First look: Ingrid Rojas Contreras wrote a memoir about ghosts and family secrets
Ingrid Rojas Contreras burst onto the literary scene in 2019 with her acclaimed debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Trees, about a young girl growing up in Pablo Escobar's Colombia. For her next book, she's turning her sights on her own life. Contreras' memoir The Man Who Could Move Clouds will hit shelves this summer, and EW has all the exclusive details. First, the official synopsis:
EW can also review the memoir's cover and an excerpt from the first chapter:
Excerpt from The Man Who Could Move Clouds, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
They say the accident that left me with temporary amnesia is my inheritance. No house or piece of land or chest of letters, just a few weeks of oblivion.
Mami had temporary amnesia as well, except: where she was eight years old , I was twenty-three. Where she fell down an empty well, I crashed my bicycle into an opening car door. Where she nearly bled to death in Ocaña, Colombia, in darkness, thirty feet below the earth, I got to my feet seemingly unharmed and wandered around Chicago on a sunny winter afternoon. Where she didn't know who she was for eight months, I couldn't remember who I was for eight weeks.
They say the amnesias were a door to gifts we were supposed to have, which Mami's father, Nono, neglected to pass.
Nono was a curandero. His gifts were instructions for talking to the dead, telling the future, healing the ill, and moving the clouds. We were a brown people, mestizo. European men had arrived on the continent and violated indigenous women, and that was our origin: neither Native or Spanish, but a wound. We called the gifts secrets. In the mountains of Santander, the fathers had passed the secrets to the sons, who passed the secrets to the sons, who passed the secrets to the sons. But none of his sons, Nono said, had the testículos required to be a real curandero. Only Mami, strong-willed, unafraid, more of a man than most men in his eyes, whom he liked to call mi animal de monte, could have housed the gifts. But Mami was a woman, and such things were forbidden. If a woman came to possess the secrets, it was said that misfortune would soon follow.
Yet, as eight-year-old Mami recovered from her injuries after falling down the well, and as her memories returned, it so happened that, from wherever her mind had gone, she brought back the ability to see ghosts and hear disembodied voices.
The family says Mami was destined for the secrets, and since Nono couldn't teach them to her, the secrets had come directly to her.
Four decades later, when I suffered my accident and lost my memory, the family was thrilled. Tías poured drinks, told one another with an air of festivity: There it goes again! The snake biting its own tail!
And then they waited to see how, exactly, the secrets would manifest in me.
This is a story that happens in Spanish, where Mami and the tías call each other vos, the archaic thou, but they use tú with me, the informal, tender "you." Theirs is the way of speaking in Ocaña, where our family is from, and where language can sound like a colonial fossil. In Spanish, our stories are slow then fast, and we cackle, constantly.
Mami and I are spooked by the way our lives echo each other's, so we don't often discuss our amnesias. But, increasingly, this is an itch I must scratch. I scrape and scald at its touch, only to want to probe into it again.
The tías ask me to tell them what it was like to live without a memory. I focus on trying to communicate how surreal it was, how cinematic. The tías roll their eyes at me, but they do so while looking at one another, like I am a bad television show they are watching and can safely comment on. Such a gringa this one, no? What they really want to know is what I dreamt.
For Mami and for me, during our bouts of amnesia, our waking lives were punctuated by a constant state of confusion—but our dreams were grounding. Mami's dreams were sequential, and in her dreams she was a ghost. In mine, I had no body, and as I say this to the tías out loud, I realize: I, too, believed I was a ghost.
We have a word in Spanish for the walking of the dead—desandar. To un-walk. To walk until the walking is worn thin, to walk until the walking undoes even itself. That ghosts have a particular way of walking is an idea we inherited from the settlers who invaded the continent, but what is intrinsically ours is the sense of porosity, an understanding that we live between the real and unreal, and that often they are one and the same. So, to us, the living go on ghost walks too.
The Indigenous peoples of the state of Santander, where both my parents are from, dreamt of the beasts they were to hunt the following day. At daybreak, they left and looked for their dream sight.
Dreams are important for us too.
Forty-three years apart, during each of our amnesias, Mami and I dreamt of banishment.
Mami was a village ghost. The villagers of the place where she was stuck spoke a language she did not recognize but could nonetheless understand. They worshipped her corpse, unrotting and fragrant, and therefore miraculous.
I haunted a horizon of ocean where sometimes the waves withdrew, abandoning the land, and bared the seafloor. Sometimes the land glitched and the ocean was suddenly replaced, as if it had never gone. The waves shuddered then, coughing up lava and smoke, birthing islands.
When Nono was treating an illness, he asked his dreams to guide him to the herbs he needed, and when he roused from sleep, he hiked until the landscape matched his vision, and there he gathered the medicine. When Mami was a ghost in the dream village where she was stuck, she practiced communicating with the living, and once she recovered her memory and became grounded in her waking life, she knew how to speak to the dead. I observed land being born in my dreams, and, awake, I studied with attention as the self I was becoming created itself.
I wonder if—since my life echoes Mami's, which in turn echoes Nono's—all of us are on the same ghost walk, retracing and undoing one another's lives.