On Finishing a Memoir: Keep Growing Back
December 9, 2019 § 13 Comments
By Anika Fajardo
In the courtyard in my father’s house in Popayán, Colombia, grows a tree. Its pale branches challenge the brick walls and reach for the sky. The delicate petals of the yellow flowers bow over the hibiscus and impatiens in the garden below.
“I keep chopping it down,” my father told me as we stood in his garden looking at its leaves that brush against the broken bottles cemented to the top of courtyard wall meant to keep out intruders.
My father told me this tree is called the borrachero and if you speak Spanish, you’ll know that comes from the word drunken. Once, when the tree was in bloom, my father had inhaled the scent of the blossoms. He felt strange, not quite right, and went to bed with a headache. He slept for twenty-four hours, perhaps in a sleep as deep as the one in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The tree, he said, had poisoned him.
At the time he told me this story, I was eight years into the cycle of writing, revising, and submitting my memoir. I had been writing about getting to know the man who was my father but without whom I had grown up. I had revised and edited the stories about the city in which I had been born and my visit at age twenty-one to the village where Guambiano Indians chew coca leaves. I had been filling in the details about the baby carrier my parents had used to carry me on walks through the páramo before they divorced, before my mother brought me back to Minnesota. I had been rewriting the story of my marriage and birth of my daughter. For almost a decade, I had been writing about my father and this house with the borrachero tree in the courtyard.
The borrachero tree or Brugmansia, I learned later, is native to the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. The tree or shrub with yellow or white trumpet-shaped flowers contains a toxic substance called scopolamine, which can cause hallucinations, confusions, and even death.
Sometimes my memoir felt like that tree. Deadly. As I reworked it and rewrote it, twisting and turning the narrative and the themes, the whole thing would feel black, as if it emanated a noxious fume that filled me with doubt and despair and exhaustion. And yet. It was beautiful. There were turns of phrase that I loved, sentences that glistened with meaning and metaphor, chapters that tied themselves into neat bows.
“I keep chopping it down,” my father told me. I pictured him in work boots and thick leather gloves. Perhaps he wore a bandana around his mouth and nose to try to protect himself as he hacked the trunk. “But every time I cut it down,” he told me, “it grows back.”
It’s been two years since my last visit to Colombia. And now I think of my father’s story: the tree that cannot be destroyed. My desire, my wish, my need to finish and publish my memoir was like that tree. The pursuit of publication takes a frightening amount of determination and will. It defies all logic, that urge to put your words out into the world.
And now I look at the book that lies on my desk, the one with brightly colored flowers on its dust jacket. The one that tells the story of magical things happening in Colombia and in my life. My memoir.
And I realize you have to be like the borrachero tree—beautiful and powerful, growing back no matter how many times you’re cut down. Eventually, you just might reach over the barriers, touch the sky.
Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). Her middle-grade novel, What If a Fish, is slated for publication from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in summer 2020. A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis. Find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/anikawriter Or Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anikawriter/