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Infinite Country Patricia Engel Interview
Infinite Country, Patricia Engel’s heartbreaking fourth novel, opens with an unforgettable sentence: “It was her idea to tie up the nun.” In Engel’s gripping first chapter, a teenage girl makes a high-octane escape from a Catholic reform school in the misty mountains of Colombia, setting in motion her treacherous hitchhike to Bogotá, where she has a plane to catch. The plane will take teenage Talia to the United States, where her mother, Elena, and her older siblings, Karina and Nando, live in New Jersey. Talia is set to reunite with her family after a lifetime of long-distance love on different continents, which began when Elena made the impossible choice to send her American-born infant daughter back to Colombia, following the deportation of the family patriarch, Mauro.
Engel’s sweeping novel gives voice to three generations of this mixed-status Colombian family, torn apart by man-made borders. When Elena and Mauro move to the United States with their newborn, then decide to overstay their visas, the cruelty of deportation sunders their growing family, but never their bonds. Gorgeously woven through with Andean myths and the bitter hardships of living undocumented, Infinite Country tells a breathtaking story of the unimaginable prices paid for a better life, while reckoning with the complex interior world of immigration, from profound questions of identity to the daily pain of longing for a home to which one might never return. Engel spoke with Esquire about immigration narratives, the intricacies of transdiaspora, and the failure of man-made borders.
Esquire: Where did this novel begin for you, and how did it take shape over time?
Patricia Engel: It’s hard to say, because it’s a story that’s much like the story of so many families and people that I’ve known and loved over the course of my life. I’m the daughter of Colombian immigrants. My community has always been one of immigrants from various places. I’ve always known and loved people who have been challenged and touched by the complications of immigration laws year after year, all my life. This is a story that I could say was waiting to be written over the entire course of my life, but I didn’t sit down to begin drafting it until about three years ago. I think that’s simply because some stories take longer to construct themselves in a writer’s mind—to reveal themselves, how they’re going to be told, and the voices and the characters that will emerge.
ESQ: The novel opens unforgettably with Talia’s high-octane escape from reform school. All of these characters are very powerfully sketched, but in a unique way, Talia operates as the center of the novel. So much of the book turns around this fulcrum of her travels. Will she get where she’s going? What will it be like when she gets there? She also occupies the unique place of having a foot in both of the novel’s words. What about her was so powerful and interesting to you? Why does she animate so much of this novel?
PE: I’m always drawn to really badass young women characters. I think they’re so fun to write. I was a very different kind of 15-year-old myself, so inhabiting somebody like that is fun and challenging; it’s an adventure all its own as a writer. But the way that Talia specifically came me was that many years ago, when I was working on a different book, I read an article about a group of adolescent girls who escaped from a juvenile detention center in the mountains of Colombia. I didn’t know anything else. What they were there for; what their motives were; what happens to them; if they were found or if they just disappeared. I was really taken by that. These young, powerful, and bold girls were able to break out of a prison facility. That stayed with me until it converged with the story of the family in Infinite Country.
ESQ: So much of Mauro and Elena’s fortunes in the United depends on the kindness of strangers and friends. They rely on a whisper network of fellow immigrants, or people who are sympathetic to their struggles, who help them procure lodging, work, childcare. From your knowledge of these communities, is that often true of how immigrants make their way through their new life in the United States?
PE: In some cases, yes. In some cases, no. There are people who have no support whatsoever and make their way entirely on their own. I have known many people in those situations. But there are cases, like in the case of Mauro and Elena, where a friend of a friend will extend a hand to help them get situated, where they’re going to spend some time. That’s common, because obviously people who have been in the same circumstances of starting a new life, be it for the long term or the short term, know what it’s like and how challenging it is. They’re more likely to offer help to somebody who’s just beginning down that road.
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
ESQ: Infinite Country is so steeped in Andean myths and Colombian legends. How do those stories sustain people living throughout the Colombian diaspora?
PE: I don’t think stories sustain only Colombians. I think every nation and every community has its own stories. Every family has its own stories, and every individual has their own stories. We define ourselves by the stories we’re told about who we are, our history, our ancestry, and what that makes us. That’s how this country defines itself, by the stories that we repeatedly tell ourselves about who we are and why we are this way.
I was raised with some of the stories from Andean mythology that appear in Infinite Country. I came across others in my travels in Colombia. Some are the product of research, because they’re particular to different regions of the country. Different regions have different stories. But as a storyteller myself, I’m always fascinated by how stories are how we survive, and how we’re able to both make sense of our past and of our future.
ESQ: Is there a story you were told as a child that’s really buried in your heart and remains meaningful to you?
PE: There are many, because my grandmother, who was a writer herself and a big storyteller, just had so many wild stories. There’s a scene in Infinite Country where there’s a house and it’s believed that bad spirits are lurking in the house. There’s the effort to expel those spirits from the house. That’s actually a very true event from real life. One of my relatives in Colombia went through that.
ESQ: In one scene, Elena wonders, “What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy?” It’s so difficult for immigrants to travel to the States, to survive there, and to be made to feel whole and human there. What is it about the fantasy that remains so seductive amid all that suffering?
PE: I think the idea about something being a fantasy implies that it’s perfect—without flaws and without errors. In reality, this country is wonderful, with so many beautiful aspects to it and so much to offer, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. We shouldn’t pretend that it’s without flaws. If we do, then we can never be better; we can never hope for more. Being locked into a fantasy really inhibits change, transformation, and evolution. That’s where the danger is.
A lot of people who come to this country are not expecting perfection; they’re just seeing what they can make of it. But very often the people who are trying to uphold this perfect image are the ones who are most disappointed. Very often, those are the people who’ve been here much longer.
ESQ: Elsewhere in the novel, there’s a moment where Elena thinks to herself, “Only women knew the strength it took to love men through their evolution to who they thought they were supposed to be”. I was reminded of something Yiyun Li wrote: “Pioneers are men, but pioneering is a woman’s job.” Is there anything about the immigrant experience that’s unique to women?
PE: I think that the experience of women is unique, period, no matter what. But I think that in the landscape of immigration diaspora, you can really see the resilience and the strength of women. Of men too, but of women in unique ways, where they’re often burdened with ensuring the family’s survival and also doing the nurturing and the loving. Those responsibilities perhaps are not immediately expected of their male partners.
The Veins of the Ocean: A Novel
ESQ: Another of Elena’s reflections that I found quite powerful was this: “There was an alegria inherent to Colombians, optimism even through tears, but never the kind of self-interrogation of ‘happiness’ she observed in the north, the way people constantly asked themselves if they were content as if it were their main occupation in life. And what was happiness? Not selfish fulfillment, of this she was certain. That seemed like a recipe for the opposite.” What about the Colombian sensibility of happiness is in conflict with the American sensibility?
PE: Colombians are known for being a very joyful people. Almost joyful to a fault; they enjoy their music and get-togethers and celebrations, which is a beautiful thing. A Russian friend of mine just told me an expression that’s so similar, which is obviously a translation from the original Russian: “Only fools wants to be happy. Good people want to be useful.”
I thought it was interesting. It really shows how it’s not specific to one people, this idea that one’s fulfillment is connected to their contributions to a larger community, or to their family, or to how they’re offering themselves to the higher purpose of their home and their loved ones and the people around them.
ESQ: A little over halfway through the novel, there’s the startling structural shift into the first-person perspective, where we begin to hear from Karina and Nando in their own voices. Why did you feel it was right and necessary to shift into the first person there, and to let them give voice to their own stories?
PE: Well, the entire novel is in first person. It’s just that it only becomes obvious when you get to the part where Karina starts directly addressing the reader. She’s the chronicler of the family. She’s the witness, the one getting together and assembling their history—the record of their lives. I think that in every family, there’s somebody like that. There’s the truth-teller of the family, who’s keeping track of how everyone got to where they are and the roles that different family members occupied. I really felt that this voice belonged to her. She’s the one that the others are trusting with their story, with things they have not even yet told each other, because she’s writing from a place of earnestness and trust.
ESQ: Why did it feel right to have her show herself partway through the novel rather than her declaratively announce who was framing the story on page one?
PE: I think that’s true to her character, that she doesn’t center herself right away. Her life has been very much defined by the absence of her younger sister. That’s why I felt it was more important to begin with Talia, the daughter who was sent away, then show how the parents found each other and came to be sweethearts and then parents. There’s a moment there where Karina is taking the story back into her own hands. She’s got very specific things to say, very direct things to say, as the story pounds forward in time with Talia’s imminent arrival.
ESQ: Karina writes in one of her chapters, “I’ve had borders drawn around me all my life, but I refuse to live as a bordered person.” She goes on to write, “Maybe that I don’t have the documentation they want is good. It means they don’t own me.” Those words struck me as such a powerful act of resistance. To your knowledge, how are undocumented people resisting?
PE: I cannot speak for anybody in that situation. I was born in the United States and I have dual citizenship. But one thing I can tell you because of my age and my memory is that I remember a time not so long ago, just before the turn of the millennium, when immigration was not framed in a way that it is now. Visas were given a lot more readily, as were amnesties and asylum, and immigrants were seen as a resource, valued for their contributions. The perception of immigrants was quickly changed as a result of 9/11; they’ve since been framed as parasitic. The way that the United States perceived foreigners really changed after 9/11, and also with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which gave way to ICE.
Grove Press, Black Cat
The media narrative or political interpretation of what it means to be an immigrant in the United States has really evolved to serve special interests. When you marginalize people, you get to limit their rights, and there’s someone who benefits from that. Of course there’s resistance that exists among those communities, but it’s up to the individuals to define how, considering the high stakes.
ESQ: How an immigrant understands their identity and their place in the world is such a powerful theme in this novel. I was really struck by Mauro’s words late in the novel, when he reflects, “Something is always lost. Even when we are the ones migrating, we end up being occupied.” He also thinks on that same page, “In choosing to immigrate, we are the ones trafficking ourselves.” To what degree does an occupation or colonization of the mind and spirit occur after immigration?
PE: There’s very often the discussion or debate about assimilation when immigration is involved, and what the obligations of an immigrant are when taking on a new life in a new country. That can mean relinquishing everything that they were before, culturally or nationally, and trying to start with a clean slate in this country. But what I was hoping to show in Infinite Country are the nuances of the prospect of immigrating, because you’re watching a family in the process. What most North Americans do not realize, or they’re largely disassociated from, is the fact that every single person in this country has a family member who was in exactly this position—perhaps not by choice, but by force. Unless you’re Indigenous or descended from slaves, there was that one person who has been disruptor in a family history, who left the homelands and came to what is now the United States.
In that space, some people are still so many generations from this state. They’re totally disconnected from that feeling, whereas some people have it much closer to them. Some people are still in that space, like the family in Infinite Country. But in that space, there’s a lot of longing and mourning for the land they’ve left. It’s the world they’ve known and loved, even if it was challenging and it did not offer a promising future for them. It’s still your point of origin; it’s still where your roots are. There’s a tremendous loss there.
I live in a community in South Florida where there are actual support groups for loss of homelands, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. It moved me so much, the first time I saw that, because it’s such an important loss. Just to see it acknowledged, I think it’s so touching. It’s not something that many people think about when thinking about what it is to immigrate.
It’s still your point of origin; it’s still where your roots are. There’s a tremendous loss there.
ESQ: In this novel, you so interestingly contrast Mauro’s sense of immigration, which he describes as “a peeling away of the skin,” “an undoing,” with Elena’s view, which is clouded by exactly what you’re describing. This really powerful, painful longing for her homeland, and the knowledge that mother died without her. It’s heartbreaking stuff. Elena’s version seems a bit more morally neutral than Mauro’s, as she muses, “In matters of migration, even accidental, no option is more moral than another. There’s only the path you make.” How do you contrast how this husband and wife see immigration differently?
PE: It’s such a personal thing, and that’s something that’s so typical. People can be sharing an entire life together and can be having vastly different experiences about the experience of leaving their country and starting a life in another one. In Infinite Country, I felt it was so important to channel all the voices of this one family where there’s two parents and three children. All of their experiences are so completely different because of the different places that they occupy on this spectrum of migratory status; what it means to be born in one place and living in another. It’s really an exploration of the interior world of immigration. It’s not just about plodding from here to there, but there’s so much regret and wondering if you made the right choice when the life that you left is going on without you. Everything will still be there except you. That’s a lot to live with.
ESQ: What was that like, to slip in and out of five voices? How did you find those voices and switch between all of them?
PE: I think one of the reasons it took so long for me to really sit down and start writing this novel is because I had to get all of those voices clear. I had to understand the people behind them and the experiences that made them in order to understand the things that they would have to say—what they would feel and perceive about their world. Doing it was great fun, of course, but it took some time to be able to find the ways that they’re distinct.
ESQ: Throughout the book, it often seems like every choice someone makes has this double life of regret. Choosing one country has an unintended binary as a rejection of the other. How does that divided existence shape a person’s identity?
PE: As a daughter of immigrants, I was made to understand that I was the daughter of foreigners, so I could never be fully American. I was a daughter of diaspora, so I was not fully Colombian in the way that my cousins who never left Colombia were. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to appreciate the intricacies of transdiaspora, which is more open to this idea that we don’t have to choose. I can be all things. I can be American and Colombian, and I can have an ongoing relationship with both countries. Every time I go back to Colombia or I’m thinking about it in a new way, my relationship deepens and grows and becomes something new. It’s something more meaningful to me, in the same way that my relationship with the United States is constantly evolving, even though I live here.
There is no binary anymore. We can define ourselves.
I think that the world has opened up in so many ways, because of technology and because of community and because we can keep our bonds strong. We don’t have to shed our identities in order to conform to the demands of assimilation. There is no binary anymore. We can define ourselves.
ESQ: Such a powerful theme in Infinite Country is what borders mean, and what they fail to mean. You write at the end of the novel, “Maybe there is no nation or citizenry.” What do borders mean to you?
PE: I think something that has always sparked my curiosity, as somebody who loves animals and nature, is how we can watch endless documentaries marveling about the miracle of migration when animals do it and how they know how to cross other lands in pursuit of resources. What doesn’t occur to us are the ways that the human species is a migratory species, which has ensured its own survival, literally, because of the instinct to migrate. Borders are ever-changing things, as we’ve seen; countries often change them, rename themselves, and cede parts of their borders to other countries. Borders are man-made, designed to serve special interests, and really are not natural. We shouldn’t be surprised by the ways they fall short of what human instincts and human needs require.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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