Don’t miss Ingrid Rojas Contreras reading from her genre-defying ancestral memoir
By Lou Fancher
For six years, bestselling author Ingrid Rojas Contreras wrote and rewrote the first chapter of her memoir, “The Man Who Could Move Clouds.” While simultaneously completing her first novel, “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” teaching at Bay Area colleges and contributing essays and short stories to the New York Times Magazine, ZYZZYVA and other publications, the San Francisco-based, Colombian-born writer struggled to find entry to a story she knew was destined to be told.
“I wrote chapter one over and over and over,” Contreras said in a phone interview. “Then, when I was touring with my novel in 2018 and 2019, on airplanes and in hotel rooms, I somehow cracked it open. I wrote quickly after that, selling it to the publisher on a partial and writing throughout the pandemic.”
Released in July, the memoir received immediate attention and strong reviews, including one by Miguel Salazar in the New York Times saying that Contreras “has written a spellbinding and genre-defying ancestral history.” The memoir has been selected as one of five longlist finalists for the 2022 National Book Award.
The memoir begins with an accident. Contreras rode her bicycle into an open car door, suffered a head injury and experienced eight weeks of amnesia during which she writes, “I had no idea where I came from or where I was going, what city I was in, what my name was, and I did not even know the year.”
The incident pitched Contreras into traumatic disorientation, but also into unexpected harmony with her mother, Sojaila, who at age eight fell into a deep well and nearly died. Contreras’ mother survived and, when she emerged from amnesia eight months later, could see ghosts and the future, appear in two places at one time and perform the same supernatural magic practiced by her father and Contreras’ grandfather, Nono, a Latino healer known in Colombian culture as a curandero.
To understand her family and herself, Contreras and her Mami travel in 2012 to Ocaña, Colombia to exhume Nono’s body. As the narrative jumps back and all the way to the colonial era, it is not only Nono’s bones that are disinterred. A fragile, opaque “truth” emerges from family documents, tales of ghosts, clairvoyants, spirits and witches and mysterious and enchanted happenings against a backdrop of war, machismo violence and mestizaje, the racial mixing that homogenized Indigenous culture. The stories are presented by aunts, uncles, friends and others, the elements skewing Contreras’ picture of her family’s legacy. Often, these stories trail into dusty unknowns and lack tidy connections or conclusions — and many are lost.
The most compelling writing is about amnesia. “The amnesia was challenging to write about,” said Contreras. “So much of it was wordless, beyond language. It became a creative problem to make sense in language what I was experiencing. Describing the accident — it came slowly to me and I could only write one sentence and then walk away. Later, I’d write another sentence. It was a section I had to fight for.”
Recording the ambiguous stories told by her family also proved challenging. “Being in the U.S., a Western point of view might want me to debunk or fact check or get to the bottom of what happened. The breakthrough came when I realized I didn’t have to do that, it’s not my background or identity. I could tell the stories how we tell the stories amongst ourselves. The memoir could be about social truth, rather than to fact check magic, which is not possible.”
Contreras says when her mother tells stories she listens to them as true until, halfway through, she realizes her mother is recounting a dream. “Other times, I’ll be sure it’s a dream and then she’ll correct me and say no, this really happened.”
The “ferocity of the line between truth and dreams” fascinates Contreras. “If I tried to solve that in the memoir, my story wouldn’t go anywhere. I had to release and surrender to what I’d been observing all my life: Occurrences that ask you to see someone who says to you assuredly that your mother has healed them from depression by giving them water after praying over it. You’re asked to accept that person and their experience.”
Memory, she learned, is like water: We need it, miss it when it is gone and too much is dangerous. She decided bodies are documents, repositories for memories that are “loops and loops of time,” the full weight of which are a burden. Occasionally, Contreras and her mother together remember the freedom of amnesia, recalling it “with the wistfulness of a lover.”
Most pleasing to Contreras is telling her story as nonfiction. “I had grown up seeing stories about curanderos in fiction. A nonfiction version made it seem like my family, my mom, my growing up was now real — like I’ve put the curanderos experience on the shelf in a space I hadn’t seen before.”