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Personal Narrative


Find the Helpers

Last week 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District in what TIME Magazine called the biggest political upset of 2018. Ocasio-Cortez had the support of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, and The Intercept (cited by a CNN commentator as a decisive factor!). In an otherwise DISMAL political scene this is a HUGE victory. She ran on a platform calling for Medicare for All, the abolition of ICE, and she denounced the killings of protesters in Gaza as a massacre. I’m awestruck. I also loved reading about the revolutionary posters designed for her campaign.

 

If you’re looking for a natural pick-me-up, watch Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign video, or watch CNN’s clip from election night when she realizes that she has won! “We met the [Queens Democratic] machine with a MOVEMENT!” she said. (Note the dude right behind her wearing a Democratic Socialists of America T-shirt.) Or watch her answer Stephen Colbert’s question, “What is Democratic Socialism?” I think I’ve watched that last video six times—whenever I’m in despair about the state of the world, I just watch it again.

 

In response to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and those of other young progressives, Michelle Goldberg, in a piece entitled The Millennial Socialists Are Coming, opined, “These young socialists see themselves as building the world they want to live in decades in the future rather than just scrambling to avert catastrophe in the present.”

 

And while the political situation in this country is growing grimmer by the minute, I’m not going to remind you of the details right now as I’m making a concerted effort to do what Mr. Rogers’s mother told him, “Look for the helpers.” (As an aside here, I haven’t yet seen the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, but it’s on the top of my movie going list.)

 

While I’ve read at least forty articles about the traumatic, criminal, and unconscionable (there are no adjectives dire enough for what they’re doing!) consequences of our government’s “zero-tolerance policy” at the border, resulting in the abduction of thousands of migrant children, the article I will highlight is about a courageous Honduran woman who is organizing mothers inside an ICE detention center in El Paso, Texas. While the U.S. has a long history of child snatching, I was inspired by this story about librarians and academics who used their library science skills to map the locations of the facilities where separated migrant kids are possibly being held as a way to help parents find their children. I also aspire to have the courage this woman did when Border Patrol Agents boarded the Greyhound Bus she was on. She realized that because they were not within 100 miles of the U.S. border, the agents did not have the right to question everyone on the bus about their immigration status. She stood up and started shouting, “You don’t have to show them sh*t!” She then used Google translate to find out how to say it in Spanish.

 

People are standing up to the Trump Administration’s cruelties. Members of The United Methodist Church have charged Methodist Jeff Sessions with child abuse over the family separation policy. Members of the Democratic Socialists of America DC Metro Chapter protested the Secretary of Homeland Security while she was dining in a Mexican restaurant. “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace,” the protesters shouted. Nearly 600 women were arrested in D.C. last week during protests against Trump’s immigration policies. The protesters chanted “Abolish ICE” and their hashtag was #WomenDisobey.

 

This is a time to be disobedient, fierce, loud, and as creative as these young Palestinian dancers in Gaza. We’re heading to the Socialism 2018 Conference in Chicago this coming weekend to meet up with several thousand people who feel the same way. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

P.S. This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in D.C. turns a spotlight on Armenia. Check out the Feasting schedule, as well as my friend Liana Aghajanian’s piece about Armenian food.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City 2018


Building the Nest

Mural in Nor Hadjin

 

When I arrived in Beirut on the evening of October 27, I took a taxi to Baffa House, a guesthouse in Mar Mikhael where I would be staying for two weeks. The goal of my trip was to become familiar enough with the nearby Armenian neighborhoods of Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin where the characters in the novel I’m currently writing reside so that I could thoroughly inhabit those streets, buildings, schools, and churches in my imagination. I had started writing the novel, but then got stuck. I wrote a scene in which Vera Serinossian, the narrator and protagonist, was walking from her school in the Armenian “suburb” of Bourj Hammoud, a 1.5 square kilometer municipality just outside Beirut city limits, to her home in Nor Hadjin, a small Armenian neighborhood of about four square blocks on the other side of the river within Beirut’s boundaries. As she was crossing the bridge, Vera sees an elderly Arab man lying dead on the pavement. He has a sniper’s bullet hole in his forehead.

 

After I wrote this scene, during an interview that I conducted at the end of this past summer with someone who had lived the war years within these precincts, I had been told that this bridge between Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin was called “The Death Bridge” because of the snipers that targeted people who crossed it. The Phalangist militia was on the hill of Ashrafiyeh within shooting range, and to the north the Leftists and later Syrian troops posed a similar danger. It occurred to me that my idea of having my family cross that bridge from home to school and back on a daily basis during the war years might make no sense. I needed to go to Beirut to find out.

 

The guesthouse in Mar Mikhael was a five-minute walk from Nor Hadjin and Khalil Badawi, another Armenian neighborhood adjacent to Hadjin. It was another ten minutes on foot to Bourj Hammoud. So each day of my stay I walked those neighborhoods. Through my network of Armenian friends in Beirut and in America, I had the good fortune to meet and to interview a host of people who had lived through the war years and had stories they were willing to share. I met the editor of the Ararat Daily Newspaper who told me about the night the Phalangists had set off a bomb in the newspaper’s offices in 1978. I visited Dr. Garo, the sole physician in Nor Hadjin, who had treated everyone from survivors of the Karantina Massacre to wounded Palestinian fighters in Naba’a to local Armenians who had been injured during various rounds of shelling. I interviewed the principals of two Armenian Evangelical schools—the Gertmenian School in Nor Hadjin and the Central High School in Ashrafiyeh. I attended Sunday services at Sourp Kevork Church in Nor Hadjin.

 

My friend Antranig, who grew up in Nor Hadjin, gave me a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out the ironwork on the facades of some of the houses, knocking on doors so he could show me the beautiful original tile work in some of the apartments, and explaining how Nor Hadjin had been a completely self-contained Armenian village within Beirut. “We had everything we needed. There were three schools, a church, a dispensary, grocery stores, a compatriotic union, and all kinds of artisans and craftsmen. The only thing missing in the early days was a confectioner, so the leaders of Hadjin convinced one to move from Ashrafiyeh to open a sweet shop.”

 

He also told me a story about the Death Bridge. During a ceasefire, Antranig and his friend took bikes and crossed the bridge to Bourj Hammoud. The two teenagers had just made it to Bourj Hammoud when shooting broke out between the Syrians and the Khataeb (Phalangists). The boys ditched their bikes and jumped into a building where they waited out the shooting, which went on for over five hours.

 

Antranig’s father, who could make out the bridge from his balcony in Nor Hadjin, called a friend in Bourj Hammoud to find out what had happened. There were dead bodies on the bridge, he was told. So he went down to the bridge to check the bodies to make sure his son was not among them.

 

By the end of my two weeks in Beirut, I had accomplished what I had set out to do. The Serinossians would not be crossing the Death Bridge on a daily basis. I had decided to situate my family in the small, self-contained neighborhood of Nor Hadjin, with extended family living across the river in Bourj Hammoud. I had determined which school the children attended, the church in which the family worshipped, and even the house in which they lived. In addition, like a bird assembling twigs, twine, and grasses for a nest, I had collected dozens of anecdotes, stories, and historical details that would help me in pushing forward with the novel.

 

Nancy Kricorian

 


Empty Nests

 

 

I’ve been meaning to send write a new blog post for weeks. On my daily to-do list for the past tens days, I have dutifully printed, “write blog,” and then ended up copying it onto the next day’s list. So here it is the end of summer—Labor Day is upon us—and I’m finally sitting down to do it.

 

On the personal front, the summer has been a restorative one. We spent long weekends in the country where I worked in the garden and devoted at least an hour a day to watching the birds. On our front porch alone there were three active nests—a family each of robins, house wrens, and house finches with much flying to and fro by the parents and much cheeping by the nestlings. James and I also went to Chicago in July for the Socialism 2017 Conference where we heard some inspiring talks, enjoyed meals with like-minded friends, and felt comfort in assuming that we were the most conservative people in any room. We also took a family holiday to Provincetown in mid-August. I went on an Audubon-led shorebird walk, we spent afternoons on the beach, and we took in two drag shows featuring the supremely talented Jinkx Monsoon.

 

The work on my novel has been slow, but steady, as I continue writing while interviewing Armenians who lived the war years in Beirut in person and via Skype. The stories have been fascinating, and each anecdote feels like a piece in an enormous jigsaw puzzle I’m assembling. I’m planning another trip to Beirut for late October—will be on the ground for two weeks, staying within walking distance of the neighborhoods I’m writing about.

 

On the public front, each day has brought a new outrage or a new disaster, both in this country and abroad. I won’t catalogue all the misery that I’m sure you have been following as well, but I will say that I’ve been trying to find a way to process the unfathomable—both difficult to understand and seemingly bottomless—cruelty of the people currently running our national government.

 

While not a mental health professional, after much observation of Donald Trump’s Tweets, his public appearances, and most recently after reading the full transcript of his speech in Phoenix, I have come to the conclusion that Trump is suffering from cognitive impairment complicated by his long-term narcissistic personality disorder. (James suggested the he might also be a sociopath.) A friend shared an interview from October 2016 with singer Aimee Mann in which she talks about the song she wrote about Trump entitled, “Can’t You Tell?” (The refrain to the song is, “I don’t want this job. I can’t do this job. My God, can’t you tell, I’m unwell, I’m unwell.”) Mann said, “At this point, it’s like being angry at a rabid dog. You just have to solve the problem and get the dog in a cage.” Arguably, easier said than done. The anger is better directed at the enablers in the Republican Party who complain about Trump’s behavior and yet take no meaningful action against him because they’re still hoping to use him as a blunt instrument to push through their cruel and hateful agenda. I have some ire reserved for the Democrats who seem to have learned nothing from their defeat in November (check out this piece for a sizzling takedown of American liberals).

 

For things Armenian: French-Armenian entertainer Charles Aznavour received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame at the age of ninety-three; the New Yorker published a profile of Chess Master Levon Aronian; The Telegraph (UK) ran a piece about Manchester United soccer star Henrikh Mkhitaryan; Smithsonian published an article about the “Nest Neighbors” program in Armenia to monitor white storks; Houshamadyan posted a brilliant demographic study of an Ottoman-Armenian village; Al Jazeera ran an article about war photography featuring Lebanese-Armenian photojournalist Aline Manoukian; and Print Magazine had a delightful post about Armenian typography.

 

On the literary beat, I enjoyed this profile of novelist Claire Messud, My favorite part was this paragraph:

 

Messud frowned when asked if she ever tried to make her work more commercial. ‘‘I reckon you don’t write to please other people,’’ she said, slowly and deliberately. ‘‘That’s what your integrity is.’’ Her voice was husky; we had been talking all morning, as the dogs pattered in and out. ‘‘There are bell bottoms and miniskirts, and there are pencil skirts and stiletto heels,’’ she said. Fashions come and go in literature, too. ‘‘You can write something that’s a perfect work of art, but if it’s a pencil skirt that falls in a miniskirt moment, God help you. You just have to make your pencil skirt and be you.’’

 

Jeff Sparrow wrote a smart and nuanced review of The Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, an anthology edited by Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Adam Schatz did a brilliant podcast interview with Wally Shawn for the London Review of Books. I was thrilled to happen across this thorough and appreciative reader review of my third novel on Goodreads.

 

There are so many other interesting articles I could share, but who has time to read them all? I will offer you this last engaging piece from Waging Non-Violence about clowning as a tactic of creative resistance.

 

The bird nests by the pond and on our porch are mostly empty now, our older daughter has moved to Bushwick (in Brooklyn), and our younger daughter has headed off for her senior year in college. The flap and noise of summer will now give way to the quieter but equally colorful days of autumn. I’m hoping to get a lot of writing done!

 


Wrens and Finches

Hudson River Valley Sky

 

 

When we were in the country over the weekend, I witnessed a house wren’s taking over the house finches’ nest on our front porch. The much smaller wren tossed the finches’ eggs out of the nest—two small blue eggs lay smashed on the porch floor. Then the wren flew up and down with twigs, using them to effectively barricade the nest so the finches couldn’t get back in. The wren is a noisy, bossy, pushy little bird, and initially I was referring to it as “the jerk.” I soon realized that the finches had found another spot to build a new nest and would lay more eggs, so I grudgingly began to admire the wren’s bubbly song, and energetic foraging.

 

Deer and rabbits (maybe also chipmunks and woodchucks?) ravaged the zinnias and nasturtiums in our garden, leaving untouched the salvia and marigolds. They also chewed to the root the parsley, but ignored the more odiferous herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, and tarragon. Someone uprooted one of the tomato plants, and nibbled some leaves off another. I went to the nursery and bought two more varieties of salvia, as well as flowering golden mint, and flowering basil—pretty but NOT tasty to deer and rabbits. The tall blue salvia almost immediately attracted the whirring wings of ruby-throated hummingbirds. At the nursery I also found a product called Liquid Fence, which is a smelly concoction of egg white, garlic, and thyme. When you spray it around the garden beds, it’s supposed to ward off the deer and rabbits, which apparently don’t like the smell. Wish us luck!

 

I’ve been working slowly but steadily on my novel about Armenians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War—in the past few weeks I’ve been taking a break from writing, and have been doing immersive research. Ara Madzounian’s beautiful photos of Bourj Hammoud, one of the neighborhoods featured in my novel, give you a sense of the place as it is now. (Ara solicited writing from me for his 2015 book, BIRD’S NEST, and “Homage to Bourj Hammoud” was published as part of the PEN World Voices Anthology.) I’m completely engrossed by the research, and I’m starting to mull a return trip to Lebanon, likely in October, so I can fill in more pieces of the enormous jigsaw puzzle of Beirut during the Civil War that I’m building in my head.

 

As we mark the fiftieth year of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, there have been dozens of articles examining this sad milestone from various perspectives. One of my favorites is Yousef Munayyer’s “Reframing the 1967 War” in THE NEW YORKER. Yousef concludes, “Marking fifty years means that it is time to admit that the intention of occupation policies is not a temporary condition but a permanent one. It means recognizing that the Israeli state denies self-determination to millions of Palestinians who live there.”

 

My contribution to the Palestine Festival of Literature Anthology THIS IS NOT A BORDER, a piece entitled “Stories from the Armenian Quarter,” was published in The Armenian Weekly. Marcia Lynx Qualey, who writes the Arab Lit blog, wrote an interesting review comparing THIS IS NOT A BORDER to a similarly themed anthology entitled KINGDOMS OF OLIVES AND ASHES, which was edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. Ahdaf Soueif, novelist and founder of PalFest, wrote movingly for The Guardian about the festival’s ten years, and Chabon and Waldman were interviewed about their anthology on LitHub.

 

And for your additional reading (and viewing and listening) pleasure:

 

Almost a month after the incident, U.S. officials have announced that members of Turkish President Erdogan’s security detail who assaulted peaceful protesters outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in D.C. on May 16 will be charged for their actions.

 

A sizzling piece by Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs about Hillary and Bill Clinton’s use of slaves in the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.

From Atlas Obscura a great piece about the use of knitting to relay secret messages during wartime.

 

Funny or Die’s parody video about the President’s Personal Spray Tanner, played by Armenian actor Ken Davitian.

 

Pink Martini sings the Armenian pop song Ov Siroun Siroun.

 

Merriam Webster explains the difference between herbs and spices.

 

And finally, here is a beautiful piece by Siddhartha Mukherjee from The New Yorker entitled Love in The Time of Numbness; or Doctor Chekhov, Writer.

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City 2017

 

 


Good News

American Bittern and Avid Birders in Central Park

 

Busby the Havanese dog underwent surgery on Monday, and came home that night with a bandage and a tragic face. But yesterday we received the good news—his tumor was a benign lipoma. He is on the mend—snoring louder than usual, being subjected to the “cone of shame” so he won’t scratch his stitches out when we leave him at home without supervision, but overall getting back to his impish self.

My bird walks with NYC Audubon in Central Park this week were amazing. Flowers are bursting out all over, and the warblers are passing through in great numbers, including my favorite Black and White warbler. It is my favorite because it is unmistakable and its name accurately reflects its coloring (the American Redstart, for example, is actually black and orange). I also had the opportunity to see a relatively rare (for Central Park) American Bittern perched high in a tree at Tupelo Meadows. I had only my iPhone, but a scrum of birders with scopes and other fancy cameras documented the bittern’s visit.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written an astute and beautiful appreciation of INDIGNATON for the Library of America’s The Moviegoer. Rolling Stone ran a great review of Kitty Green’s CASTING JONBENET, which is now streaming on Netflix.

Grace Paley (1922-2007), whose work as a writer and as an activist I admired for many years, was profiled in The New Yorker. The New Yorker also ran an excellent piece about poet, writer, Civil Rights activist, legal theorist, labor organizer, and Episcopal priest Pauli Murray (1910-1985).

When I was growing up, my grandmother would hand me an Almond Joy candy bar, saying, “You know Peter Paul? They are Armenians. They made this candy.” My friend Liana Aghajanian wrote a piece about Peter and Paul, and how two Armenian immigrants built an American candy empire. When legendary Armenian-American jazz musician and cigar manufacturer Avo Uvezian died in March, I dug up this article from 2015 that tells the story of how Avo actually wrote the music for Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.”

On the book front, check out People Knitting: 100 Years of Photographs. You can pre-order these pre-approved titles (I read and loved advanced readers copies of both): Wallace Shawn’s NIGHT THOUGHTS from Haymarket Books, and Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS. If you’re in NYC, you can also purchase tickets to hear Arundhati at BAM on June 19. On the music front, check out the debut album from OVERCOATS, the dynamic duo of JJ Mitchell and Hana Elion. (We’ve known JJ since she was in our daughter Nona’s fourth grade class!) And if you’re in NYC, you can buy tickets to see the July 18 concert of the delightful Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila.

Please also support Swing Left. They launched a campaign yesterday to donate to the opponents of swing district Republicans who voted for Trumpcare. And check out the Socialism 2017 Conference scheduled for July 6-9 in Chicago. James and I will be there!

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


Riding the Struggle Bus

 

 

When I was talking with my college-aged daughter recently, she told me that her friends’ older siblings were “on the struggle bus.” I had never heard that expression before, but I knew immediately what she meant, and thought it was an excellent way to describe the ongoing economic, emotional, and health travails of many young adults that I know. I also thought my daughter had coined the term, until I looked it up and found that it has been around since at least 2007.

 

This reminded me of a time in the mid-1980’s when I was working as Susan Sontag’s assistant. When she was complaining about her partner of the time, dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs, I said, “She sounds like a control freak.” Susan’s face lit up, and she said, “Exactly. That’s exactly what she is.” When I came back the next week, Susan said, “You didn’t make that term up, did you?” No, in fact, I had not made up the term “control freak,” nor had I claimed to be its progenitor. I was sad to disappoint her with my lack of originality.

 

But, let’s get back to the struggle bus. I’ve been riding my own struggle bus for the past year, dealing with three generations of family health problems, my own scary trip to the emergency room on Christmas Day, a dental gum graft, and, of course, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who have control of our country’s nuclear arsenal. The latest bump on the road is the fact that one of our Havanese dogs, eleven-year-old Busby, has a tumor on his neck. It’s most likely benign, but we won’t know for sure until after the upcoming surgery to remove it. Poor Busby is on his own struggle bus, going to the veterinary hospital to be prodded, poked, and probed. While we are in the waiting room, he looks up at me with his tragic face, which I have learned from veterinary web sites is an indication of his being in pain. I want to cry, but instead I take a photo of his sad mug and send it to everyone else in the family. Although most of the time it seems to be a one-seater, no one likes to be on the struggle bus alone.

 

I look around, however, and see that lots of people are struggling. Many of our friends have frail and infirm parents. Many others are dealing with young adult children trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, some of them coping with mental health issues. All around us, the most vulnerable people and institutions—undocumented immigrants, working people who are paid less than a living wage, LGBTQ individuals whose newly won rights are being eroded, overpoliced low-income communities, people of color in a white supremacist society, Planned Parenthood, public schools, unions, polar bears, songbirds, and the planet—are being threatened by a cruelty as ambitious as it is unconscionable.

 

When I went to the hair salon the other day, I asked the woman who checks the coats if she had a nice Easter. This is a woman I have known for maybe twenty years—the same stylist has been cutting my hair for thirty years, he has been the proprietor of his own salon for more than twenty years, and his employees love him and stay for long tenures. She looked at me and said, “These are some challenging times, but still I wake up every day and say, I’m going to make this day the very best it can be.”

 

Oh yes, we’re riding the struggle bus, but we can try to make each day the best day it can be. And we can try to be kind to each other. As for the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the horrors of gangster capitalism, I leave you with Mother Jones’s exhortation: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

 

 


Human Kindness

 

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.”

~ Vasily Grossman

 

“10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.”

~ Susan Sontag

 

Last week the sheer cruelty and venality of #45 and his Horsemen of the Apocalypse were revealed to be deeper and wider than I had possibly imagined. Representative Paul Ryan, who is doing his best to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, boasted that his dream since college was to do away with “entitlements,” for example low-income people having their health needs covered by Medicaid. Trump’s 2018 budget proposal included a $54 billion increase in military spending that would be underwritten by stripping funds from other agencies. The arts, science, and the poor would bear the brunt of the cuts. On the chopping block are programs for the most vulnerable, such as Meals on Wheels, which provides meals to homebound seniors; subsidies to poor families for home heating; and legal aid for low-income people. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney claimed that cutting funding for Meals on Wheels was compassionate because the program “was just not showing any results.” An article in The Independent asserted that Trump could reverse his proposed cuts to the arts, the poor and the elderly if he stopped staying at Mar-A-Lago. His visits to his private Florida resort will cost taxpayers an estimated $600 million in security services over four years. But Team Trump has no intention of cutting back on any expenses associated with their luxuries and comfort. The pain of Bannon’s “deconstruction of the administrative state” is to be felt primarily by those they deem the unworthy masses.

 

In Jane Mayer’s long and devastating piece in The New Yorker about Robert (Bob) Mercer, the hedge fund billionaire behind the Trump presidency, the cruelty of the Team Trump’s ideology was further elucidated. Mayer cites a former colleague of Mercer’s:

 

“Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.”

 

The neo-liberalism of the mainstream Democratic Party is also harsh, but the current gloves off attack by the Republicans on the poor, the undocumented, the elderly, the arts, public education, the public commons, and our environment is truly ruthless. Our country is being run by Susan Sontag’s cruel 10 percent.

 

Thankfully, the resistance to this viciousness is growing. Many people who voted for Trump are pushing back on the attempt to strip millions of people of their health insurance coverage. Some moderate Republicans, feeling the heat from their constituents, are wavering on the proposed repeal of Obamacare. Already established organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Make the Road New York, to name just two, are fighting back on other fronts. There are a number of new national outfits, such as Action Network Group, The Women’s March, and Indivisible that are pulling together effective organizing teams. And we all need to work where we are how best we can to derail as much of this hideousness as possible. We must resist and reject cruelty.

 

But, at the risk of sounding saccharine, I’d also like to propose that we fiercely protect Grossman’s “small kernel of human kindness.” If we are among Sontag’s merciful 10%, we may be able to move some of the other 80% in our direction by showing thoughtfulness and compassion in our daily interactions with those around us. One of my mottos is “Amplify the humane.” Or as Henry James put it, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


Resistance and Other Occupations

 

Water protector at Standing Rock encampment

Water protector at Standing Rock encampment

In the wake of the demoralizing election results and the terrifying prospect of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse taking over the government of this country, in our household we are attempting to institute a “harm reduction” program where we limit our intake of news and social media to certain hours of the day. Long walks also help, and reading classic fiction. I found some solace in this list of 25 Works of Poetry and Fiction to Inspire Resistance, and in talking with other politically engaged friends about what our next steps should be.

 

In the “Know Your Enemy” department, if you haven’t already, please take a look at the Hollywood Reporter’s interview with “Trump strategist” Steve Bannon. Mike Davis’s analysis of the election results is useful, as is Robin Kelley’s After Trump, which provides analysis as well as recommendations for action. Public Books have compiled a list of ways to get involved in the resistance.

 

Charles M. Blow, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote a sizzling piece entitled No, Mr. Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along, penned after Donald Trump’s meeting with Blow’s colleagues. It is well worth reading the entire column, but this was a highlight:

 

I will say proudly and happily that I was not present at this meeting. The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust, to the point of overflowing. Let me tell you here where I stand on your ‘I hope we can all get along’ plea: Never.”

 

Masha Gessen, a Russian and American journalist and author, has written two eloquent and angry post-election pieces for the New York Review of Books in which she warns against “normalization” of the incoming administration. In the first, entitled Autocracy: Rules for Survival, she uses her experience in Putin’s Russia to recommend a course of action for the looming Trump Presidency. The second, Trump: The Choice We Face, recounts her great-grandfather’s experience in the Bialystok ghetto during World War II as a grim example of what happens when one makes accommodations with a reprehensible regime. One of history’s lessons, she says, is that “the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed.”

 

As I’m talking with other organizers and activists about how we create stronger coalitions and build new vehicles for organizing, I came across this heartening piece by Michael Hardt and Sandro Mezzadra about The Power of the Movements Facing Trump. They conclude:

 

“So, yes, every time the Trump government does or says something outrageous, go out in the streets in protest — and take your friends, and your parents, and anyone else you can find. There will be plenty of occasions. But behind the protests there must be a complex web of relations that extend both horizontally — that is, intersectionally, and in coalition across the various movements — and vertically, beyond the local and even the national to form relations and alliances with movements elsewhere. That is the only sound foundation for eventually transforming the many discrete protests into an effective and lasting project for social transformation.”

 

One of the movements cited in Hardt and Mezzadra’s piece is The Standing Rock Sioux’s encampment and protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The water protectors have received an outpouring of support from around the country, and will continue to need our solidarity in the coming weeks. Check out a list of ways to donate, as well as the #StandingRockSyllabus created by NYC Stands With Standing Rock.

 

I’ve been thinking a great deal about an old Armenian proverb: The voice of the people is louder than the roar of the cannon. In the current moment, the job seems to be to amplify the voice of the humane in the human.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


Not Writing

#bakingnotwriting

#bakingnotwriting

 

Soon after I signed the contract for my second novel, my agent at the time suggested that I start writing reviews. She explained, “First novels are easy. You get lots of reviews without much trying, but with a second novel, it’s much harder. The way to get reviews for your own book is to write them.” It sounded like a terrible idea—I would only want to write reviews for books that I loved. If the book were bad or even mediocre, I could only think of how much time would be wasted. And then I hated the idea of saying mean things in print about another writer’s work even if the book were abysmal. I had noticed in the New York Times Book Review that the editors seemed to assign titles in two ways—they either gave the book to someone who wrote similar work and would be likely to praise it, or to someone whose work was so dissimilar that they were likely to loathe it. I decided to ignore the advice, although I felt a pang when my second novel was published and it received only seven mainstream reviews (less than a quarter of what the first novel had garnered).

After declining to write reviews, about five years ago I decided that I would no longer write jacket blurbs for other writers. I thought that I either had to go the Gary Shteyngart route and offer praise to anyone who asked, or to quit writing blurbs altogether. I admired Shteyngart’s stamina and felt grateful to the people who offered advance praise for my novels—among them Chris Bohjalian, whose graciousness is legendary—but my Armenian Evangelical upbringing had made polite prevarication a painful exercise. Declining all was a way to avoid having to choose, which would hurt people’s feelings, or having to lie, endorsing something about which I felt little to no enthusiasm. Earlier this year when the editor of the American edition of Atef Abu Seif’s The Drone Eats with Me sent me an advanced reading copy (known in the business as an ARC) soliciting a quotation, I told her that while I wasn’t writing blurbs, I would read the book and if I liked it I would write a review. Happily, I loved it, and I wrote a review for In these Times.

As a counter to my literary parsimony, I will say that when I love a book, I loudly share my enthusiasm with friends and on social media platforms. If I adore a book, I will buy a dozen copies and give them as birthday and holiday gifts. Some titles that I have distributed in this way include Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook, Suad Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. My current passion is Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, a dazzlingly smart series of prose poems about writing, work, love, parenting, sewing, shopping, literature, philosophy, late capitalism, and not writing. Boyer’s book, full of wry observations, artfully muted fury, as well as surprising humor and tenderness, reminds me of the work of poet Anne Carson and micro-story writer Lydia Davis, except with an explicit class analysis.

Boyer describes a shopping outing with her young daughter, where their meager budget results in sadness and weeping when mother tells the daughter they cannot afford the desired pair of shoes. When the mother is on the verge of tears herself, the daughter admonishes her, “ ‘I am still a child and am learning to control my impulses and emotions. you have had many years of dreams and realities to learn from so there is no excuse for you to cry.’” In “A Woman Shopping,” Boyer outlines a book she would like to write with the same title as the poem. It ends, “But who would publish this book and who, also, would shop for it? And how could it be literature if it is not coyly against literature, but sincerely against it, as it is also against ourselves?”

In an interview posted on the Poetry Foundation site, Boyer explains,

This is probably totally obvious to anyone who has read the book, but I’ll still say it: by “garments,” I mean “literature.” And literature is against us. And when I say “literature,” I mean something with historical specificity, seen with all of its brutality intact, with our own intact too, not as we might define it from its exceptions, despite how these exceptions are honorable and instructive and how much we might ground our work in them.

And this is going to get kind of long, so I apologize for that, but by “us” I actually mean a lot of people: against all but the wealthiest women and girls, all but the wealthiest queer people, against the poor, against the people who have to sell the hours of their lives to survive, against the ugly or infirm, against the colonized and the enslaved, against mothers and other people who do unpaid reproductive labor, against almost everyone who isn’t white—everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own. And by “against,” many of us know this “literature” contains violent sentiments toward us, is full of painful exclusions, but that isn’t even the core of its opposition to us. How “literature” is also against us is that it is a magic circle drawn around the language games of a class of people—the rich and powerful and those who serve or have served them. It gives (or appears to give, like any mystification) these words a permission and a weight, dangles the ugliness in our faces and names it beauty, gleefully shows off stupidity and claims it as what is wise.

Part of what I admire and identify with here is Boyer’s refusal to bow down to literary gatekeepers while stubbornly continuing to write. In the pieces “Not Writing” and “What is ‘Not Writing,” Boyer describes the forces making writing difficult, if not impossible, for her as a working class woman, a single mother, and an outsider to high “culture.” But the production of these poems defies these obstacles—from illness to envy. She says, “There is envy which is also mixed with repulsion at those who do not have a long list of not writing to do.”

In closing, here is one of my favorite passages in Garments Against Women from “The Innocent Question.”

On the local radio show a man who won a Pulitzer prize in fiction explained that one must write every day because if a person does not write everyday a person forgets how to access the subconscious. If one did not write everyday then whenever a person comes back to writing she would have to learn to write from the beginning again. This has always been my plan. I would like to not know how to write, also to know no words. I believe this prize winning novelist believed that the mind had two places, the conscious and subconscious, and that literature could only come out of the subconscious mind, but that language preferred to live in the conscious one. This is wrong. Language prefers to live on the internet.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


Midsummer Update

medeaRNC

 

 

In the past few weeks, the world has witnessed a series of murderous attacks, ranging from the U.S. “mistakenly” killing more than 70 civilians in Syria, and suicide assaults in France and Afghanistan, as well as a failed coup in Turkey, which has now resulted in a purge against suspected plotters as well as a witch hunt against journalists and academics. The presidential election pageant, which seems to be stretching into infinity, would be hilarious if it weren’t so terrifying. My mood was buoyed by watching from afar as my CODEPINK friends and colleagues disrupted the proceedings at both conventions.

 

This Friday my spouse James Schamus’s directorial debut will be opening in New York City and Los Angeles, rolling out in other markets in the following weeks. There was a fine profile of James in this past Sunday’s New York Times Arts section. Billboard Magazine ran a piece about the 1950’s pop song James and composer Jay Wadley wrote for the film. So far most of the reviews have been great, with many more to post in the next days and weeks. I particularly liked this one from Deadline: “As for Schamus, whose previous screenplays have largely been collaborations with Ang Lee, he turns in an extremely accomplished directorial debut proving there is great life beyond the executive suites in Hollywood.” And I must share the Rolling Stone review by Peter Travers: “Schamus reveals his gifts as a filmmaker who respect the words and the space between them in equal measure.”

 

In literary news, my review of Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary was published in the July issue of IN THESE TIMES Magazine. I thought this article about “The Subtle Art of Translating Foreign Fiction” was worth sharing—and it has a few paragraphs for those still recovering from #FerranteFever. Also, there is a new (non-fiction) Ferrante book being published by Europa Editions in the fall—Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Another fascinating glimpse into the writing life is this thoughtful piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen, entitled “Winning the Pulitzer changed the value of my book and myself.”

 

And finally I wanted to share this beautiful essay and accompanying photograph by Antoine Agoudjian in which he pays tribute to Armenian resilience in the face of terrible loss.

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian