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Armenian Artists Respond to the Pandemic

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 response:

For 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.

In 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.

There 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.

Even 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.

Nancy Kricorian

New York

May 2020

You may read the other artists’ statements on the Agos site.


Advice for the Longest Year

Detail of Liza Lou’s Kitchen (1991-1996)

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 and here.

5. ORGANIZE SOME MORE: #NotMeUS

Read this Jacobin piece about why Bernie Sanders is the candidate who can beat Trump, watch this moving campaign video, and join the #NotMeUs movement.

6. LAUGH

In response to the New York Times’ ridiculous double endorsement of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren for president, read Alexandra Petri’s hilarious takedown, “In a Break From Tradition, I am Endorsing All 12 Democratic Candidates.”

7. LISTEN TO MUSIC

Onnik Dinkjian’s many decades of performing Armenian folk music is covered in this piece from Houshamadyan, and it includes recordings of some of Dinkjian’s most beloved songs.

8. SEEK OUT WISDOM

Listen to Grace Paley read her short story “Traveling”, and read Walter Mosley’s loving remembrance of Toni Morrison. Read also these beautiful poems from Kurdistan.

9.  LEARN SOMETHING NEW

American linguists have recently voted the singular “they” as the word of the decade. And Ivan Coyote’s 2014 piece “Fear and Loathing in Public Bathrooms” helped expand my thinking about the tyranny of the gender binary.

10. LOOK FOR BEAUTY

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.”

Nancy Kricorian


Respect Your Process

Turkish translations of DREAM OF BREAD AND FIRE and ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS

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 Selectric Typewriter.

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.

And now it’s time to get back to work.

Nancy Kricorian


Weaponizing History

This week the U.S. House of Representatives, in a rare moment of bipartisanship and in a rebuke to the Turkish government, overwhelmingly passed a resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923. The lead sponsor of the bill, California Democrat Adam Schiff, said, “Given that the Turks are once again involved in ethnic cleansing—this time the Kurds who live along the Turkish-Syrian border—it seemed all the more appropriate to bring up a resolution about Ottoman efforts to annihilate an entire people in the Armenian genocide.”

The day before the vote, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, my friend Khatchig Mouradian, lecturer at Columbia University, called on Congress to take a principled stand on the issue, saying, “The bipartisan sport of killing Armenian genocide bills and weaponizing the suffering of its victims must end. By passing this resolution, the House can help ensure that the Armenian genocide is acknowledged and commemorated, but no longer exploited.”

The final tally on H. Res. 296 was 405 yeas, 11 nays, and 3 presents. One of the most perplexing and disappointing votes was that of Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, who released a statement explaining her present vote that included a sentence echoing Turkish government propaganda on the issue: “But accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics.” As Turkish President Erdogan phrased it in December 2018, “On the question of genocide, please let’s leave the discussions to the Historians and let’s listen to what the Historians have to say.” Despite a century of Turkish denial, both Omar and Erdogan should know that there is extensive historical documentation and overall consensus on the issue. And, as Armenians, Kurds, and Palestinians well know, how could a political gesture happen outside the push and pull of geopolitics?

Predictably enough, the day after the vote, as part of a televised speech to members of his party, Erdogan denounced the U.S. House of Representatives, saying, “The countries who have stains of genocide, slavery, colonialism in their history have no right to give lessons to Turkey.” Part of the problem with these demagogues, such as Erdogan and Trump, is that there is always some twisted truth in their outrageous statements. Yes, the U.S. has its own shameful history of genocide, slavery, and colonialism, and yes, the timing of this vote had to do with Congress’s fury over Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds and Turkey’s incursion into Syria, and yet, this Congressional resolution was long overdue.

Generations of Armenian-Americans have been working for decades to prod the U.S. government to take a stand on this issue. In 1984, Congress passed a resolution designating April 24, 1985 as “National Day of Remembrance of Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” stipulating it should be “a day of remembrance for all the victims of genocide, especially the one and one-half million people of Armenian ancestry who were the victims of the genocide perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1923, and in whose memory this date is commemorated by all Armenians and their friends throughout the world.” A companion bill was introduced but never passed in the Senate. It is unlikely that a companion version of this week’s House Resolution 296 will make it through the Senate. But this vote in the House, which was due in large part to grassroots organizing, has again put Armenian history on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

One hundred years of denial makes this tragic history an open wound for Armenians, and for Armenians the images of Kurds being driven from their lands are dismally familiar and even traumatizing. This gesture by the U.S. Congress doesn’t undo any of that, but it does mean that for a brief moment we aren’t being “gaslighted.” Our history has been described, discussed, and acknowledged. This isn’t justice, but it is meaningful and important.

In an interview with France 24, Khatchig offered this sage analysis:

After decades of denial, it has become very difficult to come to terms with the past. Turkey is also worried about what would follow an acknowledgment: Reparations for the utter dispossession and destruction of an entire nation…But it’s also important to note that in recent years, in Turkish civil society, there have been many intellectuals, scholars, writers who HAVE spoken out on the importance of confronting the past and delivering some measure of justice to the victims of genocide.

Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian Minister of Parliament in Turkey from the pro-minority leftist HDP party, wrote on Twitter: “US Congress has recognized the Armenian Genocide. Because my own country has been denying this for 105 years, our tragedy is discussed in other world parliaments. The real healing for Armenians will come when we can talk about the Armenian Genocide in Turkey’s own parliament.”

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


No Friends But The Mountains

Armenian tent camp at Ras al-Ain circa 1916
Armenian tent camp at Ras al-Ain circa 1916

The past few days I’ve been saddened and appalled by the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish region of northeastern Syria. When I see in the news the name Ras al-Ain, a place that was bombed by Turkey yesterday, my heart clenches. Ras al-Ain was where my grandmother ended up in a tent camp, along with eight thousand other Armenian orphans, after the death marches of 1915. This most recent U.S. betrayal of the Kurds is seemingly the result of an impetuous decision by Trump on a phone call with Turkey’s president. I thought of the Kurdish proverb, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The Turkish assault will likely bring an end to the Rojava experiment in democracy, and could well result in the resurgence of the Islamic State in the area. When I read that Armenian-inhabited areas of Syria had come under attack, I thought of the Armenian proverb, “Land of Armenians, land of sorrows.” By the end of Thursday, it was reported that most of the Armenian families had relocated from the conflict areas.

Many, including Republican U.S. Senators, the Armenian government, The European Union, and others, have denounced the Turkish incursion, recognizing it as an attempt to drive out the Kurds and repopulate the area with Syrian Arab refugees, who are increasingly unpopular in Turkey. When questioned about the Turkish offensive, euphemistically dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” and the heavy losses the Kurdish people will likely suffer, Trump said that the Kurds had never helped us in World War II, “they didn’t help us in Normandy,” therefore he wasn’t worried about it.

In response to widespread denunciation, Turkish President Erdogan lashed out at his EU critics, threatening to allow millions of Syrian refugees to “flood Europe.” As Ronan Burtenshaw, editor of The Tribune in the UK, pointed out on Twitter, “The EU has no moral high ground on this issue—it did a grubby refugee deal with Erdogan, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in his camps. Now he can use them to threaten us, and deliver talking points for the Far-Right in the process. Reap what you sow.”

The whole thing is gutting and infuriating, and with the garbage mountain of cruelty piling up around us on all sides and with regard to so many issues and causes, it’s hard to know what to do but sputter with helplessness and rage. But there are things to do—demonstrations to organize and attend, electoral campaigns to work on, and ways to help those in our communities targeted for harm. There’s another Armenian proverb I like to remember: “The voice of the people is louder than the roar of the cannon.”

Nancy Kricorian