my mother’s funeral – an interview with adriana páramo

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One of the books I read while we were at my mom’s cabin over break was Adriana Páramo’s engrossing new memoir, My Mother’s Funeral. It shifts in time between Páramo’s mother’s funeral in present-day Colombia and Páramo’s childhood in Bogotá and Medellín with a mother who was fierce, protective, and domineering—a force in the lives of her six children. Páramo transported me from small-town Colombia of the 1950’s to the tenements of 1970’s Bogotá to the middle-class existence of Medellín in the 1980’s and finally to the United States, where Páramo settles, looking for a better life her own daughter. This is a story of loss and love. It’s about the power of family and inextricable bond between mothers and daughters. And ultimately it’s a story of grief powerful enough to fragment memory, history, experience.  Páramo delves into memory and ends up exploring not only the history of one family, but also that of a country and culture.

I interviewed Adriana last year about her first book, Looking for Esperanza, and she agreed to come back and to discuss My Mother’s Funeral with me. Welcome, Adriana!

KH:  In sections of My Mother’s Funeral you write about your mother’s life before you were born. It’s clear that she told these stories over and over again to your and your siblings when you were growing up, and I loved the way you brought this part of her story to life through your writing. How did it feel to inhabit these parts of her story as you wrote? Can you talk a little about that process?

AP: The task of recreating scenes and dialogues I did not witness was daunting, to say the least. I feared that I would turn an ordinary life—my mother’s—into something extraordinary, or worse yet, an extraordinary journey into something mundane. It took a careful, calculated balance not to fall in either trap. At least, I hope I didn’t.

I would love to say something romantic about the process of re-creating my mother’s life, something like, Oh the story wrote itself down, or I didn’t even know what was going to make it into the book until it jumped before my eyes, or really, I didn’t choose the stories, but my mother. Na-ah. None of the above. I usually have very few surprises during the writing process, and this book was no exception. I had a clear idea of how I wanted the book to read—what parts of my recollections I wanted to share, and which corners of our lives would resonate with anyone other than family members—way before I wrote down the first paragraph. It’s a terrible habit, at best, and a progress-crushing factor, at worst. I cogitate for months, constantly arranging and rearranging images and phrases in my head, and only when I seem to know the story by heart, I start to write.

KH: Wow. That’s amazing. I don’t think I’d ever get anything down on the page that way, but maybe I’m too distractible.

You alternate between “present” day sections that include you hearing about your mother’s death and making the trek to Colombia for her funeral and sections of your mother’s young life and your life with her growing up. How did you settle on this as the structure for the book?

AP: Family sagas are highly subjective, highly exclusive, highly insular, and therefore, highly uninteresting to outsiders. Family sagas also tend to be linear, a narrative structure I did not want to use in My Mother’s Funeral simply because moving forward in time makes lyricism look out of place, complicates flashbacks, and leaves little room for linguistic playfulness. Instead, I wrote stand-alone pieces in the present, which were interspersed with stand-alone bits in the past, or the other way around. It’s hard to tell. Of course this is not, by any stretch, the ideal formula or a formula at all. It is, however, the only way I know how to write.

KH: You thank Ira Sukrungruang in your acknowledgments for his keen editorial comments on an early draft of the book. Can you talk a little bit about how working with him changed the memoir? What kind of feedback was especially helpful to you? How else did the book change through revision?

AP: About five years ago, I sent the first draft of My Mother’s Funeral to my agent. Eight agonizing months later, she replied with a resounding No and a suggestion: go back to school and take some writing classes. (Tears might have been shed, and massive doses of pride might or might not have been swallowed.) When I was done with my self-flagellation routine, I applied to a graduate writing program at the University of South Florida where I met professor Sukrungruang. It was his passion for memoir, the arguments he used to defend the genre, and his conviction that everybody’s story matters and that the secret is to know how to tell it, that made me realize that he was the one for me.

He agreed to look over my manuscript at the end of the semester during the summer. Some days I imagined him reading my words in awe, wondering how in the world I had managed to create this masterpiece. Some other days I imagined him reading my words and making little noises that sounded like WTF? And What in the world? And Pfft. And tsk, tsk.

“I think I know what you’re trying to do,” was all he said five months later when he returned the manuscript with his edits. What? Is that it? That’s not what I wanted to hear. I wanted a whole dissertation over coffee and cookies. I wanted hours of discussion and back-and-forth ruminations about my structure, my word-choice, the arc, the voice. He gave me none of it. Instead, he handed me back my draft, heavy with what appeared to be vicious remarks in shiny red ink and a few coffee stains. (Tears might have been shed, and massive doses of pride might or might not have been swallowed.) But you know what? He knew what he was doing, better yet, knew what I was doing or trying to do, and gave me direction.

I did several rewrites and because I chose to write the book in stand-alone chapters, I submitted a few of them to literary magazines. By the time My Mother’s Funeral was accepted for publication, ten chapters of the book had been published.

Once the book was at Cavankerry Press, and just when I thought I was home and dry, the real revisions started. First were the rewrites about content under the meticulous eyes of Baron Wormser, an in-house poet with a keen eye for inconsistencies, chronological mistakes, and information gaps. He was a fantastic content and copy editor. He wanted me to produce nothing but the best book I could write. Then came yet another round of revisions, this time from the line editor, who went over each sentence, checked grammar, punctuation, spelling consistency, word usage, etc., and in the process, nearly destroyed what it had taken me years to create. It was apparent that she had never worked with a Latino writer and mistook the voice, the nuances of Colombian humor, the imagery that works perfectly fine in Latin literature, and the Spanish-infused playfulness of the writing for incorrect English, and quite frankly made a complete mess. To give you an example, I say something along the lines of being so terrified of Mom that when she scolded me, the light bulb in the kitchen flickered every time she spoke. The line editor said that this is impossible, that no light can possibly flicker at the sound of a human voice and the sentence had to be deleted (No way. The sentence stayed). I found her linguistic choices too stiff for me, so formal that I began to feel as though I was writing a business proposal rather than a piece of CNF about growing up in Colombia. There were over 22,000 edits, things that she deleted just because. Whole chapters, which had been published in reputable literary magazines, were shredded into unrecognizable bits. Cavankerry Press was so shocked by the amount of work ahead of me that instead of the standard two weeks given to their authors to get their act together, they gave me a month. I agonized over the edits. It got to a point where I felt like I was writing a whole different book, with a different voice, only to please the editor. It was horrible. This, compounded with my personal fear of being dropped by the press if I didn’t comply, made me tread very carefully through the rewrite. I tried to remain humble (she knows what she’s doing, she is the editor for god’s sake), but could also hear my voice being stifled on each page. I worked hard. I compromised. I tried to keep the essence of the work even though it had undergone an aesthetic transformation that displeased me beyond words, and I grudgingly submitted the final, final, final revision to the press. Luckily, the managing editor, who had been my cheerleader, fan, and supporter from the beginning, did not approve of the changes and asked me to revert to the pre-line editor manuscript and apply only grammar and punctuation corrections.

KH: Thank God for the managing editor. It’s such a tricky place to be in—wanting to do as the press says while staying true to your voice and vision for the book.

In your recent essay in The Sun you write, “S&R. Search and rescue drills over the Persian Gulf. That’s how my husband spent his day as the captain of a 15-seat twin-engine military helicopter.  Now, he wants to know what I did today. I wrote, is the answer. Of course. What else am I going to do? It must be so incomprehensible for him that a woman can actually start writing at 5:30 am when he leaves for work and be still writing at 2 pm when he comes back. At the end of the day I have nothing tangible to offer as a proof of achievement. I can’t put it in my hands and say, here, this is what I did today. What do you think? And it’s not just the writing, it’s mostly the rewriting; the constant rearranging of words and paragraphs like moving furniture around the house. It’s the unexpected paths sometimes writing takes. It’s this process of looking for the right word, then a better word, then the perfect word to describe a sound, a smell, a feeling. It’s the constant retrospection nonfiction writers have to endure; that close self-scrutiny, the unabashed self-deprecating prose that has to be tempered with beautiful writing for it to be palatable; it’s the permanent self-doubt that comes with writing in a foreign language learned intuitively and not fully mastered; the nuts and bolts of spelling, punctuation and grammar of a language learned as an adult, it’s the rhythm, the imagery, the laborious wading through a sea of fickle linguistic devices.”

I love that passage so much. I so often feel that way after day at my desk—what have I actually accomplished? Also, when I read your writing I’m always amazed that you learned English as an adult because your prose seems so effortless. Can you talk a little more about what it feels like to write in a language that is not your mother tongue? Are there times when stories/essays come to you in Spanish rather than English or vice versa?

AP: I love writing in English and speaking in Spanish. Ever since I left Colombia 22 years ago, I’ve been fully immersed in English-speaking cultures (Alaska, Kuwait, Florida, Qatar) and I no longer think or dream in Spanish. But I’ve always been an avid reader and this combined with the fact that I had excellent and passionate Spanish teachers growing up is, I believe, what gave me the tools I need to write in a foreign language today. But writing in English is a slow process for me. I could not, for instance, work for a newspaper and deliver pieces on the spot. When I write, my mind gets into slow crockpot mode. I throw a pile of ingredients in it and let the mixture simmer for months. The thing is, as it simmers, I keep changing the ingredients, stirring the whole thing, sampling it, until it tastes exactly the way I had conceived in my mind before I even turned the range on. I usually know what I want to accomplish; it’s the journey getting there what takes me forever.

KH: I love that image of writing as a slow-cooking crockpot.

I know that one of your sisters now lives in Florida, but the rest of your family is still in Colombia. Do they read your work? If so, what have their reactions been, especially to this memoir?

AP: Only one of my siblings speaks English.  She has taken it upon herself to translate bits of the book so that my other siblings can be a part of it. The reactions have varied. I wrote about the way we were 40 years ago and, of course, we are not the same people now. So, it was hard to discuss the book with my brother, because he was not a part of my life growing up (he is now), and explain to him why the book is dedicated to my sisters, not him. Also, I always felt that, by virtue of being the youngest one, I was mom’s baby, her favorite child. Unfortunately, another sister felt the same way and was profoundly hurt by my assertion that I was closest to mom. I didn’t think it mattered. Mom is no longer with us and we are all grownup now. But it mattered to my sister, for which I’m terribly sorry.

Another sister did not appreciate my recreation of mom’s first nights as a married woman. She accused me of fictionalizing a true story, of romanticizing a violent period and a brutal awakening, of trivializing the downhill path my mother’s life took after she married my father. What can I say? How can I contest those charges? Neither of us was there to see the events unfold, neither of us knows what actually happened, all we have is our own personal interpretation of a woman’s memoirs. It’s like writing third-hand accounts as nonfiction. Like historical nonfiction.

But individual perceptions aside, because of the book, I believe we’ve had meaningful moments of mutual recognition and the kind of communion that only sisters understand. My sisters are my living heroines. I hope that when they read the Spanish version they feel my love, my devotion, my gratitude. Also, I hope that through my writing, we can have mom back, with her euphemisms, her steely rules, her “angry food,” her sacrifices, and her boundless love for us, music, and for my father, of course. Always, my father.

KH: Lovely. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.

People, check out this book.

2 Comments

  1. This interview was fascinating!

    So many things jumped out at me… especially this part: “I cogitate for months, constantly arranging and rearranging images and phrases in my head, and only when I seem to know the story by heart, I start to write.” and this: “I keep changing the ingredients, stirring the whole thing, sampling it, until it tastes exactly the way I had conceived in my mind before I even turned the range on.”

    I’m off to read her prologue. I am currently working as a student of prologue. 🙂

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