Interview: Ingrid Rojas Contreras
CRAFT is thrilled to welcome Ingrid Rojas Contreras as guest judge for our 2022 Creative Nonfiction Award. Rojas Contreras was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Hailed as “original, politically daring, and passionately written” by Vogue, her first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and won numerous awards, including a silver medal for First Work of Fiction from the California Book Awards. Her debut memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, was named a TIME Best Book of Summer and a finalist for the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In what The New York Times calls “a spellbinding and genre-defying ancestral history,” Rojas Contreras brings readers into her childhood, where her grandfather Nono was a renowned community healer gifted with “the secrets”: powers that included talking to the dead, fortune telling, treating the sick, and moving the clouds. Rojas Contreras generously agreed to answer some questions via email from our Creative Nonfiction Section Editor Jacqueline Doyle about The Man Who Could Move Clouds.
Jacqueline Doyle: All of the CRAFT editors love The Man Who Could Move Clouds! Part of what makes your new book so engaging is the wealth of stories. Your memoir is, among other things, a storyteller’s book about storytellers, and stories provide the basis of your narrative. As you say in your author’s note, “The stories in this memoir are the true lived experience of those who lived it, as told to me.” Curanderos, like your grandfather, listened to people’s stories in order to heal them. And as your mother explains, the curandera helps others to recast their stories in order to find a way out. Do you see your role as a writer as similar to or different from their endeavors?
Ingrid Rojas Contreras: Thank you so much for the kind words here on my memoir! I’m honored. Perhaps as many writers, I grew up on the strength of stories. I’ve encountered stories that have given language to my life and experiences. I’ve encountered literature that has wounded me, offended me, provoked me, entertained me, unmade me, reconstituted me. I love the range of what stories can do, so when I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I mainly think about truth-telling. If healing happens from my writing, either for myself or others, this is a byproduct of the truth-telling which is so often hard to do, and which I continually reach for.
JD: Your book has a central narrative thread: your bike accident leads to amnesia and a shared dream with your mother that leads the two of you to return to Colombia to disinter your grandfather. But the book is comprised of many narratives that move in and out of chronology and a large array of extended family members. You’ve posted a complex illustration of your organizing process (which included “post-its, drawing, unraveling, reweaving, and divination”) on a Twitter thread that I’ve linked here for interested readers. At what point in the composition of the book did the structure emerge for you? How closely did you cleave to your plan once you’d developed it? Do you have advice for other writers about planning and structure in a project of this scope?
IRC: One of the things I’ve learned about structuring a book is that we tend to want solid answers too early. I’ve also learned that the creativity of our subconscious mind is much more interesting than anything we can come up with analytically. For this reason, I am not the type of writer to come up with a plan before writing. I like to show up to the page and sort of walk into the dark cave of what I am writing, discovering what is interesting about it as I go. I like to make the first draft a place for my subconscious to just free-associate and tell the story without too much intervention from my conscious mind. Once I have a draft, that’s when I bring the conscious mind in. The structure maps I made were there to help me think analytically about those initial creative and unfiltered choices. I started to create a structure once I was about one hundred pages into the book, but not before. My advice to any writer is to lean into the counterintuitive space of not-knowing. It’s uncomfortable, but each time I’ve allowed myself to be lost in the woods of discovery, the results have been more surprising and creative than anything I can come up with intentionally.
JD: Your book involved a great deal of research. At times in The Man Who Could Move Clouds, we see you actually conducting genealogical research (highlighting gaps in official archives, and consulting books that literally crumble in your hands). Much of your research must have taken the form of oral histories. Other research must have been archival and library research. You also took Polaroid photos. How did you keep records, how did you organize your research, and how did your research inform your writing?
IRC: I had a phone scanning app with which I tried to scan as much as possible. I was visiting the main libraries in Bogotá and Cartagena, which are quite big libraries and endowed with historical records, and I was visiting village libraries as well. I searched for historical academic work done by Colombians on the culture of the Andes in Colombia, and since I couldn’t read all of it in one sitting, I sat and scanned as quickly as possible using my phone. (Later, I turned these into PDFs.) I had a small reporter’s recording device with me as well, and saved my interviews to the cloud as I went. I also kept a journal, and wrote down everything I could remember each night, when everybody else went to bed. Once I returned to my home in San Francisco, it was really a work of reviewing what I had gathered, and assorting the material into things that were immediately fascinating to me, things that were interesting and I might want to look into later, and things that were irrelevant. I don’t delete research, because I am never sure if I will change my mind later. It did happen a few times where I needed something that I had initially marked as irrelevant. The story is the backbone of the story, but research is what really allows for meaning-making in nonfiction.
JD: As you explain in your memoir, your mother was initially opposed to your project and then changed her mind. How involved were your mother and other family members as you wrote the book? You have considerable experience teaching creative nonfiction—right now at the University of San Francisco. What advice do you give to writers who are writing about family and telling family secrets?
IRC: My family was involved as subjects in the book. My mother was my main subject. Once she was on board with the project, our conversations about what I was allowed or not allowed to write had to do with protecting curandero traditions and keeping them secret, and not really with censoring stories I wanted to write. I think it’s important to keep those boundaries clear. For advice, I would say that if it’s a story that’s not yours to tell, it’s your ethical responsibility to get permission and get the relevant people on board. Are your intentions clean? Can you point to a larger good that will come from your telling the story? People are often nervous about breaking silence, but if your intentions are clean, then I think most everyone is very willing to work through those fears.
JD: Your essay in Pleiades asks and answers deeply relevant questions for writers of memoir (writers of color particularly, and also others). You open:
As a foreigner, you adopt many ways of speaking. Sometimes you adopt the voice of silence, hiding your difference. Other times you sound like an encyclopedia: Colombia is the northernmost country in South America with coast lines on both the Pacific and the Atlantic, and a population of 45 million. Then, you can be in the middle of explaining the most trivial cultural detail—for example the tidbit that people from Bogotá are known as rolos—and you roll your r extravagantly, because you can, and in the wake of it, you wonder why are you performing this and for whom?
Could you say more about the question of audience for emerging writers who may struggle with that issue?
IRC: I gave a talk at Tin House on this issue. In short, BIPOC writers are in a bind when it comes to audience due to the fact that the publishing industry skews 80-90% white, straight, and abled. I like to be intentional for this reason when it comes to drafting and when I’m thinking about audience. I imagine an auditorium and intentionally visualize who is in the nosebleeds, who is behind them, and behind them—these are the audiences I am privileging. By visualizing the Latine immigrants as my audience, I can have a better guidance about the politics of craft.
JD: You also comment on languages in the Pleiades essay: “When you inhabit a foreign language, whether you want to or not, you inhabit that culture’s ethos and traditions, which come nestled like sleeping dragons inside the phrasings, sayings, grammar.” One of the great strengths of your beautiful memoir is how you draw the US American reader to inhabit another “culture’s ethos and traditions” instead of viewing them from US American or other majority perspectives. As someone who inhabits at least two languages and cultures, how does writing in English affect stories that you’ve inherited in Spanish?
IRC: It’s a fluid process for me. I find that I am flitting between being an outsider and an insider, no matter what I am writing about. This can be a very fruitful thing for writing, as it allows for clarity and vision.
JD: As you write in The Man Who Could Move Clouds, the European colonizers “told us what was real and not, what history and what legend, what oral history and what folklore, what religion and what superstition.” Literary genre labels work in this way too. How do you feel about the term “magical realism” as it is used in general and as it is applied to your book?
IRC: My book isn’t magical realism, which is a label for fiction. I wrote a research and memory-based work of nonfiction. I have called it real magical realism before, I think only to highlight to readers who assume that magical realism was concocted from thin air that magical realism has an origin, and that its origin is a Latine worldview, which is what my memoir is drawing from.
JD: Dreams play an important role in your family members’ lives and in your memoir. Do you dream about your writing projects? If so, what have your dreams contributed to the books you’ve produced?
IRC: I love this question! My dreams are always a reflection of my life and what I’m going through. They haven’t been about books yet. But I do admire dream logic, and sometimes have written from inspiration of how narrative is crafted in dreams.
JD: You write both fiction and nonfiction, and your novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, and your memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, are both deeply grounded in history. Do you prefer one genre to the other? Does one come more easily to you than the other? To recast the question: your prose is often lyric, your fiction nonfictional, your nonfiction fictional (to the degree that memory and also oral histories shape nonfictional stories). Could you comment on the boundaries between genres in your books?
IRC: I love both genres. I do enjoy making fiction feel as real as possible. I like to include history, and newspapers. I at some point even made my novel weather-accurate! With nonfiction, I am drawn to our experiences of the surreal, which is not quite “fiction.” They belong to that order of experience that is very hard to pin down in language. They are under the category of things that happened and we can’t quite explain. Overall, I would say that I am drawn to the borderlands of each genre.
JD: In your conversation with Alexander Chee for Third Place Books, you mentioned the inspiration of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior for your memoir. (Also one of my favorite books, which I’ve taught many times and never tire of rereading.) Are there other books you would recommend (any genre) as potential inspirations for writers of autobiographical nonfiction?
JD: I’m sure you’re completely occupied with your book tour and interviews right now, and I hope you’ll find time for some well-earned rest, but do you have a next project in mind?
IRC: I am working on a fiction project next! It might be collected stories, or a novel—it is all a mystery to me at the moment!
JD: We’re delighted that you’ve agreed to judge our third creative nonfiction contest! In the guidelines for our Creative Nonfiction Award, we invite essay submissions up to 6,000 words, and nonfiction flash submissions under 1,000 words as well. What do you look for in good creative nonfiction?
IRC: I look forward to writing that is taking risks, feels alive, and moves me!
JD: Thank you for agreeing to judge the contest and taking time to answer these questions!
INGRID ROJAS CONTRERAS was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Her memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, was named a Best Book of Summer by TIME and was a finalist for the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Her first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, earned a silver medal for First Work of Fiction from the California Book Awards, and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Cut, Guernica, and Zyzzyva, among others. She lives in California, where she is a visiting writer at the University of San Francisco. Find her on Twitter @ingrid_rojas_c.
JACQUELINE DOYLE’s essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Passages North, Catamaran Literary Reader, The Pinch, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s Sunday Short Reads and has earned numerous Pushcart nominations and eight Notable Essay citations in The Best American Essays. She is a professor emeritus at California State University, East Bay, and the creative nonfiction section editor at CRAFT. Find her on Twitter @doylejacq.