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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Chica

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

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.

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but she left her writing in cases we found after she passed away, about 10 years ago,” says Engel of her grandmother's unpublished work.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.

Q. While each of the nine stories in Vida is distinct, there are uniting elements. For instance, the central protagonist Sabina — whose development we trace from childhood through about the age of 30 — narrates each of these stories. What was it about Sabina that you believed would anchor the collection?

A. Sabina is a character who interrogates her existence and is open to change. I wanted the reader to think of Sabina as they would a lifelong friend, and the only way to do that is to have them follow her over a long trajectory from childhood into adulthood. Sabina has a voice that's honest and sincere — it's asking questions — and she is earnest and doesn’t judge. Yet she holds herself accountable for her choices, even though she is obviously flawed. So there was an honesty about Sabina that I thought would carry the reader through, a sincerity they could latch onto.

Q. What seems to give most of these stories their tension seems to be an exploration of Sabina’s relationships with men. Would you agree with that?
A. I think that’s just a part of it. Sabina is examining the choices that are available to women in the two cultures that she participates in as a bicultural child, so men are a vehicle to demonstrate this. But it’s really about her deciding the future she is going to make for herself based on her cultural inheritance and the society she lives in. Relationships in general are a great human stage, and it’s not only her romantic relationships. It’s her relationships with friends and her family that form this larger picture of who others see her as and who she is deciding she will be.

Q. Besides this biculturalism, what other themes did you find yourself drawn to?

A. The book can be viewed through a variety of lenses. The Colombian American lens is just one, but the larger lens is the exile experience — and I don’t think that immigrants or Latinos have the monopoly on the exile experience. Exile is something that is experienced by everybody in different ways — the feeling of isolation, the exile of childhood, of womanhood, of young manhood, adolescence, of heartbreak — so I hope that this comes across throughout the entire book and that different people could view it through different lenses and not just one the census bureau would pick.

Q. What has been the response so far from different people, especially men and those from other generations?

A. An English gentleman came up to me after a reading and told me, “I am Sabina, she is me.” So that was a really lovely surprise. I was worried about what the response would be from men because it’s a female narrator. But I’ve gotten really great responses so far, especially to the relationship stories. That means a lot to me because the goal was to write a book that would touch as many people as possible. I’ve also had some people have negative reactions to Sabina’s relationships, who have been really disappointed in her. And yet other people have said they envy her relationships, that they wish they could have the kind of romances Sabina has, that level of intensity, and these are people of all different ages and backgrounds.

Q. New Jersey, New York, Miami and Bogotá are all settings throughout these stories. How has a sense of place influenced your writing?

A. Setting is something really malleable. My New Jersey is certainly not your New Jersey. My New York is not the New York of my brother or a girl who has the same biographical background as me.  Setting is deeply personal and is dictated by the characters and their logic, their eyes and all those things that form their view of the world.

Q. Oh, and I should also mention that humor runs through all these stories; there are some really laugh-out-loud moments. Was this intentional?

A. You have to give yourself permission to be funny, and sometimes when you are trying to hit these notes and difficult themes and accomplish things artistically, you kind of forget to laugh and smile and let your characters laugh and smile. You have to remember that you are allowed to be funny. Life, as dark and painful as it is, is still full of laughter. So if you want a narrative to resemble life at all, you really have to open up the can on life and let yourself and your characters have a laugh.

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. It’s a novel that follows a cast of characters from all different backgrounds who live together in a house in Paris. So it kind of furthers my interest in the exile experience by displacing my characters again, which is what I like to do. France, as you know, is kind of on the frontlines of its own immigration discussion. My book addresses that in some ways.