Adriana Páramo is a cultural anthropologist, writer and women’s rights advocate. She is the author of Looking for Esperanza and “My Mother’s Funeral.” She teaches creative writing in the low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University and is an alumna of the travel writing workshop of VONA—Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation—a community of writers of color. At present, she writes from Qatar where, oddly enough, she works as a zumba and yoga instructor.
At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer? What or who inspired you?
From the moment I learned to write up to middle school, my mother was my muse. I wrote her rhyming poem after rhyming poem. In my teens, I discovered the left, communism, Marx. I became socially aware, developed a heartfelt desire to right all the wrongs in my country, and along with this deep social conscience came a dangerously blind faith in anything anti-establishment. I wrote fervent diary entries, incendiary manifestos that my fourteen-year-old mind deemed extremely progressive but which were empty rhetoric, big words I had learned from my leftist friends and then regurgitated on paper. A few years ago, I stumbled upon a heap of them (I keep everything) and surprisingly enough they weren’t too bad coming from a very confused teenaged girl.
Can you please talk about how your efforts as a women’s rights advocate influence/infiltrate your work. Did you ever feel hesitant or intimidated about putting your voice out there?
One of my sisters is a retired social worker. Back in the 80s, I worked on her thesis collecting data at a landfill in Medellin, Colombia. It was my first exposure to a subculture of hunger, despair, and social invisibility. It was also the first time I interviewed families, most of which were fatherless and led by desperate women rummaging through the city’s garbage day in and day out, fighting for survival. My sister’s thesis was the first women’s rights advocacy project I worked on. Then life happened. College, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, single parenting, and a soul-crushing corporate job, all of which left me room to advocate for nobody but myself and my baby girl. After turning 30, I moved to Kuwait and it was there where I had the opportunity to work with two opposite ends of the social spectrum: my wealthy students at the private all-girls school where I taught, and the invisible, underprivileged, voiceless immigrant women recruited from India to work in the emirate as maids. This field work became my doctoral dissertation, then a collection of essays, then a manuscript. Years later, I had a similar experience with undocumented workers in Florida, and now that I live and work in the Middle East, the stories keep presenting themselves to me.
Your essay “Milk, Oil and a Night of Tequila”, which appears in our current print issue, is extremely well written and powerful. How many years after the actual events you write about did you begin the work, and what was that like? Did you know, even then when you were living the experience—living and working with all men and with the threat of possibly being raped—that you would one day in the future write about what happened? Did eventually writing about it…did the work…change you in any way?
The answer to your initial question is thirty years; that’s how long it took me to write about my experience at the rig site. Not because I needed three decades to muster the courage to share the events with anyone, but because I never thought the events were worth writing about.
The answer to the second question is no, I didn’t know that I would one day write about what happened. I was fighting for survival, trying to make it to the big leagues, so that my daughter wouldn’t have to live through the same agonizing nights as her mom. I had no spare capacity to see the experience as “interesting” or as good material for a personal narrative. I lived through it and made it to the other side, somehow, unscathed. Then, I moved on, forgot about him (I can’t even remember his name), left the oil industry, then Colombia and never looked back. Until the recent #MeToo movement stirred my personal cauldron of memories.
Can you talk about your writing process in general. What works for you? Do you have writing rituals?
I have, rather than simply a writing routine, a daily routine. I wake up around six. I read from six to eight, have breakfast, and go to a studio where I work as a fitness instructor. I teach Latin Fitness, Zumba, and different levels of yoga in the morning. I finish at noon, go home, cook lunch, and write from 3-5, before leaving the house again to teach an evening yoga class. Because I have only a couple of hours to write, I turn social media off, talk to no one, and try to stay as focused as possible. Focused doesn’t necessarily mean writing. Focused sometimes means staring at the screen trying to figure out how to transpose memories and thoughts into written words that matter to anyone other than me. Before I write a word, I do a lot of mulling. I spend days that turn into weeks that turn into months shaping and reshaping a story in my head. Usually, when I sit down to write, the story has been cooking in my head for a long time and it’s ready to be birthed. I write a rough draft and sometimes I show it to my daughter, who is an excellent critic and editor. If the story doesn’t work, she lets me know without a qualm. However, because I live abroad and don’t have a community of writers to share my work with, I write alone, let my gut dictate when to stop revising, and hope it works.
In addition to your essays, you’ve also authored two book length memoirs: Looking for Esperanza (which I read an excerpt from and was immediately drawn in), and My Mother’s Funeral. How does your process differ when approaching an essay vs. a book length work? Do you prefer one vs. the other?
Both books are collections of personal stories. Each chapter is a standalone, an individual narrative/essay that could be placed anywhere in the book and still make sense. Having said that, My Mother’s Funeral has a rhythm that Looking for Esperanza doesn’t: In the former, the past is told in standalone chapters that move the story chronologically, but the linearity of the narrative is interrupted by chapters in the present dealing with my mother’s death, her funeral, grief, and being an orphan. This habit of approaching a book-length work as a collection of essays is, of course, a stylistic personal choice, not an ideal process.
Can you talk a little more in depth about the process of writing Looking for Esperanza?
I embarked on a personal journey to track down a Mexican woman after reading about her in a Florida newspaper. All I knew was that her name was Esperanza, was desperately poor, and had crossed the border to the United States on foot with her four children. I also knew that when her young daughter died of dehydration halfway through their desert journey, she tried to smuggle her dead body into the USA. That was it. I didn’t intend to write a book when I started my search for Esperanza. I guess that being an immigrant, a woman, and a mother myself, created a gnawing connection that was hard to ignore. All I ever wanted to achieve, was to find her. But there were so many Esperanzas, so many poor, immigrant mothers crossing the border with identical dreams and similar compelling stories, that by the time I found Esperanza, I had, unknowingly, taken an oral X-Ray of their subculture. I had amassed too many testimonies, seen too many tears, shared with them too many hours in the fields, for me just to go home and forget about them.
Looking for Esperanza chronicles my fieldwork with undocumented farmworkers and the anonymous voices of the women I encountered while looking for the mother in the story.
What advice would you give to a writer just starting out in creative nonfiction/memoir? What advice would you give a female writer just starting out?
My first recommendation would be: be disciplined. Make writing a job, something that you do routinely whether you feel like writing or not. Allocate a daily/weekly block of time for nothing but writing. Turn off the wifi, the cell phone, the TV and everything else, and write. Set reasonable goals and deadlines (this story needs to be ready by —/—/—) and get to it. First, write without judging, without editing. Just write that first, rough draft exactly as it comes out from the confines of your brain and heart, then, gather all the self-compassion you have within you and start revising. Share the work with someone whose objectivity you can count on (that eliminates partners, friends, lovers, and parents) and listen to what they have to say. Go back to square one and revise, rewrite, rethink.
These are difficult times for women. If you are a woman writer, assume that your skill is a gift that comes with a responsibility tag. Understand that this is not a good time to be silent. Chances are, your story is another woman’s story; what happened to you has also happened to other women; what you have the skill to express into words mirrors the trials and tribulations of other women’s lives. Being able to write, to create a bridge between your heart and that of a stranger is nothing short of a miracle. It is a privilege and a gift. Don’t squander it.
In your thought-provoking essay “Mi Piel Morena and I went to England“—a Solstice Editor’s Pick—you write: “Not talking about it and not writing about it did not make it go away.” I know lots of writers have an “it” that they feel intimidated about exploring (self included). What would you tell them?
Yes, I believe we all have an “it,” an itch we can’t quite scratch. It could serve many purposes. It could be seen as an invitation to explore (self and others), to carefully examine, dissect and understand its layers (everybody’s it has many layers of complexity), to re-evaluate our levels of comfort (what’s acceptable and what’s not), to set boundaries to protect the self, and to make long-lasting, life-changing decisions. We need to write about “it” because in doing so, we give it context, legitimize it, and make it part of a larger social order.
Easier said than done, I know. But writers have the responsibility to transcend the self, to reach out to strangers and create a sense of community so neither the writer nor the reader have to be alone. Truths are complicated. And I say truths, because your perception of the it, whatever this might be, can potentially be very different from mine, and regardless of how opposite these views are, neither can be or should be discarded. In the end, you feel what you feel and you translate your feelings and thoughts, the way you experience life, onto the paper. This is why writing about the it is so subversive. We subvert silence, the fear of making waves, of using too much space, of being too vocal, too loud, too emotional. We subvert the notion that we need to keep our discomfort to ourselves to ensure the comfort of others. It is only when we write about the “it” that we understand the true sacred nature of the written word and its ability to create public discourse, identify and name microaggressions, and ultimately empower the readers to examine their emotional, political and intellectual itches, so to speak. This is a good time for writers to identify their itch and scratch it. Hard.
Writing essays or memoir about family can be a minefield. What advice would you give to writers facing this task?
My personal understanding of family is deeply rooted in love and respect. I have five siblings and a daughter, they understand that although we may have different recollections of the same incident, how I experienced, dealt with, and stored that moment in my head, are personal processes that belong to no one but me. They love me and the respect they express for my work is just a natural byproduct of the love we learned to nurture at home. That’s what we were taught families do: support one another even in moments of great disagreement.
Writers with complicated family issues spend months or years standing in front of a door they long to open and enter. Behind this door, there are, not only warm, happy, comforting stories, but also childhood traumas, pain, violence, betrayal, a lifetime of disassociation and coping mechanisms, despair, alienation and loneliness. They can either leave the door closed and allow the poison of silence to become disease or bitterness or cruelty or indifference; or they can blow the door open, call things by their names, detox, hold people accountable for their actions, and honor the truth.
Excellent reads about complicated family dynamics: Half the House by Richard Hoffman, Hunger by Roxane Gay, What my Mother and I don’t Talk About by Michele Filgate, and Darkroom by Jill Christman, among many others.