Sundial Book Club's September pick: Patricia Engel’s novel, ‘Infinite Country’
A story about a young Colombian woman's immigration experience and the realities many immigrants face as they wait years for relatives to join them in the United States.
Talia is a young woman planning a daring escape from a correctional facility in the mountains of Colombia. She has to get to Bogotá in time or miss her opportunity to reunite with her family in the United States.
This is how the new novel “Infinite Country” by Patricia Engel begins. Engel is a New York Times bestselling author and an associate professor at the University of Miami. She’s also half Colombian.
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“Infinite Country” is our Sundial Book Club for September, and it dives into topics of family separation and the immigrant experience.
You can join the book club here.
WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Engel about the book and her own experience being a daughter of Colombian immigrants.
Below are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.
WLRN: So much of this story is from Talia's point of view. Tell me a little bit about her family.
ENGEL: Two teenagers, Elena and Mauro. You follow them as they fall in love, and they're full of passion and desire. And Mauro, perhaps a little bit more than Elena, has big dreams of getting out of Colombia and seeing what else is out there. They have a young baby by that time named Katrina. So, they end up in Texas on tourist visas, and because life is complicated and unexpected — things happen.
Elena finds herself pregnant, and so they make the decision to overstay their visas. But they never have this idea that they're immigrating and they're becoming immigrants. They just have the idea, “We're going to stay a little bit longer and a little bit longer.”
Mauro is arrested and deported, and they are separated. Elena makes the very difficult decision to stay in the United States to take care of their children at least for the time being. Fifteen years pass since this family was separated, and so you watch them through that trajectory of how a family remains a family across time and distance and separation and so much uncertainty just hoping for when they can be together again.
We see what's happening at the Mexico border. When you see the news, when you see those kinds of stories, how does your book play in the context of this moment?
I think about it all the time. Imagine if we had the kind of crisis here, perhaps a war broke out on Florida soil. Perhaps we had a famine in Florida or something, some sort of disaster where people wanted to leave Florida, go to the neighboring states, perhaps pursue opportunities there to provide for their children for themselves so they don't die.
Imagine those states said, “No, you can't come here. Sorry, Georgia does not want you. Alabama doesn't want you. We don't want Floridians taking our jobs. Floridians bring diseases. They only cause problems. We don't have enough to go around, and Florida people should just stay where they are.” Then you start to see how absurd it really is and how unfair it is.
What was life like for you during the pandemic?
Well, I think similar to most people in the United States, my life was limited and quite isolated. The pandemic, interestingly, is the first time the average American got a sense of what it's like to be separated from your loved ones for special occasions, holidays and even for sad occasions like hospitalizations and deaths. Also to not be able to travel when you want to because as we know, it was the first time, at least in my memory, that the United States had borders closed. Most countries were not allowing Americans to come in. That's something that, of course, that a lot of immigrants live with year after year after year, the separation and also the limitations on your movement.
In my case, I became a mom, and my family was not able to meet my child until he was six months old. I spent it alone without visitors, and that was an interesting experience. But fortunately, I have my health and healthcare and many things for which to be grateful. I hope that we come out of this pandemic experience much more compassionate than we were before and realize what we have learned and apply it to other people.