AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In the new novel “Infinite Country,” immigration is not a single event that happens at a point in time. It’s an ongoing process, a constant flow of people across borders. In this story, the central family has one foot in Colombia and one in the U.S. That’s also true of the author’s family. Patricia Engel is Colombian American. Our co-host Ari Shapiro spoke to her about the main character in this book, a teenager named Talia.
PATRICIA ENGEL: Talia is a 15-year-old girl who is living in Bogota, Colombia. But she was actually born in the United States and sent back to Bogota, her mother’s hometown, as a baby as her mother tried to make way, make a better life for her other two children, Karina and Nando. So Talia has lived 15 years away from her mother, and where “Infinite Country” begins, she is locked up in a penitentiary for young girls. And she has one week to get back to Bogota because a plane ticket is waiting for her to finally get to the United States and be reunited with her mother and her other siblings after so many years apart.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: And so the book is in part an adventure story but at its core is this family that straddles two countries, divided between Colombia and the U.S. And from what I understand, your own family has members, relatives in both of those countries. And so how much of this writing came from your own experience?
ENGEL: I could say in some ways everything, and I could say in some ways very little. My parents are Colombian immigrants. Bogota is my mother’s hometown. She came to the United States with my father, similar to the characters of Elena and Mauro in “Infinite Country,” in order to gamble on a better life and a better future for themselves and for their children. So in that way, they’re similar. The nuances and the details of our family’s migration story are different. But what we do have in common is that loss of homeland, all the doubts and the longing and wondering if you made the right decision in disrupting your family history and leaving your homeland to begin a new life in another one. So our story is similar in that way.
SHAPIRO: There’s a really interesting way that one of the characters – Mauro, the father – frames immigration. He says, maybe we are creatures of passage meant to cross oceans just like the first infectors of our continent in order to take back what was taken. I had never thought of migration as kind of a mirror image of colonialism in that way.
ENGEL: I think that what some people don’t realize is that migration is the history of this planet. We’ve all arrived at the place where we are because somebody before us migrated. And it’s something that we admire in the natural world, and we’ll marvel about it and watch documentaries about how animals have this instinct to migrate to pursue resources when the human species has done exactly the same thing. Yet somehow we’ve been taught to look down on it and even criminalize it and look at it as if it’s a drain rather than really something miraculous and quite beautiful.
SHAPIRO: There’s one part of the book where a character says that to an immigrant, the U.S. is a country of strangers and that being an immigrant is a kind of sentence that you cannot escape. So how do you balance that idea of immigration as a sentence you cannot escape with the idea of immigration as an opportunity, as an open door that you walk through to something better?
ENGEL: These things can coexist, and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote “Infinite Country.” The reality of migration and all its complexities is something that I grew up with and observed in the people closest to me, the people I most loved and admired. A lot of people have this idea that migration is a very simple thing and that you make a decision to leave one country and make a life in another and that it’s full of certainty and no regrets. And it’s really exactly the opposite. It’s a decision that’s full of doubts, wondering if you made a mistake. And it bears a huge responsibility because you’ve changed the future of your family line forever.
So it’s full of opportunity and joy, often, to come to the United States. But also, you always wonder if you made the right decision, and you have to confront that. And it can be a very painful and exhausting experience day after day, year after year.
SHAPIRO: Is that doubt, is that second-guessing something that you’ve experienced when thinking about your parents’ decision to leave Colombia?
ENGEL: Absolutely. I have so much family in Colombia, and I have cousins whose existence is so different from mine because they live in the place where their parents grew up, where our grandparents lived, where everybody has known our family for generations, whereas I grew up in a place where my family was always identified as foreigners, in a place where I may have lived for most of my life, but I don’t have that intimate connection with the land.
SHAPIRO: The book is full of these ancient Colombian myths about the creation of the world. There are stories that involve the condor or the jaguar. Why was it important to you to weave these traditional fables into this otherwise very realistic, contemporary narrative?
ENGEL: Well, some people view those as myths or legends, and some people would take those same stories as historical truths, as Indigenous history and traditional knowledge. I’m a storyteller at the end of the day, and I’m fascinated by the stories that we carry that help us to understand the world and how we’re connected to one another through place, through bonds of just being beings, living creatures in the world among other living creatures and animals.
SHAPIRO: While this is obviously a very personal story to you, more broadly, what do you think it is about this moment that makes this book particularly appropriate, particularly relevant?
ENGEL: That’s a great question. And for people who’ve lived this experience, like this family in “Infinite Country,” this is not of this moment. This has been something that’s been the state of affairs for years and decades. But I do think that this moment, this year of quarantine – now we’re going into our second year of quarantine – has possibly given people a taste of what it’s like to be separated from the people they love for reasons that are completely out of their control.
This is a family that is fractured by separation as a result of ever-changing immigration laws. And they really have to try to remain a family over years and years of separation. There are some people, because of the COVID pandemic, who have not been able to see their loved ones who maybe live in the same city or in the same state for over a year now. And I think maybe they’re starting to understand in some way, as I have, and in new ways what it’s like to live with that space and really how your love is what sustains your family when you can’t be together.
SHAPIRO: Patricia Engel’s new novel is “Infinite Country.”
Thank you for speaking with us about it.
ENGEL: Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful.
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