The Button Bush in our yard adored the torrential rains we had earlier this month and burst into bloom. Many pollinators, including a wide variety of butterflies, were attracted to its spherical blossoms. I watched the American Robins nesting on the front porch produce two sets of babies, from eggs to hatchlings to nestlings to fledglings, and then the mother laid eggs once again. After weeks of frequent parental coming and going with worms being stuffed into bright yellow gapes, when the second group of nestlings finally fledged I felt the pang of the proverbial empty nest.
On New York Primary Election Day in June, while I was in Manhattan helping my daughter Djuna find an apartment before she starts NYU Law School at the end of August, we paused for a snack at Essex Market. As we sat at a café table in the airy mezzanine, mayoral candidate Andrew Yang showed up to work the room, trying to inspire voters and posing for photos with people. Earlier in in the week Yang had made some awful comments about mentally ill and homeless people, and I was never a fan of his political positions even before that. I definitely did not want to interact with him, but nonetheless he came up to our table as I was studiously trying to avoid him. I didn’t even realize he was behind me when Djuna took the photo that was subsequently posted to Twitter by my spouse James. The Tweet went viral.
Here we are in the middle of the summer of 2021 living through the third or fourth wave of a global pandemic, watching and experiencing extreme weather events caused by climate catastrophe, and some of us engaging in raging vaccination and anti-vaccination battles in our communities and in our families. But I hope that in this challenging moment you are basically okay, and that you can find time to observe the fragile beauty around us and to laugh at the sometimes painfully absurd contradictions of our world.
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.”
When I was in college, I studied for one semester with a poet who dispensed counsel the way my grandmother handed out hard candies. This poet told me that if my boyfriend didn’t make me feel like I was the most beautiful woman in the world, he wasn’t doing his job and I should fire him. Another memorable bit of advice was about writing, and left her lisping voice echoing in my head with this mantra, “Respect your process.”
During my student days, I was
prolific. I wrote a poem a day in long hand on narrow ruled yellow notepads,
and often they sprang fully formed from my head like Athena. I rarely revised, and
often didn’t even type them. I would bring them to my professor on the yellow
notepads, he would make a few comments, and say, “Just keep writing.” And so I
wrote and wrote and wrote. In graduate school I learned about revision, and
often took a poem through ten or more drafts before I was satisfied with it and
moved on to the next one. This was in the old days when it was possible to keep
track of drafts because I typed each one on a sheet of paper using an IBM
By the time I started working on my
first novel, Zabelle,
I was writing on a computer. Gone were the yellow lined note pads for the first
draft, and gone also was the stuttering and humming electric typewriter. The
only way I could think of attempting something so long and unwieldy as a novel
was by breaking the task into story chapters. I had the stamina to write one
ten-page chapter, and after that was done, I started the next. Once I had a
stack of these chapters, I figured out how they fit together and then rewrote
them so they made a coherent, if episodic, narrative. Revising a text that was
two hundred and seventy pages long was a much more daunting prospect than
rewriting a one- or two-page poem. By the time I got through the last chapter, I
went back to the beginning and noticed more things that needed fixing, and went
over the whole thing once again. Working on a computer, there was a lot of
continuous fiddling with bits here and there, so it was harder to keep track of
how many drafts I did, but it was probably upwards of three before I even sent it
to my agent. With her suggestions, I did another draft before she showed it to
the editor. There was another pass with the editor’s notes before the
production process started. The copy editor did a thorough once over, and then
it was done. This was pretty much how it went with my two subsequent novels, Dreams
of Bread and Fire and All
the Light There Was.
You would think that the fourth time
I approached this kind of project, I’d march ahead with assurance. But no, when
I started writing my latest novel, I felt as though I were at the bottom of an
enormous mountain peering up at a peak that was enshrouded in clouds. How would
I ever manage to get to the top? I’m a slow writer—in part because I do a
massive amount of research before I start writing, and because other aspects of
my life (my family’s needs and challenges, my geriatric dogs, my work as an
organizer, as well as the distractions of our calamitous political moment)
often crowd out my writing. I can’t write for more than two hours a day. I used
to be able to produce two pages in two hours, but now I eke out one page a day.
At one point over a year ago, I said
to my spouse in despair, “How am I ever going to get this thing done?” He
answered, “If you write one page a day, you’ll eventually finish it.” In other
words, “Respect your process.” And much to my surprise, at the end of October I
printed out a completed rough draft of this novel about an Armenian family in
Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. It opens with this same family in New
York on 9/11, and ends with a folk tale about a girl who talks with birds. It’s
rough, and it needs a lot of work. But it’s done, and my first and most trusted
reader, the aforementioned spouse, confirmed that the structure is sound—this
was my biggest worry.
I took a hiatus from the novel so that I could come back to it with fresh eyes. While on this break, I wrote a talk that I delivered on a panel at Columbia on November 20, which was published last week by the Armenian Weekly. Also in November, Egg & Spoon Theatre Collective staged an off-off-Broadway adaptation of Zabelle. My novel All the Light There Was recently appeared in Turkish translation from Aras in Istanbul, which had previously published Dreams of Bread and Fire. And three weeks ago I saw the cover of the Arabic translation of Zabelle, which will be published in February 2020 by Fawasel Books in Syria.