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May 5, 2007 — From the Arts & Culture section
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1. Skylark Farm reading in New York City
2. Armenian masterpiece available in English
3. Cyberart inspired by Peleshian’s "Seasons"
4. French film festival at Golden Apricot
5. ASA’s 58th annual Artists’ Ball
6. Photography: Children of Hayk inspire in black and white (by Paul Chaderjian)
* Garik Gyurjyan celebrates beauty and optimism
7. Music: The wholeness and holiness of singing a children’s song (by
* Taline connects kids to their Armenian language
8. Poetry: Lola Koundakjian takes Armenian poetry online
9. Books: An unsentimental journey (review by Marilyn Arguelles)
* Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, 2007)
10. Comedy: Telethon debauchery on stage
* Comedians and audience laugh at the absurdness seen on TV fundraisers
11. Theater: Actress-playwright Adriana Sevan’s career is Taking
Flight triumphantly (by Lisa Kirazian)
12. Theater: Smooth sailing to "Utopia" (review by Aram Kouyoumdjian)
* "The Coast of Utopia" at Lincoln Center
13. Essay: "We never spoke about those things…" (by Nancy Kricorian)
1. Skylark Farm reading in New York City
Antonia Arslan will read from her award-winning novel Skylark Farm,
which was recently translated into English and published by Knopf. The
reading and talk will take place on Tuesday, May 15, at 7:00 p.m. at
the Zohrab Information Center at the Diocese of the Armenian Church,
630 Second Avenue, New York, N.Y.
Arslan is professor of literature at the University of Padua.
Skylark Farm (La Masseria delle Allodole) is her first novel; it won
the Italian Premio Campiello in 2004. The novel chronicles the life of
a family struggling for survival during the Armenian Genocide in 1915.
A film based on the novel, directed by Paolo and Vitorio Taviani, and
featuring actress Arsinée Khanjian recently premiered at the
* * *
2. Armenian masterpiece available in English
Gurgen Mahari’s Burning Orchards is considered by some to be the
greatest novel ever written in Eastern Armenian. Set in Van before the
Genocide, it offers one version of events leading up to the great
catastrophe. The book was first published in the Armenian SSR in 1966,
but it was banned and burned on the streets of Yerevan for its version
of the events. The author released a revised version in 1968. Burning
Orchards has now been published in English, translated from its
original banned version, by Black Apollo Press in the U.K. The book
launch will take place on Wednesday, May 9, at 7 p.m. at the Armenia
House, 23 Cheniston Gardens, London W8.
* * *
3. Cyberart inspired by Peleshian’s "Seasons"
A growing number of artists are creating what they call cyberart.
These works of art are produced using computers, cameras, and videos,
and are distributed through iPods and cell phones. (See Poetry, page
C11.) During Boston’s Cyberarts Festival, the Kinodance company
performed its creation called "Denizen," inspired by Armenian director
Artavazd Peleshian’s 1975 documentary about Armenian shepherds called
"Seasons." Kinodance Company dancers went to Armenia last year and
filmed scenes similar to the ones in "Seasons," and they also
performed at the locations Peleshian shot his film. "Denizen" features
videos shot in Armenia behind and on the dancers as they perform.
* * *
4. French film festival at Golden Apricot
A French film festival will be part of the Golden Apricot
International Film Festival in Yerevan this summer. More than half a
dozen French movies have already been chosen for screenings between
July 9 and July 14. More than 250 films have been submitted to the
festival, and organizers anticipate some 50,000 people will
participate in festival screenings and events.
* * *
5. ASA’s 58th annual Artists’ Ball
This New York tradition for more than half a century takes place
Saturday, June 16, at the Puck Building in Soho. The event includes an
art exhibit, music, and dancing. Proceeds are donated to Armenian
charities and the Armenian Students’ Association’s scholarship fund.
6. Photography: Children of Hayk inspire
in black and white
Garik Gyurjyan celebrates beauty and optimism
by Paul Chaderjian
This weekend, a photo exhibit titled "Children of Hayk" opens at the
Harvest Gallery in Glendale. The photographer, Garik Gyurjian, set out
to present a collection of important, well-known, influential, and
"The project started off with me going to Armenia in 2001 for six
weeks," says the Armenia native, whose father is a Armenia’s deputy
minister of culture and youth affairs, Gagik Gyurjian.
When he returned home to the U.S., Garik realized he wanted to
document as many interesting Armenians he could meet. These portraits
he would include in what he calls a "photographic encyclopedia of
Armenians in the early 21st century."
"I decided to include everyone from around the world," he says,
"because there are people who are living and working in other
countries and are helping Armenia and might never go back there. But
still, they are very Armenian, and they’re the children of Hayk. They
come from the same place. They come from the same people."
* Choosing his subjects
Included in the exhibit are portraits of the first lady of jazz,
Tatevik Hovhannisyan, master dudukist Jivan Gasparyan, UCLA professor
of Armenian and Near Eastern history Richard Hovannisian, the
Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, and famed attorney Mark
Not only are those with name recognition on display, but so are
people Garik calls "symbolic." Among the photographs he shares at the
Harvest Gallery is one of a mother who lost both her soldier sons
during the Karabakh liberation war. Other interesting characters Garik
captures include a 15-year-old Armenian-American champion gymnast with
"It’s people who have somehow contributed to the culture," explains
Garik. "Those who have helped our people, who make us proud, who
inspire others, and people who haven’t been exposed to the public."
Garik says he considers each of his photographs a work of art, and
he hopes they communicate his admiration for his subjects, his love
for his country, his people, and his optimism.
"I think that optimism is a big part of my work," he says. "I see
that in the portraits, and other people have mentioned it. I would
love for this work to inspire and make Armenians more optimistic or
feel a little bit more positive about our people and our country."
Garik says he is targeting his optimism at pessimists who complain
about every single thing that happens in Armenia and with Armenian
society. "I want them to see that we are a beautiful people,
interesting people," he says. "There are interesting people among us,
who are doing really great work."
The photographer says he doesn’t want to sound like a cliché or like
he is looking at Armenian society through rose-colored glasses, but
the truth is that he simply wants some Armenians to stop being cynics
all the time and to stop questioning everything in Armenian life and
"Some people say I’m naive," he says, "but, we’re used to saying
toasts and good things. Then we disregard a certain amount of that
positive talk. I want to show people who are comfortable in their own
skin, and it doesn’t matter what they look like. I think they’re all
* Back story of the would-be doctor
Garik, who has been commissioned to shoot writers and artists for
magazines like Time and Travel + Leisure Golf, newspapers like the LA
Weekly, and by music companies including Hollywood Records and
DreamWorks Records, started out wanting to be a medical doctor.
"I went to school at UC San Diego as a biochemistry major, hoping to
become a doctor," he says. "I took some photo classes, because my
cousin here was taking photo classes. I saw him developing film and
While volunteering at the surgical intensive care unit at UCSD,
Garik realized medicine and work in a hospital were not for him.
"People were being referred to as ‘it’ and became inanimate objects,"
he says. "I did not like the whole thing. But spending time in the
photo lab, I could be there for hours, until three o’clock in the
morning and not realize it."
Garik soon switched universities and majors and earned a bachelor’s
degree in photography from Cal State Northridge. He graduated, spent a
few years working as a freelance photographer, as an assistant, and at
photo shops. Then he decided to go back to school and learn more about
the art of photography. That quest led him to the Art Center College
of Design in Pasadena, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts in
"I think I like the immediacy of photography," he says. "My dad is
an architect, and I had always thought about becoming an architect."
However, Garik was discouraged by his father’s colleagues and told he
would have to be ready to sacrifice his vision and spend decades
catering to other architects instead of creating his own art.
"That’s what I like about photography," he says, "seeing the
results, especially when I start on a project like ‘Children of Hayk.’
It excites me to know that the photographs are going to be in a book
or are going to be on exhibit. The final product is important to me."
* And, what is a good portrait?
"Composition," says Garik. "That’s one thing I teach my students. It’s
not really about being good, it’s the timelessness that I strive for,
that all photographers, that all artists strive for."
Garik says the goal of artists should be to create a piece that not
only moves people but is also timeless. He hopes that people will look
at his photographs one hundred years from now and feel the same effect
that the portraits have now.
For art to be timeless, it has to feel fresh every time it’s
observed, explains Garik. "Simplicity and truth are important in art.
They are important to people who are looking for a mate," he says.
"They are important in music appreciation and when judging beautiful
Simplicity and truth as also important in photography, according to
Garik. "I like simplicity, natural things, true things," he says. "A
lot of my photographs are inconspicuously lit, sometimes not lit at
all. That aspect of simplicity that makes it timeless in my mind."
Garik says when he is ready to capture someone on film, he meets the
subject with no expectations. "I go with an open mind," he says. "All
these people are different. I meet them on different days. Some are in
a good mood. Some are cranky. They’re all interesting characters."
Sometimes, according to the photographer, he meets subjects that are
wearing an ethereal mask. Some people may be trying to cover their
vulnerability, others their insecurities, while others their true and
great sense of self and power.
"The camera will see through the mask and capture the person," says
Garik. Photographs sometimes capture for a photographer a person who
is completely different than how they appear in real life.
"When you photograph them," he says, "each photograph takes 30th or
60th of a second to expose. On the contact sheet, you can see a split
seconds of this person’s life when he or she wasn’t confident, when he
was down to earth, vulnerable, or insecure. You see images of a person
that is more powerful that you thought."
Which one of those 30th-of-a-second intervals of a person’s life
Garik chooses to display is a personal and professional choice, says
Garik. "It’s different with each person. Sometimes, if I feel like the
person is pretending to be something they are not, then that one shot
that they’re vulnerable is the shot that’s more true. I might use that
Out the 120 portraits Garik has snapped since 2001 for ‘Children of
Hayk,’ nearly thirty of them will be on display for the next two
weeks. ‘Children of Hayk’ are black and white portraits, capturing
Armenians the photographer feels have an interesting story to tell.
They are people, says Garik, who can inspire other Armenians as they
have inspired him.
7. The wholeness and holiness of singing a children’s song
Taline connects kids to their Armenian language
by Paul Chaderjian
Mothers have sung their children to sleep as far back as human memory
can recall. It’s something human, natural, almost effortless.
Mothers have sung to express their love, teach words and numbers,
entertain. They have sung, sing, and will sing as play, to distract,
to make infants laugh, to soothe a hurt, to connect and bond, and to
nurture a growing, impressionable mind.
Songs have communicated culture to younger generations for
centuries, impressed upon them the cadences of a language, the myths
and metaphors of a people, the stories of heroes, legends, and the
fairy tales brewed by generations past.
Mothers. Songs. Culture. A trinity that seems to go beyond countries
of origin, native tongues, histories of civil wars, eastern or western
dialects, genocide and earthquake, beyond wealth and poverty, and
independent of failure or success in academic, social, political, or
A mother’s song are words of wisdom. They are simple yet complex
messages, seeds and viruses passed through musical notes in simple
progression. Children’s songs are highfalutin corporate speaking
points fused in effective marketing campaigns. They are the elements
of what is communicated in the vibration of a mother’s vocal chords
and the vibration’s of a child’s ear drum. They are lyrics of words,
understood or not, sounds, emotions, truths traveling through space
and time. They are almost divine. Whole.
* verse 1: a young bride singing
The heroine of this story is a young bride. The year is 1993, and she
has just married a computer programmer. She has graduated with a
degree in early childhood education, and she is employed by a
pre-school, where listening and singing along to Canadian children’s
singer Raffi are part of the curriculum. During the day she sings
"Apples and Bananas" and "Five Little Ducks," and soon her new husband
hears her singing those same songs around the house.
"And I hadn’t realized she had a pretty good voice," he says. "She
really sounded very good, and I have worked with a lot of singers."
And he had. In earlier incarnations as a musician, Alex Bessos had
garnered fame in the community with his band and their one-hit wonder
"Gookan LA." A bits and bytes guy by day, Bessos was a musician,
producer, and recording artist at nights and weekends, outsourcing his
musical muses to fuel other musicians’ careers.
After hearing his bride sing, a zero turned into a one in the mind
of this computer programmer. "We thought it would be a really good
idea to produce a really high-quality Armenian album for kids," he
Bride and groom rented a small studio for ten dollars an hour and
recorded their first collection of children’s songs in Armenian. A few
were traditional Armenian songs that they had heard their parents sing
when they were kids. Others were translations of traditional songs
that the bride sang to her preschoolers. A few were translated from
French. Others were from a book of children’s songs published by the
Thus was born . . . Taline. Dzenkele Menkele Jeev Jeev Taline. The
Gats! Taline, whose voice and image mesmerize infants and children
across the seas. "Let’s Sing and Count" Taline. Hink Pokrig Patigner
Taline. The peaceful, almost-generic, almost-angelic Armenian mother
whose sound rings on speakers, whose image comes to life on television
screens in tens of thousands of Armenian homes around the world.
That Taline. Her.
* verse 2: taline speaks
Fourteen years have passed since her first recording. Taline’s first
cassette, "Five Little Ducks," contained eighteen songs and cost the
couple about $500. Since its debut, it has sold more than 15 thousand
copies and continues to be a favorite.
"I used to sing ‘Five Little Ducks’ to my preschoolers, so we
translated it and picked songs like ‘Shokehgark,’ ‘Bzdig Kouyr,’ and
‘Nabasdag,’" says Taline. "We picked songs we liked the most, and then
recorded those. These are all songs that even my mother and father
used to sing when they were in kindergarten."
"We wanted a really good quality, very simple recording," says Alex.
"We wanted something comfortable to the ear, something that was
appropriate for kids. Taline did all the singing. We produced a
cassette. And then when that was successful, and we made a little
money from that, we invested that money into the next album called,
‘It’s a Small World.’"
Taline’s second cassette contained thirteen songs, and it included
original songs penned by a talented songwriter from Armenia named Mari
Sarkissian. The music was composed and performed by Alex, who
professes their second album in 1994 had better arrangements than the
"But then after that," says Alex, "the whole thing stopped." The
year was 1995, and the couple, who had joined diasporan children’s
music gurus Ara Kekejian, Yorgantz, and Vako in making beautiful
music, stopped making music when they made their first baby.
"We had our first daughter, and that’s when it stopped," says Alex.
"But those two albums kept selling, and every year, they sell a little
bit more. We still produce them, and parents love them. They’re still
available, and they still sell, even today."
* verse 3: happy day (ourakh ohr)
Taline and Alex’s first daughter is about to turn 12; their younger
daughter is 8. Time flies when you’re raising kids, and the years
passed quickly. When both their daughters went off to school, Taline
decided she wanted to go back to work. She says she wanted to be
productive outside the home, but she wanted to focus on music.
"I was very busy traveling for work at the time," says Alex. "So, we
hired another producer, Dickran Sahagian, to do all the arrangements."
Raising two daughters had been an educational experience for the
couple. Previously, they had recorded songs with simple arrangements,
lots of repetition, without much percussion and very few instruments.
Observing their daughters react to music and mainstream children’s
programming made Alex realize that kids liked more upbeat music with
more pop elements. "We changed style to pop music," he says. "We went
into Dickran’s studio and recorded ‘Oorakh Ohr,’ which is a party
album for kids."
"Gatz!" the Armenian freeze dance, was part of this album, and the
songs continues to resonate in living rooms throughout the diaspora.
The popularity of this song has prompted Taline and Alex to perform it
during their music tours and on the digital video discs that were to
follow their first three music discs.
"At that point, when we came back, all the parents we met were
asking for DVDs," says Alex. "They’d say, we have the CD, but we
really want Armenian DVDs for our kids. And this was 2002–2003."
Everywhere Taline was asked to appear to sing a few of her songs, fans
would ask for DVDs, one of the most useful modern tools for
entertaining and educating children.
* verse 4: the making of ‘let’s sing and dance’
"We didn’t know where to start in making a DVD," says Taline, who had
never performed on-camera before. "We had no idea how to do it. I had
no idea where to start."
Taline had so far sang in recording studios and made one or two
appearances for small community gatherings. But recording a DVD would
mean finding something to shoot, dancers, costumes, a script, a
choreographer, lights, camera, and lots of action.
"Through contacts," says Alex, "I met a producer named Sevak
Petrossian. He’s got a TV studio, Meridian Studios, and he does a lot
of TV programming. And he was willing."
"We decided to work on two music videos," says Taline, "just to see
how things go. We recorded ‘Dzenkele Menkele’ and ‘Gats!’ And once we
had an idea of how to do videos, we decided to do a DVD."
"The first videos were for TV," says Alex. "We wanted to have
something to give the stations to play. They were very simple videos.
We did the whole filming in four-five hours and then some editing."
Then came what Alex calls "reverse engineering." To figure out how
mainstream children’s programmers produced the videos his kids
watched, he and Taline watched them and figured out how to film
various parts of their video.
Enter Takouhi Saatjian, an early childhood education specialist with
a graduate degree. The preschool director at Rose and Alex Pilibos
Armenian Preschool in Hollywood, Takouhi became part of the team.
"The educational element was really important," says Taline. "We
wanted to expose children to the Armenian language. We wanted them to
learn the language through the music, through the dancing. The
entertainment element was important; so was the educational element."
Alex says they were determined to make their first DVD because
parents, like he and Taline, want their kids to be exposed to the
Armenian language at an early age. "There are parents who believe
their kids should have a piece of the Armenian heritage in them from
day one," he says. If those parents didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t
have done the DVD."
"I think those early years are very, very important, in building
that link or those feelings toward the Armenian language and culture,"
says Taline. "Instead of watching something in English or another
language, kids should hear Armenian and have fun at the same time. It
has to be a fun, positive experience."
To make their first DVD more colorful and interesting, Alex decided
they would add characters to their formula. "I had attended a UCLA
extension class on video production," he remembers, "and we had a
speaker who worked on children’s programs. One of the things he said
is that if you are producing something for kids, you need to have
characters. That was a key thing that impressed me."
"So we created the character of Peeso, the cat," says Taline. "We
also created Dzaghradzou, the clown, and Nabig, who is the nabasdag,
the rabbit." With the characters in mind, Taline, Alex and Takouhi
develop a script, brainstorming and coming up with creative ways to
make the video interactive and interesting.
"A lot of the songs are interactive," says Taline. "For example,
‘klookh, oosn, ou madigner,’ or the ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’
song. Not only are the kids singing the song, but they’re moving. As
the song moves up in tempo, they have to move faster. They are
singing, playing a game, and learning body parts in Armenian."
"The key was to make learning a game," says Alex. "We’re fortunate
to have two kids who watch a lot of children’s programming. We saw
what they liked, and what they didn’t like. We saw what they found
amusing, what they didn’t. So we learned a lot from them, from
Making their first DVD was also educational, says Alex. "I learned a
lot from Sevak," he says, expressing his gratitude to the head of
Meridian Studios. "It was a tremendous challenge, trying to find
appropriate footage to put together and come up with something that
"Our first full-length DVD was in 2003," says Taline. "It was called
‘Yerkenk yev Barenk,’ ‘Let’s Sing and Dance.’ Once we had the script,
we put the cast together, found a choreographer, the dancers, the
children, including our older one, Tamar. Vanya was three or four at
the time, and I don’t think she was ready for the camera yet."
"When we were producing the first DVD," says Alex, "I wasn’t sure if
kids would watch it. You put it out there, and you hope that kids will
watch it and will want to watch it again. You want to them to watch it
again and again and again. You want this to stick. You want to make
the most impact you can with the DVD."
At the end of the experience, Taline’s popularity had crossed media
from audio to video. Soon, their video was being ordered via
talinemusic.com from all corners of the world. Thanks to the Internet
and the vast Armenian diaspora, Yerkenk yev Barenk had become an
instant international hit.
* verse 5: "let’s play together" and "yerkenk hayeren"
Everyone involved in Taline’s second full-length DVD agrees that they
were a lot more comfortable the second time around. "In 2004, a lot of
the kids who participated in the second DVD were in the first DVD the
year before," says Alex. "Their experience helped quite a bit. They’d
been in front of the camera before, and they got used to it."
"I got used to the camera too," says Taline. "It was the first time
in my life that I was being filmed, singing and dancing. So, I was a
lot more comfortable the second time around. Now, we have a total of
four DVDs. One is a live, in-concert video, and the other three are
scripted, with musical numbers and outside footage."
In her second and third in-studio productions, Taline expands her
dialogue to include lessons about animals, the Armenian alphabet, and
being Armenian. There is even a firefighter named Peter, who shows off
his firefighting gear; and of course, the classic Taline song about
the five little ducks with the camera following little duckies
crossing a creek in a park.
"You can’t teach Armenian with one video," says Alex, "but the
important thing is to communicate some themes. For example, we talk
about the Armenian alphabet and explain that it’s a very valuable
thing to have our language."
Part of the dialogue in Yerkenk Hayeren sketches, says Alex, focuses
on the importance of keeping our language alive. "We talk to the kids
and then reinforce the idea through songs," he says. "While Taline and
the kids are playing games and dancing, we’re also communicating some
very important themes about loving their friends, respecting their
brothers and sisters."
The lack of respect for their copyright is something that is now
slowing down Taline and Alex. While they are considering producing a
fifth DVD, the smallness of the Armenian market may not justify the
expense of their productions. The more popular their DVDs become, the
less they are able to recover their expenses.
"We’ve encountered a problem with piracy," explains Alex. "While our
first DVD had the lowest production value, it sold the most number of
copies. The people who illegally duplicate and sell our DVDs didn’t
know about us, so we were able to sell quite a bit. But now, as soon
as we produce something new, the next day it’s pirated so heavily all
over the world, that it’s very difficult to sell anything and recover
* verse 6: concerts and tours
Over the past few years, Taline and Alex have invited thousands of
students from Southern California Armenian schools to their big
Christmas concert. It’s a tradition that they want to continue and
expand to other communities. Taline and Alex hope to make their
Christmas concert tours longer, starting in late October, continuing
through January and performing in a different city each weekend.
In addition to her winter tour, Taline organizes an annual spring
tour, which takes her to communities throughout the southwest United
States, including a number of concerts in Southern California. Taline
has also performed for children across the United States, in Europe,
and in Australia. On June 24, she’ll appear in Vancouver, British
Columbia, for the first time.
"Wherever we go," says Taline, "the response is very, very positive.
The kids are always happy, and I’m happy when I meet them. We feel a
connection. During the concert, they’re all up dancing. We pick the
most popular songs to perform, and we ask for volunteers."
"There’s a tremendous connection and love," echoes Alex. "After each
concert, Taline spends about two hours meeting with the kids, taking
pictures, meeting the parents. It’s as if they know Taline. There’s a
very strong relationship."
"I’m like a friend to them," says Taline. "I’m on the same level. We
do high fives. We sing and dance together. It’s a lot of fun. I’m one
of their friends. That’s how it is. I feel it more when I meet the
children, and they react like that. I realize, oh my goodness, they
know me. And then when I go back to my kids, I’m like any other
* chorus: sing it y’all
A mother, yes, but not like any other mother. With four successful
DVDs, seven best-selling CDs and countless successful performances
around the world, Taline is definitely not your average mother.
Yes, she is a mother who does what most mother do — sing to their children.
However, her songs allow other Armenian mothers to have an effective
educational tool with which they can introduce their children to the
Witness a child watching a Taline video, and it’s enough proof that
whatever je ne sais quoi Taline has, works. Kids love her, and so do
their parents. Kids watch and want more.
And the most popular of all of Taline’s works of art? Her lullaby
album, the Oror CD. Recorded in 2004 in their own home studio, it’s
their best production and favorite album, Taline and Alex say.
Proof that songs leaving the mouths of mothers to heal, ease, teach
and entertain their children must be one of the most natural and
beautiful, divine, holy human acts of interaction. Because that’s what
humans do, sing. And mothers take that act one step closer to the
divine by singing to their own flesh and blood, reaching out with a
cultural lesson that perhaps makes possible the self-preservation of
the children of Hayk.
8. Lola Koundakjian takes Armenian poetry online
On the popular iTunes podcasting service, Armenian poetry may be
downloaded regularly thanks to the Armenian Poetry Project. The
Armenian Reporter asked the APP’s Lola Koundakjian to explain their
pods and what reaction they have received so far.
Q: What is the Armenian Poetry Project?
A: APP is a blog created to provide weekly RSS feeds of Armenian
poems in original and translated forms. It’s curated in 3 languages:
Armenian and English, with the recent addition of some French.
Q: How do people hear it and participate?
A: Online through iTunes and other feed readers, and by simply
visiting the website http://
Q: How many podcasts have you produced so far?
A: As I am approaching the 1st anniversary, I have released over 55
podcasts, including special issues.
Q: Who have been the featured poets?
A: Every reader and every author has made a unique and special
contribution. I don’t have any featured guests. Some of the writers
are very famous, others are budding, while others are completely
unknown or "lost."
Q: What type of reaction have you had to the APP?
A: Ninety-nine percent positive, although there are some readers who
are not pleased with my selections.
Q: How do you determine whose poetry you will use?
A: It’s completely subjective. I have to like them.
Q: How often to you produce podcasts?
A: At first I was the only reader. Within a month I had volunteers.
I usually request or suggest 5 poems, and we sit for a recording
session. I then produce them in one shot. Afterwards I prepare a
schedule and release one per week. During the course of the week, I
may post additional poems in text only (with or without translation).
I use only UNICODE for the Armenian text encoding. This means the text
is available in google and other search engines in Armenian.
Q: Are all the previously produced episodes available?
A: Yes. And they’re free. Although iTunes only displays a few recent
ones, the blog has a year’s worth of text and audio clips, organized
in categories such as Armenia, Canada, France, Diaspora.
Q: Why poetry?
A: It’s a great introduction to literature and culture in general,
and to the Armenian culture in particular. As opposed to prose, poetry
is shorter, creating small audio clips, and therefore accessible to
listeners who are dialing up. My readers are currently in 84 countries
and most do not have fast Internet access.
Q: Where do you see the podcasts in the next several years? Are
there plans to increase the number of pods, take them to non-Internet
A: I have a core support group which meets quarterly as members of
the "Dead Armenian Poet’s Society". We read and comment about poetry,
and then open a bottle of wine (or two).
We have talked of publishing a volume for APP as well as working
with translations of works by forgotten poets.
Depending on the availability of readers and writers, I can
certainly increase the feeds.
Ideally, I’d like to have a core fund to pay my readers and writers
who have been so far volunteers. Although I accept donations, I have
received only one donation, during the course of the entire year this
program has been produced!
Q: How many hits and downloads have you had so far?
A: Over 8,000 hits and downloads in less than a year.
Q: How can people without iPods or without Internet access enjoy the
work you do?
A: APP exists because of the Internet — and is concentrated around
On the other hand, you don’t need to own an MP3 player, but you need
Internet access through a PC or Mac. iTunes (Windows and Mac) is a
free download. In addition, the feeds are compatible with any feed
reader application. You can subscribe with Yahoo, Feedburner, Odeo,
and so forth. All the episodes are free.
Q: Tell us about your background, your ventures into poetry and the
A: I’ve been involved with fine arts since a very young age. When I
moved to New York City at the age of 17, the art world here was so
much bigger than what I had experienced growing up and through my
travels. To this day, I am experiencing tremendous personal growth
just attending and participating in the many events this city offers.
Just this week, I attended several lectures at the "PEN World Voices
Festival," which had 160 writers from all over the world in town. I
was able to talk to several authors, hear them read in their native
tongues and through translations.
For the past 25 years, I have worked extensively with clay,
exhibiting in and around New York City. My work is in collections on
three continents. I have dabbled a little with other visual arts. For
12 years I have served on the board of the Ararat quarterly, but I
hadn’t written much since my college days. When I revived the Dead
Armenian Poet’s Society in 2005, I also had the impetus to write
again. Podcasting seemed a natural extension of DAPS and writing.
Q: Who have been the biggest artistic influences in your life.
A: It’s a very long list! And it’s growing all the time.
Q: What themes do you find yourself drawn to when you are writing?
A: I write urban poetry. I have very few pastoral themes. I also
write about the human condition. At my very first reading on April 21,
at the Cornelia Street cafe, in the Greenwich Village, I had to make
an effort to balance poems about war, poverty, and inequality with
Q: Anything else you want to add?
A: Two special stories and comments or recommendations:
The first is about a Swedish man who contacted me via email and
informed me his grandfather was an Armenian poet. After some research
I discovered that the poet was Harout Kostandyan who, although unknown
by the general public, remained a highly regarded poet. Since this
first contact, I have read and translated some of his work, giving his
grandson an opportunity to finally understand his grandfather’s work,
and the Armenian public a chance to read works that were forgotten.
The second story involves Marine Petrossian, a poet in Armenia. I
met her last fall, and she was kind enough to read to me for a
recording session. After some of the audio clips were released, a man
in Barcelona contacted me asking for her email address. As a result of
her appearance on APP, Marine will be travelling to Spain next month,
and reading her work in Barcelona; her poetry will be translated into
Catalan. I am regularly corresponding with Armenian poets of all ages
throughout the world, and researching at the New York Public Library.
I would like to ask your readers to (a) read Armenian works in
general, and (b) make an effort to borrow from the circulation
department of your local library, as well as purchase volumes;
encourage young authors by attending their readings; explore other
regions of the diaspora and Armenia. Our culture is neither static nor
concentrated in one geography. We are ever evolving.
Q: Thank you.
*********** ************************************************** **************
9. An unsentimental journey
Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking, 2007)
reviewed by Marilyn Arguelles
This is a boisterous novel, full of interesting, mostly female
characters who live in Istanbul, San Francisco, and Arizona. It is a
mandala of family connections and loyalties, with more than one
surprise at the end.
Asya, 19, lives in Istanbul with her mother, Zeliah Kazanci, her
three aunts, grandmother. and great grandmother. Each member of this
household is idiosyncratic in some way: a tattoo artist, a
clairvoyant, a hypochondriac, and a history teacher who tries, without
much success, to bring order to the chaotic household. There was one
male in this generation, Mustafa, who was the favored child. By moving
to America as a young man, he had hoped to avoid an early death, the
fate of the Kazanci men.
Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian (or Amy, as her American mother calls her)
is Mustafa’s stepdaughter. Her mother, Rose, was divorced from
Armanoush’s father, Barsam. Rose felt like an outsider in her
husband’s large extended family and blamed the failure of her first
marriage on what she saw as constant interference from Barsam’s
family. Uncle Dikran Stamboulian, described as someone who "every year
adds another layer of flab to his infamous belly, like a tree trunk
adding a growth ring with the passing of each year," is outraged when
Rose accepts Mustafa’s marriage proposal, asking how Barsam can allow
his daughter to be raised by a Turk. He worries that she will be
brainwashed to deny the Genocide. Barsam’s mother, Shushan, wants to
rescue Armanoush from this fate. Rose admits to herself that part of
her initial attraction to Mustafa was the knowledge that Barsam’s
family would be aghast at her marrying a Turk. But she saw this as
just retribution for their referring to her as an odar, which was the
very first word she learned in Armenian, and for continuing to treat
her as an outsider.
So we have Asya in Istanbul and Armanoush in San Francisco and
Tucson, both young, modern women with confusing family backgrounds.
Asya is a rebel, given to drinking, smoking, and consorting with
unusual characters at the Café Kundera. Asya’s relatives don’t know
what she is doing when she’s away from home, and they believe her when
she says she is taking ballet lessons. Armanoush, who is described as
very beautiful, is happiest when reading novels. Her grandmother and
aunts disapprove of this, and Armanoush senses this is a cultural
survival instinct. That is, because the writers, poets, and
intellectuals had been the first to be eliminated, she feels the older
generation, although proud of her intellectual curiosity, does not
want her to be seen as anything other than ordinary. Armanoush is a
member of the Anoush Tree section of Café Constantinopolis, a chat
room whose participants are grandchildren of families once based in
Istanbul. They choose a specific discussion topic each week, tending
to revolve around their common enemy, the Turks. The author includes a
good bit of political dialogue and Armenian history in the chat room
Because Armanoush had always felt divided between her Armenian
father and American mother and because she yearns to find her
identity, she decides to travel to visit her Grandma Shushan’s
ancestral home in Turkey and arranges to stay with Mustafa’s family.
They welcome her with a sumptuous meal and are impressed that
Armanoush knows the names of the dishes. It is then that Armanoush
tells the family that she is Armenian-American and that her
grandmother prepares these same dishes. As she begins to explain her
father’s family history and what happened to her ancestors in 1915, it
becomes apparent that the Kazancis — even the history teacher auntie
— view anything that happened before 1923 as history from another
country and another people. While Armanoush is in Istanbul, the past
is revisited, secrets are revealed, and connections are unearthed. We
also learn the identity of Asya’s father.
The author, who is a professor of Near Eastern studies at the
University of Arizona, was charged with "public denigration of
Turkishness" when this novel was published. (The charge was later
Elif Shafak has written a family saga against the backdrop of
conflicting historical memories. She uses humor, tragedy, social
commentary, and mysticism to tell the story of two families, so
different and yet so similar, who represent the interconnectedness of
all people. The novel’s central question is whether it is better for
society to examine the past or to disregard it, to acknowledge
wrongdoing or to live with collective amnesia. Through her writing,
Ms. Shafak shows herself to be fair-minded and brave when considering
"the Armenian question." It is an unsentimental journey, one well
Marilyn Arguelles, assistant to the vice president of instruction at
MercedCollege, is an avid reader of fiction and biographies.
10. Telethon debauchery on stage
Comedians and audience laugh at the absurdness seen on TV fundraisers
For two sold-out night at the Alex Theater in Glendale, the comedy
group known as Demq produced one of the most hilarious parodies its
talented troupe of performers has ever staged. The show was called
"the Demq Telethon," and it mocked everything that could and perhaps
should have been left sacred. From the construction of roads in
Karabakh to perfectly mimicked Armenian pop and rabiz performers, from
ultrafascistic sounding, patriotic scouts making an appearance to hand
large checks in small amounts to community leaders seeking fame, from
local cable talk show hosts crossing gender boundaries and trying to
be sensationalists to incredibly accurate yet pathetic stereotypes of
Armenians, nothing was left untouched, no holds barred. The audience
knew what they were coming to see, and the Demq team asked them to put
reality on hold for a few hours and have fun making fun of its
diasporan existence. Demq, well known in Southern California for their
local cable comedy TV shows and stage productions rose to the occasion
to provide some comic relief to a community riddled with historic and
contemporary challenges, issues and heartaches. Headed by the Karo and
Gor Kirakosian father-and-son team, featured previously in the
Armenian Reporter, the troupe brought the evening to a close with a
musical finale. Had the telethon been real, said Kirakosian at the
end, Demq would have taken the proceeds and torn down the Alex Theater
to build in its place a replica of the Opera in Yerevan and purchased
every audience member a first-class roundtrip ticket to the homeland.
It’s good to know an Armenian audience can laugh at itself, its stars,
performers, stereotypes, and its determined annual drive to build the
homeland’s infrastructure through the real telethons — which can,
sometimes, be funny as well.
11. Actress-playwright Adriana Sevan’s career is Taking Flight triumphantly
by Lisa Kirazian
She is a passionate performer and has made a fine reputation as an
actress in plays at South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa,
American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco, and the Public
Theater in New York. She has also appeared in "Law and Order" and "Sex
in the City" on television and in feature films.
She is also a playwright who cites writer Nilo Cruz, dancer Rudolf
Nureyev, and actor/writer John Leguizamo as major influences.
She is a native New Yorker — born of an Armenian mother who was a
dancer, and a Basque-Dominican father who was an opera singer. Her
parents met and fell in love while performing in a show together.
So, as actress-playwright Adriana Sevan says, "I followed them into
the family business."
According to Adriana Sevan, she began her artistic life as a dancer,
but after an injury, she found her way into a theater improvisation
class and was hooked. She received her BFA in theater from the City
College of New York, and proceeded to work in critically acclaimed
theater productions across the country, as well as in television and
Her range as an actress is impressive. She received praise, for
example, for her fine work in four South Coast Repertory productions:
Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics and Two
Sisters and a Piano, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. She also
performed Two Sisters at the Public Theater in New York. She also
appeared in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink at ACT in San Francisco, and
Henry V at Shakespeare & Company. Sevan also won an award at The
Denver International Film Festival for her portrayal of Priscilla in
Patrice Johnson’s critically acclaimed debut film, King’s County.
But she did not start writing for theater until after September 11,
2001. Says Sevan: "I had always kept journals and enjoyed sounding
things out on the page, but I never set out to write a play. In 2002,
I was invited by INTAR, a theater in New York, to present a 15-minute
piece within an evening called, 9/11: Writers Respond. I went into a
studio with director Giovanna Sardelli, with nothing but pictures,
grief, and a sweater that my friend, who was seriously injured in the
attacks, had given me. I emerged several weeks later with a theater
piece and the mustard seed of what would become the full-length play
called Taking Flight."
Taking Flight is a one-woman show exploring the depth of friendship
in the face of disaster, and the restorative power of forgiveness and
redemption. The play was created in a workshop at the Mark Taper Forum
and later developed at Robert Redford’s prestigious Sundance Theatre
Lab. Taking Flight had its world premiere in Los Angeles at Center
Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre and was chosen at yearend as one
of the ten best plays of 2006 by Evan Henderson of the Los Angeles
On her dramatic opening night at the Douglas, Sevan accidentally
hurt herself (she severed her anterior cruciate ligament) and writhed
in pain onstage as the audience was ushered out and paramedics were
ushered in. Sevan bravely decided to continue with the show, propped
up with bandaging and ice packs. The audience was ushered back in,
amazed by the courage and passion Sevan exhibited in performing
through her inner and outer pain, telling the heartbreaking story of
how the September 11 attack forever affected her friendship with a
friend who was gravely injured that day. She received a standing
ovation, including praise from the namesake of the theater, the actor
Kirk Douglas himself, who was in the audience that night.
Taking Flight then aired nationwide on public radio on March 24
through the LA Theatre Works series, "The Play’s the Thing." Sevan
also performed the play live at the San Diego Repertory Theater, from
March 15 to April 1, again to fine reviews and audiences who were
At the end of the San Diego run of her play, Adriana Sevan received
an audience response unlike any other she has ever experienced. As she
took her final bow at the closing show, her boyfriend took the stage
and (with the help of the technicians), proposed to Adriana on bended
knee, complete with lights and sound. She accepted and has been
thrilled ever since. They have not yet set a date but, Sevan says, "it
feels wonderful" to be engaged.
"It is my intention that we might all leave the theater inspired to
love even more. I am grateful to my Armenian grandfather for teaching
me this, for even after having lost everything during the Genocide, he
never lost his capacity to love."
In fact, Sevan is now delving into the stories of her Armenian
grandfather to explore how she might expand them into a play. She
says: "I want very much to write about him and his extraordinary
heart." Sevan also wishes to travel to Armenia soon to "experience his
birthplace. I would be the first in my family to return since the
Sevan is writing a collection of personal essays and a children’s
book. So she is quite a busy artist these days. Following the success
of Taking Flight in San Diego, there are several regional theaters
across the country that will be producing the play in the next year.
At this remarkable time, Adriana Sevan’s life and career are taking
Lisa Kirazian is a playwright and on the Advisory Board of the
Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance. Her play "The Blackstone Sessions,"
was part of the ADAA/Fountain Theatre Playreading Series in November,
12. Smooth sailing to "Utopia"
reviewed by Aram Kouyoumdjian
The long nineteenth century — as the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm
has termed it — ostensibly began in 1789 with the French Revolution
and ended at the outset of World War I in 1914. At the midpoint
between those two major historical events, the century saw a wave of
nationalist revolutions, most prominently in 1848, that swept through
France and the rest of Europe. They were, for the most part, quickly
and easily suppressed.
In Russia, revolution came later — in 1917. The overthrow of the
empire’s czarist regime, however, had been long in the making. The
Decembrist uprising in 1825, despite ending in failure, had inspired
an entire generation of young Russian revolutionaries agitating for
Some of those early revolutionaries — including Alexander Herzen,
the father of Russian socialism, and Michael Bakunin, the father of
modern anarchism, along with novelist Ivan Turgenev, poet Nicholas
Ogarev, and literary critic Vissarion Belinsky — have been given new
life as key characters in playwright Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy, "The
Coast of Utopia," now playing at the Lincoln Center in New York City.
The early Russian revolutionaries influenced the Armenian
nationalist movement that awakened in the second half of the 19th
century. Historians see the direct influence of Herzen and company on
the development of the Armenian liberation movement.
The nexus seems to be the poet Mikael Nalbandian, whose most famous
patriotic composition, "Mer Hayrenik" (Our fatherland), became the
anthem of the Armenian nation. Nalbandian’s propagandistic writings —
along with those of fellow poet Rafayel Patkanian and the novelist
Raffi (Hagop Melik Hagopian) — advocated liberty through revolution.
Nalbandian spent time with "Russian émigré revolutionary circles in
London," according to Vartan Gregorian, and established "close
personal ties" with Herzen and Bakunin, Ogarev and Turgenev. These
connections contributed to Nalbandian’s undoing in czarist Russia,
where he was jailed for his activities. He died in exile, of
tuberculosis, while only in his 40s.
Gregorian notes that "Nalbandian was not the only Armenian
intellectual who was influenced by the writings of such men as
Belinskii, Chernyshevskii, Nekrasov, and Herzen. Others, such as
Barsegh Bastamiantz, [Rafayel] Patkanian, and Gevork Yevangulian,
between 1855 and 1865 tried to develop aesthetic theories based on
their understanding of Belinskii, Chernyshevskii, and Herzen."
The Lincoln Center’s monumental production of "The Coast of Utopia"
— an American premiere — boasts a marquee cast (including screen
actors Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup), an esteemed director, and a
stellar design team. Their combined talents deliver a virtuoso staging
that captures the breadth of intellect, emotion, and humor in
Stoppard belongs to the elite of English-language playwrights, and
his contributions to dramatic culture now span five decades —
starting with the seminal "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" in
the late 1960s. The highlights from subsequent decades include
"Jumpers" and "Travesties" in the 1970s, "The Real Thing" in the
1980s, and the incandescent masterpiece "Arcadia" in the 1990s.
"The Coast of Utopia," a 21st-century work, tells a 19th-century
tale about the philosophical and political journeys of the early
Russian revolutionary thinkers, their lives marked by occasional
triumph, frequent disillusionment, and constant struggle — if not
altogether cut short by tuberculosis, a scourge of the age.
"Voyage," part one of the trilogy, focuses on Michael Bakunin as it
unfolds on the vast estate of Premukhino at a time when a landowner’s
holdings were measured in the number of serfs — or "souls" — he had.
The episodic first act — written in the sentimental style of
classical Russian novels (but laced with Stoppard’s signature wit) —
captures the family drama of the Bakunins, including the romantic and
(often arranged) marital attachments of Michael’s sisters. It is
Michael’s search for ideology, however, that fuels an
intergenerational conflict with his traditionalist father. As the
young Bakunin rejects the values of the landed aristocracy, he
navigates a confused path through German philosophy, leapfrogging from
Kant and Schelling to Fichte and Hegel. In the second act, the action
moves to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, as the play shifts back and
forth in time to establish the budding anarchist’s first associations
with Herzen and his circle.
In "Shipwreck," the second play in the trilogy, the focus turns to
Herzen, who has left Russia with his family to seek medical care for
his deaf son, Kolya, in Europe. Herzen is at first buoyed by the swell
of nationalism in Europe, but becomes shipwrecked, philosophically, as
revolutions are stifled and the Second French Republic reverts to
monarchy. At the same time, Herzen suffers devastating personal
misfortunes, including the loss of his Kolya at sea. "I wish it hadn’t
happened at night," the grieving father laments. "He couldn’t hear in
the dark. He couldn’t see your lips." The emotionally gripping
"Shipwreck" saves its best scene for the end, as Stoppard replays the
moment back in Russia when Herzen first receives permission to take
his family abroad. The joyous mood onstage creates a chilling effect
on an audience all too aware of the tragic events to follow.
By "Salvage," the concluding play, Herzen is in London and in the
company of political exiles stoking the fires of revolution in their
home countries from afar. Herzen reunites with his friend Ogarev to
publish "The Bell," an incendiary journal smuggled into Russia — and
the likely inspiration for the Armenian-language Hunchak (Clarion).
Herzen glories in the emancipation of Russia’s serfs (in 1861), but
his luster begins to fade with the emergence of a new generation of
radicals and nihilists. It will be up to Russia’s "new men" to weather
the country’s approaching storm.
The production dazzles from its first moment, which recreates the
effect of a storm through the use of huge swaths of flowing fabric,
bathed in blue light and flooded with the sound of raging waters.
Herzen, perching atop the waves, is swallowed up by the storm and
disappears into its vortex. The fabric follows into the vortex,
revealing the stunning set by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask; their
exquisite design is sublimely lit by Brian MacDevitt, Kenneth Posner,
and Natasha Katz. The technically flawless production is further
enhanced by Mark Bennett’s original music and sound, and Catherine
Director Jack O’Brien molds these design elements into a coherent
vision as he guides a 40-member cast performing 80 speaking parts. The
Oscar-nominated Hawke relishes the role of Bakunin, although his
approach to it is quite modern in sensibility. Crudup treats the
disheveled, awkward Belinsky with sensitivity, while Brian F. O’Byrne
infuses Herzen with restraint and gravitas. Josh Hamilton lends
surprising depth to Ogarev, as Richard Easton and Martha Plimpton
shine in multiple roles.
The trilogy can be seen over three nights or in day-long marathons
on certain weekends. Three plays in one day may sound intimidating.
However, after one is totally immersed in Stoppard’s engrossing story
— so brilliantly staged and executed — one cannot conceive of
experiencing it in any other way. Rather, one only hopes that the
story of the Armenian nationalist movement can one day be told with
equal richesse of intellect and artistry.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting
("The Farewells") and directing ("Three Hotels"). His latest work is
13. "We never spoke about those things…"
by Nancy Kricorian
There is a line in my novel Zabelle when the title character says,
referring to the mass deportations and killings that came to be called
the Armenian Genocide: "We never spoke about those things, but they
were like rotting animals behind the walls of our house."
It was with the faint smell of those rotting animals that I grew up.
When I was a child in Watertown, in a two-family house much like the
one described in the novel, my grandmother never talked about what had
happened to her and her family during what people in our church, on
the rare occasions that the topic came up, called "The Deportations"
or "The Massacres." But I knew from vague references that Turks had
done something bad to Armenians, something horrible and unspeakable,
something that had caused all the people of my grandmother’s
generation in our church to have left "the old country" years before.
Growing up I wasn’t very much interested in things Armenian,
probably in part because I lived in a community where there were four
Armenian churches, three Armenian bakeries, and two Armenian cultural
centers. Of the 14 houses on our street, six of them were homes to
Armenian families. In adolescence my main goal was to escape little
Armenia with its fractured English, its Armenian shopkeepers, and
waves of Armenian immigrants. There was also something downtrodden and
melancholy about many of the people in our Armenian Brethren Church.
When they sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" it sounded as though it
were written in a minor key.
I wanted to be a part of cheerful, white bread, upper-middle-class
America. So when it came time to go to college I chose a place three
hours away that looked like a college campus from a 50s movie — the
one where the scholarship girl working in the library takes off her
glasses and wins the heart of the football captain.
It wasn’t until my second year at Dartmouth, by which time I had
begun to realize that coming from an ethnic and working class family
gave me some cachet, that I turned back to look at my family with new
I guess that’s the moment when I became an adult.
In a women’s studies course titled "Mother’s and Daughters in
Literature," one of the class assignments was to do an oral history
project with a woman relative. So I went home to Watertown and sat on
the second-story back porch with my grandmother. She had a couch and a
table on the porch, and a grape vine that climbed up the back of the
house in summer and provided shade to the place where she sat every
afternoon. From this perch she threw butternuts at the squirrels that
had the temerity to climb into her nearby pear tree.
The narrative spilled out of my grandmother as though she had been
waiting for years for someone to ask her. I took that fragmented
monologue, as I remembered it (I made notes, but didn’t have the
foresight to tape record it) and I shaped it into a poem that I wrote
in her voice a few years later, after she had died.
This is what I remember:
I would make fine stitches
in scraps of cloth and my father
would look up from his work
and praise my tiny row of seeds.
I loved to sit among the buttons
and bolts of cloth and hear the rock
of the pedal and sewing machine.
One winter morning when the snow
drifts stood as high as my head,
my father swung me to his shoulders
and carried me two miles to school
past the white mountains of cedar.
I don’t know why it happened.
A notice nailed to the wall
in my eighth year and we gathered
few belongings, and all our people
marched and stumbled toward Syria.
My mother fell by the road,
and we left her there.
The great dark birds followed us.
The soldiers were dogs, and we became
less than nothing in the desert.
My father died, and my small sisters
grew thinner to their deaths.
There was me and my brother Sarkis,
and the black tent flapping in the sand.
I went on to write a series of poems about my grandmother, and then
wrote some in the voices of different women in our church, telling
their stories. And I started researching what I then knew to be called
The Armenian Genocide. It was a quest to take my family history and
link it up to the broader historical record. I read everything from
survivor narratives to dry analyses of the root economic and
sociopolitical causes of the destruction. Sometimes I took it all in
with academic dispassion and sometimes I felt as though I were
swimming down into a bottomless well of sadness.
I also went to visit with my grandmother’s best friend, Alice
Kharibian, at her home in West Roxbury. At my grandmother’s funeral,
Mrs. Kharibian, who became the model for the Arsinee character in the
novel, had said to me, "We were girls together. What will I do without
When I went to interview Mrs. Kharbian I brought with me a tape
recorder and a bouquet of flowers. Alice, in true acerbic form said,
"Honey, why’d you bring me flowers? Don’t you know my son is a
florist? Your father always brings me meat."
Mrs. Kharibian told me the story of how she, my grandmother, and my
grandmother’s younger brother had stuck together in the desert at
Ras-ul-Ain after their families had died. It was Mrs. Kharibian who
told me the story of the dead and rotting camel that they roasted and
sold in the market. She said to me, "Your grandmother was so
wishy-washy. If it weren’t for me she would have been dead in the
desert. I had to be jarbig for all of us." (Jarbig means "clever.")
Then I started writing Zabelle. My conscious goal was to create a
fictionalized version of my grandmother’s life as an Armenian Genocide
survivor and immigrant bride. Writing the novel, I thought to myself,
was a way of keeping my deceased grandmother with me. It was also a
means of coming to understand her and the Armenian women of her
generation that I had known in our church primarily as old widows in
black sweaters sitting in the front pews.
In the prologue to the novel, Zabelle’s grown children are sitting
at the dining room table hours before her wake. Her eldest son, a
Christian minister who will be delivering his mother’s eulogy, asks
his younger siblings, "So, what was special about Ma?" They can’t
think of anything to say. For me, writing the novel was a way to
answer that question about my grandmother.
But in hindsight I realize that what also drove me as a writer to
choose this topic rather than anything else was an underlying
obsession with the Armenian Genocide. I was, without being entirely
conscious of it, wrestling with the intergenerational effects of state
violence on the Armenian people. Or to put it another way, my
grandmother’s story felt at once like an inheritance and a debt.
The damage, you see, wasn’t done only to the generation of Armenians
who lost their lives, their property, their homes and their families.
The remnants of the Armenians — the survivors, many of them orphans
— went on to try to recreate their communities and their way of life
in other places, from Beirut to Buenos Aires to Boston. But they
brought with them the trauma of their history, which, whether
articulated or not, was transmitted to their children and even to
their children’s children.
I don’t think my grandmother ever entirely got over her experience
of near starvation in the desert — it shaped the way she regarded
food and the way she fed her family. And I think that losing her
parents at a young age in such a gruesome way stunted her emotional
development so that as a mother she was needy and overly controlling.
I think the individual experience of this trauma was also translated
into a communal cult of victimhood that oftentimes made the next
generation want to flee its boundaries. And it was the following
generation — the grandchildren of the survivors — who eventually
took up its challenges and its burdens.
After writing Zabelle, I didn’t feel as though I were done with the
subject. My own identity had become linked to my grandmother’s and I
had reconnected to the Armenian community; or rather, I had come into
dialogue with the various and fractious Armenian communities. I had
also begun a complicated journey in which my political understanding
of the Armenian Genocide had started to deepen and spread into a
broader quest for social justice, which would continue to inform and
inspire my writing.
It is easy, when you are just starting out, to think and talk only
of your future. But I have found life to be a double journey, leading
both forward and back. The future is meaningful only insofar as it
shapes itself creatively in response to the past.
Novelist Nancy Kricorian is the author of Zabelle (1998) and Dreams of
Bread and Fire (2003). She lives in New York, where she divides her
time between writing her third novel, set amid the Armenian community
of Paris during the Nazi occupation, and her work with the social
justice movement CODEPINK Women for Peace. This essay is adapted from
remarks she delivered in August 2006 as part of the Helen and Phillip
Brecher New Student Forum at Brandeis University.
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