The Heyman Center for Humanities Celebrates Associate Professor Deborah Paredez's Latest Poetry Collection 'Year of the Dog'

BY Angeline Dimambro, November 20, 2020

The Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University recently featured Associate Professor Deborah Paredez in its New Books in the Arts & Sciences lecture series. The series hosts regular panel discussions that celebrate recent work by Columbia Faculty. Paredez is a poet and scholar whose publications include the poetry collection, This Side of Skin and her award-winning critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory. Her most recent collection, Year of the Dog, tells her story as a Latina daughter of the Vietnam War. Images ranging from iconic photographs to her father’s snapshots are incorporated, fragmented, scrutinized, and reconstructed throughout the collection as Paredez recalls untold stories from a war that changed her family and the nation.


Event panelists included award-winning poet Aracelis Girmay, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Writing and poet BK Fischer, and Professor of English and Comparative Literature Saidiya V Hartman. Professor of Writing and poet Timothy Donnelly, hosted the event and said the following of Paredez’s work in his opening remarks: “I remember when I first read Year of the Dog...I was struck not only by the way it sheds crucial light on the impact of the Vietnam War—that it had and has on often marginalized communities—but also the way it does so, and so powerfully, in modes other than those associated with conventional historiography.”


At the beginning her presentation, Paredez shared a few lines from Danez Smith’s collection Don't Call Us Dead: Poems as a way to honor the protests in Philadelphia that had occurred the night before the event in response to the police killing of Walter Wallace. Paredez shared how her collection “tries to think about how to create that sense of howling toward another kind of often forgotten set communities in relation to war.” As noted in the event description, this howling takes many forms in the collection, such as in the invocation of “Hecuba, the mythic figure so consumed by grief over the atrocities of war that she was transformed into a howling dog, and La Llorona, the weeping woman in Mexican folklore who haunts the riverbanks in mourning and threatens to disturb the complicity of those living in the present.”


Before reading a few selected poems, Paredez shared her screen to show the audience how she used images throughout the collection—both from her father’s personal collection as well as famous news media images from that era. Paredez’s father, like many other Mexican immigrants, received his citizenship papers and draft notice almost at the same time. Year of the Dog collapses private and public documentation as Paredez fragments and collages her father’s photographs with well-known photographs, such as Mary Ann Vecchio at the Kent State Massacre. “What’s interesting to me,” Paredez said, “was thinking about the ways in which despite the overabundance of documentation [in the Vietname War], Latinx communities in particular remain undocumented.” However, in other ways, Latinx people, as Paredez noted, are often “overdetermined by our relationship to documentation—do you have your papers, do you not, what does that mean for you.” The collection, through formal experimentation, continues to explore the notions of documentation.


As Girmay put it, Paredez’s collection is a kind of “composition that resists composition.” The poem, “Self Portrait in the Year of the Dog,” for Girmay, “carries so many of the book’s commitments and questions.” In the collection, the poem is set beside a photograph credited to Paredez’s father; it is an image of the view outside her father’s car window, including the rearview mirror and what it reflects. “I’m interested in what the past told in future tense makes possible here,” Girmay said. “For one, this situation in time gives me the sense that the past is before us, a version of what we have moved through is ahead of us, in fact, as in the [car’s] rearview. It was true in 1970 and is true in 2020.”


The formal experimentation of Paredez’s work also struck Fischer. “Paredez does synecdoche like no one else. She uncovers the part taken for the whole in many, many English idioms and vernacular phrases, and by gathering those dissevered pieces, sifts through the lexical residues of the racial imaginary.” Fischer discussed how synecdoche connects to the work of the collection, which deals with fragmentation in multiple ways. “The word synecdoche fuses the Greek roots for ‘together’ and ‘take up’, and these are the processes at the heart of this poetic—the snapshot that stands in for a father’s deployment; the cropped bodily gestures that suggest conversation or desperation or pain; the atomized quotations that stand in for the body of ancestral myth.” 


Hartman began her time thanking Paredez for Year of the Dog, which she called “a container that helps us to hold what can’t be born—all the grief that is ongoing, seemingly interminable.” Paredez’s collection also, Hartman noted, succeeds in the way it puts so many events and moments in conversation with each other, “both the imperial war that is Vietnam or the War of the Gulf, and the undeclared war that is the state of existence that defines our anti-Black context.” When Hartman, whose critical work deeply engages wailing and lament as well, asked Paredez to address the themes of elegy and complaint, Paredez recalled how Hartman had asked her about La Llorona early on in her writing process. “Growing up as a Mexican-American woman in the Southwest that the story of La Llorona is so much a part of our upbringing, often told as a cautionary tale, but again, I’m interested in rethinking what does it mean that a weeping woman is absolutely part of your world view and your can I as a Brown woman understand that relationship to elegy just as much as I’ve understood the various other traditions from which I’ve learned it.”


This event was co-sponsored by The Society of Fellows, The Heyman Center for the Humanities, The Office of The Divisional Deans and Faculty of the Arts and Sciences, The School of the Arts, and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. You can listen to selections from the event on the New Books from The Heyman Center Podcast below.