Proverbs, Politics, and Paris: An Interview with Nancy Kricorian

dec 28 2013

Proverbs, Politics, and Paris: An Interview with Nancy Kricorian

Nancy Kricorian loves proverbs, especially Armenian ones. She has been
collecting them for years, finding them in various books and corners
of the internet and then saving them in her ever growing collection,
which she shares through social media. Her current favorite – `Law is
written for the rich, punishment for the poor’ – is more than fitting
for the novelist, poet, and activist, who strives to highlight those
standing at the margins of society, whether through her novels or the
various campaigns she has organized as coordinator of the grassroots
social justice and anti-war movement, Code Pink: Women for Peace.

Born in Watertown, Massachusetts, Kricorian has received praise for
her novels Zabelle(1998), described as `haunting and convincing’ by
the New Yorker, and Dreams of Bread and Fire (2003), in which we
follow protagonist Ani Silver as she comes of age through romance and
college, as well as through her family’s tragic past during the
Armenian Genocide. `Kricorian does for young women what James Joyce
did for middle aged men,’ the Los Angeles Times Book Review swooned,
`she allows us to scramble safely amid the debris of new love,
rejection, sex, and identity.’

Kricorian’s newest book, All the Light There Was, published in 2013,
tells the story of an Armenian family during the Nazi occupation of
1940s Paris, with fourteen-year-old Maral Pegorian vividly narrating.
The heroine takes us deep into life during war in the neighborhood of
Belleville, describing her brother’s involvement in the Resistance and
her romance with Zaven, her brother’s close friend and neighbor. But
as Zaven flees to avoid conscription, the war invades Maral’s life in
ways she hadn’t prepared for.

Unlike her previous two novels, which drew on autobiographical
inspiration, All The Light There Wasrepresents new territory for the
author, who threw herself into the Pegorians’ world so vividly that it
began to invade her own reality.

I spoke to Kricorian from her home in New York City, as she was deep
in researching for her next novel, set in Beirut during the Civil War,
whose characters, as you might have guessed, are Armenian.

`It’s the community I came from; it’s what I know,’ Kricorian says of
her concentration on the Armenian experience. `It also has to do with
my very deep concern for human rights, social justice, and truth
telling, and I feel like there is still so much to be explored in the
Armenian Diaspora experience. It ties in with all of my political

Liana Aghajanian (LA): Your novels all deal with some aspect of being
Armenian, and more specifically, diasporan Armenian. What attracts you
to writing in this specific cultural theme?

Nancy Kricorian (NK): I grew up in the Armenian community. I grew up
in a two-family house in Watertown, Massachusetts; on the block where
I grew up half the families were Armenian. I went to the Armenian
church, and a third of my classmates at school were Armenian. I really
was in the community and then I desperately wanted to get out of
there, I wanted to get away, so when I went to college I thought, you
know, `I’m escaping,’ but then somehow it ended up that that is
somewhere my imagination went. I ended up in this `home’ place.

LA: You go through this change and transformation and then at some
point circle back to that.

NK: But you come back in a different place; you’re choosing how to be
involved in that community and you are choosing. It’s not that you
come full circle and come exactly back to the same place. It is that
you come back to the themes and the concerns with a new set of tools
that you have assembled after having left.

LA: Your latest piece of work, All the Light There Was, took ten years
to write and research. What was that process like?

NK: That was really, really long, but there were a couple of factors.
The first two books were based on family experience and stories. With
this one, my family was not in France during the occupation and I had
to do extensive research. I know that different writers have different
processes, but I really have to make sure that I have all the facts
straight. It drives me crazy that I would have some anachronistic
thing happening in the book, so I really wanted it to be as factually
accurate as possible. And then the other two pieces were my kids. It
turns out it is harder to have space in your head for your writing
when your kids are going from the ages of seven to seventeen. When
they’re younger, they are more physically exhausting, so you have more
space in your head for your work, and then I found as they were older,
they were more intellectually demanding. Also, in the meantime, I was
working with Code Pink. I was working thirty hours a week for this
anti-war women’s organization, so that cut into it too.

LA: You actually spent time in Paris. You wanted to experience what
your characters were experiencing. Why was that so important for you?

NK: I had to build the whole place in my head. I had to have the
apartment, the streets, the lycée, the park where she met with the guy
she was seeing. Going to Paris was to help do that, reading
voluminously about Belleville throughout the occupation, memoirs,
letters, to actually build it in my head, so that when I was working
on it, I went there.

I only have probably two solid hours of writing in my head a day. It’s
not like its twenty-four/seven for ten years; it was more like Monday
through Friday for two hours of the day I was in Paris during the
occupation, and there were bits and pieces sort of flowing up off and
on during the rest of the week.

LA: During the writing process, you also thought your characters were
coming alive; at one point you were stockpiling your pantry.

NK: I was thinking things like: `Oh poor Maral, she has no soap,’ and
then I look – I would stockpile all this soap, thinking, `Well, if war
ever came here, we wouldn’t have soap either. I better be saving the
soap.’ [laughs]

People have told me when they are reading the book that they feel
hungry reading it and feel cold reading it, and I really felt that
when I was working on it. The thing I was saying about building the
place and going to it? I was really in it, and so that sort of spilled
over into this worry about cold and hungry and not having soap in my
life here.

When I told my husband my next book was going to be on Armenians in
Beirut during the civil war, he said: `Great, are you going to start
collecting shell casings?’

LA: How did you go about choosing a very young girl as your main
character, and how did you transition from speaking in her voice
rather than in an adult voice?

NK: I feel that it is told from the girl, but it’s really Maral as an
adult, at least fifteen years after the war. It goes from when she’s
age fourteen to age twenty-one. I think in addition to being
interested in the Armenian diaspora experience, I am also deeply a
feminist, and I’m really interested in a woman’s experience – it has to
do with wanting to tell untold stories and also wanting to tell things
from a woman’s point of view.

There were books and films written about Missak Manouchian and the
Armenian involvement in the French Resistance, but I didn’t want it to
be heroic, where people were blowing things up and assassinating
Nazis. I really wanted it to be how did an ordinary girl survive and
live through this experience, and how do you stay humane and how do
you live your daily life?

LA: The one word that I often use to describe what the collective
Armenian experience is, is `resilience.’ To have gone through
everything – war, genocide, forced migration, and more – and to somehow
survive all of that, `resilience’ feels appropriate. How do you sum up
the experience?

NK: The thing that I love about it is the sort of humor and sadness,
but the word resilience is really a key word. I think what I have been
thinking about a lot now, I keep thinking of Armenians as birds. Think
about all the birds that are important to Armenians: there are songs
and poems about them, like the crane and swallow. You just think about
Armenians as birds who build nests that get knocked down again and
again and again, and they just keep rebuilding them; they move to
another place and rebuild. I find that really fascinating and really

LA: I remember reading a piece you wrote about a talk you gave on a
panel about the transmission of trauma. It involved an incident with a
Turkish psychologist who denied the existence of any genocide. You
said you weren’t someone who clings to victimhood as identity, yet the
truth couldn’t be stolen from you in the name of dialogue. You’re the
granddaughter of genocide survivors – can you explain the transmission
of trauma?

NK: It’s this idea that you grow up with these stories that are being
told to you – you grow up with these traumatic experiences and a lot of
them are unspoken – that are somehow transmitted to the next generation.
There’s a line in Zabelle where Zabelle says something like: `we
didn’t speak of those times, but they were like dead and rotting
animals behind the walls of our house.’ So it is this idea that there
is this terrible smell that is somehow permeating the air, and you
don’t even have to talk about it, but it is transmitted and it is felt
and it is known.

LA: You got involved with Code Pink: Women for Peace right before the
war in Iraq started. You have attended demonstrations and organized
local and national campaigns – there are a lot of great photos of you
holding signs that say `Love troops, not the War’ – and coordinating the
Stolen Beauty Campaign, which boycotts Ahava Cosmetics, whose products
come from natural resources in the West Bank. What has your experience
been like with Code Pink?

NK: One of the things that Code Pink has done successfully is
amplifying the voices of women who have come from places where US wars
and occupations are taking place. So we have brought women over from
Iraq and Afghanistan. We helped organize a book tour for Afghan
parliamentarian Malalai Joya (for her book A Woman Among Warlords),
where I hosted her at our apartment for a few nights. We have worked
with Jewish Voice for Peace in organizing a tour for two young Israeli
women who had been jailed for refusing service in the Israeli army; we
hosted them and went to a number of their events and they were
houseguests too. I loved doing that, being around them hearing their
stories and amplifying their voices, which you don’t hear in the
mainstream media.

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