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Radical Kindness and Adamant Resistance

 

Happy International Women’s Day! Earlier this week I received an invitation from an editor at Aras, my publisher in Istanbul.

For International Women’s Day, we’re asking our women writers for a message directed to women, but of course particularly to the women of Turkey. We will share them on March 8 via social media posts. And since it’s social media, it should not be something longer than three or four sentences.

I thought about it overnight, and then sent her back the following:

In these cruel times, may we be known for our radical kindness, and also for our resistance to those who attack our most vulnerable neighbors. As American feminist writer Grace Paley put it, ‘The only recognizable feature of hope is action.’

When I turn the pages of the newspaper each morning, I feel as though I’m being hammered by the stories of unremitting brutality: the physical violence of war around the globe; the systemic economic assault on the poor and working people of this country and our public institutions; and the heartless rounding up and deportation of undocumented immigrants, which are separating families, tearing apart communities, and sowing terror.

I think the story that hit me the hardest last week was the one about the mother from the Congo who applied for asylum upon arriving in Los Angeles. She was put into a detention facility in San Diego and her seven-year-old daughter was sent to a detention facility for unaccompanied minors in Chicago. The only way we heard this story was that the ACLU filed suit against the U.S. Government for this act of blatant cruelty, which seems to be part of a new unstated policy designed to discourage parents from seeking asylum because of fear of such forcible and wrenching separations. How many more such children are there?

But in the face of all this, I take heart when I see the humanity and the militancy that are rising up in response. The striking teachers of West Virginia prepared breakfasts and lunches for their students who receive meals at school and would otherwise have gone hungry. And, with broad support from people around the country, they WON their wildcat strike! Some student organizers from Parkland High School in Florida, where a horrific massacre occurred last month, went to meet black youth in Chicago to talk about how they could work together on gun control and address racism. Christian Clergy in Jerusalem were able to halt Israeli legislation that would have allowed for state seizure of church property by closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for three days. And Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, California, a sanctuary city, gave the public a fair warning about imminent ICE raids in the Bay Area.

And somehow in the midst of all of this, I’ve been managing to write! Gamatz gamatz*, as my grandmother would have said, I’m getting this novel written.

*slowly, slowly

 

Here are some readings for your pleasure and edification:

A fascinating piece about shared Armenian and Turkish idioms.

A rare yellow cardinal was spotted in Alabama.

How Neoliberalism makes anxiety and depression worse, and what you can do about it.

A beautiful essay by Viet Thanh Nguyen on refugees.

 

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

 

 

 

 

 


We Have Work To Do

Joseph Cornell’s “Homage to Juan Gris,” 1953–54

 

 

Yesterday I went with my friend Dahlia to the Met Museum to see the David Hockney retrospective, which I admired, and the Joseph Cornell show, entitled “Birds of a Feather,” which I adored. I’ve been reading about Cornell lately because the main character of the novel I’m writing is a collage and shadow box artist whose primary inspirations are the works of Cornell and Hannah Hoch.

 

While we were wandering around the museum after viewing the aforementioned shows, Dahlia and I talked about our Armenian language studies. We are both working with the same tutor—a teacher who relocated from Aleppo to Yerevan who gives lessons over Skype—and we love her and we love the language, to which each of us has a different and complicated relationship grounded in family history. As we moved into the room with Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “America Today,” we talked about the endless and unfathomable cruelty of the people who are running our country.

 

How is it possible to keep one’s equilibrium in the face of these daily and unremitting attacks on our institutions, the most vulnerable groups and individuals among us, and our very values? We can’t let them deaden our responses—we have to remain vigilant and dynamic, finding hope in community and action. I recently went to an accompaniment training with the New Sanctuary Coalition and was impressed by their leadership’s strategic thinking and vibrancy, even as their executive director was fighting imprisonment and deportation. At an Adalah NY meeting this week, I was inspired by the other members in the group, many of whom are involved not only in Palestine solidarity work, but are also engaged with a variety of groups organizing around prison abolition, anti-militarism, anti-colonialism, and other struggles.

 

When Dahlia and I left the museum, there was a small group of women standing on the sidewalk outside handing out fliers about the paucity of women artists in the Met. How had I not noticed until that moment that among all the solo shows currently on view—Hockney, Cornell, Eggleston, Wegman, Golub, Kiefer—there is not one woman artist? (Not only are they all men, but also they are all white men.) On all fronts, we have work to do.

 

Maxine Kumin’s poem “Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief”—the title as much as the poem itself—keeps echoing in my mind lately. I find solace in poetry—and in Armenian lessons, yoga classes, bird walks, my family and my friends. May we all find energy for resistance and comfort for our souls.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City

February 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

 


The Harvey Effect

 

In the past few weeks I have read close to 90% of the articles about Harvey Weinstein—a man I have known and loathed for twenty-five years—starting with the New York Times piece about his decades of sexual harassment settlements, and Ronan Farrow’s bombshell article in the New Yorker with accounts of rape. Once those two hit, the proverbial floodgates opened with more and more women coming forward with accounts of harassment and assault. After having heard dozens of stories about Harvey’s cruelty and physical violence from traumatized former employees, both men and women, I always knew that he was a monster, but I did not know the extent of the sexual harassment that went on, nor did I know that he was a rapist.

 

Because of the deluge of testimonies by many prominent women, his reign of terror was put to an end as Harvey was forced out of his company, was booted out of the Academy, and France is moving to strip him of his Legion of Honor. His crimes are currently being investigated in New York, London, and Los Angeles. For those of you who are interested in reading more, David Hudson at Criterion’s The Daily provided a great roundup of the news and analysis, and has been adding updates since the piece posted last week. Two of the funniest responses—and at times we do need to laugh amidst the horror—were Alexandra Petri’s Harvey Weinstein and that ‘different time’ when hostile workplaces were totally okay, and Samantha B’s video riff. Brit Marling’s piece in The Atlantic on the economics of consent was also great. I encouraged my spouse James to return a call from the Hollywood Reporter, and Oprah Winfrey then cited James’s remarks in her Facebook post about Harvey. And of course, when asked for his opinion, Woody Allen, who would have been better advised to decline to comment, said that he was worried about a “witch hunt atmosphere.” In response, Lindy West penned a sizzling op-ed entitled Yes, this is a witch hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m hunting you. Lo and behold, it was then reported that Woody Allen’s new film, currently shooting in New York, features a sexual relationship between a 44-year-old man played by Jude Law and a 15-year-old ‘concubine’ (what does this even mean?) played by Elle Fanning.

 

The “Harvey Effect” has subsequently taken down prominent men such as Amazon Studios Head Roy Price, Nickelodeon showrunner Chris Savino, screenwriter James Toback (who has now been accused of sexual harassment by over 200 women), celebrity chef John Besh, fashion photographer Terry Richardson, the publisher of Artforum Magazine Knight Landesman, political journalist Mark Halperin, and writer and editor Leon Wieseltier. We can only hope that these dudes will continue to fall like dominoes.

 

As an antidote to that cavalcade of jerks, I wanted to share this profile of Greg Asbed, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow who has spent most of his professional life fighting horrific labor abuses. Asbed was asked, “What was your path to this work?” and his answer was inspiring. “I’m a first-generation Armenian-American,” he said. “My grandmother moved to Syria from Turkey, but not of her own volition. There was the Armenian genocide; she lost her whole family except for one sister. She managed to survive the genocide by being bought and sold twice by the age of 13 — once to the Kurds, then by the Kurds to an Armenian family, which was my grandfather’s family. I have always felt a certain responsibility, as a bearer of DNA that was forged in the crucible of genocide, to the idea of universal human rights.”

 

As we say in Armenian, Abrees!

 

 

Nancy Kricorian


Poem for My Father’s Voice

 

Visiting my parents in Watertown this week, after my father’s return from a recent hospitalization, reminded of me of this poem I wrote many years ago. Thought it was a good moment to pull it from the archive. 

 

Poem for My Father’s Voice

“Show me,” I’d say, “show me
exactly where in the Bible
it says that dancing is a sin.”
He wouldn’t argue, and even if
I made it to school dances,
my body was lead; I couldn’t move
hearing his long silence.
I never gave up, though; I’d worry
him like a dog worries a squirrel
up a tree, going crazy for wanting
a fight. When I was in college,
I’d take Vermont Transit home
and cross Harvard Yard to meet him
at the store; he peeled off the red
apron and white coat, ran upstairs
to punch out on the clock, and
on the ride home, we’d talk.
His favorite topic was the weather,
until it became a joke between us,
like the popsicle-stick cathedrals
he wanted to build when he retired
until I embarrassed him out of it.
I imagined him gluing and placing sticks
for hours at the table, looking
like an overgrown camper.

Years away from home sanded the edges
off anger; on our rides to and from
the airport or the train, he talked,
and now I didn’t know what to say.
He told me his whole life had been
a waste, except for my mother.
Another time he said, “When I get
to heaven, God will make me perfect,
and I won’t be stupid any more.”
His father had called him
“mentally bankrupt” when he was
a kid working at the family market,
driving deliveries at ten, the cops
kept off with bribes of meat and
butter. “It was during the war,”
he told me, “meat was scarce.”

The last time I came to town, he
explained the doctor wanted to take
a vein from his leg. When he stands
at the block, my father works the knife
in his right hand, leans into
the left leg, and now blood
seeps through the vein making
brown patches under the skin
near the ankle. He pulled up
his pant-leg and rolled down the sock.
He said, “It makes me think of my father.
They took his foot, his calf, then
the leg, and I know it’s not the same,
but I can’t help thinking of it.”

I imagine the dreams at night,
his father’s lost leg hovering
near the ceiling, and his mother’s
heart, so small and tight, moved
into his body. Her pills are now his,
nitro-glycerin under the pillow
of the tongue. I remember times
when I yelled at him, “I hate you,
you’re so stupid.” I liked the sound
of my voice tearing into him, and
wanted to bury him with words. He’d say,
“Shut up. Do you hear me? Shut up.”

 

 

 

Originally published in RIVER STYX Literary Magazine, Number 32, Fall 1990

 

Nancy Kricorian