Naomi Elias | Longreads | August 2018 | 16 minutes (4,372 words)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, drug lord Pablo Escobar ruled over all of Colombia as if it were his kingdom. Escobar’s lethal combination of cleverness and ruthlessness allowed him to evade capture for years. A real-life boogeyman, his presence altered the atmosphere, layering everyday Colombian life with toxic tension: an opposition leader looking to curb the expansion of Escobar’s drug empire was assassinated, communities were terrorized by car bombings, and paramilitary recruiters transformed young boys into cold-blooded soldiers. Fear and uncertainty were normal states of mind for people who grew up in this era, people like Colombian-born writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who channeled her memories of this formative chapter of her life into a captivating debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree.
In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, we are introduced to the Santiago family; Chula, age 7, her sister Cassandra, age 9, and their parents, who all live together in a gated community in Bogotá, Colombia. The Santiago family’s moderate wealth generally insulates them from contact with the criminal elements terrorizing the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, but this all changes when the family hires Petrona, a teenager from a poor guerilla-occupied slum, as their new maid.
At only thirteen Petrona is her family’s primary breadwinner, a burden that weighs heavily on her. Chula, enamored with the new occupant of her home, finds herself attempting to unravel the mystery that is Petrona, a girl of few words and many secrets. This curiosity eventually lands Chula in trouble — Petrona’s desperate attempts to juggle her duty to her family and her pursuit of the milestones of youth, like first love with a young guerrilla soldier, push her to engage in riskier and riskier behavior, and Chula’s deepening involvement entangles her in a violent conspiracy.
The girls’ path to freedom is littered with difficult decisions that, once made, accelerate their journeys from childhood to adulthood. The mushrooming conflict is also a catalyst for the Santiago family’s daring escape from Colombia, a move that allows Rojas Contreras to explore the jarring consequences of migration, how violence can unmoor people and radiate for years in their bodies.
The book alternates between the two girls’ perspectives, and through their blossoming friendship we experience the intense curiosities and anxieties of young girlhood, while the ongoing drug war changes the face of the country in the background. Rojas Contreras uses the drug war’s youngest witnesses as a vehicle to explore its harshest realities. Crucially, Fruit of the Drunken Tree focuses not on how men have made and unmade the world, but on how women survive in it.
Your biggest worry when you’re living in a violent country is that you are not fast enough or smart enough to detangle what’s going on around you. You feel at all times like ‘maybe this is a dangerous situation, but I don’t have the power to know.’
Naomi Elias: In the opening pages of Fruit of the Drunken Tree, the narrator explains, “The U.S. was the land that saved us; Colombia was the land that saw us emerge.” This feels similar to a sentiment you expressed in a widely-shared piece you wrote for Huffington Post about how you became a U.S. citizen the same day that Trump made his infamous “shithole countries” remark. In the essay you wrote, “Being an immigrant is a malleable place, an in-between, a pending state. Through our oath, we were leaving that place. We were becoming something politically tangible.“ Can you expand on this meditation on immigrant identity and political tangibility?
Ingrid Rojas Contreras: When I was first in the U.S., I experienced being perceived as a Colombian, and then slowly I got to this point where I was perceived as an American, or a Colombian-American. When I would go back to Colombia — even though I grew up there, and spent my most formative years there, and at the time had only spent maybe five years abroad — my cousins and my family called me “the American one.” It was this slow process where I didn’t belong to either of the countries: I wasn’t yet an American citizen and my family in Colombia thought of me as a foreigner. I was very interested in the mathematics of that.
The year that I had spent the same number of years in Colombia as I had in the U.S., I expected something spectacular to happen — maybe I would acquire this new identity, these issues would be resolved for me. When they weren’t, I realized that that is just what it’s like to be an immigrant — all these questions of identity and belonging are never really resolved.
The day that I became a citizen, I understood that the most important tool that you can have is the ability to vote in the country in which you live, the ability to have a voice, which was new to me.
Chula describes her family as “a kingdom of women,” and the book underscores this by focusing on the women of the Santiago family. But so much of Colombia’s culture at the time that key events of the book take place, roughly 1989 to 1994, are defined by the country’s machismo, from the male-dominated political landscape to the normalization of gender-based violence. In the novel, as in real life, young girls are instructed to dress modestly so as not to provoke the men around them.
This bloody chapter of Colombia’s history survives in our historical memory and in pop culture as a narrative about the travails of men, as seen in the popular Netflix original series Narcos, an account of Escobar’s ascension to cocaine kingpin centered on the men on either side of the drug trade. Was your decision to focus your story on the lives of women, specifically young girls, a response to all of this?
Yeah, it was definitely a response.
I grew up in that culture and I was constantly told directly or indirectly that my opinions didn’t matter. I had the experience, for example, of being a young girl and saying “I wanna be a scientist” and the teacher laughing at me and suggesting instead that I do something that’s more “female friendly.”
I was always surrounded by very strong women in my family, and even though they were victims of the system, they had a strength of their own, and I was always just very taken by how they could be dominant in all the spaces that were available to them. Because of the machismo, there weren’t many areas in which they could put their foot down and have their voices heard, but wherever they could they did so with such strength and bravery that it always inspired me. I know that my mother and all my aunts were forced to clean their brothers’ clothes, even when they were younger than their brothers, forced to cook for them, and the brothers wouldn’t have to do anything. That idea gets passed down with each person that participates in the system. That’s what you pass down to the other generation, [the idea that] this is how it works.
My mother always rebelled against that, and I was very inspired by her, by her rebellion. She told me this great story where she said “I’m not washing dishes anymore” and her mother beat her and she still refused and when my grandmother told her, “You have to do this because you’re a girl,” she cut her own hair so that it was short like a boy and said “Ok, I’m a boy now, I won’t do this.”
I find that to be so inspiring, and I see that kind of rebellious spirit in my mother and my grandmother and my aunt. It seems like it shouldn’t exist in the environment of machismo in Colombia, which is not only societal but structural and political and embedded in the violence of the country. It seems like it shouldn’t exist, and yet it does. When you come across it, it’s such a beautiful breath of fresh air. When I sat down to write the novel I just had to include that. I had to honor that.
I witnessed my small cousins being threatened by anybody in a uniform… They didn’t have the information memorized where they could tell the difference between guerrilla and paramilitary and army and police.
The book oscillates between showing us the world through Chula’s and Petrona’s eyes. This shifting perspective allows the reader to see how the girls can have different experiences of the same event. At one point a fretful Petrona tells Chula that she is in “trouble” and, too young to help Petrona or to even fully understand her confession as a cry for help, Chula instead makes a game of concocting far-fetched ideas about what kind of trouble Petrona could be in — like maybe her father stole some cheetahs that wear diamond-studded collars and she now has to live in hiding. I found this to be a frustrating and heartbreaking but ultimately effective way to simultaneously tell two very different coming-of-age stories. Can you explain why you decided to structure the book this way?
Yeah, I think this comes back to another inspiration for the book. I was visiting Columbia and I witnessed my small cousins being threatened by anybody in a uniform, whether it was police or people in the army wearing fatigues and guns. They didn’t have the information memorized where they could tell the difference between guerrilla and paramilitary and army and police. I was very taken by that confusion and just remembered the helplessness of being young and not being able to understand, and how your biggest worry, especially when you’re living in a violent country, is that you are not fast enough or smart enough to detangle what’s going on around you. You feel at all times like maybe this is a dangerous situation, but I don’t have the power to know — and, when you’re young, there’s a playfulness to not knowing, even if it’s scary.
I’m just so taken by the young point of view, more so than the adults who have already figured everything out. It seems to me more tragic to be young and to not be able to understand and to try to understand — in Petrona’s case, to be young and be in way over your head, in a situation that you think you can manage, because when you’re a teenager you have that sense of “I can do anything,” you’re young, you’re a little bit indestructible. She comes up against the reality that she is not, and she cannot outsmart the dangers around her as well as she thinks she can.
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In America you have to pull teeth to have an honest conversation about class. Though we have one of the highest wealth gaps of any developed nation, we as a society have trouble talking about the political and social consequences of economic disparity, so much so that we actively dodge it. Journalists attempting to make sense of the results of the 2016 U.S. election will still misdiagnose racism as “economic anxiety” to forgo having to untangle the nuances of the related — but not interchangeable — issues of money, race, and class in this country. Did you find it difficult to accurately portray the difference in access these girls have and how that impacts their approach to life and to each other?
It was a little difficult to jump back and forth between the two points of view, but both my parents were very poor, and I grew up in Bogotá. We were middle class, and at the time it seemed like a miracle for our family that we could live in Bogotá and that we had a house. It was just miraculous.
I grew up visiting my parents’ families and I was always completely heartbroken by the differences. I was not able to understand what it was that made us be able to have enough while [the rest of] our family struggled to eat. Later as an adult when I was doing research for this book I was interested in weaving in how, if there is bitterness caused by your class, it can impact your political inclinations, and it carries out to your relationships with the people around you. I did a lot of reading and I did a lot research and one of the books that I found invaluable was an oral history by Voice of Witness called Throwing Stones at the Moon. It’s an oral history of displaced families that provided me enough information and enough emotional knowledge to be able to write Petrona’s point of view.
To this day, when my mother is driving a car, she will only use the blinkers to indicate that she’s turning at the last second — just so that people behind her don’t know where she’s going until it’s absolutely necessary.
The book’s title refers to a type of tree planted in the front yard of the family home. A tree with white flowers and dark brown fruit whose offerings emit a seductive honey-like smell but are actually poisonous. Chula’s mother cautions her daughters to steer clear of their own garden because this tree “has the ability to take people’s free will” — and readers learn that the tree’s fruit is an active ingredient used in a common date rape drug.
First, I was surprised to learn this tree actually exists; it’s called the “borrachero” tree and that it has in fact been used for nefarious purposes — jewel thieves in Paris once blew powder made from its seeds into the faces of their victims to stun them into a vulnerable stupor.
I also found it very telling that while Chula’s mother taught the girls to fear the tree, they were never allowed to show that fear to their neighbors. This notion of living your life as a performance seems to be a throughline for all of the characters: Petrona hides her growing involvement in guerrilla activity and her sexual assault from her employer, Chula lies to her mother to keep Petrona’s secrets as well as her own, including lying about “feeling fine” after witnessing a shooting so she doesn’t have to see a therapist. Was it a conscious narrative decision to give all of the characters these masks?
I think it started unconsciously, and then it traveled into the conscious level. I think I wrote a draft where that just emerged from the narrative, and then I started to consciously notice as I read the draft — that this was a thematic braid that I could weave through the narrative. And the more I thought about it, the more it rang true to me, because I remember how in Colombia there was such a fear of giving more information than you should, because there was such distrust. Because of how violent it was at the time, you needed to be very careful about the things that you revealed.
To this day, when my mother is driving a car, she will only use the blinkers to indicate that she’s turning at the last second — just so that people behind her don’t know where she’s going until it’s absolutely necessary. I noticed things like that, and the more that I thought about it the more it seemed like a very Colombian emotional state.
When I saw it emerge in the many characters [in the novel], it made sense to me, because everyone experiences a level of withholding when they’re in a violent or dangerous situation. It made sense that it would emerge in all of these different ways throughout the book.
The power of language is a quiet but recurring refrain in this novel. Chula learns and re-learns this lesson throughout the book. One particularly noteworthy moment is when her sister clarifies the important difference between being shot and being shot at. Chula casually informs her family that her cousins were shot while playing in guerrilla-occupied territory, which sends them into a tizzy, and her sister has to explain to her that, “To be shot meant to have a bullet go through you. To be shot at meant you were lucky.”
This lesson in linguistic responsibility feels very true to the experience of so many people around the world who don’t have the freedom to be careless with language, whose speech is often monitored and therefore limited. Can you talk to me about this scene and others like it in the book that helped you build and authenticate the tense atmosphere of a country at war.
I was always fascinated by the language that Colombia had around violence. As a writer I pay very close attention to words. Solmaz Sharif wrote in her book, Look, “it matters what we call a thing.” I always think of that whenever I’m writing, whenever I’m having political discussions, just because it matters incredibly what we call a thing.
When I was writing the novel, I realized that we had this word in Colombia for when someone important like a political figure is killed: magnicide. Every Colombian knew this word, [but] when I was telling a friend about “oh, magnicide,” they didn’t know what it was. There’s a way in which a very specific atmosphere of tension will give rise to new language in order to be more exact about where you are safe and where you are unsafe, in order to name the very specific situation around you.
That’s also what led me to play with the idea of Pablo Escobar changing the words around him. In the novel I call him the “King Midas of words,” and that’s true. If he had a lawyer in the news, they would call that lawyer a ‘narco-lawyer,’ and if he had an estate or farm they would call that the ‘narco-estate’ — and they wouldn’t even reference Pablo Escobar, but it was understood by all the people watching the news that he had a hand in it somehow. So as a writer when I was later thinking about the ways in which violence can change language, I really wanted it to be part of the novel.
An atmosphere of tension will give rise to new language in order to be more exact about where you are safe and where you are unsafe, in order to name the very specific situation around you.
If this book were a movie, I think filmmakers would fast forward through the period when the Santiago girls are separated from their father, but you really dig into the inner life of young girls and a single mother who alternately fail and succeed in their adjustment to life in a new country with a drastically altered family dynamic and fresh pain. It felt very timely to read about an immigrant family processing their forced separation as we deal with the aftermath of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented immigrants and the resulting separation of thousands of children from their parents, which one doctor called “a recipe for toxic stress” for those affected.
Though the circumstances of the Santiago family’s separation differ from those of the families affected by Trump’s policy, the consequences of the separation seem to remain the same. Your novel doesn’t shy away from this side of the trauma timeline, the recovery period where the long-term effects of family separation on a child’s health reveal themselves. Why was it so important to you to focus on the characters’ mental health?
The novel begins with Chula in the U.S., and she receives a letter that causes her to look back at the reason why they migrated, and it was important to me to show her character’s journey. So, how could she go from being a very playful — even morbidly playful — child to being an immigrant in the U.S. who can no longer find her voice. She carries too much of her past to be able to move on or to be able to speak or to be able to have any kind of real relationship beyond that of her immediate family.
There’s something violent about migration that happens to families, especially if they’re divided, where it’s a little bit like a split lifeline: you are who you used to be but you [also] become someone who maybe you no longer recognize. I just found that to be such an important and central part of being an immigrant that I didn’t want to let it slip away. I also felt that the full story is important — not just what happened to you that caused you to come here, but how do you live in the aftermath of that event?
Did you do any research on the psychology of immigrants? How did you tap into that mental state for Chula? Her sister Cassandra and her mother also dealt with the absence in different ways. His absence becomes a stressor for the women and alters their relationship with each other.
I didn’t do as much research for that part. I think I was so immersed in their world that by the end of the book I just felt like I was listening in on them, and I just imagined it all. I imagined their heartbreak as much as I could, and I imagined how that would change them individually and with each other. For me, part of writing it was just sitting with my eyes closed in front of the computer, my hands poised on the keyboard without actually typing, and just trying to imagine what the effect would be both emotionally and in more practical terms.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree is being translated into Spanish, which will allow it to become accessible to new audiences, including your parents, who I understand have not been able to read your work because of the language barrier. How do you feel about sharing this semi-autobiographical story with them?
I’m very excited. I did include my family in the process of writing the book just because I wanted to share something with them, but I knew that I couldn’t send them writing. I would call them and say, “The character that is based on you is doing this now,” and I would just give them little updates and they would laugh and think it was funny. We had an ongoing conversation about that, where I just kept updating them on the lives of the characters that were based on each of them. [So] I’m not afraid that they’re going to be offended that I took their fictional characters to a place that they might disagree with.
I did send an early draft of the translation to my father and he told me that he’s already read it a few times. He didn’t bring anything up, he just told me that it was beautiful and he was very moved by it.
You were drawing from personal experience in this book. In the author’s note you mention that your father was kidnapped in real life, so there are parallels. Do you think it’s far enough removed from your actual history that the distance is helpful to them?
I do think that my dad’s parallel to the fictional story is very helpful to him. Being a man who grew up in Colombia with machismo, that’s all that he knows. He’s not very comfortable with talking about his emotions or really reflecting, and I hope that it’s helpful to him to see the emotion outside of himself in a landscape that is not his own, in a terrain that’s not his own emotional terrain.
Pivoting a little bit, this year you were recognized as a youth leader by the San Francisco Immigrants Rights Commission for your work with immigrant high school students. Tell me about the work that you do, why you began, and why you continue.
After the election of Donald Trump, I was so heartbroken by the way that immigrants were being attacked that I applied for a grant to work with immigrant high school students in San Francisco. It seemed to me that, when you’re in high school, it’s one of the times when you need support and you need someone to tell you that the thoughts that you have are great and that the places where you come from and your stories and your heritage are beautiful, and I thought that I was in a position to do that. And I was so excited when I got the grant.
For six hours a week I would go to a high school and I would work with ninth and tenth graders and we did things like writing poems and writing stories. We also told oral stories that ranged from talking about the dreams that we had, the nightmares that we had, reflecting on the political landscape and things that they were hearing in the news, telling their family stories, and talking about how they came to the U.S..
The project that I got recognized for was one where we took one of Trump’s executive orders, the one that said sanctuary cities are in violation of national law. I was just irked by the language in that executive order and I wanted to invite my students to take that language and turn it. The students would black out words and slowly make lines into a poem that spoke of immigrants in a positive way, that spoke of immigrants having a positive impact on the country and being welcome in the country. I heard them talk about how people like them and their families are being called rapists and criminals and seeing their faces of complete shock that the president himself was saying these things about them. So I wanted to empower them.
The poems that they wrote were so beautiful and they were so happy. We showed them in an exhibition here in San Francisco and that was really important to them. I could see the power of giving someone that young a place to express themselves. I think that is probably the reason why I continue doing that work.
It’s very rare when someone gets a book deal, so for it to go to a woman of color who is talking about immigrant stories that mirror her own and is using her skills to help younger kids who are also immigrants vocalize their thoughts feels very important.
I started consciously trying to do that. I went to Sandra Cisneros’s writing conference, Macondo, and I remember she welcomed us into her garden, and one of the things that she said was that we as Latinos who had a gift for writing had a responsibility to pay it forward. I never forgot the words that she said. I think that I am always trying to find ways in which I can pay it forward.
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Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including New York Magazine, Nylon, Teen Vogue, and Brooklyn Magazine.
Editor: Dana Snitzky