No child should have to dodge bullets, survive an attempted kidnapping, or question whether she’ll ever see her father again all before the age of eight, but that’s exactly what happens to Chula, the main character of Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Set in Bogotá, Colombia during the early ‘90s, the story navigates the violent reign of Pablo Escobar and its effects on two young women.
Seven-year-old Chula Santiago lives in a gated community thanks to the stable income afforded to her father. Her mother, due to her impoverished upbringing, has adopted a habit of employing girls in similar misfortune as household maids. Petrona Sánchez, a teenage girl from the nearby mountainous slums, is one such hire and the sole provider for her household after the paramilitary leaves her family’s life in shambles abducting both her father and most of her brothers.
Each day, she departs her family’s quarters—an unsteady frame composed of collected trash—and spends her day cleaning the Santiago home under the fascinated gaze of Chula. The young girl fantasizes about Petrona’s story, recognizing their differences even at her young age. Though they are separated by only a matter of miles, the distance cannot properly account for the contrast in lifestyle, especially when it comes to growing up surrounded by violence.
While Chula is largely insulated, Petrona’s vulnerabilities are glaringly present. Soon, she befriends a charming, yet suspicious boy named Gorrión who begins to leverage their relationship for access to the Santiagos, an all-too-familiar scenario for Colombians during this time.
On its own, the novel’s plot is haunting enough, but it is made even more so with the addition of Contreras’s afterword, which details that many of the events were based upon her own upbringing. Born and raised in Bogotá, she grew up much like Chula with a mother who hired young girls of lesser means for work around their home, one of whom was threatened into participating in a plot to kidnap Contreras and her sister. Fortunately, they were spared, but others were not so fortunate, which is part of the motivation behind Fruit of the Drunken Tree.
Contreras has called her book an immigrant story, which is clear from the opening page. The bulk of the novel unfolds by way of Chula’s recollection who has managed escape to America and wonders after the fate of Petrona who she last saw in Colombia. The opening chapter offers a glimpse of Chula’s immigration experience, a profoundly moving one that reemerges in the final fifty or so pages.
Desperation makes demands. Those of means possess options that simply do not exist for those without. That reality is what makes Fruit of the Drunken Tree a particularly affecting immigrant account. It depicts the complexity and the humanity behind the journey, both of which are needed contributions under a presidency that stokes unfounded fear with its rhetoric about immigrants and refugees.
What is our duty to those without the means to face their desperation? At the very least, we owe them our empathy, but that starts by acknowledging their story. There is no one-size-fits-all narrative to this discussion, no matter how politically expedient it may seem. Contreras navigates this tumultuous terrain with an alluring sensitivity that proves she is an important voice to help us ask and answer such timely questions.
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Building Your Bookshelf
Halsey Street by Naima Coster
With her father’s health in decline, Penelope Grand decides to return home to Brooklyn leaving behind her lackluster career as an artist in Pittsburgh. But the home she remembered no longer exists, now gentrified by new residents shaping the neighborhood in their own image. It’s also missing her mother, Mirella, who abandoned their family long ago. After responding to an online ad, Penelope moves into the attic of a well-to-do family, one she hopes to find a place in. Just as her life appears to settle down, she receives a letter from her estranged mother, now in the Dominican Republic, asking for a chance to reconnect. Without warning, the letter plunges Penelope back into old wounds and forces her to revisit painful questions from her past, the answers to which may be the only hope she’ll ever have of finding a place she can truly call home.
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
With the first novel from Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, debut author Fatima Farheen Mirza paints a sweeping portrait of an Indian-American Muslim family gathering to celebrate the marriage of the oldest daughter, Hadia, in California. It’s the first time they have been together in over three years. Parents Rafiq and Layla did all they could to steep their children in the traditions over their faith, yet find themselves burdened with hindsight wondering what they could have done differently to reconcile with their estranged son. When he arrives at the wedding, a subtle tension follows with the remainder of the novel flashing back between each character’s perspective to examine the complex tale of what led them to their present state. Mirza’s prose plumbs insight beyond her age culminating in a novel that is at once heartbreaking and profoundly hopeful.
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim
Welcome to almost-post-apocalyptic America where a catastrophic flu pandemic wreaks havoc across the country and time travel is the only hope for many. Frank and Polly are enjoying the early days of their new love when he contracts the disease leaving them with few options. Polly can travel two decades into the future in exchange for the treatment he needs, or they can live out their remaining days together in the present. She chooses the future, which means paying off her debt through bonded labor in Galveston, Texas where she agrees to meet Frank. Along the way, she is unexpectedly sent five additional years into the future throwing off their timeline, leaving her inexplicably alone, and wondering whether she will ever be able to find Frank again.
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