Patricia Engel's third novel, Infinite Country, follows a family that finds itself separated between Colombia and the United States for reasons beyond their control. It's the story of everyone who, at one point in their family lineage, made the move from a there to a here.
In the first pages, we meet Talia, the eldest of the three children. She’s been involuntarily committed to an Andean institution from which she plots an escape to reunite with her mother and siblings in the States:
Her record undeniably clean. They ran down a list of traumas. Rape. Abuse. Neglect. Displacement from the armed conflict. Orphaning. None applied to Talia. She told them her mother was abroad and sent her back to Colombia when she was a baby. But this particular family condition was so common it couldn’t possibly be considered trauma.
Originally from New Jersey, Engel moved to Miami in 2004 to earn her MFA at Florida International University; she now teaches at the University of Miami. Her first book, Vida, a collection of short stories released in 2010, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Fiction Award and the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award. She followed that up with two highly acclaimed novels, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris in 2013, and The Veins of the Ocean in 2016, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019.
Infinity Country is receiving similar praise and has already earned book-club recommendations from Esquire magazine and from actress Reese Witherspoon.
There has been some criticism thrown Engel's way, though — most prominently in the New York Times' otherwise positive review — carping that the author is too far removed from the struggle of undocumented immigrants to write about it. But a little distance is a vantage point. That's why Thomas Chatterton Williams brings us back the best of his bicultural background when he's writing from across the pond. Patricia honors that tradition.
“My grandmother had nine children, yet she was a prolific writer with a dedicated practice even though she never really published. She had so many stories about Medellín, where that side of my family is from," Engel tells New Times. “Some were seemingly fantastical, but she'd swear they were all true. Then there are those stories that stem from traditional history and the Muisca civilization that my mother, who is from Bogotá, taught us. There are traces of all of these storytelling roots in what became Infinite Country.”
Five million Colombians left home and scattered around the globe in one of the world’s largest diasporas. And this kind of experience, Engel says, “speaks to the truth of the human species as one subject to a perpetually migratory condition. [It] is everlasting and constantly evolving even after the process of emigrating is completed.”
Infinite Country's masterful management of interior lives is something to behold. Its bold exploration brings to mind Ayad Akhtar’s recent novel Homeland Elegies. He examined a Pakistani diaspora. But both authors beautifully immerse their respective international languages and folklore seamlessly into a post-9/11 U.S. landscape in a manner that provocatively questions assumptions even while its characters suffer them.
Infinite Country: A Virtual Evening with Patricia Engel in conversation with Edwidge Danticat. 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free with RSVP via crowdcast.io/e/patriciaengel.
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