Living It Out: Ingrid Rojas Contreras on writing about memory, family lineage, and curanderismo in her new memoir The Man Who Could Move Clouds
In the spirit of encouraging other writers to bravely share their work during Tin House’s 2019 Summer Workshop, author Ingrid Rojas Contreras read aloud from what was then a memoir-in-progress. I sat among the audience of the outdoor amphitheater, mesmerized by Rojas Contreras’ vivid recounting of a bike accident that left her with temporary memory loss, a deeply surreal period for the author. I reencountered this story while reading The Man Who Could Move Clouds (Doubleday, out July 12), a work of nonfiction centered on Rojas Contreras’ family—specifically, her grandfather, a spiritual healer, and her mother, whose childhood amnesia bestowed her with special powers.
For Rojas Contreras, her amnesia came with its own gift, and allowed her to, as she puts it, receive her life a second time. After moving from Colombia to the United States when she was 17, Rojas Contreras initially wanted to study journalism. Though she eventually switched to creative writing, her desire to honor the truth of people’s lived experiences remains. Her debut novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree explores the entangled lives of two girls of very different backgrounds, who are coming of age in 1990s Bogotá. Even as she draws on autobiography and research, Rojas Contreras maintains her sense of wonder, likening herself to a shapeshifter who appreciates being changed by stories.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Her debut novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree was the silver medal winner in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and a New York Times editor’s choice. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Cut, and Zyzzyva, among others. The Man Who Could Move Clouds, a true family story about her mestizo curandero grandfather is her first memoir and is out from Doubleday on July 12, 2022. She lives in California.
This spring, Rojas Contreras took the time to speak with me about the creative and personal journey of writing a “ghostly” memoir, as well as the malleability and potency of memory.
Mimi Wong: How did you decide that this project needed to be a memoir as opposed to a novel?
Ingrid Rojas Contreras: The moment that I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I immediately felt like there were two stories that I had in me for sure. One of them was what ended up becoming my novel. The other story that I knew I had in me was this memoir. Initially, the story I wanted to tell first was the memoir, but I couldn't figure out how to tell it. Then later, it became clear to me that I was still living the memoir out. It took me a while to figure out how I would frame it, what the structure would be like. The tone of it was something that I consistently was trying to write and then failing, so I couldn't write it to my own satisfaction.
For me, it was always important for the memoir to be a memoir, because in telling people in the United States about my family and what our lives were like, I would be met with this constant policing around what I was saying. I think my trying to figure out the tone of the memoir was trying to get rid of that internalized voice that I had with me when I was trying to tell the story. The way that my family told the story about ourselves, about who we were, was such a wonderful treasure to me. Eventually, I realized I had to tell it in the way that we talk to each other. Once I started to do that in the actual writing, things started to happen, and I started to figure it out. But if I had written the memoir as fiction, or as a novel, I would have given up something important that I was trying to honor with that story.
MW: That’s so interesting to hear you talk about trying to figure out the tone. How did you find your voice for the memoir?
IRC: It all came down to this crucial moment that I tell in the memoir, where I was at a party on a cliff overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I got asked this question, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m a writer.” Then I started to talk about what I was working on, and I said, “I want to write a book that’s about my grandfather who people said could move clouds.” This woman—she was white—looked at me with pity. She was standing by the cliff, and she wanted me to come where she was standing. There was something about the way she was beckoning that me made me very suspicious about what was happening. She kept being like, “I’m a park ranger. Come, let me explain to you how wind works.”
In that moment, I realized I’ve been telling this story to an imagined audience who would not be receptive to this story. I went home, and then the next time I tried to write the beginning, it became, “Okay, so when we are within our family, and we are telling the story, what does that sound like?” I found that all those moments in the narrative where I might stop and say something like “This might not be familiar to you,” all of those things started to go away. Basically, I just got out of my own way. In the drafting, I was listening to what it sounds like when my aunts are talking, or what it sounds like when my mom is talking to me, or what it sounds like when we’re all together in a room and we’re not worried about being overheard. Once I did that, then that’s how I found my way to the right tone.
MW: I also noticed this moment at the end of the third chapter of the book, where your mother has just told a ghost story involving your grandfather. You have a moment of disagreement with her. She says he saw a ghost, and you argue it was just a woman. It’s interesting that you observed your own judgment, but the voice that’s narrating the story to the reader is leaving space open for interpretation. How did you approach writing these family histories that also have the supernatural in them?
IRC: One of the things that I started to realize when I was thinking back to the way that we tell stories among ourselves is that we don’t make a differentiation between, “Now I'm going to tell you a story” and, “Now I'm going to tell you a part that I'm not sure about or this part is a dream.” We don’t make those kinds of labels, so I think I was trying to stay faithful to that. I also really like to put the reader in the position that I was in as a listener, so that they also have that experience of a blurred reality.
There’s a rich lineage of memoirs that are tackling something similar, of writing into an expanded sense of reality which includes things like ghosts and dreams and visions. Famously, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior does this, and Wendy Ortiz’s excellent book Bruja, which she calls a “dreamoir” does this, and recently, Kat Chow’s Seeing Ghosts. Even Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God, in which Ehrenreich as a non-believer is writing into having visions and trying to investigate and answer for herself what a mystical experience is, does this. I am sure there’s more, but off the top of my head, these come to mind.
MW: Even when our families pass down stories, there’s often so much that remains unsaid and which we have to fill in for ourselves. How did you negotiate filling in those gaps while writing your family’s story?
IRC: I did a lot of interviews. I interviewed people who had seen my mother appear in their house. I interviewed people who had seen my grandfather move clouds. I interviewed patients of my grandfather’s and then patients that my mom had healed, so there was quite a bit of background research into everything. I was collecting true stories, the true lived experience of what happened.
I think when it’s a memoir, and you're entering into a contract with the reader where you are telling a true story, I do honor that contract. Everything in the memoir is researched, has a source, and all information I was given I checked with other sources. So I followed the rigor of memoir and of telling a true story. It just happens to be that the subject matter of the memoir extends to ghosts and apparitions and curanderos.
MW: How did you apply that research process to your own first-person story? A big part of the catalyst, or what sets off the story, is an accident and subsequent amnesia that you experienced. I’m curious about this because I also had a concussion 11 years ago from a snowboarding accident, but my memory loss was very short-term. How did you go about writing about an event that you couldn’t necessarily remember yourself?
IRC: Mine was also temporary, so my memories did come back. Everything up until that moment is erased, but you still remember everything going forward, so you still have an ability to make memories from that moment on. The thing with the brain is that your memories are not stored in one place, but they’re stored in multiple places. Depending on what part of the brain is impacted, that will decide what is going to be affected. Some people lose other types of memory, some people lose speech, for example. But because the brain stores different information in different parts of the brain, it’s possible with time that those memories find a connection back.
I had a period of eight weeks where I didn’t remember anything. I would fall asleep, and then when I woke up, there would be a new memory. The interesting thing is that some memories came back with glitches. For example, I recalled being in my neighborhood where I grew up in Bogotá, and I was wearing this one dress in the memory. But then I realized this was a dress that I only had in Chicago, so I didn’t have it then.
We tend to think that our memories are solid, and that they’re the truth of what happened and what we lived. There’s something very fictional about how memories are made, and each time we remember them they change. But as writers that’s what we swim in.
MW: Do you almost feel like you’re overriding a memory when you’re writing it down?
IRC: I think it makes it static. Usually, when we don’t write a memory, and we are constantly bringing something to mind, each time that’s going to change a little bit. Something that I really love doing in memoir is inviting or writing in when other people have a different recollection. I really enjoy telling one version of the story, and then telling the other version of the story. Because I think that’s actually more truthful. Each version of what happens says something about who was witnessing, and that’s the part I’m interested in. It might be a more Western preoccupation to ask, “But who was right? Where was the camera? Where’s the proof?” I just don’t want to live my life that way. I’m more interested in the stories that we tell, how we metabolize narrative, and what that says about who we are.
MW: You said you needed to live the story out a bit more before you could really figure out how to get into it. What was the turning point?
IRC: I always knew that it was a very interesting story. I immediately knew they were the main characters: my mother and my grandfather were such good characters and had such good stories attached to them. I didn't know the reason for telling the story. I didn't have that urgency to tell it, that connective tissue that makes longer-form storytelling.
It was when I lost my memory and then regained it, all the memories came back. I had this experience of receiving my life a second time. I had this experience of getting to remember my mother again, and getting to remember who my grandfather was, and getting to remember all of these stories about them healing different people, and getting to remember how we lived and danced and how we work together. Then I remembered that my mother had also lost her memory. It was just like, this is too bizarre. That was the moment that I knew how I fit into the story. That’s how I knew I am related to this lineage of stories. Once I knew that, then that's when I knew that I could write it. That was the part that I needed to live out.
MW: I relate to that a lot. I sometimes think it’s easier to write about our parents or families but much harder to write about ourselves.
IRC: As you’re saying, it’s very easy to bear witness to somebody else’s life. It’s much harder to bear witness to yourself. And to bear witness to the parts of yourself that you would want to discard or abandon or suppress. I think memoir is such a hard genre because you need to be able to do those things. You need to be able to unearth a lot of that. So it’s definitely not a super comfortable genre. But I do love it somehow.
Mimi Wong writes about art, culture, and literature. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Catapult, Electric Literature, Hyperallergic, Literary Hub, Refinery29, and was anthologized in Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the Arts (Paper Monument/n+1, 2021). Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Cicada, Crab Orchard Review, Day One, Joyland, The Margins, and Wildness. For her writing on contemporary art, she was awarded an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. She is Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine The Offing and teaches at The New School. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.