To conjure up her memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, Ingrid Rojas Contreras embarked on a ghostly journey of reconnection.
On one level, she returned to her native Colombia where she helped unearth her grandfather’s remains—metaphorically and literally. Nono was a curandero, a shaman, or a homeopath, as his business card said. Turns out the spectral gifts he passed down to his daughter, Ingrid’s mom, were common among the natives for centuries, but were abhorred by the Catholic colonizers. Even after he died, people continued to leave requests for him to grant miracles, so it became time to disinter his body, which served as a launching pad for the rest of the memoir.
Against the historical backdrop of guerrilla violence and colonial erasure, Rojas Contreras’s years-long journey to rediscover her ancestry included oral histories, interviews and research in Colombia. Collectively, the work wove a poetic and embroidered tapestry of stories, ghostly and concrete, one which quickly smothered any possibility of a linear, Western memoir structure.
“I started to think of structure as simply a guiding question,” Rojas Contreras says. “I think of books as technologies that are asking a very complicated question and then they’re wrestling with that question, and then at the end of the book, you come to some sort of answer. And sometimes the answer is that there is no answer, right? Sometimes we end where we begin.”
There is also memory, in all its dimensions. Ingrid’s mom made tremendous use of her spectral gifts, the maturation of which, we learn, was inseparable from the self-reconstruction she employed after suffering a spell of amnesia at a young age, following a traumatic fall down a well. What’s more, after Ingrid left Colombia and arrived in Chicago to attend college, she had a bicycle accident that led to an eerily similar spell of amnesia, mirroring her mother’s experiences.
As the book reflects and refracts these concepts back onto themselves, various stories, images and metaphors appear and reappear, augmenting each other in haunting fashion. It’s almost as if Rojas Contreras uses language to show itself as an inadequate representation of experience. Instead of magical realism, it’s magical poststructuralism.
All of which, we learn, becomes inseparable from another question guiding the book: What can we do with the remains of colonialism? The apparatus of empire delineates borders around everything, carving up not just geographical territory, but also the very thinking of the natives, establishing rigid distinctions between history and legend, between “legitimate” religion and indigenous spirituality, between oral history and folklore, between subjective and objective experience.
The book depicts the author’s journey navigating various routes straight through those borders—literally and metaphorically—to re-orchestrate the colonial residue, establishing a gorgeously fractured hall of mirrors, where the cracks not only allow the light to get in, but also allow it to come out. It is, in my view, a holy process.
To some, the experiences of curanderos, healers or those who dispatch ghost stories down through the generations might not be acceptable in a nonfiction memoir. These gray areas are often too much for western culture to handle. Rojas Contreras feels otherwise.
“To me, that’s just such a much more interesting area of our lived experience,” she says. “And I think that other cultures are much more comfortable with that gray area. And for a lot of us, we live in that gray area, right? We’re just very comfortable with things living there, in that place that is resisting a firm definition of fact or fiction.”
As a memoir, everything in the book is based on memory, interview or research. The process of writing mirrored the process of unearthing her family histories and sorting it all out—in life and on the page. Life, art, death and memory—plus physical and spiritual bodies—all remain inseparable from the remains of each other.
In that sense, The Man Who Could Move Clouds is not just a memoir. It’s a toolbox of creative processes, a nonlinear textbook for writing through trauma, and maybe even a travel guide to the dangerous underbelly of Colombia.
“It was just incredible, incredible work,” Rojas Contreras says. “I’ve never had that much fun as a writer.”
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