prior to Latin Moon, I had published two works of fiction: in Spanish a novella called My Father's Corpse, and then a political thriller called Colombian Gold. In both of them the character was basically bisexual, but Latin Moon is my first openly gay novel.

Keehnen: Latin Moon in Manhattan is a wonderful book. I especially enjoyed your characters: they were so broad and colorful and vivid. Where do you think your ability to create such memorable characters comes from?

Manrique: There was a period, when I was reading Dickens, that I noticed how he would sometimes introduce a character that would appear for only a paragraph or two and never again in that novel, yet the impression was very memorable. I think that is something I still aspire to.

Keehnen: What was the most important thing for you to keep in mind when recreating Little Colombia for your book?

Manrique: The people. When I think of Jackson Heights, I can go there and find Colombian food and newspapers and things, but the thing that comes to mind are the people who live there. I was trying to be true to my experience. The Colombians I know there are very lively, quirky, and eccentric.

Keehnen: I read somewhere that you are teaching a course called "Gay and Lesbian Latino Voices." Tell me about the writers on your syllabus.

Manrique: Well . . .Cernuda, probably I would say the most important Spanish poet of the twentieth century. But because he was openly gay and wrote at length about his homosexual experiences, his work is not as well known as the work of, say, García Lorca, who was very veiled about it. Much of the course involves rescuing these people who had sort of been forgotten.

Keehnen: What sets Latino Gay and Lesbian literature apart from other gay and lesbian literature?

Manrique: Perhaps due to the Catholic Church and the values of Spanish culture, which are very macho oriented, the writers who were gay had to deal with much fear and repression, so their work couldn't be as open as it was here. We don't have a writer the equivalent of a James Baldwin in our culture. Back then it would have been impossible for someone to be that open. Beginning in the 1960s that began to change. Also, the work of Latino gay and lesbian writers is usually involved much more with politics because those were legitimate concerns from day to day.

Keehnen: You've described Latin Moon as a coming out novel. Was the whole Latino machismo thing a difficult barrier for you to overcome when you came out?

Manrique: As a gay man it was very, very difficult. In terms of coming out to my family, it took forever, though I was a practicing homosexual since I was an adolescent.

Keehnen: Do you ever return to Colombia?

Manrique: The last time I was there was five years ago.

Keehnen: Do you have any comment about gay and lesbian life there?

Manrique: Still very repressed. Being gay is still thought of as being a sin by many. In big cities like Bogotá and Barranquilla, where I grew up, I don't think there was a gay couple that lived together in the whole city. There were people who had relationships, but they kept separate places. I heard from someone who was recently there that things are beginning to change, but it is slow.

Keehnen: Was there a moment when you first decided you would become a writer?

Manrique: I think I was very young. It was easy in that there have been writers with my last name in Spanish culture, not that I was directly related to any of them, but I felt entitled. "With a name like this I can be a writer too." From very early on there was no question, although I didn't receive any encouragement from my mother's family. They thought I was an odd, sissy child. In Colombian society writers have always been very controversial and admired and listened to, and that's what I thought it meant to be a writer. I had no idea.

Keehnen: And what did you find out that it meant?

Manrique: It's a very tough vocation. The rewards are very few. The world isn't all that interested in helping most writers, and then you must deal with the publishing world, which is filled with many sharks and piranhas.

Keehnen: Because English isn't your native language, do you think you are more conscious and aware of the words you choose as a writer?

Manrique: I am just really learning how to write in English. At this point it is kind of fun because it is a limitation that I feel. When I write it doesn't come pouring out of me, sometimes I have to struggle finding a word or making sense of a sentence or a line of dialogue. It is a very enchanting and beautiful language. I want my writing in English to get to the point where I can make it musical.

Keehnen: What are you working on now?

Manrique: Five years ago when I went to Colombia, I discovered there had been a murder in my family fifty years ago. I became obsessed with it, and for five years I have been writing about it and trying to get at it. It's a lot about the history of my family in Colombia. It remains to be seen what it will become.

Keehnen: Give me one way in which the success of Latin Moon in Manhattan has changed your life.

Manrique: It's changed where I live. I don't live on 8th Avenue anymore; about a month ago I moved down to the Village. Now I live on Bank Street, which is a very quaint and beautiful street of brownstones. It is like a set from a Merchant-Ivory movie. This just doesn't seem like my neighborhood yet, but now I feel I can really write about Hell's Kitchen. Oh, and Willa Cather lived on this street, just a few houses down. She wrote all her great books there. It's a good omen.

Keehnen: Thanks, Jaime, and all the best to you.

Manrique: Thank you, Owen.

 
About Owen Keehnen
 
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films, www.racksandrazors.com.
 
Related Pages
 

Latino Literature

Latina/Latino Americans

Arenas, Reinaldo

Baldwin, James

Cather, Willa

Cernuda, Luis

García Lorca, Federico

Puig, Manuel

 

 
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