Sunday, October 22, 2023

Q&A with Paula Ramón




Paula Ramón is the author of the new memoir Motherland. A Venezuelan journalist, she is a correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Los Angeles. The book was translated into English by Julia Sanches and Jennifer Shyue.


Q: Why did you decide to write Motherland, and what impact did it have on you to write it?


A: The opportunity came to me after writing a sort of essay focused on my day-to-day relationship with my mom while she was in Venezuela, and I was living abroad.


The initial idea was to do a longer version of that first article published in piauí magazine in Brazil. It was a diary format that was successful in putting a human face to the tragedy the country was facing.


But my mom died unexpectedly, soon after, and I suggested transforming this into a book about Venezuela and its contemporary history told through my mom’s life.


It took me some time to start writing because it was too painful. Back then, I couldn’t even look at the pictures or read old messages that we exchanged. It was like a fog wrapped every memory I had of our last years together.


The book became a way to channel my grief and sense of loss. It was a really difficult process that ultimately made me look at us with more compassion and that opened things in me that I thought were sealed forever.


Q: How would you describe your relationship with your family?


A: It is a difficult question, and I guess there is not a simple answer. I never had a good relationship with my brothers. During the worst years, it had ups and downs, but after my mom died, it languished for several reasons.


One of the things that the writing process gave me was the understanding that my parents made decisions influenced by the context in which they lived.


For us, when kids, it was clearly impossible to understand this in a rational way and, instead, we nurtured wounds that turned into grudges. As adults, the only way to come back from there was a lot of personal work that didn’t happen.


As a result, when the country’s situation tightened, everything became worse. But after my mom died, I felt that I didn’t need to keep trying. I just wanted to let things go without blaming anyone, I only wanted to stop fighting to keep something alive that fell dead a long time ago.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It was Luiz Schwarcz’s idea. Luiz Schwarcz is the founder of Companhia das Letras, the publishing house in Brazil that gave me the opportunity to write the book. He came up with this title almost at the beginning of the writing process, and I remember that I cried the first time that I read it. It made sense, it summarized everything I had lost.


Q: What do you think your memoir says about the concept of home?


A: Roots were something important to me when I was a kid. Of course, I didn’t quite understand back then what having roots meant, but I knew that my parents were not from the same place I was and that had implications: I never met my dad’s family or visited his homeland back then, for example. To visit all of my mom's family, we needed to travel to another state.


I spoke differently and kids made fun of me at school, where my nickname was chosen precisely because I sounded different.


In a way, Motherland is about this effort of finding and keeping a home. My dad tried, my mom tried, I tried, we all tried, and it seemed that we had it, momentarily.


Somehow the home we created is a happy memory. And by accepting that, there is no way of going back. In our need to belong, we ultimately decided that home is wherever we found happiness.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I work as a correspondent for Agence France Presse (AFP) in Los Angeles. I’ve been a journalist for a little over two decades and Motherland was my first attempt to write outside media outlets.


In my spare time, I am trying as a personal project to write about my dad’s history, most of which remains unknown to me. He died when I was 12 years old and for many years, he remained frozen in my memory as this man larger than life that I admired and loved.


But writing Motherland made it possible for me to look back, and it fueled a need for knowing more about him.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Venezuela has been in the news for two decades now. Headlines about political changes, coup d’etats, migration figures, sanctions, you name it. But for millions of us, life has changed in a way that sometimes is difficult to accept.


I am one of the lucky ones, I guess, because I have a job, food, a roof, but there are things that I can’t have back. Things that are forever broken, and each one of us has their story.


The crisis in Venezuela sent millions of people away, and no one would leave their country just because. That was also something that I tried to convey with Motherland: to give perspective about what fueled millions of migrants abroad.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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