A Review of Ingrid Rojas Contreras' The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Amy Scheiner
Memoir is the recreation of memory on the page. In the 2022 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, author Ingrid Rojas Contreras confirms that “all stories begin and end with memory.” Yet on page one of this memoir, she reveals she has lost her memory. Readers and the author alike are left wondering where the truth lies in the absence of memory.
After a bicycle accident, Rojas Contreras has forgotten who she is and where she came from, but in her world this is not an obstacle. Rather, it is an opportunity. Rojas Contreras comes from a family of curanderos; her grandfather, “Nono,” and mother are healers from an indigenous ancestry in Colombia. They possess a gift of seeing what others can not, and of healing what others are unable to. However, their “gift,” as Rojas Contreras explains, is not always so giving.
Her lineage of curanderismo is met with resistance; first, from the colonial Spanish and the Catholic Church, and then from her own family. She writes: “Back then, I didn’t understand that their [her family’s] hate for us had historical dimensions, its colonialist bite.” The “colonialist bite,” as she deftly calls it, weaves in out of the story and her history.
For much of Rojas Contreras’s life, her mother instructed her to “stay hidden” from the public eye, since the consequences of revealing their abilities were a threat to their safety. Rojas Contreras understands that her mother’s “call for secrecy was shame.” They had been on the receiving end of the bite.
She writes in pursuit of the past—her own, her family’s, and her country’s—and questions the function of memory in both personal and political spheres. Rojas Contreras explores her amnesia not as a conflict to contend with, but as a gift:
As my memory returned, piece by piece, I grieved. If amnesia was weightless, then the opposite was true: Every path taken, every word said, every knowledge discovered, every emotion lived—all of it— came back to me with a manifest weight. The narrowing of a life is gravity. Memory is burden. I mourned every ounce of memory returned.
These burdens of memory are a heavy load on Rojas Contreras’s shoulders. The book unravels as an amnesiac would: jumping back and forth in time, following associations and clues until they lead her somewhere like her life before, but not quite there. Her discoveries redefine her as a woman “transformed by the exit and return.” Not unlike Alice’s passage down the rabbit hole, Rojas Contreras’s journey is one filled with confusion, pain, and hope. Her search for memory sheds light on her family’s history and the colonial history of her home country. She is the storyteller of a memory forgotten.
The journey begins when Rojas Contreras, her mother, and her aunts encounter a dream where Nono asks for his grave to be disinterred. After years of living in the United States, Rojas Contreras returns to Colombia, to unearth not only her grandfather’s remains, but also those of her past. Through her lyrical storytelling, she recounts the history of a country colonized, a country wiped of its memory. She examines a childhood faced with political upheaval as well as the everyday danger posed by FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and Pablo Escobar. She explores generational trauma through the lives of Nono and her mother, whose experiences incite Rojas Contreras to contemplate her own identity.
Rojas Contreras specifically looks to her mother for answers; she also had amnesia from falling down a well when she was a child. The comparison doesn’t end there; the author is often mistaken for her mother and the two are seen as “mirrors” of one other. The theme of reflection and duplication illuminates the surrealism and the mysticism of this memoir. But for readers seeking magical realism, Rojas Contreras is quick to point out that to her, there is nothing magical about this. This is her reality.
Throughout her journey back to Colombia to disinter her grandfather, Rojas Contreras comes to terms with her identity: “I lost the impulse to hide that I was a brown woman born of a brown woman born of a poor man who said he had the power to move clouds.” The Man Who Could Move Clouds is as much an acceptance of identity as it is an exploration, for what is identity without memory?
The question of memory in memoir draws readers into an uncomfortable conversation: Can we call it fact without loyalty to truth? Can we call call it truth without memory? Perhaps this is not the right question to ask.
The author skillfully reexamines her own work through her mother, whom she writes about with love and honor. “The biggest thing I have learned all these years is that nobody wants the truth, but everyone wants a story,” her mother says. In The Man Who Could Move Clouds, Ingrid Rojas Contreras reveals the power of a memory lost and a memory found, and most importantly leaves us with a story to savor.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is an award-winning author who was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Guernica, and Huffington Post, among others. She has been a fellow at Bread Loaf Writer's Conference and the San Francisco Writer's Grotto, and has received scholarships and support from VONA, Hedgebrook, The Camargo Foundation, Djerassi Artist Residency Program, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture. She is the book columnist for KQED, the Bay Area's NPR affiliate. She has taught at Stanford University, the University of San Francisco, and currently teaches writing to immigrant high school students as part of a San Francisco Arts Commission initiative bringing artists into public schools.
Amy Scheiner's writing has been featured in Slate, Blue Mesa Review, The Southhampton Review, and Longreads. She is currently seeking representation for her memoir.