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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Chica

The publication of Vida by Patricia Engel marks the impressive debut of a young Latina talent.

Patricia Engel

Patricia Engel — Isak Tiner | Jumping House Studios

En español | When Patricia Engel was six, she approached her parents and proclaimed, “I am an artist!” Her mother and father did not laugh, choosing instead to take their child’s aspirations seriously.

Art filled the child’s home in a New Jersey suburb: music, painting, discussion of art, the belief that art is special and divine. Patricia continued to paint, but as she learned how to write she added captions to her pictures. Soon the captions crowded out the images and she began to write more and more.

“Our home was an ideal conservatory for a solitary child,” says the soft-voiced Engel 27 years later. She is in a recording booth in Miami where she is answering questions for her first interview about Vida, her debut collection of nine linked short stories narrated by Sabina, a young Colombian American woman. She holds the freshly printed book in her hands, preparing to read an excerpt from “Madre Patria,” one of the collection’s strongest stories, which takes place in Colombia. While this debut may represent the culmination of many years of honing her craft, she says the actual writing of these stories took place in the evenings over the past two years, usually after an already exhausting day of teaching in the master of fine arts program at Florida International University, where she received her own creative writing degree.

“Brutal in its emotional honesty, graceful in its delivery, Vida signals the arrival of a new literary star.” — Mat Johnson, author

But it wasn’t at school where she learned this kind of dedication to writing. Instead, Engel vividly recalls her grandmother locking herself in the basement for hours at a time to type single-space on onionskin paper.

“She never really showed people what she wrote, but she left her writing in cases we found after she passed away, about 10 years ago,” says Engel of her grandmother's unpublished work.  “She wrote 13 volumes of books while raising nine children.”

Besides the dedication to writing, Engel admits that she also picked up her grandmother’s habit of not showing anyone what she writes.

That is, thankfully, until now.

Q. Did the early encouragement from your family lead to the book’s dedication, “Everything is for my parents”?

A. Everything I do is for my parents. My work ethic, everything, is for my parents who, like every immigrant, sacrificed so much for their children and the family at large. Every morning when I wake up and make the decision to procrastinate or get right to work, the offering is always to the sacrifices my parents made. So everything means everything, not just the book.

Q. Have they read your fiction?

A. They’ve read the stories that have been published here and there, but they haven’t read all of them. And they certainly haven’t read them assembled. They ask me for them, but I really wanted them to read them as a proper book, finished and bound and looking beautiful.

Q. Both Junot Díaz and Francisco Goldman wrote blurbs for your book. Have these or any other Latino writers been important to your development as a writer?

A. Certainly Junot Díaz has been a great supporter of my work. When I was trying to figure out what I was trying to accomplish in my writing, he was able to give me a clarity I needed to be able to progress. Before that I was sort of lacking for mentors. I always looked up to Isabel Allende, and I fell in love with her memoir Paula. Sandra Cisneros, too. I have to say that these are writers I wish I had grown up with, but nobody really exposed me to them until I was in my mid-twenties. Isabel Allende, yes, because my mother was reading her book, but my earliest literary influence was Anaïs Nin.

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