The Backstory: Ingrid Rojas Contreras

There’s an amazing moment in Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s new story, when an immigration judge decides an asylum case from the phone in her sunroom: “Her face puckered in attention as she listened for what seemed to be mere minutes; then, she’d speak. A single pronouncement—that’s all it took to undo a life.”

And yet the enthralling power of Murder Mystery is not in the judgment-by-phone, but in the news that crackles and explodes outside, almost unbeknownst to the judge and her dinner guests. Looting in the street. Social unrest. Sweeping new immigration rules that could dramatically reshape who gets to come to America and who gets pushed back out.

And then there’s the pinprick details in Rojas Contreras’s writing: the hair gel that smells like hand sanitizer. The widow pivoting to sex work. The metallic streamers that grin. “We interrogated each other. Everyone had a motive, but not everyone had the cold blood of a killer,” she writes. The story is a murder mystery, after all.

Below, Rojas Contreras discusses how the story came to be and what she's working on next.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Interviewed by Tyler Cabot. July 13, 2020. San Francisco, California

Chronicles of Now: Why the murder mystery? What made you go there with that?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras: I’m South American and I grew up in Colombia, and whenever we have an issue with somebody there’s always going to be a very kind of public, dramatic fight. I grew up seeing so many of those that when I moved to the United States and just saw that people here don’t really make scenes, you know that’s not a thing. It’s become something that I’m really interested in, the way that when something goes wrong in a relationship—and in the case of “Murder Mystery” it’s like a mother-in-law relationship—that the pressure is to not upset the peace in the house. Or the pressure is to not say anything or name anything. I had the idea of playing a game as a peacemaking type of gesture that would eventually cave in on itself and have that moment be where a truth is spoken, but it’s maybe not comfortable to say and not comfortable to hear. You’re trying to find out who the killer is in the story at the same time the character is trying to figure out who is to blame for this whole situation.

CON: The hair gel that smells like hand sanitizer, the mascara mustache, where did all these amazing details come from?

IRC: I played a very similar murder dinner mystery game and I think there was something really funny to me at the time about everyone kind of scrambling to make up their character and just trying to costume yourself with whoever your role was. Everything was just a little funny and you’re just using the things that are around. In this case it might have been what would be in this immigration judge’s home and what would be kind of the limits that would set up that costuming. You know that gel that smells like hand sanitizer? I think I just smelled it at a gas station and it’s just always been a really funny object. So sometimes when I’m going about my daily life, I will file away objects that are funny to me that I’d like someday to include in a story.

CON: What drew you to writing a story inspired by the new immigration rules? 

IRC: I’ve been following the way that legal language has encroached upon people who are migrating and trying to seek asylum or even just trying to find a way to stay in the country. And at some point, I had a green card, and I think that’s the first moment that I started to become really interested in the language, just having to fill out these documents where I’m being called an “alien.” And I went from being a “non-resident alien” to a “resident alien.” The language is so fascinating to me. And when you kind of talk to people who are in law, it seems very normal to them. They don’t necessarily see the violence that words like those can carry. So as a writer, I’ve always just wanted to question it or just even keep track of how this state is changing our language.

You’re trying to find out who the killer is in the story at the same time the character is trying to figure out who is to blame for this whole situation.

CON: Can you tell me how you prepared to write the story?

IRC: On Twitter, I found a lawyer who detailed how the word “persecution” was being changed. And then I just fell into a rabbit hole and read most of the proposal. I started thinking about what it would be like to have a pending asylum case right now. What the judges would be doing. I spent a long time trying to figure out what point of view I wanted to take. And in the end, I decided on someone who was observing but not part of the process.

CON: You moved to the U.S. for journalism school. Why did you switch to fiction?

IRC: When I started journalism school, I thought I would find a subject to write about that was really interesting. I loved doing the research and interviews and gathering information. But when I got home and it was time to write up the article, all I wanted to do was to write a fiction based on what I had learned. So pretty quickly I figured out that I could make a living through translation and then I started to study creative writing. But I have such respect for journalists and what they do. The way I approach fiction I think was informed by what I learned about journalism because I love doing research and I love interviewing people.

CON: So how different was your preparation for this story than it would be for a different story you’re working on?

IRC: I think probably the part that’s different is the distance. Typically, I wouldn’t write about something that I’m living through or that we are living through as a country. I would wait probably a few years before approaching so that I could work through the emotions of what an experience is, otherwise I feel limited in what I can write about. But I didn’t feel that way about this story, so maybe that’s just a fear that I have that I should not listen to all the time. Also, I didn’t want to get any information wrong for this. It felt like an opportunity to hold up a mirror to the moment, which made it feel extra urgent.

CON: Can you tell me about the memoir you’re working on?

IRC: Yeah. It’s a family story and it starts with my grandfather who was a curandero, which means a faith healer. He came from a lineage of people who could move clouds but also knew a lot about herbs, so kind of a doctor but also a faith healer. He was supposed to initiate one of his friends because that was our rule, but he didn’t like any of his friends for the profession, and he said that the only person he thought could do it was my mother. But since she was a woman it wasn’t allowed, and it was said that if a woman was initiated that something bad would happen, some kind of curse or some tragedy.

At some point when my mom was eight, she fell down an empty well and she lost her memory as a result of the fall. She was without a memory for eight months and when she came back she could hear and see ghosts. So my grandfather said that she was meant for the knowledge and that since he didn’t initiate her it had just come to her. So the memoir continues with my mother’s story, and then I had an accident in Chicago. I was on my bike and somebody opened their car door into the bike lane and I crashed into it so I lost my memory. My family got super-excited because they were like, “Oh, You’re gonna come back with some kind of gift.” But I didn’t come back with any kind of supernatural gift so they were kind of upset at me for somehow messing up the process.

So it’s this story of three generations. It’s about inheritance, the things you inherit, the things that you fail to inherit, and there’s a lot of magic in there, real magical stories.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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