“Diaspora is the world’s condition.” Patricia Engel talks with Zibby about growing up the daughter of immigrants, the ingrained pull of an ancestral homeland, and the doubts that haunt those who uproot in search of a better future.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Patricia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Patricia Engel: Thank you so much for having me. I’m a fan of your show.

Zibby: I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you. Infinite Country, tell me about this book. Can you tell listeners what it’s about? Then I’d love to hear what inspired you to write it.

Patricia: Infinite Country is the story of a Colombian family fractured by immigration and deportation over twenty or so years beginning at the end of the 1990s. It follows this family through the turn of the millennium and all the changing times, 9/11, the war on terror and what that brought in terms of change in the immigration system, and then the onset of the Trump presidency. Then this family, as they grow — it starts with following just a young couple. They have a baby and then another child and another child. It follows what happens to them as they’re split up by deportation and all the complications that immigration brings to a mixed immigration-status family.

Zibby: Wow. You’re of Colombian descent yourself, correct?

Patricia: Yeah. My parents are both Colombian. I’m a dual citizen.

Zibby: Were you born here?

Patricia: I was born here.

Zibby: Can I even ask about their journey to coming? Do they live in the United States? Obviously. You were born here.

Patricia: My parents live in the United States. They came to the United States at different times. They actually met in the United States and then got married in Colombia and then came back here to start a new life with my brother and me.

Zibby: Not to keep talking about your parents, but in the book, there’s the grandmother figure with the lavandería who is firmly entrenched in her Colombian roots and doesn’t want to leave and does’t even want to leave her house. Do you have a relative who’s still in Colombia, or was this all your imagination?

Patricia: Infinite Country is largely set in Bogotá, the capitol of Colombia which is also my mother’s hometown. My mother left her entire family to come to the United States. However, my mother’s parents died. Her mother died before I was born. Her father died when I was a baby. I never knew my mother’s parents. My father’s from Medellín, another beautiful city. Most of them, his immediate family, came to the United States. I knew my paternal grandmother. I was very close to her. She was a mother of nine children.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Patricia: She was also the first writer in my family. It’s really from her that I understood what it’s like to be someone who feels the need to write, who has stories to tell. She is similar, in being a wonderfully huge maternal force, to the grandmother character in Infinite Country. She’s also very different in that she left her homeland. She left her parents to come to the United States. Of course, Infinite Country follows two only children, Mauro and Elena, and how they come together to form their own family with their own children. I come from a very, very huge Colombian clan.

Zibby: It’s funny. I just interviewed a woman who has a book coming out at a similar time, if not the same day. Her name’s Lauren Fox. Her book is Send for Me. It was about the Holocaust, but it was the same thing in that a woman and her baby and her husband had to leave, and leave behind their mother. Then she was back there. It’s the same longing but set in the Holocaust. It’s so the same. It’s almost like things are not necessarily changing. They’re just picking up and moving. Different reasons and different political climates, but that sense of the loss of leaving a loved one or leaving a family, it’s just so ever-present even today.

Patricia: That’s one of the things that Infinite Country explores, which is how it is a completely natural impulse to want to find a better life for your family, to provide a better future for your children. It’s really how the human race has survived for so long, is by constantly moving and migrating and seeking more resources. It’s a natural instinct. However, politics and society and all sorts of prejudices have kind of trained people to look at it as something negative, that this need for movement or this need for survival or just ensuring more security for your family is somehow something to look down upon, something to criticize. It’s really not, like you just explained. Diaspora is the world’s condition. That’s how the world as we know it came to be.

Zibby: I just left my little guy upstairs watching — he’s doing homeschool, or remote school I should say — watching videos of jaguars in captivity or something like that. It’s the same thing. It’s the animal instinct as well. It’s all of human nature. They’re moving. They don’t want to be in prison. I mean, not prison, a zoo. All creatures want to get up on higher ground, essentially.

Patricia: It’s funny. We’ll watch hours of documentaries about animals and the magic of migration and how they just know where to go to find water or food. Yet when humans have the same some sort of need and impulse and drive, we think, what are they doing? It’s a totally different mindset.

Zibby: I wonder if the animals are also sad and missing where they came from. Another very human and perhaps pan-creature phenomenon is also the sense of a longing for home. On the one hand, you want to achieve and find better circumstances, but people long to have a home base. It’s like dueling concerns. I wonder if Mr. Jaguar upstairs on the video is longing for his mama Jaguar somewhere. This is a ridiculous conversation. I’m sorry, but it’s just so prevalent.

Patricia: I think there’s definitely something to it. There’s things that are just in our DNA, our connections to our points of origins, our homelands, the landscapes that made our people, our ancestors, the ones who came before us. I think we do feel that sometimes. We know a lot of people like to go back to their ancestors’ homelands. They feel, even if they’ve never been there, an immediate connection. I don’t think that’s imagined. I think that’s from someplace deep within us that we don’t even know how to describe yet scientifically. A lot of things are passed through the body from trauma. Scientists have come to study this through Holocaust survivors, like you mentioned. There’s a lot of studies done on how trauma’s been passed from Holocaust survivors to their descendants. The same thing, a connection to a homeland and lost homelands that you’ve been forced to leave, I think that also exists somewhere within us.

Zibby: Absolutely. I am someone who, I can’t go to summer camp without feeling homesick. I’m away from my home for a weekend and I’m like, aw. I found myself actually rooting for them to go back a few times, especially when the second baby came and the scene that you mentioned earlier, the 9/11 scene where she can’t even get Mauro’s attention because — I’m probably not pronouncing it right — because he’s so busy stressing about where are they actually going to live after having gotten booted out of all these different temporary situations? She’s sitting there wondering, am I hallucinating? Is this actually happening? Is it postpartum? Where are we going to go? I’m like, maybe they should go back. Maybe they would be better off if they went home, but they don’t. They just forge on, forge ahead.

Patricia: That’s a question that follows a lot of immigrants through their whole life. A lot of people have this idea that when you make the decision to leave one place and begin a life in another that the decision is made. Here you are. Life just moves forward. It’s really different in my experience being the daughter of immigrants, and all the immigrants in my community that I’ve grown up around. There’s so much doubt involved. There’s so much wondering if you made the right decision. There’s so much wondering, wow, it’s so tough here. Why don’t we just go home where everybody knows us and where people love us, where everything that we know is and everything is familiar and not strange and we speak the language? It’s full of wondering if you made the right decision because it’s a huge decision. When people immigrate, they’re essentially rupturing their family history and breaking ties for the future generations. It can be very painful. You often wonder if you made a mistake. Often, there’s this parallel life that continues in the place that you left behind because that place is not going anywhere. It’s still there. In a way, it’s always kind of calling you to come back. There’s a place to go back to. Of course, it’s often at the price of the life that you made in this new country. It’s very often the dilemma of people who have made that decision to move from one country to another.

Zibby: It would be interesting, actually, to have a book where — not that your book wasn’t interesting. Your book was very interesting and obviously so thought-provoking that it’s raising all these other questions. To see a family and have narrative plot lines where if they stayed, this is what happens, and then if they left and immigrated, this is what happens, and how their stories unfold differently. That’d be neat for your next book.

Patricia: It’s sort of like Sliding Doors.

Zibby: Yeah, Sliding Doors, immigration version or something. Tell me about your writing. That’s so interesting that your grandmother was a writer and that you feel that in your DNA also. Tell me about when you knew you were a writer and how you got started on this journey not just writing, but also for publication.

Patricia: I think I was writing as soon as I learned how to write, to put letters together. I used to draw a lot. My family’s just full of creative people. Like I said, this painting behind me is done by my uncle. There were a lot of painters and musicians in my family. Everybody had some kind of creative outlet. My family took everybody’s creativity very seriously. Everyone had a day job, so I didn’t know any professional writers. I just knew my grandmother who had nine children. She used to lock herself away to write. That was just her thing. Everyone respected it and lived around it and acknowledged it. She never showed her writing to people. Sometimes she would write these epic letters to people, even people who lived nearby. She would share poems and sometimes little, short things. She wrote volumes of things that nobody ever read. They were for her. I understood that writing was first and foremost something you do for yourself to keep yourself company, for pleasure, for joy. That’s how I wrote my whole life. I used to keep a lot of journals to just write things. I wrote to entertain myself, if I was lonely or just for fun, and to explore my imagination. I didn’t have any professional ambitions really tied to it because I didn’t know that was a possibility. When I went to college, I didn’t even know you could major in creative writing. I remember I took a creative writing class. It was an elective. I went to talk to the professor during office hours. I was like, “I’m really into writing. What can I do?” He looked at me and he was like, “You? You’re into writing?” like, I wouldn’t bother.

Zibby: What?

Patricia: That was it. I just sort of stepped away and kept going back to keeping my writing private for years. I had another professor, really a fantastic professor, Norman Finkelstein, who taught philosophy. He would have us write these essays every week, a personal response to whatever we were reading in class. He would start writing me notes. “You’re a really good writer. You should keep doing this. You should keep doing this.” He was a man of not easy compliments, let’s say. He wrote me, which I still have, he said, “You’re a writer. You need to keep doing this. It’s going to be very hard, but don’t stop.” That’s all he wrote. That just kept me going for years. For years. Eventually, I had other jobs. I lived in New York for quite a long time. I had a variety of jobs in New York. I would just write for myself again out of pleasure. I took some workshops at night in various continuing education programs in New York until I finally decided — I used to go to the Barnes & Noble on Union Square. It’s the magazine section on the second floor. That’s where I discovered Poets & Writers magazine which is full of ads for MFA programs. I didn’t even know what an MFA program was. I just started learning about these possibilities. Finally, I applied for an MFA program that was three years. That’s what brought me here to Miami where I live. I thought, I have three years, I’m going to see what I can do with this writing thing. A year after I finished, I was teaching. I had an agent. I got a two-book deal and ran from there.

Zibby: Wow, that’s wonderful. Congratulations. That’s a great story. I am impressed time and time again by the influence of teachers. Obviously, we know this. Particularly for writers, I feel like having an advocate early on makes or breaks it. This is the story of complete discouragement. I find it heartbreaking, that one thing. What would you have written if you had not been discouraged? Would you have written more then? I don’t know. It’s just terrible. I feel like the power of a teacher to bring out the writer in everybody is really notable, among other gifts that teachers give students.

Patricia: Absolutely.

Zibby: Are you working on another book now?

Patricia: Yeah. I have a story collection that will be coming out maybe next year or so. Then I’m working just in the very early stages of working on my next novel.

Zibby: Did your grandmother’s writing — whatever happened with all of it? Did anyone ever find it? Can you read it?

Patricia: One of my relatives has most of it. For a long time, I didn’t really ask to even see it because I just thought it would be too painful. One of my relatives has it. I don’t know about anybody else, I haven’t dipped into it, really. I only have personal writings, letters that she wrote me and to some other people that they’ve since given me, things like that.

Zibby: I think that’s another project in the making, to hear her whole — what was she doing? Aren’t you curious? I feel like I’d be so curious. My grandmother loved to write too, but she always dismissed it. She was like, “I’m more of a letter to the editor type of writer”. I’m like, no, you’re not. She would always write letters to the editor all the time. Is that even a thing anymore?

Patricia: Yeah.

Zibby: All right. That’s what she called herself. That’s funny. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Patricia: I do teach. You were talking about teachers. I teach creative writing at the University of Miami. We cover it all there. There’s a couple of tips that are not just for students, but for my friends who are trying to finish a writing project or when people ask me for advice. I would say don’t be afraid of throwing away writing in order to get to the good stuff. Sometimes what I see is a lot of people are very attached to things that they’ve written that are simply not working, that simply need to go through more work. Because they’re so attached to what they’ve already done, they can’t really free themselves to get to the next level of possibilities. Another tip would be to just stick with it. Finishing a draft or finishing anything of the writing life, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s really just an accumulation of days spent along writing. It’s a bit thankless on the day to day, but you don’t really come to writing if you’re looking for pats on the back at the end of each day. If you can embrace that and settle into that, the rewards of just being able to live in your imagination are huge. That’s the real joy for me. The joy is in the work. It’s not in so much of what comes after. Of course, it’s wonderful to be able to connect with people over something you’ve written. Really, on the day to day, what keeps me going and returning to blank pages is that I love it.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. I love it. Is there a genre that you like? Are you drawn to literary fiction yourself? What type of book do you like? What type of book genre, I should say?

Patricia: I do love fiction. Fiction is my first love, novels and short stories. I do also enjoy poetry, memoir sometimes, nonfiction books. I try to push out of my habitual zones as much as I can. I like to read a lot in translation. I’m always looking for books that are not the obvious ones that everyone is recommending or everyone’s talking about. I’m always looking to expand my orbit of what I’m exposed to in writing. If you’re not careful, the thing is that your reading universe can be very small and based on what just people are recommending to you or what’s being talked about. There’s so many other amazing books written and published, and not even just in the United States, around the world. It’s a way to discover so much more about the world.

Zibby: But I can recommend them. If you find them here, that’s a good recommendation. Don’t ignore those.

Patricia: No, of course not.

Zibby: Just kidding. Amazing. Thank you. This was so great. Your novel is beautifully written and really thought-provoking. I just feel like I see your characters as they move all over with these lines all over the country. As they move from Colombia all the way like a little map of how they are just trying to make life better in the lines is true inspiration.

Patricia: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day.

Patricia: Thanks. You too. Thanks for having me. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


Infinite Country
by Patricia Engel

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