Born to Colombian parents and raised in New Jersey, Patricia Engel is a novelist and short story writer of high acclaim. Her books have been translated into many languages and her short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, A Public Space, Boston Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere, and anthologized in The Best American Mystery Stories 2014 and forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2017. Her work explores the experiences of exile and isolation of the body, as well as that of the heart and soul.
Engel’s most recent novel,The Veins of the Ocean, was published in May 2016 by Grove Press and named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle, Electric Literature, and Entropy. The writing of the book was funded in part by a 2014 fellowship in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts. As part of her research process for the book, Engel studied the faith traditions of the Afro-Carribean extensively, and travelled to Cuba multiple times.
In this interview with Angela Velez for Aster(ix) Journal and Sampsonia Way, she discusses this process and the stories, histories, and voices that she listened to as she wove her characters to life.
People often think of the immigrant experience as a singular narrative, and your book does a lot to dispel that belief. Can you talk about your research in developing the difference experiences of your characters?
I’m glad you mentioned that. That’s something that I worked towards, always, against this idea of the singular immigrant experience. Reina came from Colombia as a baby, as an infant to Miami, and of course, Nesto comes as an adult. Reina is brought by her family to the United States, so it’s the passive immigration that a lot of people are subject to, whereas Nesto has really thought long and hard about the decision to leave his family.
Those were two things that I wanted to show, not only so that Nesto could understand the future impact of what it would mean to bring his children to the United States, but also Reina could contemplate the choices that her parents made, in order to bring her over, and how that inheritance of immigration is passed on from one generation to the next. Really, it’s a kind of disruption, a huge disruption in a family history and changes the future of a family forever. It’s an enormous choice that we don’t always know is the right one, and will often have doubts about and reconsider for decades and generations to come.
You also have Nesto’s wife. Immigration is so often portrayed as, “everyone wants to come here,” and for her to say, “No. I don’t want to,” was really powerful as well.
That’s another new stereotype of immigration: That everyone wants to go, everybody is banging at the door of another country, just dying to get in. And that’s not the case. It’s very often with a very heavy heart, very conflicted emotions, very torn up about it that people actually make the journey to immigration. And a lot of people never make it for the exact same reasons. It’s really just a choice — for people who have the choice, who are not being taken along for the ride.
But a lot of people never want to leave. A lot of people are willing to endure whatever circumstances and hardships because they cannot imagine living anywhere else, and they don’t want to. That’s something that I encountered a lot when I was in Cuba doing research. There are a lot of people who don’t want to leave, who want to live and die there. I thought their stories were extremely compelling.
A lot of people never want to leave.
When you went to Cuban, how did you frame your research? Did you set out knowing that you wanted to research specific people and places, or did it develop more organically?
I knew I had this character of Nesto. He came to me early on because I met somebody in Miami who had recently arrived, a Cuban exile. He was telling me stories about Cuba, and they were nothing like the stories I’d heard from people in the United States. I just thought, there’s something else there for me to explore, and he encouraged me to go. At the beginning, my first few trips were open-ended research. I had some vague leads and ideas of places to go, just so I would have some sort of direction each day.
But I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I just knew I had this character, and as I was getting to know him deeper, I wanted to know what his life consisted of. It was a lot of exploring the quotidian details of what his life would have been: the neighborhoods, the markets, his work life, his home life, the actual structures and landscapes, and things like that. And then as I got to know more people in Cuba, they would reveal more to me about it. Relationships emerge and people trust you more and more — that’s part of research as well. And every subsequent trip that I would make, they would become more specific and directed to answer specific questions that I was having as I was continuing with the writing of the book.
I read about a 100 books even before that, and they all seemed to contradict each other. I know that’s because a lot of researchers are lied to, in order to protect the integrity of the faith. I understood that and I respected it. At the same time, because I was writing about an Afro-Cuban and I spent so much time in Cuba, I knew I could not write about him honestly without getting deep into the Yoruba faith.
I spent a lot of time in Santeria temples and the Asociación Cultural Yoruba de la Habana. I got to know a lot of practitioners and babalawos and iyalochas. I went to a lot of ceremonies and rituals. The more I hung around, and the more people forgot I was there, and the more people opened up to me and shared things with me. I had enormous respect for the faith. I was just interested in writing about it in a way that was respectful and truthful. And also I was really interested in the patakís and how those legends and those beliefs are pulled into ordinary life.
You write that your characters carry inheritance “en tu sangre,” in their blood. Do you think this is inheritance is something unique to your characters, or do you think this is something all people all carry?
I don’t think we even have any answers to that. I had a student once who was really into epigenetics. She would talk about it all the time. And I became interested in that, the way that our DNA is affected, imprinted and traumatized in ways we’re not even aware of. How what we think is our personality is actually just imprints in our DNA, from things that happened generations before us.
The psychological and physical inheritance of trauma is something that I think we’re only just beginning to understand in an extremely small way. We can understand it in a physical way, yes. The inheritance of immigration and traumas are quite obvious to us, but I don’t think we entirely understand how we inherit and receive the experiences of our ancestors just because of the blood that flows through our veins.
I remember seeing this documentary on PBS years ago. They were looking at children who suffer from Prader-Willi syndrome, which is this syndrome where they feel this unsatisfiable hunger. They constantly feel this sensation of being starving, famished. So they are just ravenous for food at all hours, all the time. Some become very obese as a result, and the parents have to restrain them from food, or put chains on the refrigerator, it’s that disruptive. And they were looking at what do all these people who suffer from Prader-Willi syndrome have in common around the world, and all of them ancestors who had suffered through the Irish potato famine.
They all had ancestors who had starved, who had experienced starvation at one point. And somehow, that translated in the DNA, generations later, to this feeling of an unrelenting starving sensation. I just thought that was so interesting, and of course, that’s such a tiny example, but I’m sure that this translates in million ways. The experiences of generations before us are a part of our lives in ways we don’t even understand.
The Veins of the Ocean also carries a theme interconnection: no human or animal is an island. What was it like to develop these characters who were so solitary, who resisted each other and community?
I think solitude is something that everybody experiences in different ways. Everybody experiences this personal exile and alienation and dislocation. It wasn’t difficult to get into that, it was just understanding the nature, the unique details of their particular solitudes.
In Reina’s case, she’s always been surrounded by people, but it’s still quite lonely. She’s carrying a lot of shame for her brother’s crime and they guilt she feels for it. And Nesto describes that he’s never found peace and solitude a day in his life because of his overcrowded household. He’s come into this solitude having left them behind. You spend a lot of time with characters as you write them, and they start to tell you about themselves, in different ways. I can’t tell you a specific method that I used, just reflecting on them, considering them, and letting their voices speak to me.
What have the responses been to the book? Have there been any that surprised you?
Fortunately, the responses have been positive. This happens with every book, different people focus on different things, or they see different things in the book. I just met with a class and they were really interested in the dolphin captivity, which is new. A lot of times people focus on the incarceration or the crime, or the death penalty aspect. People bring to it different things and that’s what’s beautiful about a book. A book becomes a lens through which a person can view themselves.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about growing up without writing mentors or a specific writing career path in mind, and how you’ve always written in private. How would you say that’s influenced your writing?
Well, I still write in private. I think because I didn’t have mentors and I wasn’t showing my work for praise, I’ve learned to not write expecting praise and my discipline has flourished as a result of that. I’m able to write, self-motivated, for very long stretches without receiving any kind of feedback. And that helps me in my process, in order to get something done, without that interruption, or having another person’s voice in my ear when I’m writing. And that’s just my process. Of course, when I’m done and I’ve got something to show, then I show it to the people I share it with. But having my formation, alone in that aspect, helped me cultivate my discipline.
Do you feel it changed once you joined a community of writers?
It changed for a time, when I was in a community and I was writing for a workshop. Then it was great. I had a community and I was receiving feedback, and that was wonderful because that was such a period of growth, learning, receiving knowledge, and experimentation. But then, of course, the MFA ends. I went to many workshops, but at a certain point, that ends too. And then it’s just you and your work, all alone again.
That was wonderful, when I had that. It was a great privilege and luxury to be part of those communities. I still have friends with whom I share work. But for the most part, the way it is for most writers is that you write alone. There is no one there with you, when you’re working page by page.
The experiences of generations before us are a part of our lives in ways we don’t even understand.
With the new budget that the Trump Administration is putting forward, they’re proposing cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). You received a fellowship through the NEA —what that was able to do for you and your writing?
It was wonderful. I received a fellowship from the NEA in 2014 and the project that I proposed was The Veins of the Ocean. They gave me a fellowship in order to support research, the research in writing The Veins of the Ocean. I was able to finish it because of the support I got from the NEA. It was a huge honor. In a practical way, it was enormously helpful and facilitated all the research I was able to do, and the time I was able to take to write the book.
I’m enormously grateful to them. It’s an extraordinary organization. I also had the opportunity to serve as a judge for the following selection of literature fellowships for 2016. I saw all the work that goes into the reading and selecting of the recipients of the fellowships. I have so much respect. I think it would be an enormous tragedy to lose this organization, but I am very optimistic that it’s not going to be lost. People are going to fight because they know how important it is to our culture.
Can you tell me an author or work that you think deserves more attention, that not enough people are reading?
I read a lot of books in translation, and I read a lot of books that are not in translation, but that should be. I would encourage people to read as much international literature as they possibly can and to seek out books that are in translation. The more books that get purchased and read, the more will be translated as the market grows.
There’s a book coming out in the fall, Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa, he’s a Colombian author. A book that is really wonderful, that is coming out now and is getting great attention, thankfully, is Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli. It’s about the process that children migrants have to go through as they navigate the legal system by themselves and about her work as a translator on behalf of children in the court system. I’m really excited about Achy Obejas’ new story collection, The Tower of the Antilles. I think everybody should read more of her works.