Colombian American author Patricia Engel is the best-selling and award-winning author of three novels and two short story collections. Her latest, The Faraway World, is comprised of ten powerful short stories, with locations in Cuba, New York City, Miami, Ecuador, and Colombia. In the collection, Engel explores themes of exile, migration, and community, all to give voice to the Latin American diaspora with an honest and nuanced hand.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: When you first began your writing journey, what did you write about?
PATRICIA ENGEL: I always wrote for myself as a sort of self-companionship to entertain myself and explore ideas that I was interested in or just make meaning out of ordinary life for fun. I was really into writing letters and keeping journals until I went to college because, in those days, there was no emails. It’s so beautiful and it’s such an honest and true form of communication. It slows you down, it forces you to think about everything that you’re saying. I wish I had more time to write more letters, but I do love writing them and receiving them, and I always save them. But it wasn’t until much later that I started focusing on fiction as a craft.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Being Colombian, is Latinx representation important to you?
PATRICIA ENGEL: To me, it seems obvious and natural. Of course, representation is one of those concepts that is important, but I don’t write with any sort of agenda. I just write towards the truth, and the truth is that when I was coming up as a young reader, I did not see communities like mine reflected in contemporary American literature. It was like this big gaping hole. If you took literature as representative of the population of the country, the message was that we don’t exist. I’m sure I internalized that somehow, but really I write about the communities, the places, the people that inspire me, that excite me, that I want to honor in my work. That’s what I spend my time on.
I write about the communities, the places, the people that inspire me, that excite me, that I want to honor in my work. That’s what I spend my time on.Patricia Engel
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Does your writing process look different for novels versus short stories?
PATRICIA ENGEL: Yes and no. All of my stories are an exploration. It’s an ongoing exploration, and sometimes one story is exploring things or threats that were left over from another one. I begin a lot of work the same way, with a single image, a voice, a character, a phrase or sentence, a situation or circumstance. It comes from everywhere and it’s like a little laboratory for me, a way to work out ideas and discover new meanings. Then I write both inwardly and outwardly around that circumstance. The only difference I really see between short stories and the novel is the architecture. I place the same burdens on a short story that I place on the novel, which is ultimately you want to move a reader and create an experience from which the reader feels changed and affected and impacted in some way. I enjoy reading stories with depth and intensity, and that’s what I try to write, whether it be in a short or longer form.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: The Faraway World is your first short story collection in over a decade, and many of them were originally published in literary journals. What was the revision process like?
PATRICIA ENGEL: They went through a lot of editing one by one by one. They weren’t quite polished even before I made them a family of stories. There was a story that was not yet written, so for a while there were nine stories, but I knew that there was a tenth story coming. I didn’t know how or what it would be about, but I just knew that it was waiting to be completed. That was the last story to be published. Even though it sounds like I just whipped it up and wrote it, I was editing that story for two years before it was complete. So every story did its time in the revision process. This collection took so long to come to be.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do the birds on the cover symbolize to you?
PATRICIA ENGEL: All my work is really connected to the natural world. In some books, it’s more obvious than in others, like in Infinite Country. It is something that I explore in everything that I do, so I love that to be visible somehow on the cover when it’s possible. If you read The Faraway World closely enough, you’ll see that birds, appear in different stories in different ways. Birds have different meanings in different cultures and different belief systems. Some cultures believe that the birds are divine and that they can both touch the heavenly realm. I like that because I think that humans in one way or another have the same sort of grace. And I think that’s up to the reader who can extrapolate what they want from that.
When I was coming up as a young reader, I did not see communities like mine reflected in contemporary American literature. It was like this big gaping hole. If you took literature as representative of the population of the country, the message was that we don’t exist.Patricia Engel
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Do you find the writing process easier or is it different from each book?
PATRICIA ENGEL: What becomes easier is you learn your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll learn what works for you in terms of habits. But every book is new. Every book teaches you how to write. Sometimes what works for completing one book will not work for another. It happens very often that in the early part of writing a book or planning for it, you need to change your approach. Every work has a mind of its own and you have to learn it and what’s going to allow you to finish it.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What advice would you give to the next generation of writers?
PATRICIA ENGEL: Writing is a practice. For some people, it’s daily, for some people, it’s not. It’s whenever they can find the time. When you’re open to change and growth, then you become better, more honest, more authentic. We live in a society that has come to think of being intellectual as being sentimental, as a weakness, as if that erodes your ability to think critically or have a profound original thought. My advice would be to value your sensitivity, compassion, and vulnerability. Those are truths I’ve intuited early on, but it’s only become clearer to me over time. When you put the integrity of your work above anything else, then your work will become its own compass. That will allow you to create more weight and dimension in everything you do.