Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Books: "Motherland" By Paula Ramon On Her Venezuelan Family’s Saga


Motherland: A Memoir

By Paula Ramon; translated by Julia Sanches and Jennifer Shyue

Amazon Crossing; hardcover, $28.99; Kindle eBook, $28.99; available today, Tuesday, October 31st

Paula Roman is a Venezuelan journalist who has lived and worked in the United States, China, Brazil, and Uruguay. She is currently a correspondent for Agence France-Presse and is based in Los Angeles, and has written for the New York Times and National Geographic.

Jennifer Shyue is an accomplished translator from Brooklyn, and she focuses on contemporary Cuban and Asian-Peruvian writers, translating both poetry and prose. Her work has been published in Poetry Magazine, McSweeney's, and Guernica

Julia Sanches is a literary translator working from Porutguese, Spanish, and Catalan into English. Born in Sao Paolo and living in New England, she is a founding member of Cedilla & Co., a collective of translators committed to making international voices heard in English, and chair of the Translators Group of the Authors Guild.

Motherland is Paula Ramon's memoir, and it is the first time it will be presented in English. It is about one woman's complicated relationship with her family as her beloved homeland collapses into ruin. Venezuela, in the span of a generation, spiraled into a state of economic collapse. 

Paula experienced it firsthand as he middle-class family saw their quality of life deteriorate, and here she recounts what it was like growing up in Venezuela when Hugo Chavez won his first election through his death and beyond.

By the time Ramon began high school in the 1990s, the country was already experiencing turbulence, and the crisis only got worse. In the decades that followed, public services no longer functioned and money lost its value, and the country fell into ruin.

Paula's mother reached the point she couldn't afford to buy food, which was increasingly scarce. Her family struggled to survive each day in their beloved city, Maracaibo, until they made the wrenching decision to leave the home they loved. However, it was her mother, a widower, who stayed behind, out of loyalty to the only home she had ever known. 

"This book is a very personal story, but also very relatable to people who are trying to come to terms with who they are, their relationships to their families and their loyalties to their countries," Ramon said. "I'm thrilled about this new English version because it allows me to share this story - mine and my country's - with more people." 

Motherland is not a political book, but a sentimental search for one's roots and the answers to the questions of what defines us, who are you in a new country, and what truly matters.

In this excerpt from the prologue, Ramon writes: "I grew up in a  place where rules were made to be broken. My country took pride in its main social asset, 'criollo clever,' or the belief that we could outsmart everyone else. In a system that functioned according to long-established social codes...I was raised to play the game, but even though my mother taught me to duck and weave, eventually Venezuela brought me to my knees...

I started writing this book a few days after my mother's funeral. These pages...have given me an opportunity to reflect on what we went through as a family and as a country, a luxury I couldn't afford when my mother was alive. Although our country was not at war with anyone, millions of Venezuelans were thrust into circumstances that...brought out the worst in all of us. After decades of abundance, food and money became obsessions, breaking families apart and sending thousands of people out of the country in search of a better life.

Without my realizing it, during my time away from Venezuela, my parents...had become my homeland. When Mama died, the umbilical cord tethering me to her and to...our house was suddenly severed. My grief was twofold, and it grew into an emotional and geographical void one could call rootlessness. Writing about it ultimately exorcised my feelings...My mourning floods these pages, which have become a letter of farewell to my parents and my country. The only time I get to see them again is in my dreams."

Paula Ramon.

An Interview with Paula Ramon and her Editor, Alexandra Torrealba (Provided by Amazon Crossing):

Alexandra: One of the most heartbreaking casualties of the situation that has unfolded in Venezuela for the past few decades has been the breaking of families. It's not unusual today to be Venezuelan and have relatives spread out throughout the world, be it in neighboring Colombia or as far away as Australia. Leaving is many times a conscious decision backed with a will to prevail, but it can also be a deeply unbearable choice that leaves you feeling untethered to everything and everyone. As the years have gone by, having finished your memoir, do you ever reflect on your mother's choice to stay in Venezuela, even as every one of your family members were fleeing? Is there anything you would have loved to tell her today, if you had the chance?

Paula: My mom, as well as many older Venezuelans, didn't have a realistic choice to leave Venezuela. Leaving the country is not easy when you are young, but when you are older and have chronic health problems - like my mom - it becomes almost impossible without the proper resources to take care of details like insurance, medical care or adequate housing. But there is also the issue of building a new life in your 60s or 70s, far away from everything and everyone you know. Since I couldn't afford the proper conditions for her to leave, I came up with the idea of taking her to her hometown even though she was uneasy about leaving her house, leaving what was familiar to her. If I had the chance, I would tell her that I am sorry for feeling overwhelmed most of the time, for losing sight of what was really important.

Alexandra: The concept of identity is something that we all grapple with as immigrants. But, drawing even from my own personal experience as a Venezuelan immigrant like you, I think coming to terms with who you are in a new country can be so incredibly conflicting: on the one hand, you may be grateful for your new home, your newfound safety and stability, but on the other hand, there is something absolutely gut-wrenching about looking back at your home country and knowing it's in shambles, and that in many ways, there's no going back. How would you say your personal journey has shaped the many facets of your identity? Has writing this book changed your perception of yourself in any way?

Paula: It is exactly that, I felt guilty every time that something good happened in my life, or when I bought something extra for myself knowing that it was a luxury. In general, though, my personal journey made me think a lot about my dad. Things that he told me when I was a kid suddenly gained meaning. I could understand now how he felt in between countries, when he left Spain and arrived in Venezuela: why the identity issue was so important to him and why he never managed to be from here or there. Writing this book sank that feeling of rootlessness into me. And ironically it pushed me in his direction. After I wrote my memoir, I suddenly wanted to know more about him. I wanted to find his roots in the hope that they could become a new soil for me to embrace, because that feeling of not belonging can be excruciating.

Alexandra: Let's talk about your writing process. Writing a memoir is already an innately intimate experience: it requires facing fears, recognizing regrets, and sometimes even finding forgiveness. In the case of writing Motherland, it also meant visiting painful parts of both your own and your country's journey. Was this story already written out in your mind? What was the research process like for you?

Paula: Not at all. The book was originally going to be about how my mom and I navigated the challenges of living in Venezuela from afar. She died during that initial process and at the beginning I didn't see the point of writing. When we discussed the idea of narrating the Venezuelan contemporary story through my family's experience, I had an idea of what I wanted to do, a skeleton of content, but adding the flesh to it was painful. I tried to open the emails and messages my mom and I exchanged, and I couldn't bring myself to read them. It was difficult to even see our photos together. But it was more than that: it meant I had to remember, and remembering was sad. Something that helped me was music, I made a list with my parents' favorite songs and played it in a loop. The words, and the tears, quickly followed.

Alexandra: In retrospect, now that you've finished writing the book, have you learned anything new about yourself or your family that you'd like to share?

Paula: I think I understand my parents and their difficult decisions better. I saw them in a new light, and it made me even more grateful for having them, but it also gave me permission to be more compassionate with myself. It mad me see that what we went through was overwhelming and tremendous, and we did what we could with the tools we had at hand.

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