now

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


Friends and Neighbors

Each day there is some new racist anti-immigrant policy announced by Trump and the cartoon villains who are running our country. As is by now apparent, with the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and practices, cruelty is the point. Their theater of cruelty is meant to rally their so-called base and to send a message to immigrants and would-be immigrants that they aren’t wanted in this country, unless they can, as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services Ken Cuccinelli put it, “stand on their own two feet,” by which he means unless they are wealthy, able-bodied, and preferably white.

Last week when ICE raided workplaces in Mississippi, arresting 680 people, the videos, photographs, and news reports about distraught children whose parents had been detained, leaving many kids without family care, were terrible. One little girl, who sobbed on camera begging for the release of her father, was particularly heartbreaking.

That night, I had nightmares about the three little Albanian girls whose family I have worked with through the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) for 18 months and two little Honduran girls whose mother I had helped fill out an asylum application in early June at the NSC Pro Se Legal Clinic. In my dreams, the little girls were crying for their parents the way the kids in the Mississippi videos had done. But I actually know these kids. I have heard in great detail about the violence their parents had fled, and I have learned about the dire conditions in the countries from which they come. I also know about how fearful their parents are about the possibility of being detained and deported.

As part of her asylum application, J., the Honduran mom, wrote about the domestic violence she had suffered, and her reluctance to go to the police to report the abuse, which meant she didn’t have documentary evidence to support her claim. She said, “In countries like ours the only record of these violent events is in our memory. Unfortunately in my family there was a lot of domestic violence. I saw that my aunts were often beaten by their partners, and if they called the police, the abusers would go to jail for maybe one night. Unfortunately, in my country the police only believe you once you are put into a box and buried in a hole.”

Last Monday, as part of a NSC accompaniment, I went to immigration court with J. and her two girls, aged eight and six. The girls were hungry and bored because of the long wait outside the courtroom. People with attorneys are seen first, and those without lawyers can wait several hours or more for their turn. No food is allowed in the waiting area or in the courtroom, so I offered to take the girls to the cafeteria in the federal building while their mother awaited her turn before the immigration judge. The so-called cafeteria sold only chips, candy bars, cookies, and soft drinks, so they selected chocolate and chips. As we sat at the table eating and talking, the older girl said, “Would you be our grandma?” The little one said, “Can you also be our auntie?” I laughed. They laughed. But we were now friends.

The only way I can keep from descending into despair is by taking action, whether it is by helping people fill out asylum applications, by accompanying friends to immigration court, or by working with groups organizing against the cruelty. In New York City on August 10, over 100 people, among them members of the NYC DSA Immigrant Justice Working Group (to which I belong) were arrested in a #CloseTheCamps action that shut down the West Side Highway near an ICE field office on 26th Street. The next day, a coalition of #JewsAgainstICE protestors, including Never Again is Now and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, occupied an Amazon store in Manhattan to demand that Amazon cancel its contracts with ICE. In upstate New York, the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement has a rapid response network that sends out texts when ICE agents are spotted in town so people can drive to the location, offering support to their targeted neighbors, and often preventing detentions. This is the time to mobilize radical kindness and militant refusal in the face of their relentless cruelty.

Nancy Kricorian, New York City 2019


Solace and Hope

Spring is really here in New York City—my neighbors’ garden beds are full of bright and blowsy tulips, and the cherry trees in the parks and on the Columbia campus are blossoming and showering pink petals on the ground. Yesterday I went on the first in a series of Spring Migration Bird walks led by the NYC Audubon Society’s Gabriel Willow in Central Park. In addition to the birds—among them an Indigo Bunting, a Black and White Warbler, a Downy Woodpecker, and a Blue Winged Warbler—the park’s paths are lined with wildflowers such as Virginia Bluebells, Columbines, Trilliums, and an assortment of Viburnums. Each week there will be different flowers and different birds.

The solace and hope that we find in the natural world, and in our friends, and in the activities we love (walking, yoga, biking, cooking, knitting, gardening, what have you) are essential in this turbulent time. Also necessary is the work that we do to push back against the cruelty and hatred being manufactured on an industrial scale by the leaders in our country and around the world.

James and I went to Oaxaca City for two weeks this month to take Spanish language immersion classes four hours a day and to vacation. We had never been Oaxaca before, and we loved it. The food was fantastic, the old city was beautiful, and the place was full of street art, street music, museums, radical printmaking workshops, and markets with abundant fruit and vegetables alongside Zapotec handicrafts. The Ambulante film festival was in town while we were there, so we went to a few screenings and had dinner with filmmakers and curators affiliated with the festival.

We went to learn some Spanish because James is working on a limited TV series for Netflix that is set in Mexico and will be shot there, probably in Durango, in Spanish later this year. And I wanted to pick up some Spanish to enhance my work in the New Sanctuary Pro Se Legal Clinic with Central American asylum seekers. The interpreters at the clinic are by necessity fully fluent, a minimum requirement when collecting grim stories for asylum applications, but I can now say a few polite phrases and compose and read text messages from my friends.

At the Oaxaca Spanish Language Immersion School, I had two weeks of individual lessons with two excellent teachers—two hours with Yesenia in the morning, and two hours with Jacobo in the afternoon. It was difficult at first, as words in French and Armenian would swim up in my head when I was looking for a word in Spanish. But it turns out that I love learning ABOUT languages—how they operate, how they relate to other languages—which is a good first step to actually learning to read, write, and speak a new language. My attempt to learn Arabic three summers ago was pretty much a failure, but I have been making good headway with Armenian, and I feel I now I have a solid base to continue with the Spanish. 

I had hoped to work on my novel when we were in Mexico, but I found it impossible to make the necessary mental transition from the compelling sights and sounds and languages of Oaxaca to wartime Beirut. But now that I’m back home, I am able to return to the familiar world of Vera Serinossian and the neighborhood of Nor Hadjin. And so it goes.

Nancy Kricorian NYC 2019