When Silences Need to Be Broken: Talking with Ingrid Rojas Contreras

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Storytelling is almost a reflex for Ingrid Rojas Contreras, a visceral reaction to the world around her. She was, simply put, born to be a storyteller—it runs in the family. Author of the bestselling novel,  Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Anchor Books, 2019), Rojas Contreras now takes on the intriguing story of her family, passed down by way of oral tradition, in the pages of her new memoir,  The Man Who Could Move Clouds (Doubleday, 2022). In doing so, she creates an intoxicating space for the reader: a place for these stories to live on.

In The Man Who Could Move Clouds, Rojas Contreras introduces us to her grandfather Nono, a renowned curandero, or traditional healer, who has supernatural abilities—treating the sick, communicating with the dead, foretelling the future—highly sought after by his community. These abilities became known as “the secrets” in her family, including the ability to move clouds. “The secrets” would later be inherited by Rojas Contreras’s mother, the first woman to possess them, spurred on by a fall in early childhood. Decades later, in the United States, Rojas Contreras would also suffer an accident, and like her mother, it would leave her with a temporary bout of amnesia. As she recovered, Rojas Contreras yearned to relearn her family history. Tracing her lineage back to its Indigenous and Spanish roots, she examines colonization split her mestizo family apart, and almost robbed her of her inheritance. The lineage of those who possess and pass down “the secrets” in her family is powerfully portrayed, and Rojas Contreras captures a narrative previously contained only in oral history.

I was fortunate to catch up with Rojas Contreras via email, right before publication of The Man Who Could Move Clouds. We talked about preserving family stories, the effects of colonization, and so much more. She confirmed what I always knew to be true: that she is just as magical as her words.

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The Rumpus: How long have you wanted to tell this story?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras: I didn’t grow up knowing I wanted to be a writer, but as I became older, the stories of my family took up a larger and larger space in my imagination. Eventually I felt that I wanted to have a life of being in communion with them, and they led me to writing. My very first stories, written when I was around twenty, were early attempts at writing this story.

Rumpus: What’s it like to look back at those stories now?

Rojas Contreras: I haven’t looked back actually! I have been meaning to look, just out of curiosity. I have this memory of not getting it right or compromising too much in those early stories, so I am almost afraid to look.

Rumpus: Why is now the right time for this story to come into the world?

Rojas Contreras: Sometimes you have to wait to live the rest of the story, when you’re writing a memoir. This was the case with this book. I loved to hear the stories of my grandfather’s and mother’s lives, but I didn’t know what my role was going to be, as a narrator of those stories. This is a central question of memoir: What relationship does the teller have to the stories being told? I couldn’t answer that. I could see that this would be a book where stories repeat across generations, but I didn’t have any of my own. After I lost my memory at twenty-three in an accident, and recovered from amnesia, I realized that amnesia was my own repetition—as my mother had lost her memory in an accident when she was eight years old.

There had to be a bit more living that took place in order to write the book. My aunts and mother needed to have the shared dream, where my grandfather asked to be disinterred in Colombia. This happened four years later, in 2012, and we traveled to actually do it! I started doing research for the book then. It was also the year where I felt that I had recovered my bearings and felt like a person again.

Rumpus: So going to Columbia to unearth your Nono’s remains was the thread that would unfurl the rest?

Rojas Contreras: Yes. I knew early on that I would begin with the shared dream, the acceptance of this dream-request, and traveling to Colombia to do it. I knew that this would be the first part of the book, that there would be some mysterious-to-me middle, and that I would delay the resolution of the disinterment story until the end, so that we’d dig up his body and say goodbye to his remains at the very end of the book. It felt beautiful to me, to pause the narrative at the sight of the unearthed body, have a middle that is made up of stories, and then return to that unearthed body to let the story continue.

The way I wrote through the memoir was very intuitive. I was writing in the bath a lot, and I think this gave me the idea of trying to make the narrative feel like water—that it would run down tributaries, unexpectedly, and somehow return to the source. Especially in the middle, half the time I had no idea where I was going with anything.

Rumpus: Did you have any sort of outline guiding you while writing this book? Or was it more write-as-you-go?

Rojas Contreras: I wrote it intuitively up until about halfway through the book. Then I made a very loose outline just so that I could hold the whole story in my head and figure out where I needed to go next. I do like to begin writing without planning, and find my way as I go.

Rumpus: Your mom initially did not want you to write this book. How does it feel, now, as this book makes its way out into the world?

Rojas Contreras: It’s true! My mother said she wouldn’t speak to me again if I wrote it. That was a very challenging time for me. She wasn’t returning my calls, and she refused to talk to me. At the same time, I really felt that I had to write the book. It was the only story that mattered, and I couldn’t physically stay away from it. I wanted to express this personal need to her, but she wasn’t giving me the option. Then my mother had a dream where my grandfather told her it would be okay for me to tell the story. That’s when my mother and I started talking again. We had many discussions about what I was allowed to write, what I wasn’t allowed to write, what she wanted to protect, and what I wanted to protect. I don’t know how other people do memoir, but, for me, conversations off the page about how we carry stories, where silences are needed, and when silences need to be broken, were necessary. I am both thrilled and terrified that it’s now making its way into the world.

Rumpus: How does your mom feel as publication draws near?

Rojas Contreras: I think she’s excited. The moment I showed her the cover she was in love. She laughed and said that my grandfather would have loved to have been on the cover of a book. It touched her that it was her and her father on the cover together. She’s also strangely disinterested in the book. It was the same with my novel—which she hasn’t ever read! She did tell me that if they made a movie, she would watch it. She’s an oral storyteller, and she doesn’t have much patience for books. I actually love that about her.

Rumpus: You mentioned earlier your accident and the amnesia that resulted from it. What was it like revisiting a subject that was once impossible to revisit? What was it like to metabolize that through your writing?

Rojas Contreras: Oh, thank you for asking that! That was the most puzzling writing problem I’ve ever had. Sitting down to put language to a time that was without language was incredibly difficult. It was also challenging because in my experience of amnesia, the key to why it was so dazzling and powerful had to do with the fact that it was wordless. It was a pure being-state where I was present every second, had no past, and was watching the creation of the world and myself each second. How do you put language to that? I wrote it at night, mostly, with wine, and other substances, while listening to electronic music. I needed to be in a slightly different state in order to write those parts. I didn’t think it could be done, but, eventually, I put language to the experience in a way that satisfied me artistically and emotionally.

Rumpus: You write about the term, “magical realism,” and how it is, “just realism to us.” Is this why you chose memoir instead of fiction as a vehicle for your family story?

Rojas Contreras: The fact that I had an incredible story, and that I could back everything up with interviews, and gathered evidence of lived experience, made it a more exciting memoir project. I could interview people who had seen, and could tell me about what it had been like to see my grandfather move clouds. This was an event nobody could quite explain—and that’s more interesting, isn’t it? Everything in the book is interview-, research-, and memory-based. I interviewed multiple people on the same event in order to craft as close to life as possible. As you can imagine, interviewing people about unexplained experiences was really fun!

Politically, writing this story as fiction would be an egregious disservice. I wanted to make the statement that magical realism in the boomer generation was not a fictional invention, but is based on a cultural worldview that is South American. I think many people somehow missed that part. Other cultures have understandings that are specific to them, and I don’t know if it’s helpful to call everything magical realism. I was talking to a fellow Colombian who is a poet. He pointed out that many North Americans say they are writing magical realism when, in fact, they are writing surrealism. So, to me, to write this story as memoir, from the cultural worldview from which magical realism emerged, was a way to correct the record, win back that space, and put it in the context where it belongs.

Additionally, the things that happened in real life and that are in the book are so pleasing narrative-wise, I just never had the urge or need to invent.

Rumpus: How do you want to see these discussed in fiction—especially fiction written by those who see it as a hook or “interesting” angle or just something to elevate their work for the sake of elevating their work?

Rojas Contreras: I would love to see people gather more knowledge around what different modalities there are in fiction, and to really understand the difference between surrealism, mysticism, a ghost story, and so on. I see people throw out the term magical realism when they have something unexplained happen in a story, but that’s not what constitutes magical realism at all. It’s always struck me as lazy and misinformed. If writers are writing from a worldview that belongs to mixed people of color without first-hand knowledge, that raises questions, too. I’m not saying people shouldn’t write magical realism inspired-fiction who are not from the culture, but if you do want to call it magical realism, it needs to read as such to people who belong to the culture. If it doesn’t, then it’s a failure of craft on part of the writer. It’s like getting setting wrong, or making a historical mistake in historical fiction.

Rumpus: What is it like to contrast various traditional practices you’ve seen, like your grandfather’s curandero practice, with elements of Western medicine?

Rojas Contreras: I think of it as being bilingual, which I find helpful. There’s a sense of worlds to draw from. Personally, I feel I have gotten to a better, more stable place living with my own troubled history, and learning to manage how it shows up. I’ve needed everything: my mother, curanderos, my therapist, dancing, friends, community. I feel lucky to have two worlds to draw from.

Rumpus: We always talk about how there’s power in naming something—a feeling, an experience, a diagnosis—but you write about how there’s also power in not naming something. You include a line from a poem by Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar as an epigraph: “There is room in the language for being without language.” What power do you derive from allowing something to remain unnamed?

Rojas Contreras: I love this question! I agree that there’s power in naming something—and I think there’s also a linguistic complication. Language is inexact, and will always be an approximation. In my own experience of amnesia, there was a period of time where things didn’t have names, and it was in that nameless, getting-to-know-something that I felt I knew it better. For me, there seemed to be an infinite possibility for an exact language when things were nameless. The moment that a word came back, or I re-named something, the thing I had named seemed to become more unknowable.

We live through a process of constantly reaching for language to name our experience—which can’t be named—and we continue to reach, to revise that inexact language. That failed striving is maybe what I would say is that room in language to be without language.

Rumpus: Have you had any dreams pertaining to the release of this book?

Rojas Contreras: I actually had a nightmare where the book came out, did horribly, and it was so bad that my editor was on social media distancing herself from it! I immediately, of course, told my editor about the dream, and we laughed about it together. I’ve been trying to remain as ignorant as possible of how much time is passing and publication, so there haven’t been any other dreams!

Rumpus: What did writing this book teach you about yourself—as a writer and person in general?

Rojas Contreras: In writing this book, I really gave myself the time to examine how those eight weeks of memory loss I had in 2007 changed my life. Without writing the story down, I don’t know that I would come to know all that I know about the experience now. I really feel that I came back as a different person, and this book was getting to know on a deeper level who that was. I think we are always becoming new, especially through the writing of a book, and this was no exception. Probably the biggest thing I got from writing this book was reaching an understanding of how I fit within my family’s story, which, at the core level, I would describe as belonging to a lineage of storytellers.

 

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Author photo by Jamil Hellu


Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →