Author’s work explores the intricacies of immigration

Author Patricia Engel. Photo: Elliot & Erick Jimenez
By Barbara Gutierrez

Author Patricia Engel. Photo: Elliot & Erick Jimenez

Author’s work explores the intricacies of immigration

By Barbara Gutierrez
Associate Professor Patricia Engel’s latest book, “Infinite Country,” was picked as the March selection by Reese Witherspoon for her reading community, Reese’s Book Club.

As she was growing up, Patricia Engel remembers her paternal grandmother Lucía, the mother of nine children, writing everyday volumes and volumes of stories, poetry, and long letters to her family. Lucia’s work was never published but her devotion to writing was treated as a sacred act by everyone around her.

“It was from her that I learned to have a personal writing practice even if you don’t publish or share your work,” said Engel. “Just write for the love of the act of writing.”

That love and respect for writing has served Engel well. An associate professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami, she has published four books. Her recently published novel “Infinite Country” was chosen as the March pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club.  

“This story paints a picture of love through the lens of two generations of a Colombian family, whose journeys to America illuminate the realities of immigration, deportation, mixed-status, and the definition of home,” the actress said of the book.

The daughter of Colombian parents, Engel’s work is infused with the exploration of immigration and the diaspora. Many of her characters struggle with the pain of leaving their homeland and the travails and opportunities of life in the United States.

“Infinite Country” is not different. It “tells the story of a Colombian family fractured by immigration and deportation in a period of 20 or such years in late 1990s in Bogota and New Jersey,” Engel said. “It follows five people—two parents and three children—who have a collective experience of emigrating. But it also gets into each of their personal experience and their own private experience because they each occupy a different space in this spectrum of migratory status.” 

Engel, who was born in New Jersey, maintains dual citizenship and travels to Colombia frequently. “Infinite Country” is rich with cultural references and language of the motherland. It also explores the complex feelings that arise from leaving one’s country and family to start anew while trying to maintain ties to those left behind.

“Very often in media, immigration is portrayed as an action where you leave one place and you land in another,” said Engel. “It is treated as if the door closes behind you. In reality, it is much more nuanced.”

The author comes from a large family. Many came to the United States and others did not. Those in the U.S. had different immigration statuses. But one feeling that united them all was a longing for what was given up.

“Immigration is filled with longing, with homesickness, with doubt, with regret about wondering if you made the right choice,” said Engel. “It is a very heavy burden to be the person that leaves. It makes life different. It creates a fracture between your generation and the ones that will follow.”

In writing the novel, Engel wanted to create a family portrait based on many of the stories that she had heard in her community and in her countries. 

“Patricia Engel’s writing is controlled, specific, and genuine in its representation of immigrant families, all without losing any of its poetry,” said Chantel Acevedo, a colleague of Engel’s and director of the Creative Writing Program, who also is a well-known novelist.  

Engel is the author of three other works of fiction, including “The Veins of the Ocean,” which won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. “It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris” won the International Latino Book Award. And “Vida,” her first book, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Fiction Award and the Young Lions Fiction Award. It also won the Florida Book Award, International Latino Book Award, and Independent Publisher Book Award.