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Each story in 'The Faraway World' features characters searching for something more

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Patricia Engel's new short story collection delves into the question of what if? It's called "The Faraway World," and each story features characters searching for something more in their lives. These are gritty, yet hopeful stories about the human condition, told largely through characters that are part of the Latin American diaspora. Engel says she wrote these 10 stories one by one over the last decade.

PATRICIA ENGEL: They came to me at very different points in my life when I was thinking about very different things. But of course, they are connected by this - the motivating force for change, desire and the ever-changing conditions of identity and movements and changing geography and landscape and diaspora. Those are things that I explore in all my writing, and it's something that I explore in my life. So of course, it permeates my stories.

FADEL: You start the collection with a story about twins who - whose mother really pushes on them that they are one.

ENGEL: The story that you're mentioning - "Aida" - is a story about two twin sisters, and one of them disappears. And the mother has always really encouraged their closeness, that very particular closeness of twins, and the father always pushed their individuality. And you get a sense of how that conflicting message comes up against them and how they perceive life and their relationships and roles and then what the disappearance of one of them does to the family unit. And that story came about because I was watching a true crime program once about a teenage girl who had gone missing. And I wasn't so interested in what happened to the girl but just the faces of the family members who were grappling with her absence. And it got me thinking about how so many family units really hinge on the efforts of one person in that family at times.

FADEL: Yeah. So many of your stories, they end - they're real gut punches. They're not long. They're short. But you end with a punch in the gut over all kinds of different things as people search for a better life, whether it's physical perfection, economic sovereignty, a better future for their children. But a lot of it eludes them. That seems to be a theme - or a central theme of the stories you're telling here.

ENGEL: Yeah. And it's - of course, that's - that's the nature of desire. Desire comes with risk, right? And you can't really create change without taking risks and launching yourself into the unknown. That's really what "The Faraway World" explores is going beyond what we know, whether it's our homeland, our community, our destiny, a specific relationship, and pushing beyond that and how that's a force for change and also really what keeps life in motion.

FADEL: There's one story called "Guapa." I think that's the word for - slang word for beautiful woman, right?

ENGEL: Yeah. It's also often a term of endearment.

FADEL: Now, this is a woman who has struggled with her weight her whole life, being called things like fat or, you know, that she could be pretty. She leaves Columbia for New York for what she hopes will be a better life. She spends a lot of it redesigning her own body. If you could talk about writing that story and what she represents.

ENGEL: Yeah. "Guapa's" a story about a woman who - really, she's more comfortable with herself than she lets on. And the messages she receives are very much external, starting from her mother and starting from infancy. So she begins to repackage herself, although she makes it very clear to the reader that her life hasn't really suffered due to her physical form. But she's constantly told that she could be better. She could be better. Whether it's for the male gaze or the female gaze, it's for some sort of external approval. And when she starts to acquire the means to change herself, she starts doing that with plastic surgery, which has become more and more accessible. This is something that has fascinated and horrified me at different times about the ways that the body is changed and how it's, you know, repurposed as a commodity. And our ownership of our body starts to change in a way as we start to accommodate it for other people's comfort and what we perceive will make them feel more comfortable with what we look like.

FADEL: There's something very devastating about that story that stuck with me - maybe as a woman - being told your whole life, like you said, what to look like and what to be like. And ultimately, the story ends on a difficult note. And she has to go back to Columbia. And she says all of this - I think it was her mother that tells her all of this for a life like that?

ENGEL: Yeah. She is a factory worker, and she's perfectly content. And she's also coming up against the idea that she is not successful enough. Her mother constantly judges her even before things start to change in her life, saying you should be further along. You've been there a long time. You should have things to show for it. So it's not just the expectations that come with the body, especially on women. But what does it mean when you embrace on an immigrant life and there are certain markers of success of the journey where you're arriving at some sense of progress or completion and how people monetize or place value on those different markers?

FADEL: The name - the title of the collection, "The Faraway World," after reading your stories, is the faraway world something unachievable?

ENGEL: I think each person has their own idea of what the faraway world signifies to them. It's funny. The title of this book, "The Faraway World," came late. And it wasn't a title that I had going on. It's not the title of any of the stories. It's actually something that I found written, scrawled on the back of a photograph my grandfather had taken before he left his native Austria. It was a photograph of the tomb of his mother and grandparents before he was leaving to Colombia, where he ended up settling and having - getting married and having nine children, one of whom was my father. And on the back of the card, it said this is goodbye from your beloved son who is about to leave for the faraway world. So that's something that really settled into my heart for a time. And as I put these stories together, I thought, well, we each have our faraway worlds that we'll get to one way or another.

FADEL: This place that you're going to or you don't know what will come - incredible. Patricia Engel - her short story collection is called "The Faraway World." Thank you so much for your time.

ENGEL: Thank you, Leila. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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