I really wanted to know what it was like to be dead but nobody would tell me.Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Fruit of The Drunken Tree
Fruit of the Drunken Tree does not end well. It’s a really bad ending but the kind of bad ending that sits in your stomach like a heavy meal you didn’t like.
But of course, there’s nothing nice about war and conflict and deep emotional vulnerability. And I didn’t know how much of that was stewing in my psyche until I read this book.
Fruit of The Drunken Tree is about a comfortable family of four living in Bogota, Colombia in the 90’s; a time of instability and violence. Chula Santiago, the main protagonist is nine and lives with her strong-headed mother Alma and her older sister Cassandra. Their father works long hard hours and only sees them some weekends. The story really starts with the mother’s search for a new maid/nanny to help around the house. She soon employs Petrona or as she is commonly referred to in the beginning, The Girl Petrona, who’s prolonged silences and awkwardness deems her a mosquita muerta in the eyes of Alma. The family’s idyllic existence (whatever that can mean in such a dysfunctional society) begins to crumble as the violence that ravaged through Colombia begins inching its way into their lives in what I see as two distinct ways: first, externally because a car bomb is sure to find itself outside your window and second through The Girl Petrona and her suspicious, not-really-a-guerilla-but-basically-a-guerilla-by-association boyfriend. It is a double-edged sword for people from the invasiones because it is just as dangerous to have affiliations with any such groups, than to have none at all.
The Santiagos wade through their lives struggling to survive and uphold their values but must ultimately leave what they know and love to do just that. It’s a story almost as old as time. But why does it feel so haunting?
I said in an earlier post that I felt very much like the Santiagos. My immediate family is a family of four and I have just one older sister. We are not as far from relative or even absolute poverty as it might seem; so just like the Santiagos I feel like just about anything could topple our “idyllic” livelihood. Poverty sits around us and the very spaces we occupy stink of disenfranchisement. It’s bled all through our family history and clings like the algae on our walls. Like Chula, I had my own way of framing and processing things; hanging in the balance of being sheltered and accepting a warped sense of normal that would shock any Western organization. Plus, the fractured society I grew up in is no different from Chula’s and we both burrowed through what we could to nestle in some sort of safety.
Maybe we both were hiding.
But just like in Fruit of The Drunken Tree, neither of us can hide. Car bombs, murdered politicians, kidnappings, extortion, drought. These are things that block out the sun and force their way into their lives. These are the things they cannot escape from and even while they resettle in America (and slide down the social hierarchy as a result) their identity refuses to let them forget. Cassandra, like any good immigrant child, throws herself dutifully into her work but a piece of her and a piece of the family is missing.
A story as old as time.
But what about those who can only dream of respite? The Petronas of the world? I’ve known them. By any other them I’ve known them. They have been Mary, Justina, Juliet, Damilola; girls all like Petrona who stopped being little girls long ago. And they are still there, lying in wait for even a sliver of an opportunity because all they have is hope and even that is more than they can afford sometimes.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras reminds us in simple terms of the vulnerability inside of us, of the difficult choices there are to make and that the are people beneath these shells. And that little girls should just be little girls.