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In her memoir, author Ingrid Rojas Contreras shares her family's mystical history

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The author Ingrid Rojas Contreras writes that even for Colombians, hers was a family surrounded by the strange. In her new memoir, that family story begins with her grandfather. He is "The Man Who Could Move Clouds," the title of this book. The man she called Nono lived in a dusty northern Colombian town where he always dressed head to toe in white.

INGRID ROJAS CONTRERAS: So the fact that he was always in this white pants and the suit and somehow kept it immaculately clean is always beautiful and surprising to me.

SHAPIRO: Nono had special abilities. People would hire him to ward off rain ahead of soccer matches or to banish ghosts. In Colombia, that didn't seem out of the ordinary.

CONTRERAS: If I told anybody that my grandfather was a curandero and that people said that he could move clouds, nobody was surprised by that.

SHAPIRO: A curandero is not exactly a fortune teller or a seer. Although Nono put the word homeopath on his business card, that's not quite it either. So I asked Ingrid Rojas Contreras how she defines the word.

CONTRERAS: I've thought about this endlessly. Curandero really means someone who heals. And the closest English word that I can come up with is medicine man - someone who, you know, can talk to the dead and has a lot of plant knowledge. A curandero sometimes heals through dreams. Yeah, so someone who can do all of those things.

SHAPIRO: Part of being a curandero, as you explain in the book, is telling stories. And so as I read this, I wondered whether being an author, a writer, a storyteller on the page is kind of a different version of being curandero.

CONTRERAS: I was thinking about that, too, as I was writing. I really loved learning about my grandfather and learning about one of the ways in which he healed had to do with listening to the stories that people told about their lives. When somebody would be in a stuck place, he would recast a story that he had heard back to them, but with alterations so that that person could, you know, potentially find an exit from the place that they were - felt stuck in. So I do think about how stories are maps of identity and are maps of what we've been through. And in that way, when we recast them or think about them in different ways, that they can provide healing for us.

SHAPIRO: There's this uncanny parallel where you and your mother each suffered a serious accident. Each of you experienced amnesia afterwards. She fell down a well. You were riding a bike when somebody opened their car door into your path. How do you understand those parallels between your two lives?

CONTRERAS: They're so eerie and so bizarre to me. And there's also a majestic element to them.

SHAPIRO: I love that word majestic. That's great.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. One of the things that I really loved about my mother's relationship to my grandfather was that there's stories that repeat with his life and her life. And once I learned that - or relearned as my memory came back - that my mother had also suffered amnesia, it felt like belonging to a story that takes generations to tell.

SHAPIRO: What surprised me most about the way you described the experience of being injured and going through amnesia was the joy you took in having no memories, just the pleasure of leaving all identity behind. Tell us about that.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. I just have this memory of being struck and hitting my head on the pavement. And the second that I just rose up from the ground, I felt a lightness that I've just never felt in my life before. Just freedom is the way that I can think to describe it. There was a moment where I didn't know really that I was in a body. And there was a moment where I was just pure experience. So I was seeing sunlight, and I was seeing wind, and there was a way in which I was also those things. And so it was just an incredible feeling of connection and a very stark sense of peace and, yeah, belonging.

SHAPIRO: There's a section of the book that I can't get out of my head where you describe being in your 20s and you write, I wrote from real life, and when northerners advised me it was fiction, I conceded that maybe it was. So others were categorizing your lived experience as magical realism. So could you describe that experience of living in a context where the magical feels routine and people tell you that your real life is fiction and this sort of disconnect, these rules that are imposed upon you?

CONTRERAS: When I came to the U.S., sometimes when I would share stories of my family, I would be corrected or I would be investigated. And I was writing those stories down. I was often told that it was fiction. And I think that there was something about being an immigrant and being new and feeling very uncertain and, you know, not knowing exactly where I stood in the country that I really felt that maybe I was wrong. It took many years for me to get out of that and to realize that that's a version of just trying to erase different worldviews. Once I realized that, I had so much energy and so much love for this story and just really wanted to do it justice.

SHAPIRO: You and I actually have something in common. My grandmother was a fortune teller who worked at carnivals. And when I was a kid, she taught me how to read cards. And like you, I started doing it for other kids at school. And like you, I abruptly stopped one day. What do you think we leave behind when we close that door?

CONTRERAS: I love that we share that. I don't know about what your experience was. When I was reading cards for kids at my school, it was very entrancing, and it was very fun and very diverting thing to do. And I think at some points, when you become good at readings, that people start to share their kind of deepest secret lives with you. And for me, I often felt that it was such a big responsibility. And I didn't feel that I was ready to meet that responsibility.

SHAPIRO: We were kids.

CONTRERAS: We were kids, yeah (laughter). I think that maybe what we leave behind is a notion of trying to know with a different part of ourselves or a notion of trying to see another person through a mechanism that allows us to tap into something else that is not quite our conscious mind.

SHAPIRO: Ingrid Rojas Contreras - her new memoir is "The Man Who Could Move Clouds." Thank you so much for talking with us.

CONTRERAS: Thank you so much. This was such a joy. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.