Interview: Patricia Engel
Patricia Engel's debut novel, Vida (Black Cat, 176 pp.) chronicles the experiences of her protagonist, Sabina, as she struggles to find her place in a complex interior landscape of exile and diasporas. Sabina's story is a fluid narrative that traverses the actual landscapes of New Jersey, New York, Miami, and Bogota as she struggles to find her place in a world full of love and loss, guilt and redemption. Vida addresses these themes without losing a sense of down-to-earth levity. In Sabina, Engel has created a protagonist whose voice is so achingly real, it haunts the reader long after the last page is turned. Funny and passionate, yet also fearless, Vida is a beautifully crafted piece that reminds us why fiction is important in the first place.
Patricia Engel was raised in New Jersey by her Colombian parents, then attended New York University to study French and Art History. She received her MFA from Florida International University, and currently resides in Miami. This interview was conducted via e-mail.
Susan Falco: The novel opens on the Jean Grenier quote, "In each life, particularly at dawn, there exists an instant which determines everything." How does this idea pertain to the characters in the novel?
Patricia Engel: Grenier was a teacher of Albert Camus, my earliest literary hero, so the quote is both an homage to my aesthetic and philosophical roots, and an allusion to the spirit of Vida, which is that our stories, those we craft in an effort to be masters of our destiny, are created long before we are aware, and the primary images of our lives are often messages we spend our lifetime trying to understand.
SF: The chronology of the novel reminded me of a patchwork quilt, as if it were modeled on the way our memories work. How did working with a non-linear chronology affect your writing process?
PE: In terms of my writing process, I was faithful to Sabina's voice, psychology, and moral presence. The book is arranged as a map of Sabina's emotional memory. The stories are told as she would have told them to a friend, a slow confession, and in the revelations, she draws her own connections.
SF: Vida seems to be about defining moments, even though the characters may not always be aware of the moment's significance. How did you discover Sabina's defining moments?
PE: I tried to give Sabina license to name the beasts of her life, which is to say that much of our spiritual and intellectual transcendence is a result of suffering and silence, and these usually remain unnamed because society encourages us to be ashamed of our vulnerability, to fear suffering rather than appreciate its transformative power. I searched Sabina's heart for the roots of resilience, those particular moments of change, and found they were often subtle, occurring when nobody else was looking, and only she could describe them.
SF: In this book, you work with a large cast of characters full of complex interconnections. I'm curious about how Sabina became your central protagonist, and if perhaps there are ways in which you identify with her.
PE: I care deeply for Sabina, but I feel the same affection for all my characters and I've had to become each of them in order to inhabit them even for just one sentence. Sabina became my protagonist because her personality and psychology lent itself to exploration. She's open to being affected by people and by experience, open to understanding and seeks meaning. Though she hits many walls and battles cynicism, she believes in the hope of life.
SF: In the section "Vida," you confront the idea of bearing witness, and a specific kind of guilt that comes from passively witnessing injustice. What sparked your exploration of this theme?
PE: Sabina's dilemma is a common one: a habit of comfortable inaction when confronted with brutality and abuse, rationalizing turning a blind eye, blocking empathy, learning to forget what one has seen and heard in order to go on, unaffected. In this case she holds herself accountable, but Sabina's integrity is rare. Most people don't do a damn thing so as not to get their hands messy with other people's pain.
SF: In the section "Green," you switch to second person point of view, which sort of demands the reader's empathy. . .what lead you to make this decision?
PE: In "Green," Sabina is really engaged in battle with herself, trying to rise above her wounds to pity her abuser, but she fails, and in failing, she understands herself a bit more. It's the lesson that forgiveness doesn't always come served up on a plate and one cannot rely on it.
SF: I gather that it's not uncommon for authors to explore autobiographical themes in their first novels. Are there any elements of Vida that are drawn from your life experience?
PE: I am not Sabina, but I wanted to know her. We have a few biographical details in common, but I gave Sabina absolute freedom to exist with her own desires and whims, and I tried not to let my ego interfere. The themes of the book might come from the world I live in, which is a fully multi-cultural realm; a people who've left one country, created a new life in another, and my generation of children of exile with roots in different nations, who struggle to navigate their divided hearts while owning their future.
SF: Are there any new creative projects you are working on that you'd like to share with us?
PE: I'm working on a novel that's set in Paris, as well as a collection of stories.