Ingrid Rojas Contreras Shows a Little-Seen Side of 1990s Colombia
’Fruit of the Drunken Tree’ pushes Pablo Escobar into the background and focuses on everyday people living with violence
Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ debut novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree shows readers a Colombia we rarely see. Pablo Escobar is relegated to the background, where he still wreaks havoc, but he is just one of the forms of violence that sweeps through Bogotá in the 1990s. What is in the foreground instead are the lives of everyday Bogotanos, who for some time were able to uphold a class divide to shield themselves from violence. Two protagonists tell their stories and the story of the economic class they inhabit. Seven-year-old Chula enjoys a safe, good life in her gated community. Petrona, a thirteen-year-old, comes from the hills to work for Chula’s family as their housegirl and is the main breadwinner for her mother and siblings. Their lives intersect because Chula is fascinated by Petrona, even though the rest of the world sees Petrona as a mosquita muerta. By the end of the novel, everyone will learn how tenuous the benefits of class are and how the sacrifices we make for others may require us to sacrifice ourselves.
Ingrid and I spoke about achieving your artistic goals, disrupting narratives of guilt and innocence, and how representation in publishing matters.
Ivelisse Rodriguez: Is Fruit of the Drunken Tree the novel you have always wanted to write?
Ingrid Rojas Contreras: Yes and no. It was a novel I ran away from for many years, but it kept resurfacing in what I was telling myself were just short stories. It was such a heavy subject; I resisted the idea that I was to be wedded to it for a prolonged amount of time. When I finally caved, I realized it was the story that I had always hoped I would write. I wanted it to be emotionally complex but also political and also definitely about women.
IR: I love that this is the novel you had hoped to write. There is such a schism sometimes between what we hoped to achieve and what we actually achieve. I often think of Plato’s idea of simulacrum where art is sometimes a copy of a copy of the original we held in our minds. So there is always this gap between what we wrote and what we hoped to write.
There is also sometimes this same schism when we write about real people. When I read your afterword, I was a bit devastated to find out that there was a real-life girl like Petrona. I already appreciated how you gave Petrona a voice, but even more so in this situation. It would be easy to dismiss Petrona/the real girl as evil. At what point did you recognize her humanity?
IRC: The nature of the real story — how the real-life Petrona made a brutal sacrifice for my own safety while putting her own and her family’s in jeopardy—made it impossible for me to not recognize her humanity from the very beginning. I think I was very lucky to grow up in a family that occupied the middle class while coming from a very poor background. In my childhood, I constantly navigated the world of Bogotá and my family’s home in Cúcuta. One of the first things I understood about the world was class and how much class predicated your circumstance and the things you could do to change that circumstance. From the beginning, I was interested in building a world where a “crime” could be revealed to be simply the outcome of being entre la espada y la pared, between the wall and the sword.
IR: There is such an emphasis on vilification in our current day.
IRC: Yes, I wanted to attack this idea of villainy. On this side of the continent, we often get stories that are too simple. If it is ever mentioned that people are forced to join a guerrilla group, it is done so in passing. I wanted to provide a story that told of one person being forcefully recruited. The character of Petrona is also a composite character, based on many women I met in Colombia who were stuck in utterly impossible situations. I wanted to honor those women, too.
IR: Do you know why the real Petrona sacrificed herself for you? Did you have a close bond with her? How old was she?
IRC: My mother was very interested in trying to help girls who she perceived to be in trouble. I have this very vivid memory of her befriending a girl who was asking for change at a red light — though she denies anything like that ever happened. She brought her into our house and employed girls who were very young (thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen) who were forced to work because their parents had been somehow incapacitated (sometimes they had disappeared, were taken by an armed group, had been murdered, or were otherwise ill). My mother sat and talked to them, and we became part of their lives. As a young girl, I couldn’t get over how different our lives were. One time, one of these young women came home to us crying. Her father had been found in pieces, dismembered by a machete. How could we ever be of any help? It was an impossibility that we tried to face with our kindness and our ears. We listened. The real Petrona was another girl for whom there was nothing we could have done. Fruit of the Drunken Tree explores this emotion of wanting to help, and yet finding your help at each step of the way to be meager and wanting.
One time, one of these young women came home to us crying. Her father had been found in pieces, dismembered by a machete. How could we ever be of any help?
IR: I’m intrigued by “helplessness.” In the U.S. there is such a sense that anything can be overcome. (But sometimes we can’t “fix” things.) I am also intrigued by the uses of guilt in your book — Chula parses out the guilt she feels, she also feels so much guilt for what she did and did not do, and Petrona uses Gorrión’s guilt to give her son a life. Can you discuss the function of guilt in your book?
IRC: Writing this book, I kept coming upon the emotional crux of guilt. Immigrants who survive and are able to migrate far away from danger are incomparably relieved, but they also carry the guilt that comes from the feeling of abandoning those who cannot migrate. I see survivor’s guilt as a common thread in immigrant stories. When writing, I become very interested in turning emotions in my hands, seeing how similar emotions could erupt in other characters. Petrona, who is left behind, discovers that the guilt others feel can be a source of power. Guilt can take many forms — you can harbor it inside you because of your privilege or your luck, and you can be at the receiving end of it because you were made into a victim. I wanted to write women characters, however, who in spite of being at the end of calamities are not victims. They are able to empower themselves. Because guilt was Chula’s central driving emotion in telling her story, guilt had to be the turning point for Petrona as well. I wanted both of these characters to come out stronger at the end — and I wanted this strength to be complex and to be punctuated by the very real sharp edges of their loss.
I wanted to write women characters who in spite of being at the end of calamities are not victims.
IR: Your novel also does something interesting with the idea of violence; you push Pablo Escobar to the background, and in the foreground is how everyday Bogotanos had to live during constant violence. How do you feel about Escobar — who is this looming specter — becoming so synonymous with Colombia?
IRC: We were consumed by everything that Pablo Escobar did — at times, to my child’s eyes it seemed like there was no one in the world with such power. But our lives marched on. Pablo Escobar was a phenomenon like the weather — something that affected what you could and couldn’t do, where you could and couldn’t go, and sometimes it devastated us. To many Colombians he was a terrible catastrophe, yet others looked up to him and even lit candles and prayed to him. We all lived with constant war and violence, but those circumstances became normalized. They seeped into everyday aspects of our lives. Pablo Escobar lived on in our background, ever-present, but not altogether central.
IR: That is fascinating.
IRC: Colombia’s political situation is so complex! It took me years to understand it. Armed groups emerged precisely because people have found no better way to fix all the inequalities.
IR: You touch upon something that is not readily discussed — how the U.S. government aids certain refugees by giving them loans, etc. Also, only certain people are coded as refugees, and refugees are welcomed. What do you think about the disparities in the way that certain bodies are treated?
IRC: There seems to be a confusion about these terms. When you flee your country to a neighboring country seeking asylum, you are placed in a refugee camp. You are not a refugee. Technically, you are undocumented until your situation is decided. There are interviews and countless procedures to screen and verify whether your life was really in danger, and whether that danger is still current. If it is decided that you are in the right, a country accepts you as a refugee. In the case of Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Chula comes with a refugee status. The government helps her mother with a loan, which she has to pay back, so that she can have a place to stay. People who come to the southernmost border are asylum-seekers. We call them undocumented, and some people have vilified this state — people fleeing danger — calling them illegals. But this happens the world over. When people are in danger, they flee to a neighboring country. You are technically undocumented, that is correct, but I think we need to change our language. These are asylum-seekers. Refugees are those whom the government has screened, and they have deemed their stories to be true. It gets so complicated! The government will sometimes offer blanket refugee status to a group of people in the face of a civil war or catastrophe.
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IR: Oh, that is great to know! Thank you so much for clarifying this.
On another note, there is a lack of visible Colombian-American writers — I think of Jaime Manrique and Patricia Engel. How did this affect you as a writer? Were you concerned about the publishing process being more difficult? Engel received many accolades and went on to publish three books. Did that hearten you in some way?
IRC: Yes! Being a minority, I felt heartened each time I came across a Colombian-American writer. I was heartened by not only the work of Jaime Manrique and Patricia Engel, but also Daisy Hernandez. I remember reading Patricia Engel’s first book Vida and sleeping with it by my bedside — it was a sign to me that it could be done and that our stories mattered.