This is a note I sent to my Armenian friends yesterday morning.
We are devastated and heartbroken about the events of the past three days in Artsakh, and rightfully terrified of what comes next. We feel helpless. We are on social media reading desperate accounts from Artsakh, and furiously posting and reposting the dire news in the hope that someone will hear and possibly take action, but very few people seem to care, and governments issue toothless condemnations while a genocide unfolds. We are sending emails to and calling our elected officials. We are wringing our hands. We are gnashing our teeth. We know that they won’t be satisfied with Artsakh alone. They want their “Zanzegur Corridor,” and Aliyev calls the Republic of Armenia “Western Azerbaijan.” We are skeptical that Armenian political leaders are up to the task at hand, and we are skeptical that the opposition has a better plan. We are sitting in our comfortable homes while our people are being starved, shelled, and are possibly about to be slaughtered like sheep. Again. We can’t turn our faces away from the suffering, but we must turn our faces away from the suffering at least for short periods because it is intolerable and there’s very little we can do.
Ժողովուրդիս համար սիրտս կ’այրի։
I’m thinking of each of you right now. May the violence soon be over so we can grieve and mend. Sending you love,
“Too much of a past, too little ahead, but wait a minute, we always lived day to day, so where’s the difference?”
~ Etel Adnan, Shifting the Silence (2020)
Last week my friend Barbara Harris passed away after a long illness, and Gerry, her beloved husband of 67 years, asked me to speak about her activism at the funeral this Monday. Barbara and I met in 2003 through CODEPINK NYC and worked closely together for over 13 years. In 2008, The New York Times ran a profile of Barbara and the campaign she organized working to keep predatory military recruiters from targeting vulnerable high school students. Mel, a former CODEPINK NYC staff member commented, “Barbara was a gift to the anti-war movement and the activist community. Whenever she showed up to a demo, I felt like things were going to be okay. She had so much knowledge and such a calming presence. Cristina and I joked about making Barbara dolls to carry around for reassurance when things got rough.”
And speaking of things getting rough, yesterday Azerbaijan launched a full scale military assault against the people of Artsakh, announcing the planned “evacuation” of the Armenian population. Of course, anyone who was following the news could have seen this coming, but that doesn’t make it any less devastating. The use of the word “evacuation” clearly indicates a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Governments, NGO’s, and human rights groups have issued condemnations, but the shelling and terror continued undeterred. The Azerbaijani Army is known for its torture and beheading of captured Armenian soliders, and even civilians are fair game for their violence and cruelty. The fourth century Amaras Monastery, established by St. Gregory the Illuminator, is now under Azerbaijani control. And if the Azerbaijani government stays true to form, they will say that it’s an “Albanian Christian” monument and sandblast the Armenian inscriptions. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to watch all this happening in real time on social media while the world does nothing. And Turkey’s ever helpful Erdogan announced at the U.N. General Assembly yesterday that Armenia must open the so-called “Zanzegur Corridor” allowing Azerbaijani passage through the territory of the sovereign Armenian Republic. This morning a “ceasefire” was announced and the Azerbaijani army took full control of the area. I’m dreading what comes next. You can follow what is going on via live updates from EVN Report and you can contact your elected officials using this tool from the Armenian Assembly of America.
Yesterday I also received word from my literary agent that she was closing on the last few open points in the contract for my new novel with Red Hen Press, a small, independent, non-profit publisher based in Pasadena. Red Hen will publish The Burning Heart of the World, a novel about an Armenian family in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, in 2025. This submission process was long and grueling, and I cannot tell you what a relief it is that the book has found a home, and with a press whose values align with so many of mine.
I’m leaving on Friday for a two-week trip called “The Mushrooms and Culture of Greece.” My friend Betsy and I will be traveling to Zagori in northwestern Greece with a group tour led by several radical mycologists. If you follow me on social media, expect to see lots of photos of mushrooms, food-laden tables, mountain villages, and the rocky shore.
Day to day, I try to open my heart to the sweetness of this tough world.
My mood has been a little down lately—family health struggles, no news yet on the book front, rising fascism in this country and around the world, and other calamities I don’t have the heart to enumerate—so I haven’t much felt like composing one of these notes. But there have been some bright spots—things to watch and read and see—that I’ve been collecting to share. And here they are.
Watch JURY DUTY on Amazon FreeVee. This is the best TV I’ve watched in a very long time, and I have recommended it to a dozen friends all of whom have loved it. It’s funny and deeply kind.
Check out this piece about Armenia’s vibrant new fine wine and dining scene in Food & Wine.
Read about Harout Bastajian, a Lebanese-Armenian artist renowned for painting domes in mosques around the world. He volunteered to paint a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan, and years later when he fell on hard times in Beirut, the local community helped him relocate to Michigan.
It’s not quite spring, but the crocuses have bloomed, and the daffodils are starting to show their sunny faces. It always feels like a small miracle to me when winter recedes and the trees start to bud, and this year’s flowers that bloom in a predictable series have lifted my mood.
We are packing up our apartment so the walls can be painted and the floors refinished—this hasn’t been done since we moved in eighteen years ago. I’m in a chaos of boxes with walls sadly denuded of all paintings, photos, and posters, and we will be decamping to Los Angeles for two weeks while the work is done. James is on the Writers Guild negotiating committee—their contract expires on May 1—and while we are in L.A., he will be in a hotel conference room from 9 to 5 every day trying to hammer out a deal. I plan to be working on an essay entitled “His Driving Life” about my father’s relationship to motor vehicles, starting with the Lincoln Market delivery truck that he drove at the age of nine when he could barely see over the steering wheel.
Our daughter Djuna, who as a second-year law student at NYU is working with the Racial Justice Clinic, learned two weeks ago that her first client has been granted parole. Upon hearing this wonderful news, I sent Djuna this quotation from prison abolitionist, organizer, writer, and librarian Mariame Kaba:
“I’ve said this to younger organizers and will repeat it here. To be involved in helping to free someone from the clutches of death making institutions is a profound and life altering experience. It’s a miracle. Make sure you take that in and then continue to fight for others. People say ‘well look at all of the effort it took to get one person out.’ And my response is ‘YES and it’s worth all of the effort. Keep going.’”
Djuna and her friend Will visited David twice a month at Fishkill Prison to help him prepare for his parole hearing, and they are now raising funds for him in advance of his imminent release.
Another bright note is that the anthology WE ARE ALL ARMENIAN has just gone back for another print run because the sales of the first edition have been so strong. This week the anthology was included in a New York Times roundup of newly published books. Columbia’s Armenian Center is hosting a panel discussion on April 3—the anthology’s editor Aram Mrjoian will be in conversation with contributors Chris Bohjalian, Scout Tufankjian, Hrag Vartanian, and yours truly. If you’re in the New York area, it would be lovely to see you there.
My essay “Language Lessons” is included in a forthcoming anthology edited by Aram Mrjoian entitled WE ARE ALL ARMENIAN. Among the eighteen contributors are my friends Nancy Agabian, Liana Aghajanian, Chris Bohjalian, Scout Tufankjian, and Hrag Vartanian. My friends Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian designed the beautiful cover. The jacket text describes the project thus:
We Are All Armenianbrings together established and emerging Armenian authors to reflect on the complications of Armenian ethnic identity today. These personal essays elevate diasporic voices that have been historically silenced inside and outside of their communities, including queer, multiracial, and multiethnic writers. The eighteen contributors to this contemporary anthology explore issues of displacement, assimilation, inheritance, and broader definitions of home.
The publication date is March 14, 2023 and pre-orders are being accepted now. Pre-orders are crucial because if they are strong the publisher is motivated to do more publicity and marketing for the title. You can go to the University of Texas Press site and use the discount code UTXM25 to receive 25% off and free shipping. If you have a good connection with your university or public library, please request that they purchase a copy.
If you are in the New York City area save the evening of Monday April 3rd for a launch event at Columbia University. More details to follow.
I have just returned to the city after ten days in the country during peak fall foliage season. The hills have been ablaze with color. This summer’s drought has given way to autumn rains, and mushrooms have been appearing on the forest floor. Each day, I walked the trails wearing my binoculars and carrying a canvas bag with my mushroom collecting tools. I selected one or two unfamiliar mushrooms during each foray to bring back to the house for identification. Exciting finds of the past week were the Indigo Milk Cap and the Lobster Mushroom. I saw a Barred Owl gliding through the forest canopy to land on a high branch, and I have been hearing the toot of the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the laugh of the Pileated Woodpecker. My walks in the woods help keep me balanced in this off-kilter world.
In the middle of September, when Azerbaijan launched a military attack on Armenia, I was an emotional wreck. Apparently, Azerbaijan’s territorial ambitions are not confined to Nagorno-Karabagh–it has designs on land within the internationally recognized borders of the Republic of Armenia. The genocidal rhetoric of Azerbaijan’s Aliyev is well documented. A video circulated on social media showing Azerbaijani forces murdering surrendered Armenian soldiers was authenticated by numerous outlets, and this war crime was condemned by Human Rights Watch. As Russia is up to its neck with its bloody war against Ukraine, Armenia has been mostly alone facing a brutal petro-dictatorship aligned with Turkey’s Erdogan. Azerbaijan recently signed a lucrative gas deal with the European Union, which has muted the response from European leaders. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi led a Congressional Delegation to Armenia last month, and another U.S. Congressional Delegation is in the planning stages. At this point, Armenia needs all the friends it can get, including the U.S., Russia, Iran, and France. A ceasefire is mostly holding, and negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are ongoing, but the situation along the border is volatile and potentially explosive.
I’ve been volunteering with the Josh Riley campaign in New York’s 19th Congressional District. Please make sure you are registered to vote. We can’t let the Red Wave drown us–mainstream Democrats are an uninspired lot, but the fascist alternative is terrifying.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, this winter feels dark and long, and the spring seems far away. As usual, I look for solace in the natural world and also in my continuing study of the Armenian language. Below is a short piece that I wrote about a recent snowy morning. My Western Armenian teacher Sosy Mishoyan corrected my mistakes, but as time goes by I’m making fewer of them.
Անցեալ գիշեր ձիւն տեղաց, իսկ այս առտուն ճերմակ վերմակը ամբողջ մարգը կը ծածկէ։ Վերարկուս ու կօշիկներս կը հագնիմ եւ գլխարկս ու ձեռնոցներս կը դնեմ։ Շատ պաղ է, բայց` շատ գեղեցիկ։
Լճակին շուրջ կը պտտիմ։ Երկինքին մէջ երկու բազէ կը սաւառնի, իսկ մացառին մէջ պզտիկ թռչուններ սերմ ու հատապտուղ կը փնտռեն։ Յանկարծ ոտքերուս մօտէն դաշտամուկ մը կը վազէ ու կը մտնէ պզտիկ ձիւնէ փապուղիին մէջ։
Ձիւնը նորէն կը սկսի թափիլ։ Աշխարհը ճերմակ եւ լուռ է։
The strange mutability of time during this pandemic year makes it hard to gauge exactly what happened when, but a glance at the calendar indicates that it’s been eight months since I have posted here. This winter seems dark and long, and there are moments when it’s hard to believe that it will ever end. But rather than being consumed by the struggles, suffering, and violence that are swirling around us, I have tried to build a daily routine of work, exercise, and pastimes to stave off melancholy and loneliness. It works most of the time. As Mariame Kaba puts it, “Hope is a discipline.”
In addition to making steady progress on the second draft of my novel, I am knitting a sweater, studying Spanish and Armenian, reviewing French, reading for my three monthly book clubs, volunteering in the New Sanctuary Coalition Remote Pro Se Clinic, taking Zoom Iyengar yoga classes, trying recipes from my four Armenian cookbooks, and watching the songbirds at the feeders outside and the raptors cruising over the meadow.
This morning as I took our small dog for the first walk of the day around the pond, I heard the high-pitched “seee” calls of Cedar Waxwings, a call that I have learned recently on the Larkwire game app that I started using a few weeks ago. I looked up and saw a small flock perched atop the hundred-year old cherry tree. I heard the drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker at the edge of the forest, and the “peter-peter-peter” of a Tufted Titmouse. I surveyed the rolling hills, the light in the farmhouse across the valley, and the layers of clouds stretching to the south and east. What a beautiful world.
P.S. If you would like to learn more about the history of the White Power Movement, its adherents most recently on display rampaging through the Capitol, I highly recommend Kathleen Belew’s excellent and riveting book BRING THE WAR HOME. I also recommend this virtual exhibit of Armenian embroidery from the Armenian Museum of America’s collection. And check out Liana Aghajanian’s beautiful piece about quince jam, war, and resilience.
A few weeks ago I received a request from a friend at Agos
Armenian Weekly in Istanbul. They were soliciting responses from Armenian
artists to the following questions: How
has being quarantined/isolated influenced your creative process? How do you foresee the future of your art
and creativity once the current situation of isolation fades away?
This was my
the first several weeks of our confinement I was unable to focus on reading or
writing. My spouse was sick with the virus, and we were quarantined from the
world and from each other in our home. We slept in separate rooms, washed our
hands dozens of times a day, wiped down doorknobs, handles, and counters, and
sat twelve feet apart at the kitchen table and in the living room. We were
lucky: his case was “mild” and I didn’t get sick. It took four weeks for his
energy, as well as his sense of taste and smell, to return. Once he was better,
wearing masks, we were able to go outside for short walks. The trees were
flowering and the birds were building their nests.
the past few weeks, finally able to concentrate for an hour or two a day, I
have returned to work on my latest novel. The book has three sections: the
story opens in New York City on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, the second
part is set is in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, and the final section
is a folk tale set in Hadjin on the eve of the Armenian Genocide. The novel is
about generations of trauma and resiliency in one Armenian family, and the fear
and stress of the present moment are permeating the descriptions I’m writing
about those other difficult times.
is so much suffering around us as people continue to be sickened by this
illness that has taken so many lives in New York, and around the world.
Prisoners are in crowded cells without soap to wash their hands. Millions have
lost their jobs; so many are worried about how they will pay the rent, and how
they will feed themselves and their children. Immigrant families without papers
are not eligible for the meager assistance the government is providing.
as we are isolated in our homes, we are finding ways to support each other
through mutual aid projects in our neighborhoods, through car protests outside
detention centers, and through online organizing to create collective power. My
creative life has always been entwined with my activist work, and as I continue
writing, I will join friends and comrades in our struggle for a kinder, more
equitable, and greener future.
You may read the other artists’ statements on the Agos site.
Yesterday when I started drafting this blog post, I ended up spending two hours writing about the December 11th killing of Barnard Freshman Tess Majors in Morningside Park and the subsequent NYPD Security Theater outside my kitchen window. I realized there was nothing edifying, informative, or helpful in what I had written, although it was cathartic for me, and so I put it in the failed drafts folder.
We made it through a turbulent 2019,
and we’re now into a new year that started with an illegal and provocative
assassination of an Iranian General and, if anxiety and incertitude are a
measure of length, this very long year will continue with the longest Presidential
election cycle in human history. So herewith is my “listicle” of ways to
maintain sanity and equilibrium in 2020, which was composed in part in the
middle of the night as I turned in my bed like a rotisserie chicken.
1. ORGANIZE: Housing is a Human Right
Read about #Moms4Housing
in Oakland, and how community organizing turned a violent eviction into a
big win. This is an inspiring story, and something to build upon.
2. ORGANIZE AGAIN: Why We Need A Green New Deal
Listen to The Dig Podcast Episode “Planet
to Win,” a detailed and hopeful discussion about how the Green New Deal
might change America for the better.
3. WATCH A GOOD FILM
Go see Kitty Green’s The
Assistant, a brilliant and dark film about one day in the life of the
junior assistant of an abusive boss. It’s not just about predation—it’s also
gimlet-eyed view on capitalist exploitation of young people. The film is poised
to become part of a
movement to change the culture of Hollywood. Watch the trailer here. Opening in NYC and
LA on January 31, theaters and show times may be found here.
4. MAKE COMFORT FOOD
Order a copy of Lavash: The Bread
That Launched 1,000 Meals, Plus Salads, Stews, and Other Recipes From Armenia,
and cook an Armenian meal for your loved ones. You can read more about the book
and try sample recipes here
Last week I went to the Whitney Museum to see Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019. There were a lot of great pieces in the show, but I was absolutely bowled over by Liza Lou’s KITCHEN, a life-sized beaded room filled with furniture, appliances, pots, pans, cereal boxes, and more that took the artist five years to produce. The show is up through January 2021, and a new show of Mexican muralists will be opening at the Whitney in February so you could take in both.
11. GO FOR A WALK IN THE WOODS
I’ve been reading out-of-print books by naturalist and writer Alan Devoe, who lived down the road from our house in the country from the 1930’s to the mid-50’s. In the middle of World War II, which was a time of destruction, violence, and despair on a global scale, Devoe wrote, “It is good, for instance, just to shut off the radio for a while, throw away the newspaper, and go out into the warm darkness of a country night and listen to the frogs.” He also recommended listening to the wrens singing, and said, “They are singing directly into our aboriginal ears, an information that all the pessimists and pedants are mistaken, and the life adventure is a greater and gladder thing than mere learnedness might ever surmise.”