with Other Art
on creation, myth, and history
Timothy Edward Cech
Photo Credit: Elliot & Erick Jimenez
Timothy Edward Cech is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at San José State University. In 2019 he was selected as an Ernie Pyle Reporter of the Year by the Associated Collegiate Press.
On Thursday, October 28, 2021, author Patricia Engel appeared virtually at San José State University for the launch of Reed Magazine, Issue 154. Engel was the invited speaker of the Center for Literary Arts of San José, which sponsored the event.
The life and literary work of bestselling author Patricia Engel exists in a borderless landscape where everything is connected.
“The best way to feed art is with other art, and the best way to imagine characters and their lives is by having relationships and living life,” Engel explains. “I see creation and art in everyday life and find great inspiration and solace in nature. Research is in almost everything I do, and the only thing that really hinders writing is thinking one has it all figured out already.”
Engel’s most recent novel, Infinite Country, effects a feat of narrative ingenuity and misdirection at the book’s midpoint, where readers’ conception of the narrator is upended and reconfigured: the storyteller is revealed to be a peripheral character retroactively documenting her own family’s modern-day creation story. In drawing back this narrative curtain, Engel amends readers’ understanding of the novel’s organization and reveals a crucial dimension to our participation in the text: readers now understand that we, too, inhabit the same undefined space of diaspora as do the book’s central characters. In this transaction, we are transformed by the myth-telling, aware that we also occupy a fluid and migratory existence.
“Sometimes I think I have an idea of the form that a story will take, whether it will be a short story or a novel, but I am often wrong,” the author says. “So I have learned to listen to the story itself as it dictates its own needs.”
Born to Colombian parents in New Jersey, Engel was raised among an extended family of artists and storytellers, growing up with the stories her grandmother carried from the homeland. These tales, she explains, were rooted in Andean myth that were uncanny, miraculous, and, most significantly, centered in ancestral history: “I was raised on stories, as is very common in immigrant households, and is even more common among Colombian households. I see no difference in what some might consider ‘myth’ and what others call history, and the distant past or the recent past. It's all connected, and my writing navigates those overlapping topographies.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in French and Art History from New York University in 1999 and with a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction from Florida International University, Engel has forged a literary career that has gained traction through frequent publication of individual short stories, a short story cycle titled Vida, and the novels It's Not Love, It’s Just Paris and The Veins of the Ocean. Her work has earned prestigious accolades such as a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in literature, a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction, a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, a Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and an O. Henry Award. Published in 2021, Infinite Country was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Fiction and Dublin Literary Award, and it won the New American Voices Award as well as the Florida Book Award. A new collection of short stories titled The Faraway World is expected to be released in 2023.
A touchstone of Engel’s literature is the synthesis of folklore, familial history, and the artificial barriers constructed by human society. Her work suggests these borders are artificial, dehumanizing, arbitrary. Infinite Country, for example, explores how injustice, explicit and implicit, private and public, persists across space and time. Engel has described how myth and historical truth occupy the same space in human existence. From this vantage, ancestral knowledge is inclusive not only of creation stories, illustrations of societal customs, and humanity’s position in the grander scope of the universe, but also in how these stories are suffused in the lifeblood of often displaced communities.
“Storytelling is a mechanism that has allowed the human race to distinguish itself among other species and derive meaning in its efforts for survival,” she says. “My characters, like all people, are trying to do the same.”
Like migration, storytelling is a survival strategy common among human beings. Throughout Engel’s writing career, she has focused on interrogating the fallacy of borders and the demonization of human migration through counternarratives centered on the human necessity to seek safe harbor from nationalized cultures of violence.
Engel’s contributions to contemporary fiction serve to deepen empathy through structural experimentation even as they magnify the interconnectivity of the human experience. Her published work primarily focuses on intimate, character-driven narratives of individuals and communities living in diaspora, often exploring the fundamental conflict between manmade borders and the natural human imperative of migration.
A sense of longing advises Engel’s narrative style and fictional characters, and with each work her stories seek to make visible what the dominant culture treats as invisible—and to transform it into universally comprehensible, emotionally resonant tableaus in the process.
“In this way, art, as is also the case with the human experience, is always in flux and always worthy of description and understanding.”
Engel views the writing process as a continuous series of possible choices and potential turning points. She puts no stock in absolutes. Her philosophy on the writing process, she says, has “no code, no formula, and the answers to artistic questions are constantly changing depending on the story I hope to tell, or even how I perceive or experience life at any given time.”
With this approach, Engel herself has become a key chronicler, not only of the lives of her characters, of diaspora, but of the geography of the human condition—which, like physical space, has no borders.