Previously in my craft conversation series: Megha Majumdar, Ada Limón, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Crystal Hana Kim and R. O. Kwon, Lydia Kiesling, and Bryan Washington.
Every now and then, you read a story that almost seems to exist outside of time—you feel that it must have always existed in some form, and know that it will still be read and discussed a hundred years from now. That’s how I felt reading Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s gorgeous new memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds.
Rojas Contreras told me that before she “surrendered to the call of writing,” she thought that she might be a journalist, or perhaps an oral historian. “I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer, but I always knew that I wanted my life to be in service of taking care of and preserving stories,” she said. “I still write from that desire to make the stories last, to preserve them for the community that they’re about.” In her memoir, she directs that same curiosity, attention, and care to her own story as well as her family’s, exploring the legacy of her grandfather, who was a curandero—a community healer who cared for the ill and was said to be able to look into the future and speak with the dead—and her mother, who inherited other magical gifts, known in their family as “the secrets.” She said that she wrote the book for everyone else “who has a curandero in the family.”
When we connected last month, Rojas Contreras—who also wrote the 2018 novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree—offered glimpses into her creative process, shared how she approaches fiction versus memoir, and discussed why she thinks of her nonfiction as “real magical realism.” She suggested that others working on memoirs not only collect family stories, but also pay close attention to how they are formed and told: “When you’re listening to a story at a family or chosen-family gathering, become a student of structure and tone … What silences are kept? What silences are broken? Surveying all that land can teach you so much about what to write about, and how to do it.”
Nicole Chung: Ingrid, I am in awe of how you wove so much history and research and so many family stories together in this book. Why did now feel like the right time to tell this story?
Ingrid Rojas Contreras: I feel that I have been thinking about this book my whole life. It tells stories of my family that I grew up with—about my grandfather moving clouds, having a curandero’s office at home, and treating people with fevers or venereal disease or spirit possession. They were stories that included my mother as well, and things I had witnessed with her having a business in our home, telling people’s futures … People called our home every month or so, to let us know that they had seen my mother’s apparition materialize in their home.
I always knew that I wanted to write the story the way we lived it—a true story but with a surreal porosity living in the middle of it. I didn’t know how to go about writing it initially; I couldn’t figure out my place in it. But after I lost my memory in a bike accident in 2007—my memories returned eight weeks later—I not only knew how I would write these stories, I also figured out my place in them as a character. My mother had lost her memory too when she was 8 years old, and knowing that, I understood how I fit into that story, which takes three generations to tell.
I wrote some of this book while I was on tour for my debut novel in 2018, and wrote the rest of it during the pandemic. One of my favorite things that happened when I read from the book while it was still in progress: I’d be approached by Latine people who would gush to me about their family, and tell me ghost stories of their own. I hope that this book encourages more of those stories from the Latine community—I say that selfishly, because that’s what I would like to read.
Chung: Can you talk about your experience moving between fiction and memoir? Do you approach one form differently than the other? Does one require something of you that the other does not?
Rojas Contreras: Yes! I do approach them differently. I understand fiction to be a departure from reality. For me specifically, with my upbringing, a departure from reality means bending more toward what we call “realism.” I like my fiction to feel political, include history, and have a crisp texture. For my novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree, I did things like read five years’ worth of newspapers, make a timeline of car bombs and political assassinations, and sync the novel to those events. I even went as far as creating a log of the weather for every day of the novel, and made the novel meteorologically accurate as well!
My nonfiction, on the other hand, wants to stay faithful to what I know of reality, again from my point of view and upbringing, which includes a magical and surreal quality. I would say my nonfiction is real magical realism. There’s a recognition that people have with magical realism, and one that they identify with the [Latin American] Boom writers and the genre of fiction. With this memoir, I wanted to correct that notion, to say that it’s not that the stories in this book, and the stories of many Latine people, resemble magical realism; it’s actually the other way around—magical realism resembles our lives. The Boom writers were not writing completely out of their imagination, but were referencing a Latine cosmovision, which has to do with failed parts of colonization—with different peoples and cultures that have resisted erasure and assimilation, including Black Indigenous cultures and/or South American Native cultures—and which has been passed down in our communities, or directly within our families.
Chung: What did you love or appreciate most about writing a memoir situated in this cosmovision, and this living lineage? And was there anything you found especially challenging about doing so?
Rojas Contreras: Memoir was so challenging! I think of fiction as a problem of abundance, in that everything is possible, and memoir as a problem of limitation, in that you are working from things that have happened and are not allowed to invent.
The part I loved most about writing this memoir was the research and the interviews—I talked to people who had seen my grandfather move clouds, people who had seen my mother’s apparition take shape in their homes. I talked to people who had been healed by them, and to historians as well. To go back to this idea of a Latine understanding of reality that is porous, one of the stories I tell in the book is of how people go hunting for enchanted treasure during Holy Week, because that’s when, wherever there is treasure, the ground will erupt into a glow. I was collecting stories about this, and was talking to a respected Colombian historian—perhaps the person I would least expect to have gone treasure hunting, being an academic and serious man of books—but he told me he goes every year! And that once he saw the ground glow, but when he got to the spot, the light had disappeared. You can imagine what fun I was having gathering these accounts.
Chung: Can you compare this publication process to your first, with Fruit of the Drunken Tree? And what do you think you’ve learned about yourself as a writer between these two books?
Rojas Contreras: I was very much along for the ride with Fruit, and with this memoir, I had more of an idea of what happens when, and had a better understanding about when to worry about what. It’s very useful to schedule your worries and not have them happen all at once! Something else that is different is that I have taken care to celebrate the small milestones, which I didn’t do with my novel. I bought myself a piñata the other day and named her Gúdula on the occasion of receiving the mockup of the front and book cover, for example. Gúdula is a small, colorful horse with pointy ears and she lives on my bookshelf now. Now that I know how long and stressful the path to publication can be, these small celebrations are what keep me going. Overall, I would say that I feel less overwhelmed by the process.
I am a writer who likes to try different things. Now that I’ve done a novel, and a memoir, I have been turning to short stories. I think that change in form and genre feels incredibly freeing and thrilling to me. I suppose I am a writer who needs to feel thrill and joy and challenge in the process of making.
Chung: I really appreciated your New York Times essay on self-mesmerism, in which you describe how you create an environment that allows you to focus and to write. Can you share more about your writing process, and whether it has changed at all?
Rojas Contreras: My process had been the same since 2005, when I devised it, but I got a kitten during the pandemic, Luna, and everything changed. I never thought I would change my process for anyone, but alas: Luna will not eat her breakfast in the morning unless I play with her first, so I’ve had to scrap the part of my routine that included putting on one of the outfits in that tone of blue that I only wear for writing, and making my smoothie and caffeine while listening to the same song on repeat. Now, I get out of bed, prepare what I will eat—while playing with Luna—I feed her, and then I can begin. I put on the blue clothing at that point, and sit in silence for half an hour while listening to a song on repeat, cleaning up my space, and trying to fall into a trance state. I find that that period of moving, wearing blue, not yet writing, but trying to numb my conscious mind, is crucial for me to reach a language that feels true and alive and surprising to me.
Chung: Luna! My pandemic dog, Peggy, is the light of my life and has also changed my writing routines.
I know that you’re a wonderful writing instructor who has taught many students—how does teaching impact or feed your own writing, if it does?
Rojas Contreras: Teaching does feed me. I have a regular practice of poring over a favorite story, poem, or book, trying to decode its craft so that I can teach it. Teaching has made me a better reader, and I think that transfers to becoming a better reader of my own work. I like to be a teacher who is still learning, and I think embracing the reality that while I may know some things, I don’t know everything—it keeps both my practice and life feeling very much alive and open and unfixed.
Chung: As an author and an instructor, what advice do you have for aspiring memoirists?
Rojas Contreras: I would say tune into how your own family tells stories. When you’re listening to a story at a family or chosen-family gathering, become a student of structure and tone. What makes the stories unique? What silences are kept? What silences are broken? Surveying all that land can teach you so much about what to write about, and how to do it.
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