John Manuel Arias Is a Unique Fish In an Ocean of Poetry

The writer talks about owning a cafe, writing as a gay Costa Rican and Uruguayan, and more

John Manuel Arias is a unique fish. As one example, let’s look at Manuel Arias’s website.

Many writers don’t have websites. Those that do, often have, at most, a single photo of themselves. Arias, though, has a gallery of photos. And in some of them, he bares more skin than is common in literary circles.

This vividness comes across in Arias’s work, both fiction and poetry. And you get a sense of his distinctiveness in the interview below. John Manuel Arias has completed a novel, which he updates us on below. You can read some of his writing, and learn more about Arias, on his website.

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Interview with John Manuel Arias

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Southeast D.C. to a Costa Rican dad and Uruguayan mom. I always say the sounds of my childhood were sirens, gunshots, and the ice cream truck jingle. I was definitely a manic kid—running, jumping off anything I could find, diving into any body of water I saw; e.g. creeks, lakes, the fountain at the FDR Memorial. (I’m a Pisces, so that makes sense).

As an adult, I’ve become pretty chill. I’m a homebody. I love watching movies. My favorites are 80s horror flicks—think The Lost Boys, Return of the Living Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street. I cook quite a bit. (I used to own a café in Costa Rica).

And most of all, I love hosting. Parties, definitely. There’s nothing better than a house party, where one of your friends DJ’s & you dance and drink gin and pass out at 5. I said I was pretty chill, but maybe not.

How long did you live in Costa Rica? And what brought you there?

I lived in San José, Costa Rica for 4 years. I lived with my grandmother, sort of under the pretense that I would finish my novel (like every other writer, right?), but perfecting my Spanish and living daily in it inhibited my ability to write in English.

I know it sounds weird, but trudging through that manuscript became so hard, I eventually gave up until I moved back to the States. What kept me there so long is that I opened a café—a creperie, French-style, with hand-painted murals of Le Chat Noir and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. I played jazz, ordered bulk tubs of Nutella, was one of the pioneers of a restaurant association. Truly a wonderful time in my life.

I moved back to the States when my father died suddenly of a stroke. That was in August of ’16; I moved back for a few months to sort out all the things one sorts out when someone dies. Then in February of ’17, I sold my little creperie and moved back here, because running a business with the prospect of grieving for years was too overwhelming. I’ve been in DC ever since.

How’s the process of publishing your first novel, Santa Teresa, going?

So, the only thing that I’m allowed to say is that its titled changed to Where There Was Fire. Hopefully, there will be more news soon!

How and when did you start writing?

I started writing in my senior year of high school. I’d become aware that I was good at it because everyone in my AP Lit class wanted me to write their essays. I scored high, so I ran with it.

Fiction definitely came first, as I started the first few pages that would eventually transform and gestate into my debut novel. Poetry came to me my sophomore year of college, in an Advanced Writing Poetry, 300 level course that the sign-up system somehow allowed me to take. It was there I found my voice—that elusive thing writers and scholars call voice.

In what ways do you think your identity as gay, Costa Rican, and Uruguayan come out in your art?

Because I write short stories, poetry, and longer fiction like my novel, they all manifest in very different ways, though sometimes they do intersect. For example, my short stories are always about Queer Costa Ricans. I write about my friends, my experiences there; there’s a huge autobiographical element.

In my longer fiction, I infuse that historical aspect of Costa Rica—I’m a huge history buff, so those fascinating details have always got to show up. And in my poetry, that Uruguayan side comes out more, though not fully.

I identify less with the Uruguayan half of my genome because my mother hates it, and I also hate my mother. She left during the dictatorship of the 80’s, and never looked back. She didn’t like to talk about it, and when she did, it was always trauma—poverty, state-sanctioned violence, etc. But there are a couple of poems where I imagine my mother in dictatorship-era Uruguay as a Pam Grier character. They’re a lot of fun, but like, also really sad.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

My top two faves are Arundhati Roy from India and Anthony C. Winkler from Jamaica (RIP). They wrote the novels that inspired me to become a novelist—The God of Small Things, and The Painted Canoe, respectively.

My other favorites include Mario Vargas Llosa, Maaza Mengiste, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. As for poets, Aziza Barnes, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Sally Wen Mao, and Mónica De La Torre.

Have you read any good books lately?

Omg, so many—The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert.

Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about you or your work?

You can read all my work as odes to those who I love. Those who I’ve met, and those I haven’t. My family’s ghosts, my own who sit at the end of my bed, uncharacteristically kind.

Also, read my work as odes to where I’ve lived: D.C.; Brooklyn; San José, Costa Rica. I’d be nothing without their life force. Their climates, politics, bars, parks, bakeries, electricity. And sometimes, read them as eulogies.