“Approach everything with humility”: an interview with Patricia Engel

by Mac Wall

Filed under: Blog, Interviews |

Patricia Engel is the author of The Veins of the Ocean and her story, "La Ruta," was featured in our Spring 2018 issue.

For our readers who only know you from what’s been published about you in the Prairie Schooner, is there anything from your life that tends to have an outsized influence on your writing? What you read, where you live, how you spend your day? 

First, I want to say that I’m delighted to be published in Prairie Schooner. It’s a magazine I’ve long admired. To your question, everything influences my writing, from conversations I have or overhear, images I take in through landscapes, art, or from my imagination; my heritage, fragments of my identity, my relationships, nature and its exploitation, books I read, music I hear, my hobbies, fantasies, and obsessions. 

There’s obviously a connection between the settings of your novels—New Jersey, Florida, Colombia—and your own life. But what’s the connection between you and Cuba? Are you just as familiar with it as, say, Miami? You seem well acquainted with Havana, the setting of the story (“La Ruta”) you last published with us.

My only personal connection to Cuba before writing my novel,The Veins of the Ocean, was that my grandmother was once married to a Cuban man and I grew up with many Cuban friends who were like family. Through them, I heard all about Cuba, but as an island trapped in time, the one their family abandoned decades earlier for a life in exile. Several years ago, I met a Cuban man recently arrived to the United States whose stories of the island since the Revolution were like nothing I’d heard or read before. He was the first to encourage me to go see it for myself. Once I started writing the book, which is set partly in Havana and features a Cuban protagonist, I knew I’d have to go to Havana in order to get the details right. So over a period of about 3 years, I made a dozen or so trips to Cuba and several short stories were born from research that did not make it into the novel. One of those was “La Ruta,” which was inspired by a dear friend of mine in Havana who drives a shared taxi seven days a week.

In a similar vein, how much credence do you give to the classic refrain “write what you know,” i.e. to draw from specific personal experience? Whereas your books usually center on young women of diasporic communities, “La Ruta” centers on a man who plans to stay put in Havana. Was it difficult writing from this perspective, both as a man and as a person committed to staying in a specific place rather than leaving it? It seems the most precipitous change the narrator can expect is moving to a new apartment.

I was raised with the belief that the worst thing is not knowing what you don’t know, so I approach everything, even things in which I have some sort of expertise, with humility and always assume ignorance so that I’m pushed deeper into research and increasing my knowledge in a particular area. I don’t even attempt a voice or a specific character or identity without feeling I can do it justice, and spend a lot of time in preparation to get the nuances of that place or person right. Mago, the narrator in “La Ruta,” is not unusual in that he has no interest in leaving his island and his life revolves around making due each day to be able to provide for himself and his loved ones. This was more or less standard among those I met in Cuba, who complained of but were well adapted to the monotony of their regimented lives. Even so, you would be surprised at how few people actually want to leave their homeland. I think this is one of the great lies of United States media: for every person who emigrates, there are thousands more who you could never tear from their home and loved ones. And those who do leave do so with great conflict and turmoil in their hearts. 

I notice the piece focuses heavily on dogs, especially as they pertain to San Lázaro and El Rincón. Why did you choose to feature dogs and this saint alongside the main characters’ own pilgrimage? Does this saint’s story hold any significance to you personally, did you include it as a way to broadly illustrate Cuban culture, or do you just like dogs, period?

There are actually two Lázaros who are often confused and/or conflated. There is the actual saint, who was a bishop, and the other one is Lázaro of the parable whose wounds were licked by dogs and so dogs are believed to be friends to those who suffer, but who was not a saint and, in fact, never existed. But he is the one most widely represented and who has been syncretized with the orisha Babalú-Ayé in Santería. Cuba is overrun with dogs, some well cared for and some are skin and bones. Some are kept as fighting dogs, others wear government tags and are fed by storeowners in Old Havana. I am always touched by the way that animals reveal the society around them—whether through pampering or neglect. The dogs at El Rincón portrayed in “La Ruta” are real and I spent some time with them as it’s one of my favorite places to visit when in Havana. I was touched by the tenderness of the caretakers who saw these dogs are real connections between humans on earth and the miracle-making Lázaro of their prayers. 

More generally, as you were writing “La Ruta,” what was going through your mind? Were you inspired by something that immediately brought you to write the story, or had it been percolating for a while? 

As I said, I have a friend in Havana who drives a shared taxi and some days I would ride with him for hours just to see who got in the cab and how strangers interacted with one another. Some of the moments in “La Ruta” are from things I actually witnessed, but more importantly, I wanted to show how two people in an imative relationship, like Mago and Flor, can have very different approaches to life and essentially be unknowable to one other despite living together, while two strangers who know very little about each other, like Mago and his passenger, can uncover something profound in the other that has yet to be discovered by anyone else.

Moving on to your other work, your new novel, The Veins of the Ocean, has been out for a while now and has earned some pretty good press. What will PS readers find in Veinsthat’s reminiscent of past work you’ve published with us/your body of work in general? And what’s the most prominent difference between your new book and past work? Was there anything you found especially challenging writing it?

The Veins of the Oceanhas echoes of my other books in that the characters are immigrants at different points in their journey of displacement, and are dealing with a great deal of inner conflict in relation to their family lives and relationships. But Veinsdiffers in that it explores quite intensely themes of incarceration, captivity, intergenerational trauma, suicide, the exploitation of humans and animals, penitence and forgiveness, gendered, racial and cultural inheritances as well as questions of faith in the practical realm. 

The book challenged me all the way through, especially the parts that deal with the death penalty, abuse, and abandonment. I had to put myself through an intense psychological and physical regime to write this book and as a result, this book took me a long time to move on from. 

Besides teaching, what are you working on these days? Is there another book in the works, or do you have something else in mind? What can we look forward to? And is there anything you enjoy—not literature related—that informs your writing?

I’m working on another novel and always writing short stories. When I’m not at my desk, I spend a lot of time outdoors and have come to view it as an extension of my writing time. 

Aspiring writers tend to like advice from those who’ve ‘made it,’ but I’m sure you give enough writing tips during your day job. But what successful authors read is often a window into how they think. So, as a parting gift, is there anything you’ve read lately you recommend to burgeoning writers as an example of great work? Or any particularly enduring work that you come back to for inspiration?

I always come back to Toni Morrison, Clarice Lispector, James Baldwin, Laura Restrepo, Denis Johnson, Héctor Abad, Marguerite Duras, Romain Gary, and Gabriel García Márquez. 

Mac Wall is a Summer 2018 Prairie Schooner Intern.