In her first memoir, Ingrid Rojas Contreras performs a delicate balancing act of history, memory, and myth. The Man Who Could Move Clouds begins with an echo. On a winter day in Chicago, a biking Ingrid crashes into a car door and suffers from temporary amnesia in the aftermath. The accident is eerily similar to one decades before, when her mother lost her memories after tumbling down a well in Ocaña, Colombia. When her mother’s memory returned, she also gained the ability to see ghosts and hear disembodied voices. Their family rejoiced and feared her new gifts, recognizing them as the same talents possessed by her father Nono—a curandero who could heal the ailing, divine futures, and move clouds.
After her own accident, Ingrid wanders back home and tells no one of her forgetting, privately enjoying the peace her amnesia grants her: “…it wasn’t the terrible thing she implied, but actually the best thing that had happened to me. I was boundlessly rich in loss.” She pantomimes knowledge of her life while her memory slowly returns. But, unlike her mother, she recovers without any notable powers to speak of. Instead, five years after she’s regained the stories of her own life and her family’s, she’s struck by the urge to write them all down.
Her mother becomes furious at the idea of revealing the secrets of their gifts. In an argument, she threatens to never speak to Ingrid again if she chooses to share them with the world. That night, Ingrid goes to bed with the hand-mirror her mother once used to heal her own amnesia beneath her pillow. Whether by its magic or not, she sees Nono in a dream. “I fear he is there to tell me he doesn’t want his story told, just as Mami has done; instead, he takes my hand, and immediately we are transported to Bucaramanga, Colombia… we are in the back garden and he is pointing down the hill to a glittering river, and I hear him clearly as he says, This is the scene.”
Portals abound across the pages. Her mother’s well serves as a passage into the space between reality and un-reality. Mirrors become paths tread by both Ingrid and her mother to return to their memoried selves. Dreams are accepted as a “burrow of the great beyond.” So when Ingrid wakes and finds that her family’s reported similar dreams of Nono requesting to be disinterred, it is only logical for them to take up the quest to share their story, and return to Colombia to lay Nono to rest once more.
In the same way, Ingrid the author acts as our portal to a legacy that extends far beyond her own. Readers are carried across time to the colonial histories of Colombia, its myths, and the spaces where it is difficult to distinguish the two. The reader will find that these distinctions hardly matter. In the Contreras family, all stories begin by asserting their truth: “Other people’s stories began, Once upon a time. Mami’s began, Once, in real life.” Ingrid takes up the mantle of this tradition, asserting early on, “Not once upon a time, but once in a specific time, in a real place…” One might be forgiven for reading this as a request to give her the benefit of the doubt as she shares tales rife with curses, witches, and ghosts. This is a work of nonfiction, after all. But in reading on, it becomes clear that Ingrid is not presenting us with a plea, but a declaration.
It would be a flattening to place The Man Who Could Move Clouds in the realm of magical realism. The memoir is not a spectacle of the fantastic so much as it is a call for the reader to reconsider and expand their notions of reality, to recognize the multitude of fictions we tell ourselves and deem to be real.
In a lesson on divination, Mami tells a young Ingrid, “You have to tell a story that will allow the client to experience the truth without your ever having to name it.” Through this lens, readers will become skeptical of Ingrid’s claim that she didn’t inherit her family’s gifts. With sweeping research and tender lyricism, Ingrid masterfully succeeds in divining a story that sits at the edges of reality, luxuriating in its truth whether you accept it or not.
The Man Who Could Move Clouds can be purchased from Penguin Random House for $30.00.