Debut Author Spotlight: Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Posted by Goodreads on July 2, 2018
The debut novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree is based on author Ingrid Rojas Contreras' own experience as a child in 1990s Colombia at the height of Pablo Escobar's reign of terror. It's the coming-of-age story of two girls: seven-year-old Chula, who is well off and lives in a gated community in Bogota, and 15-year-old Petrona, who lives in guerrilla-occupied territory and goes to work as a maid in Chula's home. Alternatively told from each of their points of view, Fruit of the Drunken Tree is an exploration of friendship, desperate choices, and migration as seen from these two very different perspectives.

Contreras talked to Goodreads about her first book, the long legacy of violence, and her research into one of the world's most notorious criminals.

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Goodreads: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras: I only started writing when my family first left Colombia due to kidnapping threats. I was 14, and we found refuge in Venezuela. We lived in a small town called Villahermosa. There was something about moving to such a small humid place, not knowing anyone, without a sense of home, that made me want to address myself and to do so in English. It was a language my parents couldn't speak, and it gave me a feeling of ownership and independence. I wrote very short stories and very long-winded descriptions of things I saw: sunlight falling on grass, a coffee cup, the way my father wiggled his eyebrows. Later, I went to school for journalism but found on my first assignment that my real interest was in making things up.

GR: Your debut is influenced by your childhood. Explain how you used aspects of your life in Fruit of the Drunken Tree.

IRC: Throughout my childhood in Bogota, my mother took in many young girls and employed them as domestic workers in our house. In the United States, having a maid is something rich people might do, but in Colombia—where the unemployment rate hovered at around 20 percent—domestic work paid painfully low wages and many young women did it as a way to help their families survive. I used to follow the young women who came to our home, sit by them, talk to them, take care of their babies. They were 14, 16, or 18 years old, and eventually they would tell me about their lives. I heard about large families all living in one room, about enduring sexual abuse and threats from paramilitary and guerrillas, and how sometimes the paramilitary or guerrillas were the only force to keep the peace in their communities. We went to their homes and met their families.

I also spent much of my childhood shuffling between my middle-class home in Bogota and my grandmother's home in Cúcuta, which was in a very poor neighborhood. I knew three things: I knew my father's family had been displaced by the paramilitary, I knew there was a guerrilla presence in my grandmother's barrio, and I knew I was very lucky because none of those things touched us in Bogota. There was a sinister quality to that luck, however, an aspect of being chosen at the expense of others, that I keenly felt at the time and later wanted to write about.

GR: Tell us about your research and writing process for Fruit of the Drunken Tree.

IRC: I read four years' worth of newspapers as background research for the novel. I wanted to get a sense of what it was like, play by play, to live in a country that was rapt in attention as the national hunt for Pablo Escobar unfolded. I had lived it, but I wanted to know as much as possible. I read many books on Pablo Escobar—my favorite resource was Memory of Pablo Escobar by James Mollison, which is a visual history of the photos and belongings of Pablo Escobar. I also spent many hours looking at the weather database. I clicked through every day of every year, noting the fluctuating notes of the weather, running the story in my head as I was doing so. It was a way to discern the large strokes of the novel, the passage of time, before I did any writing.

GR: You explore questions of class and violence. What did you want to say about how violence affects a community?

IRC: When we get news about the Colombian conflict on the northern continent, we often get general details: a body count, statistics of resources lost, statistics of displaced persons. A big part of the story is missing. We can understand the conflict of the right-wing paramilitary and the left-wing guerrillas, but what I know from my own experience is that a decades-long war means that the grief of lost ones at the hands of one group or another plays a role. There was a relative's brother-in-law, for example, who joined the paramilitary just like his father had because the guerrillas had killed his grandfather. This relative's brother-in-law later joined the guerrillas when the paramilitary raped his sister. We forget that violence can be rooted in grief and loss. In Fruit of the Drunken Tree I wanted to explore violence as something that could affect a family tree and something that, because of the cultural machismo in Colombia, affects women the worst.

GR: Your story is mainly told through the point of view of seven-year-old Chula Santiago. Why did you decide to tell a story through a child's eyes? How did that help shape your story, and did it pose any challenges?

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IRC: I was once visiting my grandmother and witnessed as my little cousins froze in terror at the sight of a policeman. I tried to soothe them, but my aunt explained that the problem was that my little cousins couldn't tell the difference: police, army, guerrilla, paramilitary—they all wore camouflage and had guns. Anyone in fatigues was a threat. The '90s in Colombia was a time when many citizens felt as powerless as children. Pablo Escobar seemed to be running the country, there was a drought, there were car bombs, and there was nothing any of us could do. Being desperately clueless in a situation that urged a working understanding of the powers at play was a tragic reality not just for Chula, but for many Colombians.

I wanted a child's point of view to elicit that disenfranchised state of being. It was a great writerly puzzle for me to have a young child who is trying to desperately understand her situation and the encroaching violence, while still finding ways to get across to the reader a full understanding of this self-same state. It was a challenge, but one of the joys of writing Fruit of the Drunken Tree for me were all the moments when Chula completely misses the point or hilariously misinterprets information.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how are those influences reflected in Fruit of the Drunken Tree?

IRC: I read and loved The God of Small Things before writing this book, and Arundhati Roy's poetic juxtaposition of children and class and politics made my whole body ring with adoration. While I was in the final edits of this book I also read Ru Freeman's A Disobedient Girl, which I think is a perfect book. That novel is also dually told from the point of view of a wealthy girl and the maid in her house. I found Ru's weaving of their two voices to be absolutely masterful. It is a book with perfect architecture. The works of Sandra Cisneros, Isabel Allende, and Virginia Woolf were some of my first loves, and I return to them again and again.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut?

IRC: I hope to complicate our understanding of the inheritance of violence and how this affects women and girls living in it or surrounded by it. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is also an immigration story, and I am proud to offer this story to readers at a time when migrants from all over the world need our understanding and attention.

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GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

IRC: I am currently reading Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, a book so taut, horrific in content but joyful in treatment, it has me praising every single page. I have been recommending Solmaz Sharif's Look to everyone I know for some years now. I find Solmaz's work to be profoundly affecting and unshakably intelligent. I am currently rereading The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which seems to me to be the most important short story collection of recent years.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

IRC: I am currently working on a family memoir centered on my grandfather, who was a curandero, or folk healer, in Colombia who people said had the power to move clouds. It begins in Chicago in 2007 with an accident I had that left me without a memory for three weeks, and after which, when I relearned my family's history, I did so with new eyes.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Jenny (new)

Jenny Rojo I definitely must read it! Even though I'm aware just on the last years of that decade when Pablo was no longer alive, I do remember well how was to grown up in Medellín and feel the fear on streets. I really think I will identify myself with this book.

message 2: by Trish (new)

Trish Good catch, Goodreads! I've not heard of this one. Sounds like something worth seeking out.

message 3: by Renee (new)

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Jhon Carry Inspired by the author's own life, Fruit of the Drunken Tree is told through the alternating perspectives of the willful Chula and the achingly hopeful Petrona, in two different but inextricable coming-of-age stories. Marketing a startup must comprise the element of the four factors, entrepreneurship, innovation, technology and economic. it makes the startup successful

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