Patricia Engel Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Patricia Engel
Photo: Elliot & Erick Jimenez

Patricia Engel

An interview with Patricia Engel

A Conversation with Patricia Engel.

As a dual citizen of the United States and Colombia, the daughter of Colombian immigrants, and an award-winning author of the Latin America diaspora, you are intimately familiar with the in-betweenness of the lives you depict in Infinite Country. Did this sense of liminality affect your writing?

The idea of belonging or not belonging is so tied to the idea of country and borders. Very early in my life I was made to feel both excluded and embraced by the two countries and cultures that formed me, and there were others, still, who had no idea what to do with me. Many people feel an urge to define and to categorize in order to understand. I soon realized that who I am does not need to fit into neat boxes and that my essence extends far beyond the parameters of geography and language. This is what I'm always exploring in my work, and how transdiaspora can amplify ancestral connections while diminishing those imposed by one's dominant surroundings.

You sow the pages of Infinite Country with Andean myths, and they often appear as a point of comparison for dilemmas that the characters encounter in the real world. How did you first learn about the legends you reference in the novel, and do you have a favorite?

My family is full of storytellers, artists, and highly creative people. I loved hearing my grandmother's fantastical tales of life and people she knew in Colombia that she'd swear were true. For us, imagination and storytelling is a life force. I love the overlap of Traditional Knowledge and myth with what we know to be true in the world through science, and the spaces in between. The word "myth" doesn't convey the power that stories about the origin of the world and the logic of the universe really have. The stories in Infinite Country came at different moments of discovery in my life, some throughout my childhood from my family members and others while traveling in Colombia, or from research. My favorites are definitely those about the jaguar, the serpent, and the condor.

Though they are siblings, Karina, Nando, and Talia all have individual ties—both state-recognized and not—to the United States and Colombia. How did you decide Talia would be the propulsive focal point of the book? Are there passages about Karina and Nando that didn't make it into the final version of the manuscript?

It's hard to say when or how each character came to me. Somehow they announced themselves as a complete family. I knew they'd each be tested in different ways, and Talia's reunification with her mother and siblings would be at the center. A book goes through many incarnations, so there was a time when Karina's and Nando's voices occupied more written terrain. Even though their narratives are brief, they populate the entire novel the way one populates the lives of their loved ones even when apart, be it for hours or for years.

Some major events in the book—Mauro's deportation and eventual reentry into the United States, for example—occur in just a few paragraphs. How did you weigh which moments to omit and which to include?

I think the impact of an experience doesn't need to correlate to how much space it takes up in a book. I write impressionistically, in a way I hope imitates the interior life of a character, where trauma and memory often partner to create narrative omissions, reduce moments to their molecular parts rather than ruminate on things that would be otherwise painful. I think this is closer to how people truly tell their own stories. It's often the reader who expects dissection, even though a character is already being as vulnerable as they can possibly be. For Mauro, what happened to him while detained or deported or returning to the north is not as important as what those events cost him and what that means in the larger picture of his love for his family.

Your book comprises five main characters, two continents, and nearly two decades—all under two hundred pages. Did you have a process for keeping the coiling timelines and multiple settings of Infinite Country in order?

I keep notebooks for everything I write, and I rewrite each draft word by word from the beginning each time. This way the story always feels as fresh and alive as the very first draft and allows me to navigate the leaps in time and space with more freedom, fluidity, and control.

From Horacio to the Frenchman to Elena's restaurant boss, you populate the periphery of Infinite Country with a few minor characters who seem less than redeemable. Is there one of particular interest to you, one that you might explore further if you had the time? If so, why?

I don't really consider anyone irredeemable. In my own life, I forgive easily. I'm always interested in the dualities that exist in people, how nobody is all good or all bad, how we can become possessed by our impulses and then how we each have to reconcile who we really are with who we think we are. It's not always the same person.

As Talia tries to sleep next to Aguja by the river, she remembers something that Mauro said: "This land, with all its beauty, still manages to betray itself" (page 140). How do you think love and betrayal interact in the context of this family's immigrant experience?

Immigration does sometimes feel like a betrayal. Choosing to leave one's homeland, choosing another place to make your life and home, can fill a person with guilt and doubt over whether it was the right choice for years and the feeling often never dissipates. Just because you leave a place (or a person) doesn't mean you love it (or them) any less. At the same time, Colombia is such an extraordinarily beautiful country that has been subject to so much suffering often at its own hands, which brings one to another kind of mourning on behalf of the land and its people. But what Mauro said can be applied to any land, as well as to how we treat the planet.

Is there a moment, sentence, or section in Infinite Country that you find especially beautiful?

There are many moments that are special to me, but a scene that stands out is when Talia and Mauro say goodbye at the airport in Bogotá and she realizes that she doesn't want to leave. When she asks, "How will they know me?" A simple question that speaks to so much more.

As you were developing and writing Infinite Country, did you turn to any other books or media that inspire you? If so, what are they and how did they influence you?

With Infinite Country, I wanted to write a book that felt both epic and intimate. I love short novels that feel compressed, stormlike intoxications or fever dreams. A few favorites are In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez, and The Lover by Marguerite Duras.

If you could guarantee that readers think more deeply about one idea or concept in your book, what would it be and why?

I hope readers find a place for themselves in the world of Infinite Country, and consider the ways that where we come from, and who we are told to be, determine how we understand or misunderstand humanity and love.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Patricia Engel at BookBrowse
Infinite Country jacket
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Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Patricia Engel but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

    Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

    Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is the author of Cenzontle, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. prize (BOA editions 2018), winner of the 2019 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award in poetry, a finalist for the Northern ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Infinite Country

    Try:
    Children of the Land
    by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

  • Masha Hamilton

    Masha Hamilton

    Masha Hamilton is a United States journalist and the author of five novels. She founded two world literacy projects and has worked as head of communications for the US Embassy in Afghanistan and the NGO Concern Worldwide US.

    ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Infinite Country

    Try:
    The Distance Between Us
    by Masha Hamilton

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