2013 April

One Armenian Girl: “This is what I remember”

The Kodjababian Family, Mersin, Cilicia, Ottoman Empire, circa 1910

The Kodjababian Family, Mersin, Cilicia, Ottoman Empire, circa 1910


On April 24th, 1915, several hundred Armenian community leaders, writers and intellectuals in Constantinople were rounded up and deported, launching what would become a mass slaughter and exile of the Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Each year on April 24th, Armenians around the world commemorate what has variously been called the Great Crime, the Deportations, the Massacres, and the Genocide. The poem below was inspired by stories that my grandmother told me of her experiences during the Deportations and in the years immediately following.




For Mariam Kodjababian Kricorian


I. Syria

This is what I remember:
I would make fine stitches
in scraps of cloth and my father
would look up from his work
and praise my tiny row of seeds.
I loved to sit among the buttons
and bolts of cloth and hear the rock
of the pedal and sewing machine.

One winter morning when the snow
drifts stood as high as my head,
my father swung me to his shoulders
and carried me two miles to school
past the white mountains of cedar.

I don’t know why it happened.
A notice nailed to the wall
in my eighth year and we gathered
few belongings, and all our people
marched and stumbled toward Syria.

My mother fell by the road,
and we left her there.
The great dark birds followed us.
The soldiers were dogs, and we became
less than nothing in the desert.

My father died, and my small sisters
grew thinner to their deaths.
There was me and my brother Sarkis,
and the black tent flapping in the sand.


II. Cyprus

There were twenty beds to make,
double back the stiff cuff of sheet
over the rough blanket, the cotton cover,
and baste it all together twenty times.

Then the long boards of the floors,
quick dance of the broom, splash
of the pail and the mop and thirty
stairs from the top
to the bottom of the inn.

My uncle’s wife had me earn my keep.
My brother was made an apprentice
to the drunken tailor in the next village,
where straight seams happened in the morning
and not much in the afternoon.

He arrived late one night at the inn,
a tall narrow man in American suits.
His stare made my hands tremble
and the milk pitcher smash to the floor
when I served his meal.
He tucked notes in my apron pocket
when he passed me in the hall.
I tore them up unopened.
I was sixteen and he twice my age.

My uncle asked, Mariam, will you go
with this man to America?

We left Cyprus one week later
on a ship as big as our village.
My name was made Mary, my age eighteen.
I never saw my brother again.


III. Egypt

Our wedding picture was taken
in Cairo. My husband’s cousin
helped me with the row
of small buttons down the back
of the ivory satin gown; she loaned me
gold earrings and a bracelet.
I sat in a chair and my feet
in their pale shoes barely
grazed the floor.
Leo stood beside me,
a hand on my shoulder,
staring straight into the eye
of the machine and the man
under the black cloth behind it.
With the flash of light
I saw the fierce sun of the desert,
and felt the fear rise up,
great wings beating against my ribs.
I saw Sarkis waving from the pier.
I thought of letting my long hair down,
and nothing else.



Nancy Kricorian


This poem was originally published in WITNESS in its Spring 1988 Issue.






Paris: City of Shadows


To the memory of the 112 inhabitants of this building, among them 40 small children, who were deported and who died in German camps in 1942


I visited Paris for the first time when I was a twenty-year-old college student. I can close my eyes and remember what the unfamiliar city looked like to me during this initial encounter—the orderliness of the public gardens with their gravel walkways, wooden benches and round-seated metal chairs; the relative smallness of the automobiles; and the historic monuments gleaming under floodlights at night.

Coming from the United States—the New World— the enormous weight of history Paris carried was a visceral shock, especially the buildings: Medieval cloisters, Gothic cathedrals, seventeenth century catacombs, Revolutionary and Napoleonic monuments, and elegant 19th-century apartment blocks. But I was fascinated even more by the traces left behind by the Second World War. Rather than buildings and monuments, the trauma of the war and the Nazi Occupation remains present in mundane, unexpected, and easy-to-overlook markers scattered throughout the city.

There were seats on the metro reserved for the war wounded. The first time I saw these signs, the French term mutilés de guerre, which had originated to refer to wounded veterans from the First World War, stunned me in its graphicness. I was always expecting to see men with empty sleeves or wooden legs sitting in the designated seats. All around the city, I noticed marble plaques on walls commemorating groups and individuals who had struggled and suffered during the Occupation, ranging from Jewish children who had been deported to blind people who had participated in the Resistance, and young men who had died fighting on the streets liberating Paris in August 1944.

During the ten years I spent researching and writing my novel ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, I realized that the manner in which Paris memorialized Les Années Noires (The Dark Years) was in many ways akin to how it had experienced the war. The city was spared the horrific bombing that devastated London and Berlin. But loss and fear were interwoven into every corner of the city; I realized that my biggest task as a writer was to convey the immediate if mostly commonplace presence of that constant looming terror, even as daily life went on.

Several salient factors about how most Parisians had lived the war came through in everything I learned. It was a dark time both literally and figuratively. There were black outs and black out curtains limiting sight and vision. Political repression backed up by deportation and systemic violence, censorship, self-censorship, and denunciations by neighbors all resulted in a feeling of moral darkness and isolation. In addition to this pervasive gloom, people were hungry. The Germans used France as their breadbasket during the war, taking vast quantities of French agricultural products such as wheat, butter, cheese, and wine, leaving the French to subsist on root vegetables that had formerly been cattle fodder. Parisian grimly joked about the German doryphores (potato bugs) who had made off with all their potatoes. A third factor that came up in all the accounts was how cold people were during the bitter winters of the Occupation. With the German war machine siphoning off oil, gas and coal, there was not much left for heating Parisian apartments and schools.

When I was writing the novel, it was as though every day I left my home in Manhattan and spent a few hours with my characters in their Belleville apartment. I heard the sounds of the concierge’s bucket and mop on the landing. I smelled the dreaded rutabagas cooking in the kitchen. And I shivered with Maral, my narrator and main character, as she bundled into several sweaters before crawling into her glacial bed.

This was the Paris that I traveled to on a daily basis for almost ten years—not the romantic city of my student days, nor the place where on family holiday I took my children to play on the brightly colored climbing structures in the Jardin des Tuileries. It was a somber city, a city of shadows and privation, but also a place where people of conscience worked hard to keep a small light of dignity burning in an inhumane time. Now that I have finished the book, I understand that the Paris of 70 years ago has yet to truly vanish: its ghost-like presence gently marks the city landscape. And now, on my next visit to Paris, I have Maral, her friends, and her family, to walk with me as guides to that almost-hidden past.

Nancy Kricorian
April 2013
New York City


This piece originally appeared on the American Library of Paris blog in advance of a book presentation scheduled there on May 15, 2013

Selling Books and Girl Scout Cookies

With former schoolmates at the Saint James Armenian Cultural Center in Watertown

With former schoolmates at the Saint James Armenian Cultural Center in Watertown


I’m just back from the Boston leg of my book tour where I did presentations at the Saint James Armenian Cultural Center in Watertown and the Brookline Booksmith. Former schoolmates of mine organized the Saint James event, and the afternoon was a warm homecoming for my novel and me. The Brookline Booksmith, which has now hosted me for each of my books, also provided an enthusiastic welcome. Just before boarding the train back to New York City I taped a cable TV show called “The Literati Scene with Smoki Bacon and Dick Concannon.” My touring is two-thirds of the way finished—next up are Spotty Dog Books in Hudson, New York and the American Library in Paris, followed by the AGBU Centers in Montreal and Toronto.

A month after the official publication date, I’m taking pause to consider where things are with my book and with the state of publishing in general. The other day I told my mother that I have been feeling as though I’m selling Girl Scout Cookies door to door. My mother said, “You never liked doing that, did you?” (As a matter of fact, I quit Girl Scouts in part because I hated doing that.) This morning when I wrote to my agent that it seems as though I’m engaged in house-to-house urban combat, she replied, “I feel like that most days.” (For a funny video portrait of the promotional life of the writer check out Book Launch 2.0)

An essay by writer Deborah Copaken Kogan entitled “My So Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” was posted on The Nation web site earlier this week offering a sharp and dismal look at sexism in the publishing and reviewing worlds. She discussed how important a review in The New York Times is to the fate of a book, and her own frustration about the esteemed publication’s silence on her work. She decided to take action by “composing a carefully worded private e-mail to the editor of The New York Times Book Review, alerting him to his neglect of all four of my published books. He responds graciously with two sentences in which he promises to share this information with his colleagues. Eight months later the novel remains unreviewed.”

My first two novels were not reviewed in The New York Times, and until last month the only mention my work had garnered from them was in an article about the Palestine Festival of Literature by the then Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner. ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS did receive a brief review in the “Newly Released Books” column a few weeks ago. I didn’t send it out at the time because I was smarting from a comment embedded in the paragraph. But the mention was important to the publisher and for my novel in part because it provided a laudatory quotation from “the newspaper of record” to be used on the paperback edition.

To be fair, many good books receive few reviews because of the sheer volume of newly released titles and the diminished number of review pages. But it is instructive to look at comparative analyses about who does the reviewing and who gets reviewed. The VIDA Women in Literary Arts 2012 Count released on 4 March 2013 showed the unbalanced way that women and men are represented in mainstream literary magazines and book reviews. Roxanne Gay at The Rumpus did a breakdown by ethnicity of writers reviewed by The New York Times, amply displaying that women are not alone in this struggle. But as bad as things are for women writers and writers of color, it could be worse—look at the film industry.

Ending on a more positive note, I’m sharing a recent interview about ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS and what I’m now calling, thanks to a suggestion from my editor, my ARMENIAN DIASPORA QUARTET. You can read it on News.Am in English, Armenian or Russian.


Nancy Kricorian

Making Cheoreg with My Grandmother


Making Cheoreg (Easter Sunday 2013)

Making Cheoreg (Easter Sunday 2013)

Saturday afternoons my sister and I climbed the stairs to our grandmother’s second-floor apartment in the two-family house we shared with her in Watertown, Massachusetts. Sometimes we helped her make macaroni and cheese for lunch, and others we assisted her in preparing elaborate Armenian foods, such as trays full of manti, tiny meat dumplings that would later float in soup, or stuffed grape leaves, which we called cigars. But my favorite was making cheoreg, a sweet roll that was traditionally served at Easter and that my grandmother kept on hand for when her friends stopped by for coffee.

My grandmother prepared the dough before we arrived, so we missed the mixing and the two-hour rise in the unlit oven. She called us, either by phone or by shouting into the broom closet that was just above ours, when the dough was ready to be worked. The minute we entered the kitchen we could smell it—the yeast, the butter, and the aromatic mahlab, made from dried cherry seeds. We sat at the kitchen table, and she handed us each an egg-sized piece of dough that was buttery and fluffy and practically alive. We rolled it out either on the table or between our palms until it was about eight inches long. Then we twisted it into a snail-shaped knot that we set on a baking sheet. Once all the sheets were full my grandmother covered them with a towel for the dough to rise again.

While we waited for the dough and for the oven to heat to the correct temperature, there were a number of amusing activities from which to choose. We played “Button, button, who’s got the button?” with a button on a round of yarn. We pulled pieces of satin from my grandmother’s dresser drawer and wrapped dolls in them. We took my grandmother’s large cookie tin of buttons and spilled them on the bed to sort them. Or the three of us lay on her bed while she told stories from the Bible or the Old Country, both of them exotic, far-off places.

Once the rolls had risen, it was time to brush beaten egg over them and sprinkle them with sesame and black nigella seeds. While they baked, my grandmother’s entire apartment was suffused with that distinctive cheoreg aroma—butter, flour, egg, sugar, yeast and mahlab. When they were done, my grandmother used a spatula to move them from baking tray to cooling rack. Then it was time to sample them still warm from the oven, served with a slice of cheese and some strawberry jam. That was truly heaven.





Nancy Kricorian