One of the longest running programs of The San Francisco Foundation, the Joseph Henry Jackson, James D. Phelan, and Mary Tanenbaum Literary Awards has been recognizing Bay Area literary artists since 1935. Past winners include Raymond Carver (1971), Dagoberto Gilb (1984), and Dorianne Laux (1987).
This year, we were pleased to share this honor with seven emerging writers. In anticipation of their reading on November 13, we interviewed a few awardees about their craft. The fourth installment features writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras, a Colombian writer whose work has been said to be a significant undertaking in archiving and giving voice to these fleeting histories while also building a complex narrative of the diaspora. Currently, she is working on a non-fiction book about her grandfather, a medicine man who could move clouds.
Excerpt from All Good Science Fiction Begins This Way
When I see Jeremiah arrive, I run to him. Jeremiah throws his bicycle on the ground and sprints toward me. I hurl myself in his arms so he cannot see me cry. But I am crying and he can hear me and he is petting my hair. Sh, sh, it’s all going to be ok. There, standing in the middle of the street, the world whirring around us, my head finds a nook under his shoulder. It is a perfect nook. The feeling of my head fitting into this nook makes me breathless it is so perfect. And as I feel this incredible familiarity, my arms under his arms, his hand on my head, his scent of sage and sun, the nook for my head, I realize that my body, at least, remembers who he is.
EG: How did you start writing, and how did you get to where you are today?
IRC: Writing became essential the year I turned thirteen and my family and I left Colombia for the first time. We moved to Venezuela, and even though I was surrounded by my native tongue, I felt like an outsider. I wrote to understand what was happening to us, and I did so in English because it felt fitting to me to write in a language that—by nature of it being a second language—communicated estrangement. Because English was a language my parents did not know it was a tongue I thereafter associated with freedom. I still write from the desire to dissect my own experience. It’s the only way for me to exist deeply in the world, so I have doggedly kept at it. A dogged nature can take you anywhere in life if you’re patient enough.
EG: How has being a writer in the Bay Area influenced your work?
IRC: I love writing in San Francisco. I find the sheer impossibility of the landscape—the broken grid, the rolling fog, the slow buses—to be in some way in conversation with creativity. There is a lot of talent in the Bay, and I have been influenced by the art I see in the city. We are also lucky to have two literary giants in our midst, Dave Eggers and Rebecca Solnit, who constantly break down what living in the Bay Area means. It’s inspiring to see through their eyes and follow their work. Reminders of the literary abound in the city—if you ever ride a cable car, for example, think of Maya Angelou whose first job was cable car conductor. Her car rode from the beach to the Ferry Building.
EG: What inspires you? Where do you find inspiration?
IRC: I find inspiration in books, and sometimes in late night conversations—that magic hour when people allow themselves to be vulnerable and tell secretive things. Immigration is also a source of inspiration, as is the inner confrontation between cultural attitudes and language. My mother is the greatest storyteller I know and I call her to hear a story when I feel my well has run dry. She reminds me of the power of story, the reasons why we do it, and I always learn a thing or two about craft from her.
EG: How has receiving this award impacted your creative practice?
IRC: I am very grateful to The San Francisco Foundation for making it possible for me to dedicate more time to my writing and also for providing a platform for engagement. As an emerging writer, there’s no other feeling like receiving support from your city and cementing your role as an artist in your community.
EG: What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
IRC: Reading has helped me in finding my voice, so I would say: read a lot, read for yourself, and read curiously. It’s also important to look both in yourself and in your surroundings for stories that nobody but you could tell, because these are the stories that will be the most powerful.
That is why I get in a taxi with him, why I hold his hand, why I don’t walk away, why I marry him even though I am a bruised bride, my brain still slow and slosh, black silk trailing behind me on the floor hiding everything from view—because even though my mind cannot recall every moment we have shared, my body remember