In the world of American letters, recognized multidisciplinary intellectuals who happen to be Latina are still scarce. That is why this writer is grateful that a literary lioness like Maria Arana exists and that she has a new book out, her fifth solo project, this season. Her book Silver, Sword and Stone: Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story is described as a historical panorama of Latin America. The New York Times calls it “monumental, stupendous” and Julia Alvarez considers it “a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this hemisphere.”
I first became aware of this Peruvian-American’s great mind and prose when she was the editor-in-chief of the Washington Post’s literary section, which translates to being a privileged gatekeeper to what is deemed important, or not, in books. Unlike many one-track-minded authors, she wears many hats within the book world. As a contributor to international publications, she has been a firm and respected presence as a promoter and defender of Latinx and Spanish-language letters alike. And she adds to literary and political discussions in many different forms, not only as a writer and editor, but as a senior advisor to the U.S. Librarian of Congress, as the literary director of the National Book Festival, and as the John W. Kluge Center’s former Chair of the Cultures of the Countries of the South.
Aside from her investigative nonfiction works, like her most recent and rigorous biography of Latin America’s liberator Simón Bolívar, she also happens to be an award-winning fiction writer of the novels Cellophane and Lima Nights, which explore tensions within Peruvian families, social classes, with touches of humor, magic realism, and eroticism. It’s an act that isn’t so easy to do: like being a ballet dancer who’s able to effortlessly jump into the middle of a break dancing circle and do a windmill. And with her memoir American Chica, a finalist for the National Book Award, she helped us understand why the marriage of the Americas—like her own parents’ relationship (he, from the south, she from the north)—is as difficult as it is inevitable.
Now in Silver, Sword and Stone, she returns to her fascination of exploring these two interconnected worlds. Arana describes the title and focus of the book as a tapestry of the three enduring forces that have defined Latin America and its people since pre-Columbian times. “Silver” represents the exploitation of all the riches of Latin America. “Sword” symbolizes the culture’s deeply entrenched history of violence without resolution even today. “Stone” explores the importance of faith and religion and the way it has been imposed on the region for over a millennium. In an interview on her publisher Simon & Schuster’s website she says she wanted the book to bring back the ghosts in the machinery of Latin America’s history. She wanted to take the standard focus away from the narrative and perspective of the conquerors and give voice to the opinions of the everyday people who were not recorded.
She also takes on all the region’s bullies from the ruthlessness of the Inca and Aztec empires to the greediness of the conquistadors, to the United States government operations in support of Latin America’s right-wing authoritarian regimes. Within these three sections, Arana explores Latin American race relations and the infuriating truth about how one’s skin tone predetermines how far one can get in Latin American societies. A topic and dilemma that few intellectuals of the region care to explore, thus leaving it an eternally unsolved social problem.
Ultimately, the book is a well-investigated rumination on how we as Hispanic Americans and Spanish speakers, have become who we are. How our land’s complex history plays into how we think, how we live, and what is the difference between being from North America and Latin America. Every book Arana has done is her way of trying to educate people about who we as Latinos are. She’s trying to tell us the real deal of our history and not just the clichés the world continually tries to apply on us.