This Is Who We Are: Deborah Paredez

Amanda Breen
March 08, 2021

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making during a pandemic. Here, we talk with Associate Professor of Writing Deborah Paredez about COVID-19’s impact on her writing practice, the kinesthetic challenges in Zoom classrooms, and the pleasure in process over product. 

In April of 2020, Professor Deborah Paredez’s world, like all of ours, was mired in uncertainty. As the pandemic continued to surge and leave untold devastation in its wake, New York City, where Paredez lives with her family, was hit especially hard—to date, nearly 30,000 residents have succumbed to the virus. That figure joins the over 500,000 deaths across the US. 

The relentless disease has compelled us to find new ways of living and working safely, which remain in place today, almost a year later. These altered modes of being, while not without their challenges, have allowed creation and collaboration to continue. Since last spring, Paredez has managed to release her second poetry collection,Year of the Dog; continue work on her nonfiction-memoir American Diva; and teach seminars and workshops via Zoom. 

Year of the Dog takes its title from the year 1970, which, according to the lunar calendar, was the Year of the Metal Dog. It was also the year of Paredez’s birth, the year of her father’s deployment to Vietnam with a troop of Mexican-American immigrant soldiers, and a year of enormous change in the US. With images from iconic photographs and her father’s snapshots and references to female figures from myth and Mexican folklore, Paredez recontextualizes historical moments of the Vietnam era. 

Initially, Year of the Dog’s release and promotion was planned to coincide with a series of events—college activist, anti-war, and civil rights—that unfolded in the spring of 1970. Of course, by the time Paredez’s book was published, in-person events were no longer an option. “There was certainly a lot of disappointment around it,” Paredez says, “and at the same time, because I have so many friends who are in the performing arts, I was so grateful that at least the product of my labor was able to still be released." Paredez was able to hold small salons on Zoom and participate in a number of podcast and radio interviews.  

Paredez has also been working on her next book, American Diva, which examines various moments in her own life in relation to the lives and performances of famous female virtuosos. "What I noticed during the course of my life, in these last fifty years, is, especially since the 1990s, how the term diva really transformed and also proliferated,” Paredez says. “If you chart the actual use of the term, there's this huge increase in its popular usage in periodicals and newspapers and all of this, and it coincided with the use of the term in a derogatory way, for a woman in public life who was frequently demanding too much. So it became less associated with virtuosity and more associated with her temper. And so I'm also interested in not just these particular female performers who are incredibly virtuosic, but also in how that term has changed over time, and what that tells us about feminism, what that tells us about our views of women in public life, what that tells us about the way we understand our own relationship to other women.

“So,” Paredez continues, “I look at, for example, my relationship with my mom and Rita Moreno performing as Anita in the film West Side Story. Or I think about being at the Women's March with a bunch of white women, and I think about Lena Horne's performance on the Judy Garland show and how she negotiated that. So I use divas to make sense of my own life, but also to look at how, even just in the course of my life, our ideas about them have changed tremendously in some ways.”

Even before the pandemic, Paredez was used to working her writing routine around the demands of the everyday, making the most of pockets of time when she could. She laughs, “I have a kid, and that means I exploit every minute that my child’s in school. Or asleep.” Paredez isn’t someone who necessarily gets up every morning and writes—though she thinks that does work well for some people. Instead, she’s found that regularity is the key to her practice. 

"I think it was Mary Oliver who said something like 'You show up on the balcony like Juliet, and if you don't keep showing up, Romeo's not going to come and trust that you'll be there.' The Romeo being the ideas or your writing itself. So I do believe that it's a muscle that I have to train regularly,” she says. 

Naturally, the pandemic has put new pressures on Paredez’s routine. “The collapse between private and public, or work and leisure space and time, has really been blurred,” she says. “So that's made it hard in some moments to carve out the space and time for my poetry or my regular writing practice because I had a kid at home who was Zooming to school or I have a husband who usually works outside of the apartment. We're all in the same place, so I think the blurring of that made it difficult to establish those boundaries.” 

While the pandemic might inhibit productivity, Paredez has been able to find comfort in her work. She recently had a conversation with alumna and adjunct Lynn Melnick '97, who agreed that writing through this incredibly difficult year has offered some solace. Paredez says, “Once I took off the pressure of product, it was really important to me to be able to go to my writing, and so I did regularly go to my writing. Sometimes it turned out to be an essay that didn't get published; sometimes it did turn out to be a poem that got published."

Paredez has also been turning to some of her favorite writers for inspiration. She says, “The poet I always return to is Lucille Clifton, and I find that her writing does that important work of being rooted in an amazing lyricism and an everyday diction. A real sense of the personal or the familiar and the larger global visions that she's able to manage to create in deceptively simple poems, or simple colloquial language. So she really, for me, is a great example of conjoining the epic and the everyday, and always from a Black feminist perspective, and so I find her poems a place to go back to again and again."

She also draws inspiration from University Professor of English and Comparative Literature Sadiya Hartman’s writings, which do important historical and imaginative work around how to account for women of color who, Paredez says, “have often fallen through the cracks of our own archives.” Paredez also looks to Tyehimba Jess for exciting ways to play with form, to Sharon Olds when thinking about line breaks and how to write the family, and to Anne Boyer, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Undying explores the intersection of feminism and capitalism with beautiful lyricism. 

In addition to navigating her writing practice in the pandemic era, Paredez has had to contend with the new teaching landscape that is Zoom. In the fall, she taught two seminars: Documenting Disaster, which she developed in response to our current times, and Witness, Record, Document, which she teaches every year. She also currently teaches a poetry workshop in the Writing program. 

Like most teachers, and students, Paredez recognizes that something essential is lost when learning takes place behind screens instead of face-to-face. “Being trained as I have been in the arts, both in performing arts and in the writerly ones, I really value the kinesthetic experience of being in the classroom,” she says. “And so many of my students often for their projects do things that very much require us to be present together. They often turn their poetry into installation work or performance work or something like that. So a lot of that was really challenging of course.

“There's no substitute for being in that room together” she continues, “especially because I think in the arts, the students who grow the most are the ones who bring the most vulnerability to the classroom, and I think that therefore it requires a particular kind of care work on behalf of the professor, to make sure that that space where vulnerability is always present is one that can be an environment that can allow for that and can protect those students as they make those journeys. And so I think that that's much more difficult when you're on the screen, and that part was hard. It didn't mean the students didn't do it, it just meant that that required a certain kind of really trying to figure out 'Ok, I can't read the rest of their body, but is there something I'm seeing from the neck up that maybe can help me figure out what that student might need.’” 

This vulnerability in the act of writing is, of course, a critical part of the process. And process, Paredez says, is sometimes the one thing that wholly and irrevocably belongs to the creator of a work. She recalls taking workshops with the poet Martín Espada and the short story writer and poet Grace Paley, who both made it clear to their students that capitalism doesn’t always look kindly on writers. Writing must be about just that—the act of writing itself—for artists to be able to create under a system that continuously devalues their work. 

“We're living in a moment that applies market values to every aspect of our lives,” Paredez says. “So that we have to have an efficient day or produce a certain amount of poems by the time we're 30 or have a certain relationship to the idea of productivity is an idea that can be really detrimental to the artistic process, to actually allowing oneself to move through and grow and have not so much a linear upward motion towards whatever success or productivity is.”

Paredez emphasizes that the product is only one small part of the equation. To writers, she says, “What capitalism can't actually take from us is that pleasure and exhilaration and joy and delight and euphoria that we get in the moment in which we're writing or trying to strive for the better line or metaphor or whatever. That's something that's hard to steal from us, it's hard to commodify it. And remembering that that's what brought us to writing to begin with and that is actually the one thing that can't be taken is an important reminder.” 

Paredez is also the author of the poetry collection This Side of Skin (Wings Press 2002) and of the critical study Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (Duke 2009). Her poetry and essays have been published in The New York TimesLos Angeles Review of BooksThe Boston ReviewPoetry, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization dedicated to Latinx poets and poetry.