Photo of Camila Rios Armas

“Poetry takes us to the limit of ourselves”

Interview with Camila Ríos Armas, poet and activist, based in Paris, France

By Pippa Bourne and Elvira Vega Herrero

When did you move to France?

I moved to France in 2014. In 2011, I started an eleven month study exchange, and it was in 2014 that I decided to permanently move to live in Paris.

How did you find the process of moving from Venezuela to France? How was it being by yourself, so far from where you were born and raised?

When I left Venezuela in 2014, I had already worked for a year and a half in political communications for the opposition, preparing for the presidential campaign, which the current president, Nicolás Maduro, won for the first time. It was a fairly intense year and a half, where there were many social movements and demonstrations. I decided that I had to leave Venezuela for a while, to put this difficult work to one side, and in 2013, I went to New York for a few months because I had some family there. I needed a break from Caracas. The elections were very intense, I put in a lot of time and energy. We were all quite depressed and somehow, we knew that what was coming was going to be much worse than what we’d already experienced. That feeling of helplessness and despair was even obvious to my parents, and they saw that I needed time away from the country for a while because I wasn’t in the right head space.

From then on, my migration process came in stages. After I went to New York, I returned to Venezuela and was awarded a grant from the Fundación Carolina to do a two-week summer programme with 49 young Ibero-American leaders. Then, I went back to New York and while I was there, I applied to various universities. In 2014, I was accepted into the University of Paris, as well as the University of Sussex. I decided to come to Paris as I had lived there in 2011, so I had more familiarity with it (or so I thought). As I came for my Master’s degree, I wasn’t as integrated into the university. It was quite a prestigious and demanding university for the French, with very high expectations. I was also living alone, and that was quite hard for me, especially for the first year. I arrived in August, then came autumn and winter, which are quite bleak in Paris: the grey sky, lack of sunlight, and I found it hard to make many friends… I really like to study, so I spent my time either in the library or by myself at home. Honestly, it was quite hard. In the second year of my Master’s, I had to do an internship and I still felt very lonely. I needed something that reminded me of home and I got an internship in Madrid, living there for six months in 2015. This revived me, and I was really happy when I returned back to Paris. So, in short, it was quite a structured emigration process (I always knew what I was going to do), but there were some difficulties such as adapting to the language, and having my family so far away. As well as this, during the years I was in Paris and Madrid, the situation in Venezuela became worse and worse, which has also affected me.

After finishing your Master’s programme, you started a project working with refugees. How has this work influenced your writing?

I have always been interested in movements working with migrants. The first time I worked with migrants was in New York, volunteering at a centre for irregular migrants. I find the issues of roots and uprooting, memory and identity linked to a physical territory fascinating. I studied International Development, and when I came to do my Master’s, I focused on the subject of migration, looking into it from a more technical and theoretical point of view (studying migratory waves, development programmes, the importance of the diaspora etc…). These all gave me an insight into this subject of immigration from a professional point of view, obviously influenced by who I am and where I come from. It also influences my poetry. We cannot dissociate our personal experiences, even just as spectators, from how we live. I started the book that I’m going to publish this year in 2011. It talks about the first time that I lived in France, and about the trips I took. The book is organised into the cities I have visited and the rhythms I feel they have. In everything I have published so far, there is nothing explicit about migration, but I believe that the topics of identity, memory and the moving body have always been present in my poetry. It has been ten years since I began writing this book, and it talks more about these subjects, but from a pleasant perspective; it talks about how beautiful it is to be able to travel and discover cities. In my more recent texts, the painful side of the migration process is more strongly expressed, and although I haven’t experienced this first-hand, I do know many people who have. I also write about the problem of exile that I have to face every day in my work. I am very respectful and sensitive towards these topics, and it took a lot to get me to write about them. Many of us Venezuelans feel as though we are in exile, but actually we are not. If I wanted to catch a plane tomorrow and fly to Caracas, I could. But, that is not the case for some people who could be killed or lose the protection they had in another country if they did so. Working on these issues makes me very respectful towards personal situations, both towards my privileged existence and those of others who feel as though they are exiled.

Do you feel as though you belong to a community of young writers or poets in France?

No, I don’t think so. Although I haven’t spent the time necessary to find out if there really is a community of authors who write in Spanish, because I don’t write in French, or if I do, it’s only an entry on my blog. On my blog, I have pieces of work that I’m preparing – they are not final texts and so, in my head, they don’t have quite as much importance as what I publish after further editing. On my blog, I publish work without much filter, just like on Instagram, where I post some writing in French. I’m not particularly good at writing in French, but not because of the language barrier. If I intellectualised it, I could do it, but I don’t feel inspired in French, no matter how much I read in the language. I think this has made finding a community slightly harder. I go to some of the readings by French authors but only really to listen, as part of the audience, without participating as a writer.

In my life as a writer, the hardest thing has been losing my community of writers due to migration and the loss of the language. Although we’re in contact with each other online, it’s not the same – it’s always better to be in the same place as your community. Here, writing is much more lonely. The process is slower and more painful because you keep delving into the fact that your community is no longer there with you, and they never will be in the same way. So that can be quite sad.

My mother is a poet, so I also associate poetry with my relationship with her. My sister lives in Madrid now and I usually go there a couple of times a year because it helps me recharge my batteries: in Madrid there is a community of Venezuelan writers who also have a very good relationship with Spanish poets too. The rhythm could not be more different. I can’t find this type of rhythm in Paris and it has forced me to create a new writing routine and style, to find space for creativity in my new way of life. This is the reason why I have written much less being here. However, writing processes and rhythms can change over time. The language also makes it very difficult. When you are listening all day to people speaking in a different language, sometimes you get the feeling as though you are losing pieces of vocabulary, or that the ideas come to you in French, but when you write it onto paper it doesn’t sound or look right. Words inspire you and are evocative, but experiencing this process in a mixture of languages can be difficult. All of these elements make it more difficult for me to feel as though I belong to a literary world in France. Moreover, the book that I will publish this year will be bilingual, but with English.

In your blog, you mention that French people are constantly defending and protecting their country’s identity. Is this also the case in Venezuela? Do people feel the same emotions towards their country?

To start, countries that were colonizers have a much greater national sentiment than those that were colonized. That’s a common fact. The same can be said for countries that have had great economic power, or countries like Greece, which historically have had to defend their land, or Lebanon too, which has gone through a very brutal process of diaspora. I don’t think that is the case in Venezuela. Rather, I believe that Venezuelans are currently building their identity. The idea of what we are like as foreigners, as a group of dispersed people is the identity that is being built at the moment. I don’t have any grandparents who have lived through a war, or who are Spanish or Italian immigrants. There used to be an identity for the foreigners who lived in Venezuela, but not for Venezuelans going to live in other countries. My parents’ generation travelled to study abroad, but they soon returned, as there was an optimistic future to be built in Venezuela. This current situation has really made us as a people reflect and think about what it means to be Venezuelan, about what our identity means.

I am thrilled to have made at least four friendships with Venezuelan people here in Paris. I have a different kind of relationship with them, as they are people from what I call ‘my other life.’ I think we find a kind of happiness when we think of our home country. Unfortunately, the political situation has divided Venezuelans very much. When someone tells you that they have a friend who works at the Venezuelan embassy, for example, you instantly ask yourself questions about that person. There are some people who need to know your political beliefs within the first five minutes of talking to see if they can carry on the conversation, but I’m not like that. Of course, because of my work, I see things differently. But in reality, being Venezuelan is also thinking about our cultural roots, our music, our writers, our arepas… I suppose the mixture of cultures makes it very difficult to find an answer to this question. Right now, the Venezuelan people are building that identity, and reflecting on it. Obviously, we hold onto things; many friends of mine have a photo of the Ávila in their house, the mountain in Caracas, as a sign that this is where they are from. Others have a photo of José Gregorio Hernández, a doctor who was recently sanctified. For each individual, being Venezuelan is a completely unique experience, but right now as a people, we are trying to build a Venezuelan identity abroad. My sister, who is twenty-five years old, clings to totally different things to those of my generation. Most young people feel as though if they do not cling to anything, they will lose their connection with their country, but they also don’t feel part of the country where they live now. This does not happen just to Venezuelan emigrants, but to all emigrants from any country. However, the situation is more painful for people who leave a country unwillingly or are forced out.

You have said that each person experiences this attachment to their roots in their own way. What would yours be? How do you feel your link with Venezuela?

At the moment, I’m writing stories from my childhood in a prose poetry style because I don’t want to forget the memories that make me who I am. In this way, I’m rediscovering the country a little again, through memories and my parents’ or my grandmother’s stories… I firmly believe in an oral tradition. My relationship with Venezuela is lived through its artists, its writers and its poets. I dream of the day when I can bring my books to Paris, because I didn’t bring any with me when I came over and I have only returned to Venezuela twice in all these years. Going back to the question, I believe that my relationship with the country exists through memory, for example through teaching my friends the culture and showing them typical foods. But personally, my relationship with Venezuela is a painful one, as I started my studies thinking that I was going to work in public policy or something along those lines. Here in France, I work with minorities, which is different. I don’t experience my link with Venezuela in such a political way now, but rather through narrative, stories and oral histories – especially from my father, who I question about the history of cities and things like that. I am afraid that our memories will be lost, but there are many people working to preserve our memories and that gives me hope.

Do you feel as though your poetry is influenced by Venezuela?

I think that more than poetry itself, it’s a poetic style of observation that I have this since I was born. Not to say that just because someone has an artistic mother they will become an artist, but I do think that in my case, it has influenced me a lot. From a young age, you’re instilled with a way of seeing the world, to pay attention to details with a special sensitivity. My mother introduced me to this particular universe, which she is absorbed in all the time, but I am not. My work deals with completely different topics and issues, which actually have nothing to do with poetry. The immersion in my mother’s universe though, made me enter into a world of stories, of fantasy. As a child, I was crazy about stories and I was lucky enough to have never been denied any, so I have a large collection of children’s books. But this isn’t the case for everyone – my sister is not like this at all, nor did my mother force her to be. It was just natural within me. In my current writing, there are many images that evoke some emotions from when I was little, perhaps things that remind me of a flower, or an animal. I’m trying to write about the little yet significant things, so I don’t forget them. I think this influences my poetry a lot, much more now than before. Although in general, my poetry can be described as quite visual and plastic – as if you were looking at a photograph of my childhood: travel, nature… All of this inevitably influences the way we write subconsciously.

Do you think that there is much difference in the way that children are taught in France compared to Venezuela? Would you say that the teaching in Venezuela is perhaps more artistic and sensorial, which may have also influenced your writing beyond what you learnt from your mother?

I would say that the schools in France allow and teach more freedom of thought. For example, they read books of a much higher level than those in Venezuela. They read things that I have only read because of my mother. I only attended extracurricular art lessons because I asked my parents for them, and because I had an uncle who was a painter, but if it weren’t for that, I doubt I would have done it. All of those things I learnt thanks to my family, because they weren’t taught at school in Venezuela. For example, in Spain they also teach music and art, which isn’t the case in Venezuela. Up until I was eight years old, I attended a school in Caracas that did have a more artistic side and a different way of teaching from the usual one, similar to Montessori. There were no desks in the classrooms, critical analysis was encouraged… but then we moved and the school became very far away, so I moved schools to one that was closer to home. It was much more normal and we would have compulsory prayer in the mornings. I never encountered any problems with bullying, but I was the eccentric one in the class. It was a fairly simple school – they made us read the same old novels, like Doña Bárbara. Nothing special. In my book, Muralla intermedia (2008), I talk about the time when I realised why I didn’t identify with what I was being taught. But, it was a school where there was space to think in a different way to others. You could say it was enriching to study in a school like that where sometimes I would get taken out of class for the questions I would ask. I just needed to know why it was so wrong to ask these types of questions, and this greatly influenced the critical interculturality I have now.

School in Venezuela is still very traditional, at least it was when I studied there. Even at private schools, my best friend was shunned for being an actor, the same would happen if you were homosexual or if you were a slightly masculine woman. Sometimes, I like to think about what would have happened to me if I had attended a school like the one I work at here in France; I like to think about what I would have studied. In Paris, there is a large sense of critical thinking and debate in children from a very young age, in the things they say and the conversations they have. I see that they debate various topics on a daily basis here, and they don’t make these discussions personal either. This is something we still lack in Venezuela.

At what age do you think you became interested in poetry? As you say, you were a curious girl and you were interested in the arts from a young age. When did you decide that it was poetry that you wanted to pursue, and not a different art form?

When I was little, I used to draw and write stories a lot. I’m fascinated by fantasy, by short stories. And now I’m grown up, I read more narrative writing than poetry. I love the exercise of creating characters and developing their personalities. I’ve tried doing it, but I get too obsessed with small details. I think this taste for narrative is something that also has an influence on the way I write poetry. I can so vividly remember the night when I wrote my first verses of poetry. I was about fifteen or sixteen years old, it was at night and I was sat in my room, when suddenly I felt the urge and the need to write something. So I grabbed a notebook and began. Some of the poems that I wrote that night are in my first book. Without editing any of them, I entered the poems into a competition and was given a special mention, which is why they were published. I was the youngest person to have my work published by the publisher. It took me a long time to tell my mother that I wrote poetry, as she is a well-known poet and this intimidated me, especially since I hadn’t read her books yet. It took me a long time to read her poetry because I was afraid that people would tell me that I wrote just like her. Now our relationship is also that of two poets – we share our writing and edit each other. But yes, poetry suddenly appeared to me late at night and since it did, it has not disappeared. At times, poetry is more present than at others, but I see poetry in everything, and it has been with me constantly. Being a poet goes beyond the act of writing, it is a way of seeing the world and it is an aesthetic.

Both your mother and your grandmother are writers, so you have been so close to this art from a very young age. How has this influenced you and your writing?

Not everyone who has a family member who writes has to dedicate themselves to writing. But when it does happen, it’s incredible because the relationships between these people are more present. I was only one year old when my grandfather died, but I still have everything of his that he collected, his stories and photos. This universe that he collected came to me through my grandmother, who is also an artist, and through some of my uncles who are painters and writers. From a young age, I have had a particular interest in the arts, visiting museums etc., but I don’t only write now because of those experiences from when I was younger. Obviously, I went off to do many artistic things: my parents would sign me up for whatever I wanted to do in the summer holidays. I would go with my cousin to pottery workshops, and there were always books in my house. My parents would take me with them to readings, so I could spend time in the children’s books section while the adults attended the event. If you are a child with these kind of passions, having the opportunity to grow up in such a way is great because everything is so much closer to you and more available. Even if I didn’t end up becoming a writer, I’m sure that this artistic tendency would be a part of my personality, however in my case it’s quite useful. In a way, it explains who I am. At first this kind of question was difficult for me because I’d say: “I’m Camila, the daughter of Edda Armas”, but over time, I have learned to face this question with pride. I am her daughter, and I am very proud of her writing, but it isn’t the only thing that made me a writer. The love of books comes from my father’s side too. I am very privileged to come from a family where art plays a very important role that has shaped me in one way or another.

Have you or another member of your family felt the pressure of the censorship at any stage?

Of course. For example, my uncle who is well-known nationally for photography, chose a photo of the Statue of Liberty for an exhibition he did (he has lived in the United States for many years) and it was censored because this symbol was that of the great enemy. My mother, for a long time, was also a very active participant with the PEN group of writers, who condemn cases of harassment towards writers or journalists worldwide, and my mother therefore was also on the lists of censored events. Even in the newspaper, El Nacional, which is quite important in Venezuela, they are writing an Encyclopaedia of Destruction, where several authors narrate what the destruction of Venezuela has been like for them, and I collaborated in this project. It was soon after that the newspaper was attacked and there were millions of dollars of fines owed. But, I think I get away with writing these kinds of things because I am no longer in the country. Furthermore, anyone who has ever worked in political communication has been on the black list. For example, my boss is a political refugee living in Madrid. So in my close circle of friends and colleagues, I have experienced discrimination, for example being excluded from events etc. In the 2000s, my mother worked at the centre for literature and art, which was organised by the Rómulo Gallegos award, and even there, there was discrimination in the projects of those that were financed, and those that weren’t. Unfortunately, I think that censorship and discrimination in writing is something that I have experienced closely.

In your blog, you also include poems from other authors. Are you influenced by any other Venezuelan poets? Do you feel inspired by other writers that you have met or known while in Europe?

When I started to write, I felt very influenced by our great writers and poets, such as Hanni Ossott, Miyó Vestrini, Alfredo Silva Estrada or Reynaldo Pérez Só and also by other poets who write short poetry. At the beginning, I made an effort to discover the great Venezuelan classics, although I do not think that my poetry is influenced by a specific author. There are writers who I always come back to, but I think being in Paris is very different. When I was living in Caracas, I had my mother’s giant library so I could read whatever I wanted. Here, I have to go through the internet or reread the few books that I brought with me. The topic of writing and migration interests me a lot, so recently I have been reading more foreign authors, especially Lebanese or Syrian authors who have experienced this migratory process. Right now, I read more translations into French from these types of foreign authors than French poets.

You referred earlier to the plasticity of poetry, and the vividness of words, and their ability to evoke symbols and images. Do you believe that poetry is a means of artistic expression that is more in line with your vision of the world and what you want to convey to your readers? 

I believe that poetry takes us to the limit of ourselves, of our own sensitivity and our own intellect. It transforms certain realities through the exercise of finding a way to express them. It is a challenge to transform the simple red bench that I may be looking at into something more than this. The challenge therefore lies at the creative level of transforming objects, and in the search for the relationship between those objects and our feelings. Within poetry, the relationship between objects and our feelings is quite powerful, especially in terms of the object that made us write a poem.

There is a poem, written by Eugenio Montejo, called ‘Regreso’, in which, starting from a chair, he ends up talking about trees and the soul and everything that happened before to lead to that wooden chair. That’s what I love about poetry, that kind of secret universe filled with magical spirits. Marcel Proust sees poetry as mysterious thoughts and ideas, and I like this idea. I have always seen poetry as the reverse side of the object that we are looking at, and mine reflects my obsession with details along the same lines. In my case, I think that is also why my writing process is quite slow, because it is so cryptic. I start with something obvious and end up somewhere completely different. But I think that this is the way of writing which reflects what I want to express from an immaterial plane of what we are not necessarily touching. However, in terms of my political side (which I also have), other forms of writing are more in line with what I want to say. Lately, I have been trying out prose poetry as a stylistic device. I do not have a thought-out process in which I decide what I’m going to write, rather when I start writing, I notice how the narrative is being constructed. When someone tells me that they don’t read or write poetry because they don’t understand it, I feel that poetry does not need to be understood, but one must live and connect with it. Perhaps we will never know what the poet really meant when they wrote a poem, but even so, we are drawn to their work, there is something that resonates inside us when we read it. For me, that poetry therefore already fulfils its function. It is not necessary to understand what the poet exactly meant, but rather to universalise certain feelings, certain emotions or images that unite us. For me, poetry is a way of expressing the issues of an intangible side of life that is present within us. That is why my poems are so sensorial.  

Do you think in a different way when writing in your blog, as opposed to writing and creating poems?

In my blog, I usually write a lot of my reflections or about situations that I’ve experienced. They do make me think about something, but these themes and topics don’t fit so well into the tones of my poetry. I am not interested at all in political poetry, although there are many authors who have written impressive political poems. But, I do have a lot to say. For me, my blog is golden. I started it in 2011 when I came to Europe for the first time, because I didn’t have WhatsApp and my family kept asking what I was doing. I was also fascinated by everything I saw, so I began to document my experiences of discovering Paris. The first entries always came out in the form of a story. Later, I introduced some poems and some more political texts as an entry about a biennial in Venice. On my blog, I publish everything I feel I have to say but without much of a filter. For example, in my recent post regarding the Me Too movement in Venezuela, I decided to tell the story of my sexual assault because I had nowhere else to publish it. I think the blog is a part of who I am as a person, it is the reflection of different facets of my life.

The writing process of my books is slightly different. In my first book, I began writing individual poems until I realised that there was a link and connection between them, so I combined them together into a book. The second book, Ecos: letras de flamenco has several parts that are linked to each other and it was designed in that way. And the third, which will be published this year, is a mixture of both previous book styles. I began writing poems about different cities and I saw that each poem had its own separate, individual rhythms because they were influenced by the rhythm of the city where I was located. I therefore decided to organise it as a travel notebook, where different cities are collected, and then there is a part that only talks about Caracas and my final years there. So, there are two parts but they are connected to each other. Now, I am working on some poems that I know will go together, but I don’t decide on the subject of the book before I start writing. My writing is a more organic process. The book that I’m writing at the moment includes poems that I started in 2016; I am in no rush to publish and prefer to go at my own pace.

How has social media affected your audience?

I was very active on Twitter before I left Venezuela, but then I stopped using it so much because it has a very strong political tone and I had already left the country. When French people began to follow me, I didn’t even know what language to write in, and this was a deterrent from social networking, especially from Twitter. I am barely a part of the literary branch of Twitter, but it is very strong and has a large impact. I really like using Instagram because you can post images and text at the same time. This also means I can take photos and develop my poetry through images. I don’t post things all the time, but I do share things with a certain continuity that seems poetic to me. The good thing about blogging is that you can have some interaction with your audience, but I don’t necessarily call myself a blogger. I don’t think I have a loyal group of online readers that I interact with all the time. Like I previously mentioned, my literary process is pretty lonely, even online. I have friends who are part of an online writing community, but I’m not a part of any because, right now, I don’t feel as though I have the time or the energy. I am glad though that I’m not forgotten. When I was included for this project, I felt grateful to be a part of a group of writers. It is the same when I am invited to participate in an anthology.

What is the publication process like for your poetry?

In my case, migration has made publishing more difficult. My first books were published in Venezuela. As I said previously, my first book was published as a result of the competition I entered and the second book was sent to a collection of new voices and they accepted me. This third book was a finalist in a competition and I thought it would be easier to publish it, but then it got complicated. They suggested publishing it online, then I went back to review the text in 2017. In total, it has taken me about ten years to publish this book, although I have had a few breaks in this time. Nor did I know how or where to publish it as I am not in Spain. At times, I’ve been a bit disappointed with this process because when you are part of a community of writers, like in Venezuela, being far away is not easy. While I was on one of my trips to Madrid, I came across Kálathos publishing house, which was originally a Venezuelan publishing house that is doing a great job in Spain, publishing the work of Venezuelan poets. I sent them the book to see if they were interested when it was ready and with the translations and corrections done. I had also been accepted by a publishing house in Venezuela at that time, but they were only going to allow me to publish the book online. I wasn’t interested in my book coming out as only an E-Book, after having waited ten years to be able to publish it. So when I was accepted by Kálathos, we were going to publish the book, but then the pandemic came and the process was halted. Publishing is a long road to travel down. As well as this, my poetry is not necessarily linked to a publication, it is something I do because it is a part of my life. Obviously I like being able to publish my books, but I don’t need it. My intention is to get the next book published in French as well as Spanish. From what I’ve seen, French publishers ask for the book to be already translated, and I don’t feel as though I am ready for this. When I try to translate my poems into French, I end up creating a new one. That’s why I would need someone to translate them for me. Editing is also a complex process. I’m excited that my next book is coming out in Madrid because it is a city where I can participate in readings and in events or fairs. I would like to continue publishing in Venezuela, so as not to lose that link with my birth country, but it is very sad to publish and be far away, unable to present your book properly.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

When you choose a career that is not necessarily linked to literature, it is much more difficult to find time to write. It is quite a challenge to find the right moments. Especially when you have a job like mine, a social job with human interaction. Sometimes I feel like I am torn between these two facets. I once worked in a refugee camp in the north of France and saw many things that I could have written about, but I felt that doing so was betraying those people. When you are helping people who are in such difficult situations, as much as you known that their suffering has an aesthetic side, you feel bad writing about their stories, reducing their experiences to something artistic. I experienced this in 2015 and it took me many years to be able to write something about this due to the constant tension between my role as a poet and as a social worker. I mostly write when I go on a trip, because leaving my home environment gives me the impulse to be creative. I feel like my writing process is much slower and more patient than someone who writes full time. I’m not always mentally ready and present to write. I also feel the pressure of my first two books being very popular, and so the expectations for the next one are high. There are people who are surprised that I’m still writing. Sometimes we underestimate the importance of our poetry becoming a social platform, of it being shared with the public. As much as the process of writing and publishing is lonely, solitary and internal, it needs social interactions with the outside world and, due to my migration, this has been the most difficult part for me as a poet.