Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Author
With her debut novel, Fruit of The Drunken Tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras turns the classic immigrant story on its head, writing not about a new immigrant’s struggles in her adopted homeland, but rather how this immigrant was driven from her country of birth in the first place. What is often “backstory” becomes the story. In this case, a coming-of-age tale set in a world of fear, violence, divided loyalties, and economic inequality. The stunning Fruit of The Drunken Tree tells the story of two girls—one privileged, one not—growing up in Bogota, Columbia, in the late eighties and early nineties amid narco-terror, political assassinations, guerrilla kidnapping, and paramilitary lawlessness. Fruit of The Drunken Tree was an editor’s choice selection in The New York Times, a Discover Great New Writers selection by Barnes and Noble, and winner of the California Book Award’s Silver Pen. Ingrid Rojas Contreras is also a short story writer and an accomplished and provocative essayist who has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Buzzfeed, Nylon, The Believer, and Guernica, among others. I was captivated by her seminar at Antioch’s MFA June residency, “Structure as Architecture,” and haven’t stopped thinking about the visual shape of any given piece of writing since.
In October 2019, Ingrid was kind enough to speak to me by phone about her novel, her process, her teaching, and what she’s working on now.
Liz Netto: I loved this book so much, so let’s get right to it. How did you do it? Did you know what was going to happen before you started? Did you start with just the characters or the time period? Take us back to the very beginning of Fruit of the Drunken Tree.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras: It all started as an essay. So the novel is autobiographical and my very first impulse was to tell the true story. But what ended up happening pretty quickly is that there were maybe emotions that I hadn’t looked at or could not look at, at the time. I could not get beyond the first page of telling the story. I remember putting it aside and moving on to other things that I was writing but it was that thing where a story nags at you, and I just felt it kind of hovering over my shoulder. So I went back into the original essay that I had tried to write and then I just changed all the names. There was something that was so liberating about that act that it kind of launched me into the very first draft of the story, what I believed at the time would be a short story.
LN: Oh, that is so wild. I wouldn’t have guessed the novel began as a personal essay first of all and then morphed into a short story and then…
IRC: Yeah, to my dismay, when I got to the end of it as a short story, I knew that the story wasn’t over. So, for a while I just kept writing what I called short stories. I was like, maybe it’s just like a novella. Like I was slowly trying to come to accept that I was writing a novel, but it took awhile. I was in denial for a long time.
“I felt like having compassion for those who join armed groups is something a child could do naturally. It’s interesting because I feel like coming to empathy is something that adults have a really hard time arriving at but it’s something a child does naturally.”
LN: Were you afraid of a novel and just how big it was, or what was it that held you back?
IRC: Yes, I think it was how big it was and also the time commitment, which, at the time, I had no idea what it would be but I knew it would be a lot. It ended up being seven years for me. It’s hard to say, “Okay, now I am going to spend the next seven years of my life doing this one thing.” I think it’s natural to react with terror when you realize that you’re writing a novel.
LN: As you’ve said, much of Fruit of The Drunken Tree is autobiographical, indeed began as a personal essay. What was it about growing up in Columbia that you wanted to convey?
IRC: At the time I was a new immigrant to the United States, and every day I was confronted with how different my understanding of life was because of how I grew up. I just found myself gravitating around that. Just how different it is for someone who grew up in the United States to have a childhood. Maybe that is in a city or in the suburbs, and things may be terrible or difficult, but you’re not waking up and looking at the news and being afraid of car bombs or things like that in the same way. I think I really wanted to put myself in the mind of remembering what it was to be a child, to form your first understanding of the world and what that kind of childhood produced. I think that was the initial thing that I was reacting to in writing the essay.
LN: I loved how the book is so frank in many ways and so inquisitive, too. And it’s really broad and generous, but also specific. I guess I was curious if you ever felt any pressure, self-imposed or by others, as you were drafting, to tell a different kind of story. One, perhaps, that was less nuanced, or one that took one angle of Columbia’s problems at the time—kidnapping, drug trafficking, income disparity, you name it—and just pulled at one thread.
IRC: Yeah, actually, it came up a lot when I was writing and in showing some of the draft to friends or to faculty that I had at my MFA program. The comment that I got a lot was, “How are you going to sell it if this is a story that takes place mostly in another country?” There was… I think that maybe the desire that I was kind of hearing from the people that I was showing the work to back then was that they wanted me to write kind of a classic immigrant story. So someone arrives and the story is they arrive and then what happens?
LN: But you stuck to your vision and decided not to tell the classic immigrant story that begins with the arrival to the new country.
IRC: I was just very resistant to that idea because I was surrounded by so many immigrants at the time, and I was in so many immigrant communities, people that had just arrived and people that had been here for a long time. And when we were amongst ourselves talking about our experiences, we didn’t talk about what is our life now, or what do we dream our lives to be and what do we want to make of them. It was either some of us wanting to tell how we had arrived here [or] what brought us here and like what went wrong in our lives. And then there were people who did not want to have that conversation at all. I found that to be just more interesting than the question, what do you do once you get here?
LN: Have you gotten feedback from immigrants that’s been positive, like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you told the story of home.”
IRC: Yeah. I have received a lot of correspondence, or even after readings, some immigrants will come up to me. And then there’s always immigrants who have read the book, they tell me what kind of immigrant they are. They will say like, “Oh, I’m one of the people that will never look back.” Or they will be like, “Oh yeah, I’m one of the immigrants that is kind of like living in the past.”
IRC: Yeah. It’s been really amazing. I’ve also heard from a lot of Colombians who were born here, but their parents migrated, and they don’t speak about the reasons why they left the country. There was one Colombian that told me, “Yeah, my parents will never talk about what happened and they will never tell me what went wrong. But reading your book was an answer, a kind of answer. Like I can imagine what happens.”
“I think for me, the shape of a story is not just what is the book doing, but it also has to provide some meaning or it has to further some meaning of the story itself, what the themes of the story, or what the story is really about.”
LN: Oh, that’s intense. The book weaves political and historical events of Columbia into the narrative, you show so clearly how the violence and the upheaval affect the lives of everyone in the nation—innocent people getting caught in between the cartels and the guerrillas and the paramilitary, and people forced to make impossible choices or just made victims for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of this you knew firsthand and then you must’ve also done a lot of research, too. Could you tell me a bit about balancing the two or what those two different paths were like?
IRC: Yeah, I did a lot of research. I was very aware that I knew some things really well and that I didn’t know some other things as well. I knew what it was like to be afraid of car bombs; I knew [the] desperation of losing your home. I knew these things, but I didn’t know the kind of violence that the character Petrona lives through.
My dad’s family was displaced, so I kind of had seen what that was like. And then my mother’s family lived in a spot that, through the years, was contested or fought over between guerrillas and paramilitaries. And sometimes there would be a presence of one or the other, so I kind of saw what that was like too. But I read a lot of oral histories of internally displaced people. And I also did interviews. The thing that I knew for sure was that I probably had some bias and I was sure that it had to do with just the kind of information that I received, which is, I think if you’re Columbian, then whatever side you’re on, the other side are bad people. I knew for a fact that that was just not reality. For example, I really wanted to know why, what would bring you to the decision to join an armed group? I didn’t have an answer for that, so I talked to a bunch of former guerrilla members and then the answers that I got were so surprising to me.
LN: Such as?
IRC: Sometimes being in the guerrillas was part of family vocation. A father had served in the guerrillas, so it meant the son would also. Other times it was a political decision, motivated by such things like inequality or the false positives in Colombia—which is when innocent people are killed by the state and are passed off as guerrilla members. Other times, there was an inherited duty to avenge a death in the family. Sons fought against the state—not because they believed in communism—but because the state had killed their fathers. In time, their own sons would also join in order to avenge the deaths. It’s a violence that is passed down. I felt like having compassion for those who join armed groups is something a child could do naturally. It’s interesting because I feel like coming to empathy is something that adults have a really hard time arriving at but it’s something a child does naturally.
LN: Bringing us back to the children in the novel, it seems like Chula and Cassandra mirror some of your own upbringing with the life of privilege in Bogota, but with grandparents still in the countryside. When you went about writing the character of Petrona, was there some trepidation about writing a character from a different experience and socioeconomic background than as yourself?
IRC: No, I did all my research. I spent years reading books and interviewing people. I got to the point where I… There’s a certain point where you get inside the head of your character. After I did all the work of arriving there, I wasn’t nervous about it.
“I think it’s important to remember not everyone needs to sound the same. We did not all come from the same place. Our people don’t tell the stories the same way. It’s beautiful to honor however people tell stories in your corner of the world.”
LN: Right. Were there any choices that Petrona made that surprised you? You know how you can be writing a character and you think you know what’s going to happen or what they’re going to do because, after all, you’re the writer, but sometimes they decide to go a different direction?
IRC: Yes. I actually don’t make any plans when I’m writing. I was surprised by my characters a lot. In writing the novel, I would just always show up, not sure what was going to happen next. I didn’t know where we would end up. They were both surprising to me. Both Chula and Petrona were always doing things that I either didn’t want them to do or I felt like they were putting themselves in danger by doing it, but there was nothing I could do to stop them. Yes, I’m a writer who really enjoys the journey of discovery, so I don’t really do plotting.
LN: Got you, which is a perfect segue into the next question. I was lucky enough to attend your seminar on Structure as Architecture this past June. For those who weren’t, can you tell us a little bit about your own process with unlocking the structure of the Fruit of the Drunken Tree?
IRC: Yes. I like to think a lot about shapes and what shapes a story has. It’s something that I do actively whether I’m reading a book, hearing a story, or even hearing a joke. I’m always trying to visualize it. I think for me, the shape of a story is not just what is the book doing, but it also has to provide some meaning or it has to further some meaning of the story itself, what the themes of the story are, or what the story is really about. For me, it just requires a lot of thinking.
For a long time, I was writing the story but I didn’t know what shape I was trying to make. I think when I got maybe on the third or fourth full draft, it occurred to me that the book is about two girls who are seeing each other and they are living in different worlds. By the end of the book, they transgress and kind of change places a little bit. I started to wonder what shape that is, what shape does that portray? I decided that it was a mirror. I was thinking of these two characters as if they each lived in one side of the mirror. There were these two girls who were gazing at each other, very interested in each other. At the same time, there’s a lot of projection happening for each of them so that they can’t fully actually see each other well. There comes a point where circumstance makes them switch places and they trade places. One character becomes more like the other, and the other becomes more like the one. Once I knew that, then I went in. I structurally made the book behave more like a mirror. The beginning chapters and ending chapters mirror each other, but they’re opposite of each other. It was really fun to finally come to the shape and then to craft the book in that way.
LN: Oh my god. That sounds like heaven. I’m deep in my second draft right now and very confused and bogged down as to how to give the story shape. I keep trying new things.
IRC: You’ll get there.
LN: Thank you. In the seminar, you cited Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude, telling the end of the book at the beginning, remarking that, his genius aside, this “unorthodox” opening to many readers raised in the traditional European canon, is actually how most Colombians tell stories. I just haven’t stopped thinking about it. I’ve just been noting how different friends of mine frame their stories. You know, how some do start at the end, which is actually a great way to get your attention. Some tease of detail in the middle or start at the beginning. This is just like the fender bender that they just had or the fight with a husband. But we can talk big stories too. Can you talk more about how different individuals, groups, or cultures tell stories differently? I thought it was great in your seminar, just in terms of structure, how you were like, “We don’t all need to be locked into the traditional hero’s journey, three act, rising arc structure.”
IRC: Yes. I also want to make storytelling more friendly [to] minorities identity students. I think that a lot of the times, we do fall back on this is how a story must be told. Sometimes, you will receive that feedback. I think it’s important to remember not everyone needs to sound the same. We did not all come from the same place. Our people don’t tell the stories the same way. It’s beautiful to honor however people tell stories in your corner of the world. I tend to think that the voice of a story will probably be stronger if you are faithful to that internal compass of how a story should be told. People have different styles and cultures also have different styles. I’m not really proposing that you should research other cultures, then pillage how they tell stories. It’s more about how you should be in tune with how your people tell stories. Then, notice what those storytelling decisions are. Just adding that to your repertoire, in your discovery of voice. How do you want to apply that or use that?
LN: Great advice. What are you writing now?
IRC: Right now, I am working on a memoir, which is very different. It’s really refreshing and really fun to be working in a genre that I haven’t really done before.
LN: Is it a family memoir or is it a strictly personal, “you” memoir?
IRC: Mine is a family memoir. It’s three generations; so it’s my grandfather, my mother, and me. There’s a lot of repeating stories within that. The first part of that story or the thing that sets everything off is that my grandfather was a curandero or faith healer. People said that he could move clouds. It all starts there. It’s a story about inheritance, what gets passed down, and what doesn’t.
LN: That sounds amazing. Have you made trips back recently to Colombia?
IRC: Yes. I go back every two years. I’ve actually been doing research. With memoir, it’s weird because it’s your life, so it’s not really research. Some of the events in the memoir happened in 2008 to 2012. I have been thinking about this story and how it could work for a while. Writing is going very quickly because of that. It’s just because the story has been in the back of my mind for many years.
“…every book is going to be its own puzzle, and every book is going to throw you in its own specific way. And the kind of process that you will go through is always going to be difficult. But that kind of a journey and the problem-solving that you can do on your toes, that’s also creativity. “
LN: Can you say a little bit about your writing process? Obviously, it may differ from piece to piece, but do you have a certain time of day you write best or any pre-writing rituals?
IRC: Yeah, I usually either write in the morning after waking up or at night after the day is over. And I think for me, I have to be in a place where I’m not thinking about the world as much. So when I just woke up and I haven’t heard the news or haven’t had any kind of conversation with anyone, then it’s easier for me to write at that time. My mind is also sharpest in the morning. I always try to leave those hours untouched so that I can put those writing hours in. Right now, I’m teaching a class at three p.m., which is perfect because then I can wake up, have a morning writing session, go teach, go for a run or swim or something, and then I’m ready to have another session that night. I usually try to, if I can, write twice a day.
LN: You’ve brought up the importance of writing before reading the news but let’s segue a little bit to the news and current affairs. I read your essay, “The Field: An Immigrant Surveils the State,” in The Believer. It’s incredibly powerful. And I was just wondering, the hostility against immigrants right now as we know, stoked by the president of the United States, is just setting a horrific tone and having horrific consequences. I wanted to ask, what does it feel like as an immigrant yourself? And does it give you a certain urgency as a writer?
IRC: I think it does. I feel both an urgency as a writer and also as a facilitator of stories, of language, to help advance the language that we have for what life is right now. I also feel urgency to try to help with the community as much as I can. And I know that when you’re going through such distress about what is happening and what may happen, it’s really important to put language to those things, if at all possible. But I know that it’s also very difficult to talk about things as they’re happening. That’s why I wanted to work with immigrant youth. And I did a lot of workshops where I was facilitating exactly that kind of thing, just writing essays and poems and short stories and making art pieces. Leading young students to do that was really important to me because I wanted them to have some kind of agency.
LN: Yes, tools and agency.
IRC: You know, when you’re constantly losing power and the protections around who you are and where your family is and all those kinds of things… If these young people are getting stressed, then putting language to that gives them agency where they don’t have a lot.
LN: You’re also teaching right now at St. Mary’s college. How do you find teaching impacts your writing?
IRC: I love teaching. It just feels like such a blessing to be able to look at works of literature so closely. And I think when you break them down for somebody else, you also come to a deeper understanding of them yourself. It’s also just such an immense privilege to read the work of writers that are just emerging and seeing the work develop. And then, you know, sometimes you give them the right piece of advice or you say things in the right way and you see a door open for them? That’s always such a joy. So, I don’t know, I’m a very service-oriented person, so that kind of thing just… I don’t know if it makes me a better writer, but it definitely makes me feel like a better person.
LN: Okay, if you were stuck on a desert island, what five books would you bring?
IRC: I would probably bring the Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka. That’s a book that I read a lot. I would bring One Hundred Years of Solitude, both in Spanish and in English, the Grossman translation. And I would probably bring the Collected Fictions by Borges. And I don’t know, a dictionary.
LN: Do you remember your first experience with books as being formative? Or was storytelling something that attracted you from family storytellers? Do you think you came from an oral-centered tradition or a book-centered tradition, or both?
IRC: I came from more of an oral-centered tradition. My parents were not really readers, so the books that we had at home were mostly encyclopedias and dictionaries. I really wanted to read and I really liked reading, so as a child those were the things that I would read because there was nothing else on the shelves. I still love encyclopedias, from that experience, because it’s such a different language and sense of history and story. I was also definitely inspired by the oral storytelling traditions in my family. And it was those, just all those hours that I’ve spent listening over and over to a story being told, in different settings or in different years, and then coming to know the story so well that I felt I could tell them. There was something so enriching and so different about them. The stories that we told, even after I started reading, I wasn’t really seeing anywhere. I think that’s what kind of made me want to be a writer.
LN: What advice would you give to first-time novelists? You know, someone struggling. Maybe they’ve written a first draft. Maybe they’ve written a second.
IRC: It’s hard for everyone. Sometimes I feel like my advice either can be good advice or you can be like, “That’s terrible,” as your reaction to it. But even if after you’ve written a novel and you try to write another one, you will still feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
LN: Well, that actually does make me feel better.
IRC: I think that can maybe be a sense of comfort, that if you are writing your first novel and you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, then I would want you to know that even people who have written multiple novels kind of still have that feeling. Like every book is going to be its own puzzle, and every book is going to throw you in its own specific way. And the kind of process that you will go through is always going to be difficult. But that kind of a journey and the problem-solving that you can do on your toes, that’s also creativity. That’s where you’re going to find the good stuff, you know, the story.
LN: Great. Thank you. I feel like that’s a perfect place to end.
IRC: You’re welcome.
LN: Thanks so much for your time, and good luck with your next project.