Jewish Voice for Peace protest in Washington, D.C., 18 October 2023
In the midst of all the terrible news, a brief post.
This is a good moment to recommend the work of my friend Adania Shibli, who has been in the crosshairs of the current wave of repression and the attempts to silence Palestinian voices. The scheduled awards ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair for her gem of a novel Minor Detail was canceled, setting off a firestorm of criticism, prompting withdrawals from the fair, and generating statements of solidarity. The furor has resulted in a mass run on her book, which is currently back ordered, but you can read the transcript of an excellent interview David Naimon did with her on his Between the Covers podcast and sample her spare and devastating style in this piece posted on LitHub.
What gives me comfort in this bleak, bleak moment? I find hope in the people who are standing against genocide despite it all. Yesterday my friends at Jewish Voice for Peace organized an inspiring mass protest in Washington, D.C. calling for an immediate ceasefire. They are saying that Jewish grief must not be used as a weapon of war. (About the suffering in Israel, and the weaponization of grief, please read Gabriel Winant’s excellent piece in Dissent.) And a handful of brave members of Congress, led by Representative Cori Bush (to date all of them black and brown except for Massachusetts’ Jim McGovern) have introduced legislation calling for an immediate ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
And here I will trot out my old motto from Grace Paley: The only recognizable feature of hope is action. Here are actions you can take today.
Contact your representatives to call for a ceasefire.
Donate to UNWRA, MECA, or to my friends at Sunbula for their partners in Gaza. A longer list of trusted charitable organizations can be found here.
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.
As a child I went to a Pioneer Girls Christian camp starting in the summer after fifth grade through the summer after my senior year in high school. The now defunct New England Camp Cherith was on Lake Bunganut in Alfred, Maine. It was on the camp’s 130 wooded acres that I had my first experiences with hiking and camping and was taught how to build a campfire and to cook a tin foil dinner. When I was a counselor in training, we were required to learn the names of five trees, five wildflowers, five birds, five rocks, and five constellations. In the Nature Cabin, I pored over field guides, and at night the other C.I.T.s and I would lie on our backs on the mown hill staring up at the stars. I had always loved our large yard and garden in Watertown, turning up the marble steppingstones to look at the insects underneath or resting my cheek on the soft moss between the peach tree and the hedge of lilacs. Now I came to love the broader canvas of the camp’s forest, lakeshore, and rolling hills.
When I was a student in Columbia’s Graduate Writing Division in the 1980’s, Arizona poet Richard Shelton, who passed at the end of last year, came to deliver a Master Class. He had a warm and relaxed charm, and he read us a few of his poems that were full of details about the Sonoran Desert. He told us, “If you don’t know the name of a thing, you can’t fully see it.” He described the way that people unfamiliar with the desert would experience it as an empty space, but if you studied it the way he had, learning the names of the plants, the animals, the insects, and even the stones, you would understand its fullness. These words have reverberated in my head for decades now, and when I walk through the forest behind our Columbia County house, I recite the names of what I recognize—the wildflowers, the trees, the birds, and mushrooms. But I feel overwhelmed wondering about the names I don’t yet know for the ferns, the mosses, lichens, and grasses on the forest floor. As the poet Maxine Kumin put it, “Our ground time here will be brief,” and I wish I had begun this concerted study much earlier.
For the conclusion of my Beirut novel (no news yet—I promise as soon as there is anything to tell, I’ll send out a flare), I wrote a folk tale called “The Girl Who Talked with Birds.” I started birdwatching ten years ago as part of the research for this novel, which has avian imagery woven throughout the narrative, but also as an extension of my engagement with the natural world. The protagonist of the folk tale, a girl named Sosi, thinks to herself:
Sosi understood that each living thing had a name, and she wanted to learn what to call each flower, grass, and insect. Her mother knew many of the names, and her grandmother knew even more, but neither of them knew them all. In response to Sosi’s incessant questions, her grandmother said, ‘The Creator made them, and only the Creator knows the name of each and every one.’
Writing a novel is a way of creating a world, and, because of my interest in history and need for historical accuracy, of recreating a world, filling it with people, places, events, sounds, textures, and smells that are at once invented and rooted in lived reality. I want the reader to open the book and to be transported into the world that the characters inhabit. And the more I know about this beautiful, resilient, and fragile planet on which we live and the people and other creatures who roam its precincts, the truer this fictional world can be.
P.S. Our adult child Noah Schamus has a film premiering at the Provincetown Film Festival this weekend. Watch the trailer here. This nuanced, funny, and moving film is mom approved (I’m the mom, of course, but I’m relatively objective, having told Noah in elementary school that they gave the second-best performance in the school production of Romeo and Juliet). I’ll send out news about where you can see Summer Solstice when it’s made more widely available.
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.
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։
In the middle of the summer our friend Jon was in the forest behind our house working on the trails. When he emerged from woods, he told us, “You have about 200 pounds of Chanterelle mushrooms back there.” I had no idea what Chanterelles looked like and had never foraged for mushrooms, so we did nothing about this potential bounty.
In September, while on a birding walk in Central Park, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since we were both graduate students at Columbia. Turns out that she also had a house in Columbia County, and when the subject of mushrooms came up, she told me she often foraged for Chanterelles. We made a date for her to come by for a walk in the woods, and on the trail she pointed out the few that remained. We sauteed them with olive oil and garlic, and they were delicious.
This was just the beginning. I bought a mushroom field guide, read several books about fungi, the best of which was Merlin Sheldrake’s fascinating Entangled Life. I watched some tutorials about mushrooms on YouTube, the most helpful of them by Yellow Elanor, also known as Rachel Zoller and who can be found on Instagram. I was excited to learn about fungi and mushrooms—after years of studying flowers and birds, it was a whole new area of the natural world to explore. Mushrooms are not in the plant kingdom, nor are they in the animal kingdom, although they are closer to animals than to plants. I was soon fascinated by the underground mycorrhizal (fungal) networks that facilitate communication between trees (see Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree for more on her groundbreaking work on this topic).
Armed with an Opinel Mushroom Knife, a jeweler’s loupe, and some waxed paper and mesh bags, I started going on solo forays in the woods. Every day I walked the trails, discovering many kinds of mushrooms, all of them interesting, some of them edible. I learned about the difference between Turkey Tail, False Turkey Tail, Violet-Toothed Polypore, and Lenzites Betulina (Gilled Polypore), all of which look similar on the top side, but which can be distinguished by their various underside surfaces. I found tiny Cinnabar Chanterelles and slimy Yellow-Centered Waxy Caps, also known as Hygrophorus Flavodiscus.
I joined the New York Mycological Society, which was co-founded by the composer John Cage in 1962. I learned an old maxim, “There are bold foragers and old foragers, but no old, bold foragers.” I read a newspaper account about a woman in Rhode Island who had found a delicious-looking mushroom in her backyard and decided to eat it, even though she “didn’t know exactly what it was.” She ended up with a kidney transplant. After our experience with the Chanterelles, which were identified by much more knowledgeable people, I was determined that we would eat only mushrooms that I was absolutely, unequivocally sure were edible. I bought a book called How to Forage for Mushrooms Without Dying, and headed back into the woods.
In October, I found a patch of funnel-shaped black mushrooms at the foot of a tree near the vernal pond on the north side of our property. I knew from consulting the field guides that Black Trumpets had no poisonous look-alikes, and these were definitely Black Trumpets. We cooked and ate them and they were delightful.
Recently, I listened to a fascinating For the Wild Podcast interview with mycologist Dr. Patricia Kaishian, who discussed, among other topics, “queer mycology,” the International Congress of Armenian Mycologists (ICAM), and the war in Artsakh. Patty’s Twitter handle is queendom_fungi, evoking the idea of the non-binary and queer world of mushrooms she talked about in the interview, and I love the idea of a Magical Mushroom Queendom.
There are still mushrooms to see in the Hudson Valley in winter, but far fewer than in the more temperate seasons. In the next few months, I will be reading and studying more about fungi in preparation for spring forays. I’ll keep you posted!
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.