News & Politics

Favorites: Maria Arana

She Loves E.E. Cummings and Ceviche, and She Brings Back Tiny Rocks From Pretty Places

Marie Arana is best known to Washingtonians as the editor of the Washington Post Book World, although she’s establishing herself nationally as an author, too: Her second book, Cellophane, came out July 4, and her first, American Chica, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Born in Peru to a Peruvian father and an American mother, Arana came to America—to New Jersey—at age ten, graduated from Northwestern, studied at Hong Kong University, and returned to a career in the New York publishing world, including a stint as vice president and senior editor at Simon & Schuster before coming to the Post in 1993.

Where’s your favorite spot in Washington?
Will you all promise not to go if I tell you? It’s a little bench not far from the jade collection, deep inside the Sackler museum. We’re very lucky in Washington to be surrounded by so many beautiful museums. I always feel at peace when I’m surrounded by Asian art.

Favorite pastime?
I love to play the piano. Chopin. Mozart. Ravel. But I seldom have the chance to do it. Why is it that we always do least what we love to do most?

Favorite movie?
There will never be a movie that hits me more than The King and I. I was barely out of toddlerhood when I saw it in a ramshackle little cinema house in Paramonga, Peru. I felt as if the screen had devoured me and I’d ascended to some ring of heaven. I still get that feeling when I hear “March of the Siamese Children.”

Favorite book? What a thing to ask! There isn’t just one. But here’s an assortment I couldn’t live without: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and any collection of stories by Flannery O’Connor or Jorge Luis Borges.

Favorite author?
He’s actually a poet: E.E. Cummings. My brother and I used to bury ourselves in Cummings and T.S. Eliot when we first arrived in the USA. The Eliot made us feel smart. But the Cummings was so clever! So sexy! So funny! His work still has a hold on me.

What’s on the bookshelf for the beach? An assortment of P.G. Wodehouse novels: Carry On, Jeeves and Thank You, Jeeves and Leave It to Psmith. True escape!

Favorite food? Peruvian ceviche. Peruvian anything. But I’ll take fresh seafood, any kind, lightly cooked with a little lime and cilantro. And I do love my husband’s crab cakes.

Favorite restaurant? It’s in Lima, Peru, so you’d really have to want to go, but I highly recommend it: Astrid y Gaston (Cantuarias 175, Miraflores).

Favorite everyday restaurant? I can’t afford to go there every day, but I really appreciate the consistently excellent cuisine and the quiet ambience of the Jefferson Hotel restaurant. It’s a very civilized place.

Favorite vacation spot? Paris in May, when everything is in bloom and the light is perfect. And Scotland in September, especially out in the islands, where the sheep are out ambling and passersby always say hello.

Coolest thing you’ve done? Fly over the highest peaks of the Andes in a tiny Pilatus plane with aerial photographer Bobby Haas. It was insanely bumpy. It was insanely cold. When he opened the door to take pictures, I thought my heart would fly out of my mouth. But looking down at the snow, the jagged mountains, the fuchsia lakes, I was sure I’d been a bird in a past incarnation.

Historical figure you’d most like to meet?
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. She managed to be beautiful, a nun, one of the great intellectuals of her time, and a prodigious writer of erotic poetry. All of it more than 300 years ago!

Favorite object that you own? I collect tiny rocks from beautiful places and carry them with me in my purse: from Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, a beach in Hawaii, a ranch in Wyoming. This fetish is getting more burdensome by the day.

Thing that others would find surprising about you? I guess it’s because I have such a serious job, but people are always surprised to hear that I was a pompom girl at Northwestern University. I like to add that my husband, literary critic Jonathan Yardley, was once a cheerleader, too. Maybe that’s why our marriage is so good.

What makes Washington special? The sky. It’s the only truly major American city I know that can boast a big sky. Thank God for the 12-story rule!