A Double Life, Ivelisse Rodriguez Interviews Patricia Engel

Ivelisse Rodriguez:  A key theme in the The Veins of the Ocean, your third book and second novel, is of being jailed—Carlito, the protagonist’s brother, is on death row; Roxi, a dolphin, bangs her head against the fencing that encases her in a dolphinarium; and members of the populace are trapped without borders in nations by politics, economics, and love or safety of home.  So there are multiple ways to be imprisoned and have ones freedom and movement limited.  Can you speak more about this?  What is your larger goal with this idea in the life of your novel?

Patricia Engel:  The novel started out as a story of incarceration, not only of its effects on the imprisoned, but of the ways a guilty verdict forever alters the lives of the loved ones of the convicted. For every person that is serving a life or death sentence, there is someone who loves them and who is enduring a parallel imprisonment, suffering in ways that are almost never addressed. In Veins, the narrator, Reina, feels implicated in her brother’s crime and this guilt is its own sort of imprisonment. As I wrote the book, I came to a deeper understanding of confinement and how we all live in a sort of constrained way, burdened by responsibilities or held hostage by our past, or in the case of Nesto, working against the very real isolation imposed on his country. Captivity is a universal experience, and we often forget that humans are not the only creatures capable of experiencing suffering when it comes to the ways we try to dominate and exploit the natural world. I wanted to explore the subjugation we all receive and perceive, and the ways in which we are responsible for our emotional, physical, and spiritual freedom. 

Ivelisse:  Western nations are normally idealized as the locales to emigrate to.  We see this with the enduring myth of the American Dream and with the current refugee crisis on European shores.  There is a persistent sense that life and opportunities in the US and Western Europe are better.  What strikes me about The Veins of the Ocean is that those who are considering emigrating know better—they have been warned and do not believe that emigration will necessarily make their lives easier.  For example, Nesto, the Cuban émigré who helps free Reina the protagonist from her past, says, “But people kept telling us horrible stories about Cubans who went to Europe and ended up sleeping on the streets, in bus stations, how people abroad hated them and mistreated them and wouldn’t give them jobs so they had no choice but to become criminals or prostitutes” (215).  Nesto and Yanai, Nesto’s ex-wife, have been forewarned about what life is like outside of Cuba.  Also, in Yanai contemplating whether to move to the US from Cuba, she tells Nesto that he is a nobody in the US like in Cuba.  Thus, Yanai is not convinced that life is necessarily better in the US.  This is essentially a very different immigrant narrative that is normally put forth where the US and other Western nations are always better alternatives to one’s homeland.  What led you to craft your immigrant narrative in such a distinct way? 

Patricia:  I traveled to Cuba nearly a dozen times while researching The Veins of the Ocean, and as I came to know more and more of its citizens, I understood that not everybody wants to leave, or rather, not everyone who desires to leave or is curious about defecting would dare try because there is so much ingrained fear about what awaits on the other side. This is a product of propaganda and isolation. It’s also true that to many Cubans, the world outside can naturally seem like a very scary place, full of weapons and terrorism and war, given that in Cuba there are no weapons and virtually no violent crime. A lot of people think of immigration as a natural impulse, as if we are all just leprechauns chasing a pot of gold, but I actually think it’s quite unnatural and goes against our instincts to decide to leave your home, your family, to turn your back on your country and all that is familiar, and change the course of your family history forever. One can make moral and philosophical negotiations when better opportunities await abroad, but choosing immigration remains a kind of emotional treason, and it can be very difficult to live with in the long run. And in many cases, it might not have been the best choice. I am the daughter of immigrants, and I grew up well aware of the pain that comes with leaving one’s country behind and how it can engender a sort of double-life that dwells in the imagination, wondering what life would have been like if one had stayed. There is no undoing of that trauma of loss, even when there is much to be gained by the sacrifice and arrival at the idea of “a better life.” Immigration is an act of tremendous courage but can also be one of devastating consequences. 

Ivelisse:  Your publisher, Grove/Atlantic, calls The Veins of the Ocean a Pan-American story.  This is intriguing because this concept seems antiquated and new at the same time.  I think about the Memoirs of Bernado Vega by Bernardo Vega who writes about Puerto Ricans, but also Cubans, in the first half of the twentieth century in New York.  At times in Vega’s work, an Antillean identity trumps a singular Puerto Rican or Cuban identity, so we see how two Latin@ groups are inter-dependent.  In contrast, a great deal of contemporary Latin@ Literature focuses on one specific Latin@ ethnic group.  Your book is pretty balanced between the Cuban experience and the Colombian-American experience.  It would be difficult to describe this novel as a book about Colombian-Americans.  How does this idea of Pan-Americanism jibe with your artistic goals?  

Patricia:  This is something that I’ve explored in all my books. Vida takes place in New Jersey, New York, Miami, and Colombia and shows the movement within and across migratory communities, and It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is set in France, its characters all foreign and displaced, which is the common ground for most of their relationships. I think it’s a reflection of our current transnational reality, or at least the one that I experienced, which is to say that when we arrive on U.S. soil, Colombian immigrants don’t only hang with Colombians and Cubans with Cubans or Puerto Ricans with Puerto Ricans, and so forth. I was raised in a large Colombian family, more like a tribe, yet my parents’ closest friends were Lebanese and Cuban, and all us children grew up like cousins; they were extensions of our clan, all having come to this country for different reasons but bonded by displacement and shared values. There’s a constant intermingling within most immigrant communities, particularly Latin American ones in metropolitan areas, and I wanted to show how that manifests for those who are living North American lives. Reina and Nesto come from opposite ends of the Caribbean and the impetus for their migratory journeys is different, but they’ve both somehow arrived to this small island in the Florida Keys, and they share that particular loss and longing for an abandoned homeland, though for different reasons; the feeling of being uprooted, of being a stranger and even invisible in one’s new “home,” and the perpetual doubt that maybe one is living the wrong life in the wrong country and should just go back to where one came from, as if that’s where they really belong. 

Ivelisse:  Some writers have easily identifiable voices that link their various texts.  For example, someone like Sandra Cisneros has very poetic prose, uses fragments, etc.  Your three books, however, are disparate in terms of language.  Vida is minimalist in language with a matter-of-fact in tone.  It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris has extended and descriptive sentences which leads to a very introspective text, and The Veins of the Ocean seems to incorporate elements of both previous voices—Reina’s voice is matter-of-fact to an extent and is coupled with more detailed sentences that add depth to Reina’s narrative.  How does the variability of the voices in your books play into your objective and goals as a writer?

Patricia:  For me, voice is everything. It contains the entire universe of the novel, and I work hard to make each one distinct from story to story. It takes me a very long time to come up with a narrator’s voice, and the same goes for all the other characters. I usually don’t even start writing a novel until I have an extremely clear sense of these voices and can hear them chattering away in my ear. In The Veins of the Ocean, I wanted to show how Reina, despite being limited by her lack of education, possesses a deep intelligence and intuition, though she at times does not know how to grapple with, express or articulate it. There is this notion I’ve encountered among readers that a character who is not formally educated is somehow incapable of feeling deeply or experiencing moments of profound wisdom. I find that to be such troubling logic. Reina’s voice is wide-ranged as she undergoes her process of transformation and of understanding how the events of her life led her to where she is now. She’s is a young woman who was given few tools by which to know herself and to protect herself from the world, yet she’s excavating and drawing truth from all her life’s traumas to bring meaning to her existence. 

Ivelisse:  In the construction of your work, how do you situate your work within contemporary Latin@ Literature?

Patricia:  I work with intense focus, on a very micro-level. If I were to stop and think about where my work stands among its peers in literature, I’m not sure I’d be able to get any writing done. So my mind naturally avoids it, even after the work is completed. As an artist, I’m only concerned with trying to execute my vision for my work as well as possible. Everything else is out of my hands.