The search for authenticity

A Washington Post editor constructs her life across two cultures

Marie Arana sees herself as a human bridge. Daughter of a Peruvian father and an American mother, she grew up in both cultures and arrived at the brink of adulthood feeling that having two identities perhaps meant that neither was truly authentic.

This memoir is the fruit of her struggle to make sense of that dual identity - to place herself and her family in the larger context of the politics, history, sociology, and even geology of the Americas, north and south.

An engaging family history, the book also offers an extraordinarily candid portrait of her parents' unconventional marriage. She turns it into a metaphor for a joining of North and South America.

But the bridge can seem awfully shaky at times. Her parents' relationship was often strained, and marked by extended separations, but still loving and, in its way, successful. Her account of it is all the more remarkable because both her parents (now in their 80s), along with other family members, contributed to it.

Arana, now editor of The Washington Post Book World, was born in Peru, the third child of Jorge Arana Cisneros and Marie Clapp Arana. Her parents had met during World War II in Boston as students - he of engineering, she of music.

They married and went to Peru - for him a homecoming, for her a plunge into an alien culture, where family values trumped rugged individualism every time. After different stints in Lima and some company towns where his work as an engineer for W.R. Grace took them, Marie finally laid down the law: "That's it, Jorge. I've been in your country 14 long years. No more. I'm going home."

That was it. Jorge got W.R. Grace to take him on in New York, and the family settled in Summit, N.J. - for the public schools. This evolved into a long-distance commuter relationship, long before anyone used the term. Her father would take off for Peru, to supervise engineering projects, for months at a time, but always returned.

Both her parents were constrained by their pasts. Her mother kept hers very private. She had been married three times before she met Arana, a fact he didn't find out about until they were before the justice of the peace who was to marry them.

In the Arana family, however, some secrets were so dark even Jorge wasn't privy to them. His was a distinguished family. But the most notorious bearer of the name Arana was a distant cousin whose exploitative rubber plantations were an international scandal at the turn of the 20th century. Jorge's own branch of the family was innocent of wrongdoing. But his grandfather, who (untruthfully) denied any family connection, was nonetheless ruined financially by guilt by association.

As Jorge's daughter recounts, the shame that the rubber baron brought upon his extended family was unimaginable. But the real problem was the family's denial, which so bewildered her father, "that he reached for another life altogether."

Arana's dual background lets her give both perspectives of an event. Writing, for instance, of the birth of her parents' firstborn - her sister, Vicki - she says, "My gringa mother had assumed that her baby was something between her, her husband, and God. My abuelita [grandmother] had assumed that her grandchild was the first of a new generation, the next row in the family cloth, an offering to the family matriarch. Hers."

And she can accept not knowing which of two views is the right one.

Ruth Walker is the Monitor's correspondent in Toronto.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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