Summer is the time we tell ourselves to pick up a book and actually finish it. But there is so much out there, so, where do we start? We asked author Ingrid Rojas Contreras, born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, to talk about her favorite book. Her debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, was recently released. The book is loosely based on her own life and follows two girls growing up in Pablo Escobar’s Columbia. One girl, Chula, is from a gated community, while the other, Petrona, lives in the guerilla-occupied slums. They cross paths when Chula’s mother hires Petrona as a live-in-maid. What follows is a coming-of-age story filled with mystery and complex choices. - Anna van der Heijden
What inspired you to write this story?
I started to write this story when I was living in Chicago and was in between visas. I was deeply homesick but I could not travel. I started writing about the landscape of Bogotá, the mountains hugging the city all across the horizon, and before I knew it I was describing an event that took place in my childhood that led to my family’s eventual leaving of Colombia. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is based on this story. It focuses on two girls from two different classes who forge a strong connection that threatens to undo them both.
How much of this book is autobiographical?
There was a young girl who my mother took in and who was threatened into acting against my family. The fictional family is based on my family as well.
What was it like writing this book?
Writing this novel was a joyful, emotional and exhausting experience. I did live through this time in Colombia, but I also did quite a lot of research for this novel—I read newspapers, books, and talked to many women who shared similar experiences as the character of Petrona. I have always been heartbroken by the inequalities in Colombia. The quality of life can be so starkly different between classes. Giving breath to these two different experiences of Colombia was a technical joy that constantly brought me to tears.
How did you learn to write fiction?
I was incredibly lucky to have Megan Stielstra as a professor in college. One day Megan challenged our class to walk into a bar and try to hold a stranger’s attention with a story. I didn’t have the guts to walk up to a stranger, but I did try the exercise out on my friends. I had to compete with the loud music and the mirth of the bar, and I understood for the first time that the story I told had to be good—I understood in my guts what it meant to tell a story, and what it took to tell a story well. I became addicted to the exercise, and in my fiction, I began to discover my own voice.
What does the title of THE book mean?
We have a tree in Colombia, and much of South America, that we call Borrachero, or Drunken Tree in English. Indigenous people used to make a powder known as Burundanga from the tree. Burundanga is used to this day, and it has the eerie quality of making you highly susceptible, or of making you lose your free will and giving you short term memory loss. The tree and powder ground from this tree’s fruit have a central role in the book.
Why should people put Fruit of the Drunken Tree on their summer reading list?
2018 has been such a bright year for books! There are so many wonderful books to read this summer. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a story about a refugee family. We live in a time where we need to turn our attention and understand the plight of families who come searching for a better life in the U.S. Fruit of the Drunken Tree tells one such story.