I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A novel about an immigrant family who moves from Colombia to the United States and the fraught decisions that impact their lives.
Patricia Engel likes to write in the morning, when her mind is clearest. She writes in complete silence, and for a focused amount of time. I would describe her sentences as unruffled and astonishing, breathtaking and precise, like the peal of a bell. It makes sense to me that her sentences are written in absolute silence.
The award-winning author of four books—The Veins of the Ocean, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, Vida, and just out this year, Infinite Country (Simon & Schuster)—Engel’s work is an onrush of understanding about the diasporic condition, where diasporic is understood beyond the fact of migration but also as an internal language that can dictate how people unmake or remake their lives. Bordering and unbordering in an existential condition, it is messy living that is beautiful and profound.
What strikes me the most about this Colombian American writer is how the refusal of borders carries over into her life and thinking. In speaking about the act of writing or not writing, she said: “I do feel that as an artist it’s all connected, times of pure living and times of seemingly pure productivity. I wouldn’t qualify one as more worthwhile simply because that’s when the pages get written. Those pages could not emerge without soil of human interaction, reflection, and play.”
Infinite Country tells the story of Talia, who at the start of the novel breaks out from a correctional facility for adolescent girls in the Colombian Andes and tries to make her way to Bogotá. It’s a story about a mixed-status family, myth, and journeying toward a chosen life.
—Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Ingrid Rojas Contreras How do stories come to you?
Patricia Engel Stories come in all kinds of ways. Sometimes they present as a tiny particle that attaches to other ideas I’ve been exploring, and other times they announce themselves and demand to be written. Finding the way to inhabit them is trickier. The first sentences, images, or paragraphs; the narrative distance or voice—they all come at their own speed. It can take a while to wrangle the various components. Other times, they arrive gathered like a flash mob, and the writing launches itself rather quickly. If I’m having difficulty finding the door to a story, that’s just the story communicating that it needs more time to percolate in my subconscious, so I don’t rush it. I wait rather than try to force a story that’s not yet ready to be written.
IRC What brought you to writing or storytelling, and what has kept you with it?
PE It’s difficult to separate my origins as a storyteller from that of my family, which is large and very artistic, and for whom stories were a lifeline between our roots and our diaspora. I was bred on narratives, and so my mind unconsciously assembles lived experience into story, searching for meaning, symbols, working out character psychologies and trails of cause and effect. Storytelling has allowed me to mine and map my own life, and also given me an outlet with which to understand human chaos. I stay with writing because it’s endlessly nourishing, and I also see it as an offering to those who came before me and those who will come after.
IRC What art forms did your family engage in? I am imagining music for some reason. There is such a strong oral storytelling vein in my family, and I think in a lot of Colombian families too; we just love stories as a nation. I wonder if this was also the case for you. I often think of family stories as my first and best training as a writer.
PE You are correct. There were musicians in my family—specifically of classical music. One uncle was a symphony conductor and composer, and another a classical pianist. Though many more played instruments as hobbies, like the guitar, accordion, and my mother plays the Colombian tiple.
There were also painters, including my father, which is what I thought I’d be until writing took over quite early in my life. My grandmother was the writer of the family, the chronicler, matriarch, and confidante—an archive of Paisa chisme and Colombian lore. She was the youngest of eighteen (thirteen living and five passed) and mother to nine, but she was still able to prioritize her writing in order to write volumes of stories and poems, most of which she never shared with anyone and were never close to being published.
She wrote for pure pleasure and artistic compulsion, and was probably my most important example of showing up for the writing no matter what, and the importance of keeping it an intimate practice. She was also a prolific letter writer, not only to keep in touch with her family in Colombian and all over the diaspora, but to her family nearby, like me. I’m also a big letter writer, and when my prose gets stuck, I’ll often write a letter to get the words flowing again.
IRC I wonder if you can talk a bit about the novel form and the short story. Your first book, Vida, was a linked story collection. Will you turn to short stories again? I wonder, too, if there is a different attraction to the length of the novel?
PE I love both forms, and I don’t see them as that different except in terms of length. I place the same demands on each in terms of what they offer as an experience for the reader. I love the transient nature of short stories, how one can dip in and out of different worlds; novels require more immersion, which I also love. I suppose it’s comparable to the euphoria of experiencing one of the best days or nights of your life as opposed to that of the best vacation or summer of your life. They operate on different intensities, allow for introspective interludes of different scopes, but each can be transformative in their own way. I haven’t committed to one form over another yet. I’ve just published a novel, but my next book will be a collection of stories, written over the last decade, that are vastly different in setting and character but share my ongoing exploration of the diasporic mind and the personal negotiations associated with migration and close relationships.
IRC I am very excited about your forthcoming short stories! Is there a date?
PE Thank you! Not a specific date yet, but it will be sometime in 2022.
IRC We’ve talked before about finding inspiration in Colombian newspaper stories. There’s such a wildness to the way things happen in Colombia, a sense of drama or flair that seems to be innate to the territory. Do you think that growing up in or around that Colombian worldview affected your understanding of story or what’s possible in story?
PE I think there’s as much wildness happening domestically in the United States, but somehow people pretend it’s not there. But I did grow up with an acute sense of current events in Colombia, its contradictions and sad stories. I also grew up with my grandmother’s stories, which were probably even wilder. She was from Medellín, and my grandfather used to refer to her tales, which she’d swear were true, as Antioqueñadas, meaning things that could only happen in Antioquia, or perhaps that only an Antioqueño would believe them. In my upbringing, Colombians were huge believers in both the miraculous and the impossible, very critical but also very forgiving, and prayerful people of great faith and also superstition. What some would call “drama” was just a part of everyday life. I think the normalization of high-stakes living helps cultivate the compassion that’s essential to storytelling, as well as opening your mind to life’s possibilities. So much of what is part of my family’s story is beyond comprehension according to puritanical Anglo-American logic yet is totally ordinary by Colombian standards.
IRC My family is from Santander, so I love the idea of Antioqueñadas. I think for us there is an easy crossing between dreams and waking life. A circular understanding of time, a preoccupation with death that borders on the humorous, a sense of repetition in reincarnating problems that haunt generation after generation. We love to always start with the end. And there are witches and ghosts everywhere in our stories. I’m curious about what you have noticed in your family’s oral tradition.
PE My father’s side is from Antioquía, but my mother’s family is from Bogotá through and through, except for a branch that dispersed to La Guajira, and she’s as much a storyteller and historian of her land, Cundinamarca, as my Paisa abuela was. I was raised on so many stories that would probably seem nonsensical to an American kid, but I think they shaped my sense of wonder and belief that there is so much is beyond our understanding in this world. There are funny examples, like when a child misbehaves their Colombian parents might threaten to come back after they die to pull the child’s feet at night. But premonitions, spiritual visitations, and miracles are the norm. I think some recurring themes in the stories of both my family lines are those of travelers passing through ancestral lands. Even the Muisca story of Bochica is one of a traveler. They are stories that reflect a hard work ethic, great faith, familial devotion and divine instincts. And, despite the rampant cultural sexism, they are stories of resilient, courageous women.
IRC As a first-generation immigrant, I’m really fascinated by the experience of being born in the adopted land. I have more of a Before and After marked by the year we left Colombia, and I think this has stoked a fascination with duality in my own writing. Have you noticed that your particular immigrant condition has imbued your work with certain preoccupations, or the resurgence of particular symbols?
PE That’s a really great question. In my case, the rupture in my family line happened just before I was born, when my parents decided to settle in the US mainland. Prior, they’d been living in Puerto Rico. The immigrant condition is the only one I know. In fact, it’s very hard for me to imagine a life in which I, or my family, are not perceived as strangers. The closest I get to that is when I am in Colombia, but even then, because we are diasporists, I move around as an atypical specimen. In this way, perhaps my parents became symbols of the Before, and I became the After. There is the land, there is the distance, yet we, the people across the generational chasm, are symbols of the transnational experience. The four books I’ve written, if you read them a certain way, are interrogations of motherhood and fatherhood, of inheritance and soul memory. These are the relics and language of migratory displacement.
IRC Is there a usual path you take when you’re working on a book? I just finished a draft of my second and was thinking about my own cycles—how much I dislike the first draft, how I have a crisis during the second draft, then immeasurably enjoy the process after that when everything is in place and I can focus on layering and building on top of a foundational base.
PE I like the way you put it, as a crisis, though for me the entire process from beginning to end is a crisis. But I don’t see this as a negative as much as the very nature of writing, which is a perpetual crossroads, turning points, a series of decisions that need to be made and a constant presentation of divergent paths. That is the thrill of writing. I try to mitigate my thinking about the process to never see it as unfavorable or failing, but subject to its own organic evolution. I also try not to be tied to any one way of doing things, because I think each book asserts how it needs to be written. But a few things that have worked for me are rewriting every single draft rather than editing on the page or moving things around. I also edit as I go, so when I come to the end of a draft, it actually contains multiple lesser drafts already folded into it. When I do hit a wall, as often happens, I step away and dive deep into my notebooks, which are logs of my inspirations, research, structural impulses, jottings, and planning I made before I began writing. Those help me find my way again.
IRC We’ve spoken before about how you write from an intuitive place. Does writing become more consciously crafted once you turn to editing, or is there a particular moment when you switch the way you approach the words on the page?
PE I said that because sometimes people think that all the answers to questions about writing are contained in the world of craft. There’s a moment in every writer’s life when you need to depart from all that you learned about craft and let your intuition be your navigator. My final drafts are more concerned with sculpting sentences and making more artful language, but the most surprising elements of my work usually show up early on. Sometimes I shy away from them, thinking they can’t possibly work for the story, but that’s just my intellectual mind, which has already been populated by common thinking, creating borders around my artistic impulses. You’ve got to come to your work the way you came to diaspora, fearlessly, walking deep into the unknown with only your instincts to rely on. The same will save you in fiction.
IRC The idea that the intellectual mind is a bordered space resonates so deeply with me. To go back to oral traditions and stories that we were brought up on, part of the work of a diasporic writer seems to be in learning to unborder the mind after those lessons, as you were alluding to earlier. Those claims and rules about what is allowed or what could work and what doesn’t work in literature get internalized if you undergo formal training. Often these lessons were imagined from a Eurocentric point of view, so they don’t tend to apply if you’re from another culture that has a different understanding and tradition of storytelling.
PE Immigration and diaspora are usually described within binaries rather than as a limitless terrain, which is how I’ve come to see it. In this way, diasporic thinking is a way to resist assimilation and the risk of perpetual imitation of art that came before, that which intellectual artists cannot help but reproduce in some way. As diasporic artists, we are naturally suited to transnavigation of our ancestral and displaced selves, the permeability of our identities. We should do all we can to own this fluid space rather than anchor ourselves in any one aspect of this global existence; allegiances cause blindness and biases that impede originality, and that is the greatest threat to us as creators of stories.
IRC Beautiful thought to end on, to be as fearless as when you entered the diaspora. Thank you so much for your words. I will be thinking them for a long while.
Infinite Country is available for purchase here.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is the author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Doubleday, 2018) a silver medal winner in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and a New York Times editor’s choice. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Cut, The Believer, and elsewhere. A new work of non-fiction, a family memoir about her grandfather, a curandero from Colombia who it was said had the power to move clouds, is coming from Doubleday in 2022.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee