John Manuel Arias on Decolonial Storytelling and the Multi-Generational Family Novel
The Author of Where There Was Fire in Conversation with Christine Kandic Torres
John Manuel Arias’s debut novel, Where There Was Fire (Flatiron, 2023), revolves around a Costa Rican family haunted by a past torn apart by institutional greed, machismo, and US capitalism, and the women at its heart who carry the weight of these secrets. Told in a non-linear fashion, the National Bestseller, GMA Buzz Pick, and Barnes & Noble Discover Pick of the Month unearths the guilt and shame that has surrounded the family for decades, along with the looming omnipresence of the local banana plantations run by American companies seeking to wring every last bit of profit from the land, at whatever cost—human or financial.
I spoke with John about how readers have received the book so far, on writing machismo and misogyny in Latin America, and the careful consideration of whose voices are included in our narratives, and how.
Christine Kandic Torres: At the heart of Where There Was Fire are women haunted by guilt, namely Teresa and Lyra. I thought you did such a lovely job of inhabiting this world of women, especially in the chapters about Lyra’s experiences with infertility. You approached it so delicately. I wonder if there were any other books or media you consumed while writing those parts to help connect with these women on a deeper level and bring more of that sensibility to the surface in your writing?
John Manuel Arias: I did outside research including speaking in depth with a Manhattan infertility specialist. I do have members of my family who struggle with infertility, too. In Costa Rica, resources are really expensive, and in vitro fertilization is relatively new. It’s also a really Catholic nation, and it has been behind in a lot of ways, [including access to] fertility treatments and dealing with the stigma of infertility.
The book was mostly observational. I lived with these women, and these women talked to me in a very different way, I think, as a queer person; like a cis- straight dude, women don’t talk to the same way. There’s a whole different level of sharing and comfort with me being a queer person in the room, which I always appreciated. That was really instrumental to the characters. I felt like I understood them because I lived with them for years.
I especially wanted to give Lyra dignity—even if she had shame, even if she had really complicated feelings around her sister becoming pregnant when she was unable. She loved her sister so much, but it was something she wanted so badly. I like that you said the word “delicately,” because I tried to give each character as much space and as much grace as they could possibly have, even if they did a lot of fucked up things or felt a lot of fucked up feelings.
CKT: That came through. You did give them as much grace as possible to be fully human.The idea of marianismo, which is patriarchy caging women into being an example, was perfect when I looked at the Virgin Mary.
JMA: I appreciate that. I lived with these women. They confided in me. I participated in life with them. As a storyteller receiving these stories, I tried to be as careful as you can to retell them or type up versions of those stories. Not everyone may think the book was successful in that way, but a lot of people have said, “Oh my God, this is exactly how I feel,” or “This is exactly my relationship with my mother or my sister,” etcetera. I tried to do my best, and I know a lot of the women in my family are like, “Oh, this is exactly what it’s like.”
CKT: There’s a lot of commentary on machismo and marianismo throughout the book. I wonder—as someone whose own novel dives into these themes—were you conscious of how you were going to balance writing female characters who both worship and curse men at the expense of their own lives, without the text itself coming across as misogynistic? These women aren’t necessarily misogynists, but they are part of this misogynistic culture, and I wonder how you thought about presenting these characters that are participatory in it without validating it.
JMA: Costa Rica has an incredibly conservative and patriarchal society, and machismo is woven into every aspect. I chose so many generations and types of women who feel the effects of marianismo and use that sort of exaltation, but also that prison of being forced or expected to be the perfect wife and perfect mother, and to always be graceful and to never show negative emotion, but also to be subservient to men. To worship men.
There are so many different characters: Teresa is sort of bored with her sex life with her husband; in her generation, a woman wouldn’t necessarily openly talk about that. Her grandmother Amarga, who has some intense internalized misogyny, the way she talks about women being put on Earth to almost sanctify men. Then a few generations later, you have Lyra, who is completely independent and raises her son with a lot of care. And the Three Marias, who are unmarried in their sixties, who live together and have a wonderful friendship.
I think the text fiercely critiques machismo and toxic masculinity at every corner. But what was really important, too, is to show these women in all their different dynamics, with as much grace and light as I saw them.
CKT: As you’ve said, Costa Rica is a very Catholic country, and I found your book to have a ton of Catholic references. Could you share how you layered in Catholic allusions to support this critique of toxic masculinity and machismo in our communities? You even just referenced that these women felt like they were in a “prison,” and there’s literally a Virgin Mary statuette in a gilded cage in your book.I never wrote for the white gaze. I wrote for Costa Ricans. I wrote for my family.
JMA: My relationship with Catholicism is completely superficial in that it is aesthetic. I love Catholic iconography. The church throughout these last two thousand years has put so much money into art. Separating it from the genocide and the conversion and all of these things… Catholicism is very much a vibe, and so Catholicism is attractive to me in that way. But it’s also incredibly patriarchal and woven into the fabric of Costa Rican society as a way of marginalizing and subjugating different groups of people—and that especially includes women.
The idea of marianismo, which is patriarchy caging women into being an example, was perfect when I looked at the Virgin Mary, who is the patron saint of Costa Rica. It is a statuette that appeared to a young girl and they immediately put her in a gold box. That was super interesting to me. How it is a prison, but a prison of gold. My grandmother says it all the time, “una jaula de oro.”
Then there’s the allusion to St. Teresa de Avila. My Teresa lives in Barrio Avila. Her name is Teresa, and Desiderio constructs and sculpts the statue of St. Teresa of Avila and her ecstasies [versions of which appear in the novel as well].
She is a figure, this nun from the 1500s, becoming a doctor of the church—her writings and her autobiography are exalted as spiritual and sacred texts… and the way she describes her union with God is also very horny. These texts were very sexual. I thought she was totally ahead of her time. This incredibly patriarchal institution canonizing this nun in the 1500s writing about having sex with God is so fascinating to me. And so, Catholicism surprises in a lot of ways, what it allows sometimes.
Non-linear narratives are, I think, incredibly decolonial.
CKT: I’d like to talk about the research that you did for the novel, particularly regarding Nemagon, the toxic pesticide used on the banana plantation. Its harmful effects are discussed primarily in private internal memos sent within the fictional American Fruit Company and included as chapters outside of the narrative of the novel. Can you discuss how and why you came to include those fictional memos? Were they inspired by real documents you found?
JMA: Yes. There is a book called Banana Wars, printed by Duke University Press (2003), and it handles the United Fruit Company and the different fruit companies throughout the 20th century, but from a holistic perspective: economic, political, cultural, and firsthand accounts. One of the essays included is by a white anthropologist who went to Costa Rica to stay in these banana plantations and get to know the workers and find out more about their living conditions and how it was for them before—I think it was in the 1990s that he was there.
Finally, when these Costa Ricans started to trust this random white guy, one of the foremen said, “Hey, come look at this.” And he had a cardboard box of memos dating back from the early 1900s of internal memos from the United Fruit Company saying the most insane things. Ordering assassinations, identifying organizers and syndicalists, and different ways in which they were manipulating elections, and how they were to deal with all of these things. All straight from the horse’s mouth.
You know, we learn about the United Fruit Company, we learn about the octopus, we know the coup d’états, but to see it in black and white in their words is a completely different experience. And they’re not admitting it under oath, so they don’t feel the pressure of editing this truth. They’re saying so with complete freedom and impunity because they never really pay. They have never really paid.
CKT: In your Debutiful interview, you said that the narrative in this book and the narrative we read in those private memos is that Nemagon negatively affected the male laborers by making them sterile, but rarely addresses how women were affected by it. Why did you make that choice?
JMA: Nemagon and its use was really horrible. Most reporting is on the men being sterilized because that is sort of the easiest thing to point to. And because they’re men, it is [perceived as] more scandalous. For women, the chemical affected them in a myriad of ways. There is this law in Costa Rica where people received restitution based on their sterility. So even though none of the fruit companies have paid for their crimes, the governments of different countries are paying individuals for having been affected, and the marker of the effect of Nemagon is infertility. Yet this law in Costa Rica has a cutoff at 1980: if people do not have children beyond the year 1980, they are entitled to monetary restitution. However, you have women who, before the year 1980, had one, three, ten miscarriages… and then they have a child in 1981. So they no longer have a right to this restitution, which is incredibly gendered and incredibly fucked up.When we learn family histories, it is never in a straight line, and it is never all at once.
There are also mental health effects from Nemagon. There’s cancer. Different ways that are not as easily traced to the poison itself. But specifically, women were affected by these side effects. I made the point of the text to be as feminist as possible. And how am I going to tackle this chemical without also highlighting the ways in which the chemical affected women physically and emotionally, too?
CKT: The book doesn’t explicitly connect the dots, but we see Lyra having long struggled with infertility, and we learn that her family members had been physically affected by Nemagon as well. We’re shown the women have been affected, physically and emotionally, without being told. Which makes sense because, in my opinion, the true crime in this machismo-saturated community would be that the men are robbed of their virility—but that women will always be caretakers, whether it’s of their own biological children, or others, or men, for that matter.
JMA: Exactly. What is the narrator saying by not explicitly stating? Most of the explicitness is coming from the AFC doctor and the AFC chairman of the board themselves.
The narrator doesn’t really tackle a lot of the ways in which Nemagon is affecting these people, because the most damning stuff comes from these people’s mouths. But like you said, the reader can infer these things are happening, that Lyra and Teresa spent time on the plantation while Nemagon was being used, that Teresa was washing José María’s clothes that stunk of Nemagon. They were affected, though maybe not in the most obvious ways.
CKT: Some of the most fun I had while reading your book was the hurricane newscast interludes. It got increasingly more bonkers every time we checked in with them. But I also read it as part of a distrust of institutions corrupted by greed and capitalism, like the distrust of doctors and the hypocrisy of religion we see in the text, too. Did you see the news coverage as part of that, or was it just plain old fun to write?
JMA: Well, it was super fun for me. I made it a point to have as many chuckles as possible because it is a heavy book. Asking a reader to read that long of a book without any points to breathe would be an emotional undertaking.
The whole book is about people and institutions, especially at the top, freaking out. And so, when you have the experts or you have presidents or you have doctors who are so thrown off by a situation, how does that seep downwards into the rest of society?
If you have people freaking out about a hurricane, you look to a meteorologist to tell you how long it’s going to last, and one tells you it’s going to last for a hundred years and finally drown the isthmus of Central America. That was really fun. I feel like it’s a pretty common trope for newscasts to be kind of wacky.
CKT: Yes, but it’s also very particularly Latin American that they’re bringing in psychics, too.
JMA: Exactly! And Costa Rica is a country that doesn’t get hit by hurricanes very often. It would be like Americans reacting to, I don’t know, like a volcano or a swarm of locusts. [They’re] just completely thrown off by this event. With the pressure to keep viewers and to also tell “the truth,” but also predict this complex weather system. I find chaos very fun. Mostly it was just a chance to have a laugh.
CKT: You have been on a cross-country book tour. What has the experience been like bringing your Costa Rican novel to communities and spaces with people who may not be as intimately familiar with that culture, let alone Latinx culture?
JMA: During the book tour, I didn’t really have any negative experiences. The audience was mostly POC, mostly Latinx, and the white people who were there were very respectful. And mostly quiet. So there were no “comments as questions.” They were there to listen to the story.
I feel like the book is confident and educational in a way that is not playing to a white person’s perspective. I never wrote for the white gaze. I wrote for Costa Ricans. I wrote for my family. I wrote for Latin Americans, Latinx people, and I think it does so in a way that is very unapologetic and allows the reader to participate, if they want to participate, and if they don’t want to participate, they won’t. The reception has been really positive, and I’ve been really grateful.
I have so many Costa Ricans that have come to me and said “it reminds me of home.” That’s been really wonderful because I was raised in the United States; we went back to Costa Rica every summer, my family’s from there, and I lived there for four years. I am a dual citizen. But [I wanted] to be really cognizant that I’m critiquing systems in Costa Rica without employing an American gaze. That is inherent. You know what I mean? I’m writing in English. I was born and raised in the US, so I really fought against it at the beginning. As writers, we fight against the negative instincts that play into whichever power or privilege that we hold. It [eventually] got much easier because once you get into the truth of characters, you get into the truth of culture.
CKT: Were there any pushbacks in your journey toward publication about making the book more “American” in some way, especially with regard to the novel’s structure?
JMA: I was very staunch about not playing to white people, to white culture, or the way that white people read. Because non-linear narratives are, I think, incredibly decolonial. I don’t believe in linear time, either artistically or culturally. I knew that there was going to be a lot of pushback against that because I always got it from white agents and white editors. So I knew that I was going to get it from a regular white reader, too. But that didn’t really matter to me because I knew that was the way the story needed to be told. When we learn family histories, it is never in a straight line, and it is never all at once.
John Manuel Arias is a queer, Costa Rican-American poet and writer. Featured by Publishers Weekly as a “Writer to Watch,” he is a Canto Mundo fellow & alumnus of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. His prose and poetry have been published in PANK, The Rumpus, F(r)iction, Joyland Magazine, and Akashic Books. He has lived in Washington DC, Brooklyn New York, and in San José, Costa Rica with his grandmother and four ghosts. Where There Was Fire, a GMA “Buzz Pick” and National Bestseller, is his debut novel.