This year has been stacked with great books. As the new year rolled around, Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree was one of the releases I most looked forward to reading—and it did not disappoint. It was an easy choice for one of my Best Books of 2018 as well as a pick for the Fathom book club, Storied. Ingrid was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few of my questions about her book and her craft.
I’m always interested to hear authors describe their own writing. For those who have yet to pick up a copy of Fruit of the Drunken Tree, what can they expect from reading it?
I wrote this book while I was in between visas and could not travel to Colombia. Place in this novel is studiously seen—I was trying to build the country I could not return to for myself. This is a dark, funny, heartbreaking, and haunting novel.
You’ve said that your fiction always flows from an autobiographical source. Your novel’s afterword acknowledges as much about this story as well. How much of Fruit of the Drunken Tree is truly autobiographical in terms of its story? And what was it like for you to surface a tale that hits so close to home with your past?
The backbone of the story is borrowed from life. There are two girls—Chula and Petrona—living through the violence of the late 80s and 90s Colombia. Petrona lives in guerrilla occupied territory and is threatened into acting against Chula’s family. This really happened.
I don’t know if I felt I had a choice with telling or not telling this story. In many ways, it felt like the story I needed to tell before I could tell other stories. I didn’t mind the process of using parts of my personal history, especially as this is not a story I feel able to tell in non-fiction form. This is the only way I’ll ever write it.
The notion of the “American Dream” is often cast as something that is achievable through one’s hard work and determination. While there is a certain amount of truth to that, your novel—though set in Colombia—reveals the ways in which external forces, like class, provide the kinds of opportunities people have for success in life. How has recognizing some of the advantages of your upbringing shaped your perspective on life? What do you hope stories like your novel will provoke in terms of shaping the imagination of readers toward those with less opportunities?
I consciously wanted to do a story showing two girls from different classes, one who is able to migrate, one who is not able. We tend to think of all immigrants as needy, forgetting people who migrate each come from a complicated net of privileges, disadvantages, and systemic hindrances. Circumstance drew my attention to class as a young girl. It was one of the very first things I understood about the world around me when I was coming of age. I wanted to portray what it would really be like to be under the weight of systemic oppressions—would you be able to migrate? Would you be able to escape a desperate situation? The answer is as different as every story.
You’ve described Fruit of the Drunken Tree elsewhere as an immigrant story. The final fifty or so pages describing the Santiago family’s arrival in the United States were some of the most moving I’ve read in some time. One scene in particular that struck me was when Chula stared at the stream of water running from a sink faucet like it was a “holy thing.” There are so many privileges we take for granted in America that others around the world are unable to enjoy and your novel surfaced that effectively. What do you hope readers will take away from your book, especially as it relates to the immigrant experience?
I was thinking of the distended sense of self that happens when you become uprooted and make a home in a new place. I have always been interested in the way immigrants continue to carry the experience of their lost countries within, how as they go about their new days, it continues to inform every small moment. You can’t help but compare the good and the bad. I think this is part of the immigrant condition.
In addition to your novel, you’ve published a number of essays this year on topics ranging from Colombian candy and U.S. citizenship to beauty standards and your mother’s background as a psychic. What is your writing process like to maintain such a level of output? Do you have any particular practices and/or places that are most productive for your writing?
This year has been a very difficult year to write through, actually! Some of these essays—I was so busy at the time—looking back I am astounded I was able to produce them. I was moving apartments when I wrote for the NYT Magazine, and remember crouching between stacks of boxes to hammer out a draft, painting walls before going to teach, and somehow between classes doing my reporting. Writing under such circumstances would have been impossible for me at any other time, but I am terrified of deadlines. I had committed to a deadline, and the possibility of not meeting it scared exhaustion, fear, and nerves out of me.
Who would you consider some of the biggest inspirations for you as a writer?
My biggest inspiration is my mother.
You’re a vocal supporter of diversity in publishing. What are the positive developments you’re most encouraged about in terms of representation in publishing today? How do you hope to contribute to that end as both an author and a woman of color?
Diversity in publishing is so important. We’ve had a stellar year of debut books—books that have moved me and expanded and added to the literary horizon, perhaps too many to name. One of the things I have had a chance to do now is recommend emerging writers for opportunities and residencies, sharing my knowledge and resources, and putting people in touch. I hope our literary future is even more brown, more black, more female, and queer.
Now that Fruit of the Drunken Tree is on the shelves, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned that you wish you had known from the start? What advice would you give to aspiring writers today?
It’s going to take a long time! I would tell myself to be patient and work as much as I can and have as much fun as I can. The biggest thing that is going to make a difference is reading. Read as much as you can, as lovingly as you can. Think and feel your way through others’ books as deeply as you can. It will feed you, and tell you so much about where you might want to go with your own book. Make your own community, and pay it forward.