A Thwarted Child Kidnapping Inspired 'Fruit Of The Drunken Tree'

Jul 28, 2018

Growing up as a child in Bogotá, Ingrid Rojas Contreras was almost the victim of a terrible crime. Violence reigned in Colombia under drug lord Pablo Escobar — bombings, kidnappings and assassinations were commonplace. Contreras didn't know it at the time, but her mother was receiving threatening phone calls detailing the routines of her daughters' lives: "They got off the bus at this hour. We know what the bus route is. We know what they look like."

Contreras and her sister weren't kidnapped — and this story of what didn't happen has inspired her first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree. This Colombian coming of age story — two stories, reallytells the saga of sisters Chula and Cassandra, growing up in a gated community in Bogotá, and Petrona, a teenager from the city's slums who comes to live with their family as a maid.


Interview Highlights

On the real-life person Petrona is based on

Because [my mother] grew up in poverty she always wanted to help girls that she saw were stuck in their situations. She would bring them in and they would become part of our lives. One of these girls was a girl that the character Petrona is based on.

She was threatened into acting against our family ... but she didn't go through with it. And that act of incredible kindness and compassion is something that didn't leave me for many years. And when I finally sat down to write I just kept returning to that story and I kept returning to my indebtedness for that act of kindness.

On what it was like to live in Colombia in the '80s and '90s

There was a duality in the country I think — it's incredibly beautiful. We have an amazing array of weathers. We have hot climate ... we have jungle, we have the coast and we have all these hilly, beautiful villages where there's coffee plants everywhere. And yet ... it was a time when violence was just a common part of our lives. We saw it on the television, and it happened to us, or it happened to people that we knew.

On the way violence seeps into the lives of children

[Cassandra] has this habit of sitting in front of the television and chewing the limbs of the Barbies. ... They're left with this box of Barbies that have decapitated limbs and ... they interpret this as ... they are working for the guerrillas. ... These limbless Barbies are part of the war.

On the way Petrona was trapped

Petrona's story is something that feels very urgent for me to make known. It's this idea that not all people who joined the guerrillas or who join a violent group in Colombia are people who join wholeheartedly. So in Petrona's case, she is someone who becomes trapped into it. She is someone who is placed in a family and can be instrumental to the guerrillas in carrying out a kidnapping, and so for that reason she is cornered and she's taken into it — but she is not a willing participant.

On what happened to the real-life Petrona

I do know, but I do want to respect her privacy. I will say that she did suffer personal consequences for what she didn't do. ... I haven't talked to her since it happened. She called my family a few months ... after the event took place and she told my mother everything. She told my mother what she had gone through and we did everything that we could for her at the time.

On teaching writing to immigrant high school students in San Francisco

They're all in between languages — just like I am — and I teach them how to tell stories. We write poems and they write about their experiences, their journeys and their family histories. ... I just feel honored to be there with them and to be a person in their lives. ... As a writer I just know that when we tell our stories and when immigrants tell their stories that it can be very healing and it can be very grounding and it can give you a sense of power and empowerment. ... I love being able to facilitate their stories.

Sophia Boyd and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ingrid Rojas Contreras was almost the victim of a terrible crime when she was a child. Instead, this event that didn't happen inspires her first novel, a coming-of-age story in Colombia of the 1990s. Two stories really - 7-year-old Chula and her older sister Cassandra, who live in a gated community in Bogota, protected from the threat of car bombs, kidnappings and assassinations in the time of Pablo Escobar and the drug lords; and then the story of Petrona, a slightly older young girl from the city's slums who comes to live with their family as a maid.

The novel is "Fruit Of The Drunken Tree." And Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is a book columnist from member station KQED, joins us from their studios in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

INGRID ROJAS CONTRERAS: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's such an honor.

SIMON: Tell us what didn't happen when you were a youngster in Colombia.

CONTRERAS: What didn't happen was that my sister and I were not kidnapped.

SIMON: But you were - to understand, you were apparently targeted for that, right?

CONTRERAS: Yeah, that's right. We had received kidnapping threats. And I was young at the time, and my mother was a very strong woman. And she continues to be a strong woman.

And she would receive these phone calls to our home, detailing my sister and my schedule. So detailing they get off the bus at this hour, we know what the bus route is, we know what they look like. It would just be these voices that she would have to deal with constantly, and she didn't let us know at the time.

And later, there was - my mother, because she grew up in poverty, she always wanted to help girls that she saw were stuck in their situations. And she would bring them in, and they would become part of our lives. One of these girls was a girl that the character Petrona is based on. And she was threatened into acting against our family.

SIMON: But didn't go through with it.

CONTRERAS: But she didn't go through with it. And that act of incredible kindness and compassion is something that didn't leave me for many years. And when I finally sat down to write, I just kept returning to that story. And I kept returning to my indebtedness for that act of kindness.

SIMON: If I might put it this way, is this the novel you had to write before you could write anything else?

CONTRERAS: I would agree with that wholeheartedly. When I wrote it, the country just emerged out of the words. The fog of Bogota and what it was like to live amidst all that violence in the time of Pablo Escobar, it all rose up from the page, and it was alive in a way that my other writing at the time was not.

SIMON: Help us try and get hold of what it was like. I mean, I happened to check just recently. Colombia has become a tourist destination - great food, nice beaches, beautiful churches and artwork. But what was it like to live there in the 1990s?

CONTRERAS: It's incredibly beautiful. We have an amazing array of weathers. We have a hot climate, and we have jungle. We have the coast, and we have all these hilly, beautiful villages where there's coffee plants everywhere.

And yet at the '90s and in the '80s, it was a time when violence was just a common part of our lives. And we saw it on the television, and it happened to us or it happened to people that we knew. And so that was also part of our lives. And I think that it was an inspiration, too, when writing this novel - that duality of living somewhere very beautiful and living somewhere where violence is riding underneath the surface.

SIMON: Can we appreciate some of the forces in life that pull on Petrona?

CONTRERAS: Yeah, of course we can. Petrona's story is something that feels very urgent for me to make known. And it's this idea that not all people who joined the guerrillas or who join a violent group in Colombia are people who join wholeheartedly.

So in Petrona's case, she is someone who becomes trapped into it. And she is someone who is placed in a family and can be instrumental to the guerrillas in carrying out a kidnapping. And so, for that reason, she is cornered and she is taken in into it. But she is not a willing participant of that.

SIMON: Do you have any idea what happened to the real-life Petrona?

CONTRERAS: I do know, but I do want to respect her privacy. I will say that she did suffer personal consequences for what she didn't do.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. How is she today?

CONTRERAS: You know, I haven't talked to her since it happened. She called my family a few months, let's say, after the event took place. And she told my mother everything. She told my mother what she had gone through. And we did everything that we could for her at the time. And we - that was the last time that I talked to her. I do - I wonder where she is now, and I wonder how her life turned out. And I think, in writing this book, it was a way for me to answer to that.

SIMON: You - I gather you teach writing to immigrant high school students in San Francisco.

CONTRERAS: Yes, I do. They are a wonderful group of ninth and 10th graders that I was working with last year, and they're all in between languages - just like I am. And I, you know, teach them how to tell stories. And we write poems, and they write about their experiences, their journeys and their family histories.

SIMON: Oh, my word, there must be lots of really good stories.

CONTRERAS: Yeah, their stories are very incredible. And I - every time that I go, I just feel honored to be there with them and to be a person in their lives who is deeply interested in what they've gone through. And as a writer, I just know that when we tell our stories and when immigrants tell their stories, that it can be very healing, and it can be very grounding. And it can give you a sense of power and empowerment. So I love going there, and I love being able to facilitate their stories.

SIMON: Ingrid Rojas Contreras - her new novel, "Fruit Of The Drunken Tree." Thanks so much for being with us.

CONTRERAS: Oh, thank you so much, Scott.

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