Engel to be honored

Published 1:45 pm Friday, April 5, 2024

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 By Jes Simmons

Special to The K-V Dispatch

Longwood’s Dos Passos Award

Patricia Engel

Patricia Engel grew up in a Colombian family of storytellers and artists. 

“My grandmother had nine children but wrote for pleasure on her own limited time,” Engel said. “She completed several novels and volumes of memoirs and poetry, though she was never published. She was my first example of what it means to live a life dedicated to one’s art, and pursuing the discipline of writing for the pure pleasure of it.” 

Her grandmother’s influence was a profound inheritance.

To date, Engel has written three acclaimed novels and two collections of short stories. Vida, her 2010 collection of short stories, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Fiction Award and brought her distinction as the first woman to receive the Colombian Narrative Library Award, aka: Columbia’s national book award. Her first novel It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris received the International Latino Book Award in 2013. Two novels followed: The Veins of the Ocean and Infinite Country — a New York Times bestseller in 2021. A Faraway World: Stories came out in 2023 and was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Engel’s work has also appeared in many notable literary journals from the Atlantic to Zyzzyva.


How does this involve Farmville? On Dec. 4, Longwood University named Engel as the winner of the 42nd Dos Passos Prize for Literature, the “oldest literary award given by a Virginia college or university, which honors one of America’s most talented but underappreciated writers.” Engel will visit Longwood’s campus on April 10 to accept her award (including honorarium and medallion) in person, and the public is invited. Engel is a professor at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, a research university with some 19,000 students from all over the world.

In The Veins of the Ocean, the main character Reina Castillo acknowledges, “we’re a family of all sorts of inheritances.” For Engel, the idea of those inheritances “exists in all family lines, be it material, emotional, spiritual, or experiential. Sometimes it runs so deep we are not even aware of it.” 

“There is no greater human stage than relationships and we can’t really understand who we are until we are placed in complex situations with other people,” she adds. 

Engel’s characters — whether from Bogata, Havana, Miami, New Jersey, Paris, or the Florida Keys — face the displacement and dislocation that comes with being seen as “other,” as well as the ensuing challenges of not fitting in, of facing borders and barriers in their many forms. Engel is deeply touched by “the idea that we can suffer and be so sacrificial in our lives and even feel such monumental joy, and at the end of everything, proof of our life may be entirely erased or forgotten.” Her narrator Reina numbly states, “I am my only witness.” As readers, though, we become her witnesses.


Within Engel’s characters lies a deeply identifiable shared humanity. Her stories and novels don’t have truly happy endings or even real endings at all. Instead, these often gritty and gripping stories and novels usually end with the main characters carrying on with their lives, like Reina, being not happily ever after but wiser ever after and facing mostly raw and real beginnings, who deeply understands that “suffering means you’re still living.” 

Every character in Engel’s work leaves you feeling like you’ve known them for your entire life, such as Tía Paloma in Vida, whose voice “carried more than an accent, constantly cracking as if a thousand years of tears slept under every breath.” Engel’s prose often melds into the poetic, as on the first page of Infinite Country, where we meet girls in a reform school prison: “At night, in the blackness of their dormitory, they gathered to whisper in shards of windowpane moonlight.”

“Everything Patricia Engel writes is lit up from the inside with beauty and power,” said last year’s Dos Passos winner Carolina De Robertis. 

Residents can come and share in that light, beauty, and power at Longwood’s Dos Passos Award ceremony on Wed., April 10, at 7 p.m. in the Soza Ballroom of The Upchurch University Center, where Engel will read from her work, followed by a short ceremony, a Q&A and a book-signing.