Most news stories on immigration focus on a snapshot in time — an imminent deportation or separation or a reprieve, the sum of a person’s life measured or scrutinized through one action.
But in Patricia Engel’s new novel, “Infinite Country,” (releasing March 2), what starts out with an almost cinematic beginning evolves into a quiet, poignant and realistic portrayal of an immigrant family’s life spanning decades and crossing two continents.
As the lives of three generations of a Colombian family unfold, one of the main characters asks herself a question as she reflects on her life in the United States. “What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy?”
In the novel, a young couple from Bogotá, Elena and Mauro, obtain a tourist visa to the U.S. They had not been personally threatened or at risk, though they lived against the backdrop of the violence and turmoil of 1990s Colombia and the struggle to ensure they could make ends meet.
Engel creates a nuanced portrayal of the balance between the characters’ choices, the events that happen to them and the reality of the U.S.’ shifting views — and laws — on immigrants and immigration, especially after events like the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Through the lives of Elena, Mauro, their children — one born in Colombia, two in the U.S. — and Elena’s mother in Colombia, Engel shows how there’s not just one event or choice that can explain how a person’s life unfolds and how one ends up where one does.
“What followed was an accumulation of days that bridged one life in one country to a second life in another one,” she writes.
“When you leave one country for another, nobody tells you years will bleed together like rain on newsprint,” a character reflects later in the novel.
Engel, an award-winning novelist who teaches creative writing at the University of Miami, said her aim in writing the novel was not driven by an agenda around the topic of immigration but about “serving the truth” about the characters.
“The accumulation of a life, it's really a series of choices, big and small,” she told NBC News. “Sometimes they're obvious, sometimes they're not."
“This is a family who defines themselves as they are,” Engel said. “And the book asks the question, really, how does a family remain a family through distance and time and uncertainty, and ever changing immigration laws?”
Engel’s parents immigrated from Colombia, and she was born in the U.S.
“I come from a very large, large family, that happened to be located — a lot of them — in the United States, but a lot of them had complicated immigration situations,” she said. “And a lot of people close to me, a lot of my dearest relationships, the people I love, most of those worlds, often were challenged by legal circumstances related to their, you know, paper status in this country.”
In the novel, readers experience the unfolding of the different characters’ lives through that “paper status.” Through the decades, the family grapples with the tangential effects of immigration issues: employer abuse, school bullying, the academic frustrations of a bright teen with limited choices, years that become decades of family separation, and children and parents separated by borders.
There's also the complex love of one's native country, with its flaws and its beauty, but always home. Here, Engel makes use of her extensive familiarity with Colombia to depict daily life against the backdrop of its geography, from the rain-soaked urban streets to stunning images of lakes and mountains, to the animals and the ancient myths around them.
Through it all, the “infinite country” is preserved through the bonds of a family’s love — and the struggle to keep that going.
“I think that's something that first- and second-generation families who are newly arrived in the United States feel in a very vivid way,” Engel said, “that when you've lost your homeland, or you are far from your homeland, and you're in an unfamiliar place — certainly I felt this growing up — that my family was my country, my family was my homeland, who we were in our home was different from the world outside the door.”
Ultimately, this experience is one that almost every single American family has gone through, whether it’s recent or in the distant past, Engel said, in a phone interview from her home in Miami.
“A lot of people in this country — except those who are from the Indigenous population — don't seem to remember,” Engel said, “there was somebody in their family, whether it was by choice, or by force, or just circumstance, or even accidentally, who was the person who created that rupture from their life in their homeland, to the new life in this country, and change the course of their family history forever.”
Through the lives of her characters, and through an ending that’s open to changing circumstances, Engel’s strength is in making readers gain a deeper understanding of the family histories behind recent headlines —as well as the country's past generations of immigrants.
“That night, I thought about how love comes paired with failures, apologies for deficiencies,” one of Elena and Mauro’s daughters reflects. “The only remedy is compassion.”