Infinite Country, Patricia Engel’s heartbreaking fourth novel, opens with an unforgettable sentence: “It was her idea to tie up the nun.” In Engel’s gripping first chapter, a teenage girl makes a high-octane escape from a Catholic reform school in the misty mountains of Colombia, setting in motion her treacherous hitchhike to Bogotá, where she has a plane to catch. The plane will take teenage Talia to the United States, where her mother, Elena, and her older siblings, Karina and Nando, live in New Jersey. Talia is set to reunite with her family after a lifetime of long-distance love on different continents, which began when Elena made the impossible choice to send her American-born infant daughter back to Colombia, following the deportation of the family patriarch, Mauro.
Engel’s sweeping novel gives voice to three generations of this mixed-status Colombian family, torn apart by man-made borders. When Elena and Mauro move to the United States with their newborn, then decide to overstay their visas, the cruelty of deportation sunders their growing family, but never their bonds. Gorgeously woven through with Andean myths and the bitter hardships of living undocumented, Infinite Country tells a breathtaking story of the unimaginable prices paid for a better life, while reckoning with the complex interior world of immigration, from profound questions of identity to the daily pain of longing for a home to which one might never return. Engel spoke with Esquire about immigration narratives, the intricacies of transdiaspora, and the failure of man-made borders.
Esquire: Where did this novel begin for you, and how did it take shape over time?
Patricia Engel: It’s hard to say, because it’s a story that’s much like the story of so many families and people that I’ve known and loved over the course of my life. I’m the daughter of Colombian immigrants. My community has always been one of immigrants from various places. I’ve always known and loved people who have been challenged and touched by the complications of immigration laws year after year, all my life. This is a story that I could say was waiting to be written over the entire course of my life, but I didn’t sit down to begin drafting it until about three years ago. I think that’s simply because some stories take longer to construct themselves in a writer’s mind—to reveal themselves, how they’re going to be told, and the voices and the characters that will emerge.
ESQ: The novel opens unforgettably with Talia’s high-octane escape from reform school. All of these characters are very powerfully sketched, but in a unique way, Talia operates as the center of the novel. So much of the book turns around this fulcrum of her travels. Will she get where she’s going? What will it be like when she gets there? She also occupies the unique place of having a foot in both of the novel’s words. What about her was so powerful and interesting to you? Why does she animate so much of this novel?
PE: I’m always drawn to really badass young women characters. I think they’re so fun to write. I was a very different kind of 15-year-old myself, so inhabiting somebody like that is fun and challenging; it’s an adventure all its own as a writer. But the way that Talia specifically came me was that many years ago, when I was working on a different book, I read an article about a group of adolescent girls who escaped from a juvenile detention center in the mountains of Columbia. I didn’t know anything else. What they were there for; what their motives were; what happens to them; if they were found or if they just disappeared. I was really taken by that. These young, powerful, and bold girls were able to break out of a prison facility. That stayed with me until it converged with the story of the family in Infinite Country.
ESQ: So much of Mauro and Elena’s…