June 16, 1949– Jaime Manrique:
“Lo que ellos más ansían es aplastarme. Les interesa más derrotarme que el futuro de nuestra nación.“
One of my favorite books of 2012 was Jaime Manrique’s Cervantes Street, an engaging, highly readable fictional account of the life of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1666) the brilliant, enigmatic author of what is probably the greatest Spanish language novel Don Quixote De La Mancha. It is easily one of Western Civilization’s greatest literary works. A tale of rivalry and revenge, Cervantes Street is a story of Cervantes’s antagonistic relationship with the man who would go on to write a sort of sequel to Don Quixote. It is kind of like Amadeus meets The Count Of Monte Cristo, mixed in with a dash of Gulliver’s Travels, with a rather extraordinary imagination of the life and era of Cervantes. By the way, it is also funny and diverting.
Born in Colombia to a rich, powerful father and one of his mistresses, the illegitimate Manrique was never acknowledged by his padre. His trials and tribulations as a young boy are just one of the main themes of his poems and novels. He is also a smart writer of nonfiction including his fascinating mediation on Gay Spanish language authors, Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, And Me (1999).
In 1967, Manriques’ mother traveled with him to Florida, where she found work as a domestic and he was an exceptional student at school. He received his BA in English from the University Of South Florida. After graduation, he began writing in earnest and he soon had two novels published, both with bisexual storylines: Los Adoradores De La Luna (1977) and El Cadáver De Papá (1980).
Manrique’s first gay themed fiction was also his first in English, Latin Moon In Manhattan (1992). It received terrific reviews. He compiled and edited Besame Mucho: New Gay Latino Fiction (1997), featuring 17 other Latin writers. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his nonfiction.
Our Lives Are The Rivers (2006) is a fiction about Manuela Saenz, Simón Bolívar’s mistress. It won the International Latino Book Award for Best Historical Novel.
Manrique was discovering his own gayness at the same time that he was realizing that being queer was extremely transgressive in Colombian culture, where machismo is the norm. Visible gay couples were non-existent when he was growing up. He began enjoying pleasurable relationships with other guys while in his teens, but because of the pressures of his society, he felt tormented. He now claims that coming out “took forever”.
He managed to see Ken Hughes‘ film The Trials Of Oscar Wilde (1960) as a teenager. Manrique worked his way through the famous gay writer’s complete works. He was particularly drawn to The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). A high school teacher lent him a book by André Gide and he learned of Gide’s visits to male brothels in Morocco in the company of Wilde. Manrique felt that this teacher was trying to tell him: “Look, these great writers were like you. It will be okay”. But, he was well aware of the ostracism faced by gay men in Colombian society and was terrified of his homosexual feelings as an adolescent.
He was accepted to a fiction workshop taught by Manuel Puig at Columbia University in 1977. Puig is the Argentine author of Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1976), among many other works. Manrique has written that Puig was “one of the most effeminate men that I’ve ever known”, a disgrace in the Latin culture of machismo in which they both had grown up, but Manrique found him to be the author he most idolized.
Many of Manrique’s poems celebrate the joy of men loving men, but also the utter heartache of uncertain, unrequited longing. Manrique also meditates on death in his poetry, one poem reflecting on our gay martyr Matthew Shepard, the victim of a brutal homophobic murder.
In Eminent Maricones, Manrique describes his own early life and also writes about the lives and works of Reinaldo Arenas and Federico García Lorca, whose books he read as a young man.
Manrique writes: “From my earliest childhood . . . my life has been a struggle to find dignity as a maricón”. He points to Puig, Arenas, and Lorca for setting examples that helped him become a fulfilled human being.
“I hope to be an inspiration to all the maricones, and heterosexuals, who dream of being men and women capable of taking on whatever kind of windmill stands in their way.“
He did not come out of the closet until he was in his 20s and living in the USA. He says that he was vexed with internalized homophobia until he was in his 30s.
“Writing in English has been a huge but exciting challenge. I don’t have English in my ear. I find its syntax perplexing. I continue to learn it all the time. I’ll never be done learning it. I only intuit what is possible to say in English when I read masterful stylists of the language. But I wouldn’t have begun writing in English if I hadn’t fallen madly in love with its suppleness. It is the language of one of the two writers I worship above all others, Shakespeare. The other one, of course, is Cervantes. Furthermore, English is the language of the art form that touches me most deeply: the blues! I feel at home in the blues. Their melancholy, broken-winged quality suits me just fine. There is nothing more heartbreaking and beautiful and deeply felt than Billie Holiday’s singing. To create so much beauty out of so much despair and sorrow and injustice seems a miracle to me.
In 1974, Manrique met Pauline Kael, The New Yorker‘s famous film critic. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted until her death in 2001. His book Notas de Cine: Confesiones de un Crítico Amateur (1979), is dedicated to Kael.
In 1977, he met American painter Bill Sullivan, noted for his landscapes of New York City, especially the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, and iconic interior spaces such as Grand Central Station. In 1995, Sullivan started a literary press devoted to publishing New York School poets. They lived as a couple in Colombia and Venezuela until 1980. Manrique and Sullivan were together until Sullivan’s death in 2010.
Manrique now writes his fiction in English and his poetry in Spanish. He lives in New York City. He is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the New York Times and for the Washington Post.