Adriana Páramo came to the Fairfield low-residency MFA Faculty this past winter 2016 residency as a guest writer, and after that we decided we had to have her on the faculty. Lucky for us, she accepted, and we are thrilled to welcome her.
A cultural anthropologist, writer and women’s rights advocate, Páramo is the author of Looking for Esperanza: The Story of a Mother, a Child Lost, and Why They Matter to Us, winner of the 2011 Benu Press Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction. Páramo immersed herself in the world of undocumented women toiling in the Florida fields to explore the story of an immigrant mother who walked the desert from Mexico to the U.S. Páramo is also the author of a memoir, My Mother’s Funeral, in which she recreates her Colombian mother’s life in order to understand her own.
I asked Adriana a few questions about her work-in-progress, her teaching, and the writing life:
What part of your own writing process is essential to your teaching? What have you learned from writing that you feel is always important to share with students?
I write about things that matter to me, things that make me feel like I have my fingers on the pulse of life. Writing about what’s dear to my heart—women, social justice and travel—gives my writing a very personal meaning. I think it’s important that you write about things that matter to you, because when you do, there is no dithering about your voice, your writing has “heart,” and you are more likely to arouse emotion (empathy or otherwise).
Of course this comes with a challenge: Once you decide that you want to write about the loss of a beloved one, or disease, or complex relationships, or your pet, you need to control the narrative in a way that’s compelling without being melodramatic, a narrative laden with sentiment without being sentimental.
What have you been working on in the past few months, and what’s your current challenge as far as the writing goes?
I’m working on multicultural notions of female virginity and the symbolic value of the hymen. It sounds high-brow, but it’s not. What I want to do is a vast, multicultural exploration of how women lose their virginities in their cultures, the intrinsic value of their hymen and the taboos surrounding women’s “first times.”
The challenge is to turn, what I fully expect to be, anthropological research and field work data into a soft narrative that’s appealing, compelling, marketable and fresh.
Can you share a story about sharing your work with readers/viewers that helps keep you going?
I was the special guest at a 250-women gathering here in Doha, Qatar, where I currently live. The women were warm, receptive, and patiently lined up to have my books autographed. So far so good, right? After the meeting I was approached by a lovely Egyptian woman who invited me to speak at the book club to which she belonged. I accepted the invitation and two weeks later I had the opportunity to sit and chat with the book club members: two very aggressive South Africans who couldn’t understand why I had wasted so much time looking for an “illegal” woman and who vehemently refused to call her “undocumented” after I explained the difference; an English woman who was puzzled by the fact that the undocumented women returned to Mexico after all their tragic border crossings into the USA. When I told her that they had gone back to visit their children, she said: couldn’t they just bring their children over for holidays? They have Disney and Universal Studios in Florida. There was also a shy American woman, who looked mortified but made no contributions to the meeting and the Egyptian hostess, who kept bringing snacks to the table whenever the conversation got heated, which was pretty much the whole time.
Long story short, they weren’t sympathetic to the women I wrote about. They perceived me as a good doer with too much free time on my hands and showed little respect for my writing. I had the option to stand up and leave, but I decided to stay and learn what’s like to have your work smeared and stepped on. And I’m glad I did.
I learned that as a social writer I need to be extremely humble. No matter how dear the cause is to my heart, or how much passion I pour onto the page, there will always be those who don’t care about what I write, why I write it, or the lives of the people involved in the process.
But then again, I compare these five women in the book club to the 250 in the auditorium and I know I can use my words to convey a message, I know I can do it. That keeps me going.
If you’re interested in studying with Adriana, please check out the Fairfield MFA program for more information!