Sitting With The Ghost: A Conversation with Ingrid Rojas Contreras
When my family says hello, we say: what did you dream last night? It’s the way that we communicate with each other.
Intimate conversations with our greatest heart-centered minds.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s writing is astoundingly, breathtakingly beautiful. I read her novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, in a matter of days (whizbang fast for my post-head injury brain), and then promptly read it again. Set in Colombia during the height of Pablo Escobar’s violent reign, it tells the story of seven-year-old Chula living in a gated community with her family and Petrona their live-in maid from a guerrilla-occupied neighborhood. In their own way, each is carrying too much (responsibility, sorrow, guilt, fear, hope, curiosity, desire), and the weight of their lives and the secrets they share threaten to bring down both their families. The book was the silver medal winner in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and a New York Times editor’s choice. Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, the story is based loosely on Ingrid’s own life.
In her memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, Ingrid’s mother and aunties share a dream that Ingrid’s grandfather’s bones (a curandero—traditional healer who could speak with the dead, heal the sick, and move clouds) need to be exhumed. And so Ingrid and her mother travel to Colombia to do just this. Five years before, in her twenties, Ingrid has a bike accident that leaves her with temporary amnesia, an experience she enjoys. As a child, Ingrid’s mother also had amnesia. For her, it awakened the ability to communicate with ghosts and appear in two places at once—making her the first curandera in the lineage. Using her travels home as the throughline, Ingrid exquisitely intertwines her personal narrative with her mother’s childhood, colonialism, the magical, healing, and the impact of violence and trauma on the human soul. The book was a Pulitzer and National Book Award Finalist and won a Medal in Nonfiction from the California Book Awards. It was named a Best Book of the Year by TIME, People, NPR, Vanity Fair, Boston Globe, among others.
Ingrid’s Advice on Craft
Don’t miss Ingrid advice for authentic storytelling. “…If you try to center people who don't understand what you're writing about, the writing is going to come out stilted.” For more, stick with us until the end of the interview.
After a blow to your head, you struggled with amnesia during which you experienced a constant state of confusion and turned to your dreams for grounding. Can you tell us about your relationship to your dreams and why they grounded you?
I love this question. It’s difficult to navigate the world when you have amnesia. I was lagging behind the reality, but in this very beautiful way that was also a state of confusion. Dreams are a landscape where everything is known to the dreamer. So whatever you're dreaming, there's a way in which you’re already clued into the meaning of your life. In the beginning, I wasn't a character in the dreams so much, but was more observing the changing world.
The reason that was grounding is because the self for me was such a question mark. In my waking life, I couldn't remember my past. I had heard and read what my name was, but it didn't sound familiar at all. Nothing seemed familiar. Things that I was supposed to know, I just did not know. But in the dream reality, I was the observing force.
One of the first dreams was watching lava erupt out of the ocean. If you were watching the phenomenon and you didn't know what it was, it would still be so mesmerizing that you’d sit in that feeling of awe.
So it wasn't that the dreams were giving you information about yourself, it was that they were calming your nervous system in a way?
Yes, incidentally that was happening. But I felt I belonged to that reality more than I belonged to the waking reality.
Are you still connected with your dreams?
Yes. For my family, dreams are very important. It’s the way that we communicate with each other. When we say hello, we say: what did you dream last night? It’s a very different way of relating to yourself and to other people.
I have not only the memories of my dreams, but I also carry the memories of everything that my mother has dreamed about. I know what she dreamt about when she was a little girl, and I know what she dreamt about when she was a teen. So there's something about carrying that history of people that you love that is very different than keeping a memory of waking reality.
When you have that relationship, especially if everyone is discussing the dreams, then there's a sense of communal storytelling. If there's a week where everyone in the family is dreaming about one thing, then you start to see a larger story.
“There’s just this delight of knowing stories about the people that you come from… There's something about knowing that and carrying that, that instead of understanding your life as an individual life, you understand yourself as part of this larger story.”
Do you look forward to dreaming? Or do you ever dread it? Or is dreaming not on the forefront of your mind before you go to bed?
It’s not something that I'm actively thinking about. Whenever there's a period of time when I haven't been able to remember what I've dreamt about, then I start to worry a little bit about it. Otherwise, I don't. And the only reason I worry is because when I tell my mother I haven't dreamt anything, she'll say, “oh, that's bad.” Or she'll tell me, “I saw you in this dream and this is what you're doing.” It’s interesting to have other people's accounts of what they have seen you do in the dream world.
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Has living in America affected your dreams?
For any bilingual person, there's a point where you start to dream in the language that you're learning. I remember at some point while in Colombia, I started to dream in English because I was studying it and really fell in love with the language. What I notice now is that if I'm in the States, my dreams tend to be in English, but if I’m in South America, then immediately they switch to just being in Spanish. So on the language level, it changes, but content-wise, it doesn't change.
Interesting. Do you have a preference between the two languages?
I like them both for different reasons. Spanish can do things that English can't; English can do things that Spanish can't. Spanish has a lot of flexibility. In English the adjective can only go in one place in the sentence, which I find very annoying. In Spanish, it can go at any point in the sentence. The rules are looser. There's also a freedom with Spanish where you can turn a noun into an adjective or a verb depending on how the word ends.
Writing-wise, I’ve found my happy place, which is to think in Spanish and then transliterate into English. I'm constantly internally doing what I would say is a bad translation of language and sometimes a new poetry will come from that. I go from one language to the other and back again. There's something really interesting that happens that I like.
One of the many things I loved about your book is that you address the notion that the Boom writers and that genre of fiction were pulling from their imagination to create magical realism. You write that what has been termed magical realism is realism in your life.
What I tend to see with America in general is this assumption that the cultural way of doing and thinking and feeling things in the United States is universal. When I say in my family, we greet each other with “what did you dream?” There's almost this: “oh, you don't think like us!” There's this underlying assumption that other cultures will be very similar to the United States. Intellectually that makes sense because there's been such an exporting of American culture to everywhere in the world.
The way that we see the world and the way that we tell stories comes from the cultures that we're from. South America has a shared culture between all the countries because we were colonized in very similar ways and it’s resulted in a way of being that is known as magical realism. Our unstable governments, the jungle, the tropical heat, it all results in a reality that feels rooted in the bizarre and the quixotic. So when I wrote my memoir, I knew that an American audience might read it and that it would resonate with “this sounds like Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, or One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I wanted to do a little bit of correcting; I wanted to say that it's not that that way of telling or that way of relating to the world was born with those writers, but more that it comes from the land and it comes from the cultures that we’re from.
One of the threads of your memoir is colonialism and the impact this had on accepting the surreal as a “normal” part of life. Could you talk about the connection between these?
The Europeans came with this belief that whatever culture you encounter is going to be lesser: We have scientific knowledge, what they're doing is superstition. What we have is religion and what they have is devil worship.
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