On Thursday, October 28th, the CLA presented an evening to celebrate the Literary Arts. From the launch of Reed Magazine: Issue 154, Cliché, which stands as a testament to the creative endeavors of the Reed Magazine team of editors and loyal contributors to an outstanding reading and conversation from Colombian-American author, Patricia Engel, the night remains one to remember. While the Reed Launch Party microcosmically conveyed the necessity and power of the arts today, Engel's conversation with Dr. Anderson microcosmically expressed that necessity through her novel, Infinite Country. Consequently, the evening's conversation will be the focus of this post.
The dialogue between Engel and Anderson began with the work's title: Infinite Country. Originally, Engel titled her work The Jaguar, The Snake and the Condor, which are the three mythological animals on the cover. However, the current title comes from a chapter towards the end of the book. Infinite Country encapsulates the borderlessness of love. Particularly, the love between families that are separated by land, distance, and invisible borders. But the title is also intended to be open to interpretation, to invite readers to define an infinite country in their own terms.
The numerous points of view align with the title greatly. Be it from Talia, Mauro, or any of the other family members, loving across physical, psychological, and emotional borders is a dominant illustrative thread. So, when asked how Engel decided which storylines and voices to include, she stated:
"With Infinite Country, I wanted to speak to the collective experience of a family in the condition of being immigrants, new immigrants where it’s a living part of their current family story.
And I wanted to speak to that collective experience of immigrating as a family, but I also wanted to be able to describe the private experience of each of those family members and approach their personal stories, the things that they were not saying to one another."
With that objective in mind, Engel discussed that figuring out how to do that work took some time. There were many drafts, time was spent isolating characters to know them deeply, but ultimately, Engel revealed that listening to the story's demands was key:
"The story has its own demands, and the story tells at some point, how it needs to be told, how it needs to be described. But you only discover that when you enter into the land of drafting."
When asked whether Engel feels a responsibility as an author of color to write about urgent personal, social, and political issues, she pointed to writing about what it is you know. But in the act of writing about what Engel knows, she informed the audience that writing what she knows is an act to make the invisible visible. To put it another way, she writes about the Colombian-American experience where themes of family and migration are central because in dominant American Literature, there is an absence.
In that vein, she's discovered with time the importance of storytelling. For Engel, telling stories is a means to keep history, identity, and culture alive because stories are inherently fragile, susceptible to loss. The inclusion of lore and mythology in Infinite Country not only keeps the Muisca ancestral knowledge alive but also ancestral knowledge she's acquired from traveling.
“The only way we can understand ourselves as a species, as anything . . . [is] through the repetition of stories. It’s in hearing those stories that we understand where we come from and orient our lives. They are a lifeline in a way.”
Writers and artists can re-open, sustain, and close lifelines in any society. For writer's wishing to create impact, Engel suggests expanding one's orbit. Read not only the works recommended to you, but the works beyond your comfort zone. Consider reading translated works or works birthed out of diverse backgrounds. In your given craft, she suggests valuing your work. When the work is centered, an increase in energy and productivity arises. This difference produces advancement, quickly. And lastly, prioritizing one's work is her third piece of advice. For Engel, motivational sticky-notes were the trick for developing a consistent and intentional writing practice. However, for others, setting alarms or making a date with your craft may be the trick.
Patricia Engel demonstrated throughout the evening how one becomes and embodies a writer and a writer of color. At the heart of any artistic endeavor, Engel's most poignant point is to share our stories, for our experiences are valuable and communicate realities that need to be heard. And if not for anything else, our stories ensure what is lost is memorialized.
Thank you for reading,
P.S. Patricia Engel will release a short-story collection next fall titled, The Far Away World. Be sure to be on the lookout!