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The Armenian Heritage Trip as a Form of Resistance

Among the ruins of Ani

Among the ruins of Ani

 

I participated in an Armenian Heritage Trip to Turkey between June 18-30, 2014. On one of the last nights of our voyage, we were invited to share our thoughts. Below are the remarks, written on the tour bus, that I read to the group.

 

Between knowing that 1.5 million were killed and having heard the familial and personal stories of suffering, we have arrived at a new location by returning to the cities, towns and villages of our ancestors. The place names in narratives of 1915 now have vivid material properties.

I stood by the port in my grandmother’s hometown of Mersin. I then looked at a map and traced the trajectory between Mersin and the desert camp at Ras al Ain in Syria where she was among 8,000 Armenian orphans. She walked that distance in 1915 without shelter and with what little food she could scrounge or, much to her shame, beg.

We have seen the bridge in mountainous Zaytoun where hundreds were thrown to their deaths into the deep gorge below. The river ran red with their blood. That is a sentence I have heard many times before, but now I have seen this river. We have stood on the shores of Hazar Lake near Kharpert where 10,000 Armenians were forcibly drowned. I didn’t want to ask for a description of how this was effected, nor did I want to imagine it.

But we have also found other ways to experience these places. I imagined my grandfather as a young man crossing the Stone Bridge, dating to Roman times, over the Ceyhan River in Adana. Each of us has created new memories in the landscapes our relatives once walked. We have seen poppies and thistles by the roadsides. We have picked fruit from trees: sour cherries in Kayseri, red and the white mulberries in Zaytoun, and sweet apricots in Malatya. And some of us are going home with paprika–the famous biber of Marash.

What can we do with this new knowledge? Our very existence is testament to the resilience and tenacity of the Armenian people. And  our determination to make this voyage is a form of resistance. We refuse to allow our parents and grandparents to be forgotten. We refuse to allow erasure, fabrication and denial of our history. And as we go our different ways, I hope that each of us will find a means to bear witness to this past and to work towards a future where dignity, equality and justice are accorded to all the people of these lands.

 

Nancy Kricorian
Van, June 2014


Milestones, Celebrations and Ghosts

 

Peace Out: We just celebrated our 25th Anniversary

Peace Out: We just celebrated our 25th Anniversary

 

This is, for our family, a season of milestones and celebrations. On May 26th James and I marked our 25th wedding anniversary, and later in the week we hosted a celebratory Chinese banquet complete with Moutai (“the world’s #1 selling spirit”) and poems offered by our friends, ranging from recitations of Auden, Frost, Rukeyser, and Levertov to a limerick composed for the occasion. We also heard selections from Rosa Luxembourg’s prison letters and an eclectic list of world events from 1989 (for example, the TV show Seinfeld was launched and Beijing was put under martial law).

Our younger daughter, Djuna, will graduate from high school this week. Our elder daughter, Nona, will graduate from college two days later. And two days after that, I will be leaving for an Armenian Heritage Trip to Turkey. I have been referring to this as “Twenty Armenians on a Bus,” which a friend suggested would be a great title for a one-woman show. I thought it might make a good stand-up comedy routine. But I am also describing the voyage, primarily to non-Armenians who think of Turkey as the land of good food, fabulous bazaars and historic mosques, as a search for ghosts. The itinerary is planned around the participants, taking us to visit the cities and towns our grandparents fled during the Armenian Genocide.

As a final note, the official publication date for the paperback of ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS by She Writes Press has been set for October 7, 2014. It’s already posted and available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and McNally Jackson. When I get back from Turkey in early July, I’m going to start the push to get the word out about the paperback, and to line up events for the fall and next year. I’ve come a long way since grade school when I dropped out of Girl Scouts because selling the cookies was a most mortifying experience.

 

Nancy Kricorian

P.S. For summer reading, I’d like to recommend two titles I recently read and loved: Nescio’s AMSTERDAM STORIES and THE COLLECTED STORIES OF LYDIA DAVIS.

 


Roses in June

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They want a sweet smell from a rose and humaneness from a human.
~ Armenian proverb

 

In the parks and gardens near my New York City apartment, spring unrolls its flowered skirt in a predictable sequence: first the crocuses, followed by the daffodils, tulips, lilacs, and peonies. When June arrives the scent of roses reminds me of my childhood in our backyard garden.

 

We had rose bushes and trellised roses that ranged in color from pale pink to crimson. When I was in grade school I would cut a half-dozen red roses from the bush, pry off the thorns, wrap the stems in a damp paper towel, and then wrap that in tin foil. I brought this bouquet to school as an end-of-the-year offering for the teacher. Soon it would be summer.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


Letter to Turkey on the 99th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

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I was asked by AGOS Weekly in Istanbul to write a message to Turkey on the occasion of the 99th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, as were a dozen other Diaspora Armenian writers, academics, filmmakers, and artists. The letter is below. Beneath my letter is a response I received on this year’s Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day (April 24, 2014) via my author contact email.

 

Letter to Turkey on the 99th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

Let’s sit crooked and talk straight.
~Armenian proverb

Jesus says to forgive your enemies, but what they did to us I never can forgive.
~ Mariam Kodjababian Kricorian

 

A Palestinian friend of mine told this story. Years ago as a PLO negotiator, she suggested to her Israeli counterpart that an apology for what happened in 1948 would be a nice gesture. The Israeli asked, “You want us to say we are sorry?” She replied, “An apology would go a long way.” He said, “You want us to admit that Israel was born in sin, and this we cannot do.”

What nation state did not rise or profit from crime? Israel was founded upon the violent expulsion and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The United States of America was built upon land theft, genocide, and the forced labor of chattel slaves. The founding of the modern Turkish Republic entailed the extermination and expulsion of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks, and the harsh repression of Kurds.

In order to justify these acts, the victims must first be made less than human in the popular imagination. After the fact, the story must be rewritten so that the despised, dispossessed, and murdered are said to have deserved their fates, and are made out, in fact, to be the perpetrators.

My grandmother, Mariam Kodjababian Kricorian, was from Mersin, Cilicia. She and her family were forced to leave their home in 1915. They were sent on a death march to the Syrian desert. Her parents and younger sisters died on the road. She and her brother were among 8,000 Armenian orphans in a camp at Ras al-Ain.

This was no accident. This was not the collateral damage of war. This was part of a concerted campaign to solve what was called “The Armenian Question” by destroying the Armenians. The goal was not only to rid Turkey of its Armenian inhabitants, but was also to appropriate their homes, lands and other properties.

To the people of Turkey, I am not asking for an apology. I would like an answer, however, to this question: What purpose does it serve to continue to deny dignity, equality and justice to the Armenians?

 

Nancy Kricorian
New York City
April 2014

(letter originally appeared in AGOS Weekly in Turkish, English and Armenian)

 

*

April 24, 2014

 

Dear Nancy:

I read your letter to the Turkish people and as a Turkish person I thank you for saying things as they are.

I wish I could call you an artist of my home country. I wish you could live in Anatolia and write beautiful, happy stories about Anatolian people. We miss all the Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and other communities who used to be our friends, neighbors, our musicians, film makers, writers. I wish I could read you, William Saroyan and Elia Kazan in Turkish. I wish I could listen to Charles Aznavour in Turkish. I wish I could listen to Gomidas long ago.We are poorer without you, without all these communities who were forced out or killed by our criminal politicians.

We were subjected to such levels of nationalistic propaganda, it took me a while to realize what we’ve done to our fellow country men. I am very embarassed to realize it so late.

You asked a question in your letter: “What purpose does it serve to continue to deny dignity, equality and justice to the Armenians?” My answer is: to justify new genocides, atrocities by nationalists and racists. If they stop denying what we did to Armenians they believe they can not justify and avoid responsibility for what we did to Anatolian Greeks, Assyrians and others and what we have been doing to Kurdish people.

I take this opportunity to tell you that I share your loss and pain, they are ours too.

My best regards,

Engin Selcuk

 

 


Happy Birthday Medz Mairig

nancyandmariam

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MEDZ MAIRIG! My Armenian grandmother Mariam Kodjababian Kricorian (1904?-1985) did not know her birth date, which was written in the family Bible that was left behind in the house in Mersin during the 1915 “Deportations.” My grandmother and her family were driven from their home as part of what later came to be called the Armenian Genocide. Her parents did not survive the forced march into the Syrian desert, and as an adult she chose April 1st as her birthday.

 

Nancy Kricorian


How I Learned to Type

beigeselectric

 

In high school, I earned an A in Mr. Finn’s typing despite the fact that at the end of the year I was still using the hunt and peck method. My mother, who had worked as a secretary until my younger sister’s birth, typed all my papers starting in fourth grade through high school. When I was in college, many of my professors accepted handwritten assignments because my printing was regular, legible, and even elegant. When typing was required, I paid an administrative assistant in the Anthropology Department to do it for me.

As the first person in my family to go to college, aside from my mother’s two years at secretarial school, I had a fear that I would get stuck in the pink collar ghetto typing other people’s writing. I would never have said that I wanted to be a writer, because although writing poetry and stories was something I had always done since I could read, being a writer was too outlandish an ambition to admit even to myself. Growing up I knew women who were teachers, nurses, and secretaries, but no writers.

I followed my heart, however, and ended up enrolled in the Writing Division at Columbia University for a graduate degree in poetry, the least lucrative form of writing possible. When I arrived in New York, I registered at a temp agency and the first thing they required was a typing test. I scored, if I remember correctly, a miserable twenty words a minute because of all the mistakes I made. So they sent me to stuff envelopes with elderly volunteers at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. A few weeks later, through a connection in the Writing Division, I was offered a job working as a part-time assistant for writer Susan Sontag.

Susan Sontag called, and it was not as exciting as I thought it was going to be. She is basically looking for a typist, and I am not sure that my typing will be good enough. I know that if I really want this job, I am going to have to psych myself into the best typing I have ever done in my life. It is a draft of a manuscript that will have to be done once or twice more, and she needs to be there. In any case, I will get to meet her. I am going to do some positive thinking and visualizations about typing her manuscript.  ~ Journal entry, 15 October 1984

She liked me despite my typing transpositions. We worked on an article about Jean-Paul Sartre that was very interesting. THINK GOOD TYPING.                  ~ Journal entry, 18 October 1984

These were the only two entries I found in my journal about the typing problem and Susan Sontag. But I remember how stressful it was sitting at her desk with her standing behind me peering over my shoulder as I typed on her IBM Selectric. The more nervous I was the more mistakes I made, and although I believe she liked me and was trying to be her approximation of kind, her exasperated comments were withering.

I signed up for a typing class at a secretarial school in the basement of the New York Penta Hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden. Under the glare of fluorescent lighting in a room filled with rows of IBM Selectric typewriters humming and clattering away, I finally learned how to type. Soon I was able to produce a sentence without looking at my hands and with no mistakes: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Without that skill, I can’t imagine how I would ever have been able to write my first novel.

Nancy Kricorian


Written About Nancy

citation

My grandmother’s Armenian Bible is falling apart—its cardboard covers are worn, the spine is broken, the first 48 pages are missing, and until recently it was held together by a thick rubber band. When the rubber band cracked and crumbled, I tied a bright satin ribbon around it to hold it together.

The pages inside are covered in tiny Armenian letters that I can read, but barely. There are colored pen marks throughout where my grandmother underlined verses that were meaningful to her—Psalms is a riot of color—and she made some marginal notes in an Armenian script that I can’t read.

When I was cleaning my study recently, I untied the ribbon and flipped open the Bible. It had been more than a decade since I had looked at this book. Inside was a large red satin bookmark celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America. At the top of the bookmark there is a gold sketch outline of Mount Ararat and below is a poem, “I Am Armenian,” written by the Reverend Vartan Hartunian, who was the minister at the First Armenian Church in Belmont, Massachusetts from 1959 until 1998.

“I am Armenian/ I belong to an ancient race/ Whose roots are in the subsoil of history…”

I remembered having seen the bookmark in my grandmother’s hand, but when I flipped through the pages of the Bible, towards the back I found a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Watertown Press that I had never come across before. The headline read “Nancy Kricorian cited at Dartmouth,” and it was basically a pro-forma press advisory that Dartmouth College sent to a student’s hometown paper when the student did something noteworthy. My accomplishment was having received a citation—a special mention—in a creative writing class. “In citing Ms. Kricorian, her professor noted that her poetry ‘was remarkable for its clarity, its depth of feeling, and the evocative precision of her language.’”

My grandmother had glued the clipping to a small mailing envelope and printed across the top in Armenian, “Written about Nancy.”


Remembering the 1988 Armenian Earthquake

 

Armenia Earthquake Destruction

 

December 7, 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the Spitak earthquake of 1988. This natural disaster in Armenia killed as many as 50,000 people and injured as many as 130,000 in the northern regions of Lori and Shirak. I wrote this poem in the weeks after the tragedy. 

 

The Survivor

 

All this pain is for which of our sins?
~ Catholicos Vazken I, December 1988

 

In this dream you walk past
the school’s sheared facade;
from their desks the children
call and wave. A teacher
points at a map of Armenia.
The ceilings drop like eyelids.

You wake to another dream
of soot-stained faced around
a fire fueled by broken chairs.
You wish the earth would
swallow the rows of coffins
in the playing field. The living

search for what they want
not to find; their eyes catch
like hooks at your skin.
You should have been the
hand of God reaching into
the school–the children

could have climbed onto
your palm that would hover
over the town until the earth
was still. But instead they
line up to write their names
in the book at heaven’s door.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

Originally published in PARNASSUS: Poetry in Review (1992)


Bourj Hammoud: Fiction as Preservation Project

altar

Sanjak Camp, Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, 7/12

 

 

My working method as a novelist has become clearer to me with each new book. Like a bird building a nest, I collect scraps and fragments of stories from people who have lived through a particular historical moment. A memory is encoded into narrative, and the narrative is anchored in a specific place and time. The historical moments that fire my imagination are, for better or worse, times of collective upheaval and violence—the Armenian Genocide, World War II, and now the Lebanese Civil War. I’m also always interested in the marginal detail, the outsider’s voice, and the version of the story that calls into question the prevailing narrative. While I love writing, I love even more the research—and the part of the research that is the most completely engaging is hearing from people their individual accounts, and then placing those personal and idiosyncratic stories within a broader historical context.

When I was in Paris researching my third novel, ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, which is set in the Armenian community of Belleville during the Nazi occupation, my friend Hagop served as my fixer. He arranged meetings for me with surviving Armenian members of the French Resistance, and other compatriots who had lived through the war years in Paris. But Hagop also introduced me to his circle of friends, all of them Armenians from Beirut, most of them from Bourj Hammoud, who had immigrated to France during the Lebanese Civil War.

The novel I’m working on now, about Armenians of Bourj Hammoud who immigrate to the United States during the Lebanese Civil War, was inspired by conversations I heard between Hagop and his friends while I was in Paris. They were the children and grandchildren of Genocide survivors who had reconstructed their lives and their communities in Beirut. Armenians, who benefited from the unofficial Lebanese policy of “integration without assimilation,” thrived in Beirut for several decades. The Armenian community in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Beirut experienced an intellectual and artistic flowering—a plethora of literary magazines, newspapers, publishing houses, theaters, plays, and folk music. Hagop and his friends were writing, directing and acting in plays; composing and singing songs; and studying painting, sculpture and architecture. And then in 1975 the Civil War erupted tearing the fabric of the Armenian community yet again. (I must say here as an aside, recent photos from the precincts of Aleppo are devastating in the way that they reproduce images from the Lebanese Civil War.)

So I see Bourj Hammoud as one of a long series of places that are not just simply locations, but are also markers of dispossession and exile. For Armenians since the Genocide, it’s a difficult task to preserve a place, or at the least to hold onto some of the public buildings, homes and other landmarks that make a neighborhood or even a city. But it turns out that what preserves those spaces the most, at least for this seemingly permanently wandering community, are the stories that people tell. So I think of my novels as kinds of preservation projects, allowing us to return to those places while acknowledging their evanescent quality. Perhaps by telling stories from their past we can gain the power and consensus to help preserve their present.

In the case of Beirut, when I started asking people about their memories of the Civil War, fully expecting that the narratives would date to 1975, I was startled by the number of people who wanted to tell me what happened among and between the Armenians of Beirut in 1958, as though a comprehension of that earlier conflict was necessary to an understanding of the later one, and the position of “positive neutrality” that the Armenians adopted in 1976. Even people who were too young to have witnessed the events of 1958 told stories that had been recounted to them by their parents—family members and friends who had been killed during that fratricidal few months, women who defiantly defended a church surrounded by militiamen and troops, and a grandfather who was framed and imprisoned for a murder that someone else had committed. Then there were the anecdotes from the early days of the Civil War in the mid-seventies. One man told of watching from the highway during the massacre at Karantina in 1976, and how the scenes he witnessed that day haunt him still.

Sometimes it seems as though my work is to walk among ghosts—the ghosts of old villages, the faded photographs of lost churches, and the long-ago stories of our dead handed down from generation to generation. In July 2012 my guide in Bourj Hammoud led me across the highway overpass to what was left of Sanjak Camp, the last Armenian refugee camp in Lebanon. Half the neighborhood had already been demolished and there were trash heaps in empty lots, but there were also small scenes of nostalgic beauty–on the balconies of the houses that remained there were potted plants and several homes had family altars hanging from their facades. I was witness not only to the lives of Sanjak Camp’s present inhabitants—people without running water, many without electricity—who were being pressured to leave so a new shopping mall could go up at that location, but I could also imagine amidst the narrow streets and crumbling staircases what the place had looked like soon after it was built in the late 30’s by Armenian refugees. Shouldn’t someone save what was left of Sanjak and restore the old wooden houses, making the place a living memorial to those resilient, hard-working survivors? My guide shrugged. Too much money, no interest, and too late. But maybe what we can do is to tell the stories, and in our stories these people and these buildings will be preserved.

 

Nancy Kricorian, NYC, 11/13

 

A version of this piece was presented as a paper at BEIRUT NOW: A PANEL ON URBAN LANDSCAPE’S CONFLICTING DESIRES–on Nov. 7, 2013 at the CUNY Grad Center and on Nov. 12 at the American Institute of Architects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Equality Armenia

 

I am proud to have been part of a global coalition that drafted, signed and disseminated this statement in support of LGBT rights in Armenia. You can read the full text and the list of signatories below. (And you can watch an interview about the issue that I did via Skype with Civilnet Armenia TV.)       N.K. 

 

FamousArmenians-300x245

 

More than two-dozen prominent Armenians in the Diaspora have signed a statement supporting equality and justice for all in Armenia. Among the signatories are poet Diana Der Hovanessian, filmmaker Atom Egoyan, actor and producer Arsinée Khanjian, musician Serge Tankian, and photographer Scout Tufankjian. This array of Armenian artists, intellectuals and professionals felt moved to release this statement in the light of anti-gay legislation that was recently proposed in Yerevan. “This anti-gay legislation is part of a disturbing pattern of intolerance for marginalized people and opposition voices in Armenia,” said publisher Veken Gueyikian. Writer Nancy Agabian said, “People of conscience must not stand by as our LGBT cousins are targeted and demonized.” The statement represents their collective commitment to human rights and to Armenia’s nascent civil society movements.

 

For more background see:

Armenian Gay and Lesbian Alliance Statement Against Armenian Police Proposal

Amnesty Documents Widespread harassment of Armenia’s LGBT Community

Human Rights Watch Letter to Armenian President Regarding Proposed Anti-LGBT Legislation

Armenian translation here.

 

STATEMENT

“In response to reports of draft ‘anti-propaganda’ legislation in Armenia, modeled on Russia’s recently passed and widely condemned bill, we, the undersigned members of the global Armenian community, say such attempts to codify anti-gay prejudice into law are contrary to our values. We believe in dignity, equality and the right to self-expression for all people regardless of religion, sexual orientation, gender, or race.”

 

SIGNATORIES:

Nancy Agabian

Mika Artyan

Arlene Avakian

Peter Balakian

Anthony Barsamian

David Barsamian

Eve Beglarian

Chris Bohjalian

Melissa Boyajian

Diana Der Hovanessian

Atom Egoyan

Dahlia Elsayed

Houry Geudelekian

Veken Gueyikian

Nonny Hogrogian

Aris Janigian

Nina Katchadourian

Nishan Kazazian

Arsinee Khanjian

David Kherdian

Nancy Kricorian

Micheline Aharonian Marcom

Neery Melkonian

Arthur Nersesian

Joan Aghajanian Quinn

Aram Saroyan

Serj Tankian

Scout Tufankjian

Hrag Vartanian