Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Novelist Finds the Funny in Growing Up Under a Drug Lord's Rule

Ingrid Rojas Contreras will read from her debut novel Oct. 18 at Kepler's Books. Photo by Jeremiah Barber

A dark elegiac story about young girls growing up in the Pablo Escobar era of drug lord violence in Colombia, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, the debut novel by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, grew out of her own life experiences. Next week, on Thursday, Oct. 18, Rojas Contreras will be one of seven authors reading at Story is the Thing, a quarterly series at Kepler's Books.

In the book, the lives of two sisters, Chula and Cassandra, ages 7 and 9, along with that of their maid, Petrona, 13, anchor the story. The sisters live in Bogotá in a gated two-story house with all the comforts, while Petrona lives in a guerrilla-occupied slum, caught up in whether or not she should work for the guerrillas. One by one, car-bombings, kidnappings and political assassinations take place around them. The experience of violence becomes normalized, just like the weather. Following the kidnapping of their father, Chula and Cassandra, along with their mother, eventually escape to Los Angeles.

During the era in question, machismo ruled the local landscape, with Escobar often depicted by the media with soap opera intrigue. A strange gangster-savior complex seemed to flourish, with some people even holding Escobar in high regard. But rarely does one hear the stories of women who survived those gruesome times.

"The reality of living in that time was that he was just something that we had to deal with and had to think about, but he wasn't the center of our lives," says Rojas Contreras. "And I do think the perspective of women in this time have been lost. And I wanted to correct that."

In the process, the book portrays with subtle black humor the origins of intergenerational trauma, PTSD, and how the experience of violence at an early age can anesthetize children into emotional convalescence. Chula becomes desensitized to the surrounding horrors and views her own detachment as a virtue. In one scene, Cassandra chews the arms and legs off her Barbie doll, then the sisters pretend Barbie lost her limbs running from the guerrillas. In another passage, Chula hears about Escobar cutting off the tongue of someone who betrayed him. She imagines that if her own tongue was chopped off, at least then she would finally have a good excuse to remain alone with her thoughts. In still another scene, Chula thinks that if the ceiling fan falls while the family is sleeping, it would chop and kill them, but if she only lost one hand, then it would have its own casket with an epitaph: "Here lies the hand of Chula Santiago, courageous survivor."

As such, the novel suggests that if a child grows up surrounded by violence or conflict, she can aspire to transform her trauma into creativity. As she grows older, she might develop a keen ability to see humor in the darkness and rise above the kind of material that would horrify most other people. Rojas Contreras says that when she first came to the US at age 18, her jokes were understood as too dark for normal Americans.

"It just made me realize how different the point of view is, and how different Colombian humor is, and the kinds of things embedded in our cultural imagination and the things that we draw from to make jokes, or what's funny to us, has been moved with the violence," she says. "It's almost like that register of humor or that register of conversation gets shifted. I think for American readers, but also just in my own experience, Americans that I met, it was troubling for them to see that."

At the same time, Fruit of the Drunken Tree succeeds at depicting the sadness of the refugee experience and the inevitability of the transnational condition. More often than not, native-born Americans only want to know the stories of immigrants beginning at the moment they enter the country, without understanding the myriad predicaments that led to immigration.

"We don't really consider what is causing them to cross," says Rojas Contreras. "So I think it was important for me to tell a story that just didn't start with the crossing and how did they become Americans, but just it started with what caused this family to come to the US."