Memory is already a slippery thing. And when it’s tangled in family lore and embedded in a country’s violent history, it can prove even more elusive. When Ingrid Rojas Contreras was in her 20s, living far away from her native Colombia, she suffered a head injury and became a terrified amnesiac. Desperate to retrieve her memory and understand the dreams and ghosts that plagued her, she set out for her family’s hometown of Ocaña, Colombia, to find the facts of her family’s history. (Mami heckled her daughter’s use of the word facts: “Can you believe the girl is going to Ocaña to look for facts? To Ocaña! In a family like ours? With the quality of our stories?”)
In Rojas Contreras’ enthralling memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, she finds the historical and genealogical facts she’s looking for, but the stories her family reveals are far more powerful. In fact, they are magical, especially those involving Mami and her father, Nono, who could move clouds “for farmers who needed rain.”
In a dream Rojas Contreras had—the same dream her Mami and two aunts also had—her dead grandfather, Nono, made it clear to her that he wanted his remains disinterred, and so the author’s journey from Chicago to Colombia began. Nono was known as a curandero, or homeopath. He was sought after as a healer and feared as a mystic, endowed with “secrets” such as communing with the dead and foreseeing the future. When Mami fell—or was pushed—down a well as a child, he saved her life, and she seemed to inherit his powers. Rojas Contreras’ head injury also left her with “secrets,” such as the ability to appear in two places at the same time. In her large Colombian family, none of these skills seemed strange, though some members saw them as blessings and others feared them as a curse.
Rojas Contreras’ acclaimed first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, introduced the fraught landscape of Colombia in the late 20th century, when assassins and kidnappers thrived while parents struggled to keep their children safe. Now, in her deftly woven memoir, she makes this history more immediate and personal, with prose that in itself is enchantingly poetic.