Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s debut novel forthcoming from Doubleday on July 31, follows the lives of Chula and Petrona, two very different girls growing up in one of the most volatile moments of Colombia’s history. Chula is the younger of the two girls, and she lives a life of privilege—one with money, food, and opportunity. The mysterious Petrona, the other voice in Fruit of the Drunken Tree, couldn’t come from a more different background. When Petrona comes to work for Chula’s family as a maid, the two lives begin to blend in unexpected ways.
Inspired by the author’s own childhood, Contreras’s bildungsroman is a haunting and, ultimately, affecting story about home, class, and friendship. Violent, mysterious, and even, at times, tender, it is one of the most engaging books of the year.
Contreras has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Guernica, Huffington Post, and elsewhere.
She and I discussed Fruit of the Drunken Tree, mystery, and privilege.
The Rumpus: I’m always interested in a writer’s process and how a novel takes shape. I’m especially curious to ask about yours, with Fruit of the Drunken Tree being a dual narrative. As you began working on your early drafts, was your plan always to have two voices telling their stories in a back-and-forth style?
Ingrid Rojas Contreras: I have a first draft process that is maddening. I seem to think it is necessary to walk into a narrative without any plan whatsoever. For years, I have started my writing day by opening the dictionary to a random entry and imagining a small scene from it. I write in a kind of Hail Mary to the one scene I saw, hoping that by the time I finish describing it, the next few paragraphs will have been illuminated. At times, writing feels like I am exploring a cave with a faulty miner’s lamp. It’s a terrible process, but keeping that sense of the thrill of discovery is important to me.
The first kernels of Fruit of the Drunken Tree came from dictionary entries. I wrote short scenes from the perspective of both girls, but also in the voice of the mother, Alma. The very first chapter I wrote was the arrival of Petrona to the Santiago house. The drama of the meeting of these young and very different characters, a privileged seven-year-old girl and a fifteen-year-old who lives in guerrilla-occupied territory, was something that quickly illuminated the narrative ahead. In the beginning, I decided that the voice of Petrona would give too much away. Since she is the character through which tragedy upends everything, I worried she would give the reader too much of a head’s up of what was to come. But I came to my senses and realized that Petrona’s voice was not only expansive, but also central.
Rumpus: I know Chula and Petrona are close to your heart. Was one character more difficult to write than the other?
Contreras: They were each difficult to write, for different reasons. Chula is a character that’s lived removed but adjacent to war and violence. Petrona is a character that has lived at the very center of it. How do these different experiences of violence affect their perspectives?
I knew from experience what it might be like to grow up adjacent to violence, but even still I wanted to go deeper. I spent a lot of time with children in Colombia, trying to hear in their voices what Chula and Petrona might sound like. I took many notes. In the city, I noticed that the violence children experience seeps into their games of make-believe. In areas where violence has been lived more immediately, I noticed violence was enacted in more physical ways—I watched boys play soccer with a ball wrapped in barbed wire, for example. Children have a profound understanding of the world. It may lack the logical orientation that comes from adulthood, but I think this quirk provides a rich territory from where we can consider politics and war.
Rumpus: With Fruit of the Drunken Tree having such a personal connection to you, was writing it, in a way, cathartic?
Contreras: I started to write this novel while I was changing over from different kinds of student visas, and I could not travel. I was homesick, but my family had left Colombia and there was nothing for me to return to. Being unmoored in the middle of winter in Chicago, the story just rose to the surface and I dived into it. I mentioned that I had resisted writing this story for some time. When I finally stopped resisting, it was indeed very cathartic. I was in tears with each draft I wrote.
Rumpus: When I talk about Fruit of the Drunken Tree with other readers, the word I find myself using most often to describe it is “haunting.” I’m especially thinking of Petrona and her entire presence throughout the story. I love this description Chula gives of Petrona:
In our house Petrona wore a cloud of silence wherever she went. Her footsteps had no sound. She deliberately lifted and placed her feet one after the other on the carpet, inaudible like a cat.
Then, just a few paragraphs later, she admits, “We started to think that maybe Petrona was a poet or maybe someone under a spell.” Later, Chula’s friend mistakes Petrona for a ghost.
Do you mind talking about your reasons for giving Petrona such a mysterious presence?
Contreras: I love that you use that word. I felt haunted by this story, too. Ghosts figure large in Colombian culture. In my house we talked about ghosts constantly. I think Petrona’s ghost-like qualities were directly born from Chula’s perspective. If this story took place in the US—if a young all-American girl witnessed the arrival of a quiet girl from another class into her home—she might have expressed the girl’s silence through a more logical metaphor, say, likening her to a mute. Throughout the book I was keenly interested in how a complex situation would be understood by a child, and a South American girl at that. What name would a South American girl give to that specific type of reticence that comes from class inequality? What’s the word for the silence that comes from someone who’s been forced into a situation while being made ashamed of it? Chula inexpertly names it as the quiet of a ghost or the quiet of someone who’s been bewitched.
Rumpus: I think that your writing has a magical quality. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Fruit of the Drunken Tree is magical realism, but I think there are hints of it.
Contreras: I would agree! However, I would clarify that there is a magical understanding of reality specific to South American culture, and that this cultural perspective does not come from magical realism—rather it is the other way around: magical realism was inspired by this cultural perspective.
In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, I wanted to explore how you might experience this cultural perspective without the fabulism of the literary genre. I started to be interested in that goal right after reading a very brief section in Isabel Allende’s excellent memoir, My Invented Country. Allende is at the end of a detailed exploration of Chile’s religious make-up, when she mentions that in addition to the country being largely fundamentalist, born-again, catholic, and atheist, the country is also engaged in a profound tradition where devils and evil spirits are very real parts of reality. She explains, simply, “My grandfather swore that he saw the devil on a bus, and that he recognized him because he had green cloven hooves like a billygoat.” Any South American can counter this anecdote with hundreds of her own.
Rumpus: Chula and Petrona are certainly brave children. Petrona’s bravery is, perhaps, more noticeable at first, but Chula, especially in the second half of the book, is incredibly bold. Childhood bravery. Is it situational or inherent?
Contreras: I think children are capable of impressive bravery or appalling cruelty, depending on the situation. We are not very good at measuring consequence when we are young, and I think this presents the opportunity for children to be uniquely heroic or villainous.
Rumpus: The way you explore class is brilliant—and heartbreaking. At one point, Petrona says:
I didn’t tell my family I had a bedroom of my own and a shower too. It felt cruel because our bathroom was an outhouse, and our front door a curtain. At the Santiagos’ there were all the doors you could imagine, to the bedrooms, closing the bathrooms, but also there were doors with no purpose. There was a swinging door dividing the kitchen from the living room. There were double doors in the kitchen and inside there was a boiler that heated up water. Anyone could take a hot shower whenever they wanted.
Then, a little later, she says, “I told my fiends in the Hills, ‘My employers are rich. They have breakfast every day with milk.’”
These statements come from a girl who knows a life of primarily eating pan con gaseosa. I want you to know how affecting these words from Petrona were to me as a reader. I thought of my own privilege, and I reflected on my efforts to help others, about whether I’m doing enough.
Contreras: Thank you so much! I am very glad to hear this. While I grew up in Bogotá, both my parents came from very poor parts of Colombia. One year when we were visiting a great aunt, I sat and listened to three cousins talk about the kinds of things rich people ate. I was surprised to hear that the extravagant food they mentioned were the staples of what many of us consider to be a regular diet—milk among them. I grew up traveling between a world of people who had and a world of people who didn’t, and it impressed me profoundly. I am so glad that we are in a moment where so many of us are open to consider our privilege and how that might play out.
Rumpus: One of the most intriguing parts of your novel is the imagery you use when describing the Drunken Tree itself. It sounds like a truly fantastical kind of plant. What is your relationship with it and the importance of its inclusion in your narrative?
Contreras: The Brugmansia tree is in the nightshade family, and its particular effect on people is that it makes them highly susceptible, or to put it a different way—it takes your free will away. You see this tree, what we call the Borrachero in Colombia, all over the city. It’s a bewitching tree. I always gravitated to it. I was fascinated by its gorgeous big flowers, its sweet intoxicating smell, and the fact that it is incredibly poisonous. There’s a different genus that I see all over California. It is less potent on this continent, but the dualities of the tree are still present. You can see it from the colloquial names people have given it: both Devil’s Trumpet and Angel’s Trumpet. The flowers hang down and they do look like a trumpet—but I love the poetic question brought forth by these names. Are they trumpets blown by an angel or a devil? Which is the entity of the tree?
In the book, I related the mystery of the tree to a parallel question about Petrona: is she someone planning to act against the family, planning to protect them, or is she just trying to protect herself?