Hopeless, depression, death, failure and regret are common themes running through Vida, a superlative collection of short stories from award-winning Miami-based writer and educator Patricia Engel. But Vida is not a downbeat slog – far from it. It’s a vibrant page-turner, full of life even when its subjects are losing theirs, and containing much humor (“How do you kill an Argentino? Make him stand on his ego and jump,” she writes in “Desaliento”) and vivid analogies (the Twin Towers “collapse like a deflated carnival castle” in “Refuge,” and in “Dia,” the title character “looks like life ran him over”).
Following one omnipresent narrator, Sabina, whose background mirrors Engel’s own, across nine stories from her formative youth through young adulthood, Engel crafts a portrait of a vulnerable soul who still believes in love, even when life experiences have battered one romantic relationship after another. The term “the voice of a generation” has become a cliché, but the sharply self-critical, brutally honest and utterly believable Sabina seems to inhabit this perspective, though she would surely reject it.
Engel’s debut novel, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, will be released in August by Grove Press. But first, Engel will discuss her life and work at Festival of the Arts Boca in March.
What will be the subject of your talk at the Festival?
I think it’s going to be a combination of things, talking about the writing life, the book itself, and a combination of a reading and a Q&A.
You and Sabina seem to share a very similar background. Are you her?
No. It’s a work of fiction. The similarities end there. Everything any person thinks or feels about the world has to do with what they’ve been exposed to, but in order to craft a story or a book, you have to give yourself permission to let the characters inhabit their own lives and dictate what their needs are. The roots of the book are in things that are important to me, but the characters themselves are entirely fictional and of their own design.
What is the impetus behind having this same character run through all of the stories?
I wanted a character that people could grow attached to, whether it was because they were fond of her or just because they felt they knew her and even disapproved of her life, and I felt the way that a person could come to understand another person is through observing them over an extended period of time. That’s why you get to see her from childhood up until she’s in her 30s. And I wanted people to really be able to witness the evolution of any individual, just as you would be able to witness the evolution of a close friend or a family member.
The story “Vida” is about a young woman sold into sex slavery. Where did the story behind her character come from?
It’s not an uncommon story, unfortunately. Even in rural areas, you come across stories of exploitation, of people in vulnerable positions, all the time. So I’d say her origins were in countless stories that I’d been told, or heard, or witnessed myself, and from there, the character of Vida was born. I’d say that she’s not based on one specific person, but rather many.
So many of your characters die or are dying in the course of your stories; is death something that you think about a lot?
Death is a part of everybody’s life; we’re all going to die. I’m always surprised by how people really want to avoid that fact and just shy away from the whole experience of illness and supporting someone else through illness. I would say you’re a very lucky person if you’ve managed to go through life without losing somebody. For me, it’s not something I seek to write about consciously. I think it’s quite natural, and to avoid it would be something artificial.
In “Madre Patria,” I found that one of themes is how disconnected Hispanic Americans are from the homeland of their parents and grandparents. They’ve become Americanized to the extent where their grandparents’ country is sort of like any other foreign place. Do you feel that is a problem among Hispanics in this country?
I don’t see it that way. I never felt estranged from Colombia. Or I’d have to say that if I felt estranged in Colombia, I felt equally estranged in my own country in the United States. So instead of feeling excluded, it’s about finding a place in two countries, and sometimes it takes time to arrive at that point. But it not only speaks to how one can never really know the country or the past that their parents have left behind; sometimes you don’t even know the lives they occupy here, within your own home. It’s not just about country – it’s about the secret lives we all have within ourselves.
Engel will speak at 4 p.m. March 10 at Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center. Tickets are $25 to $40 and will include a Q&A with the author. Call 561/368-8445 or visit festivaloftheartsboca.org.