1 October 2015
Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship (WATS), Istanbul, Turkey
Queer Armenian Voices Speak
“The great basis of virtue… is for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. He who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his homeland is yet stronger; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a place of exile.”Hugo of St. Victor (Didascalicon III, 20)
There have been calls by several scholars (some of whom are in this room today) who have urgently pointed out the need to delve deeper into the intersections between gender, sexuality, genocide, nationalist discourse and constructions of ethnic identity. How does each normative construct function in the exclusion of its semiotic opposition, posing, in the words of Roland Barthes, the naturalized Other as “a scandal which threatens” (Barthes: Mythologies, 1972) the majority’s existence as a deviant from the normal; a threat to the security of the home? The compilation Nationalisms and Sexualities shows us how discourses on the nation-state, gender and sexuality “circulate in the interest of a unified, coherent, and normative national identity,” (Kassabian and Kazanjian: “You Have to Want to Be Armenian,” 1998, 21) and work by Cynthia Enloe, Nikhat Sirman and Dicle Koğacioğlu and Ayşe Gül Altınay, among others, has lead us to consider how masculinity works in tandem with these discourses, writing women into the roles of tradition bearers (Koğacioğlu: “The Tradition Effect,” 2004, 2), authenticators and protectors of nationalist culture (Sirman: “Gender Construction and Nationalist Discourse,” 2000, 164). Yet, what kind of home-spaces do these women create, and what do their stories have to tell us? In analyzing the Armenian genocide as gendered, Arlene Avakian has urged us to explore the psychological effects of gendered genocide on subsequent generations and their institutions, and how trauma has participated in continued constructions and practices of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality, in post-genocide generations (Avakian: “A Different Future?” 2010, 207).
My critical literary intervention is one with an activist message, exploring the consequences of such oppositional constructs, and the genocide, by presenting two bildungsroman memoirs written by queer Armenian-American authors who strive to find place in Exile. Arlene Avakian’s Lion Woman’s Legacy: An Armenian-American Memoir and Nancy Agabian’s Me as Her Again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter, are subversive additions to the canon of Armenian literature because they (re)present queer identity and Armenian-American experience as inextricably bound. What is revolutionary about these texts—aside from their dissident content—is the “queer” form their memoirs take in this process. Both works integrate the authors’ own stories with the Oral History transcripts of their grandmothers’ genocide survival stories, which the narratives use to reconcile their feminist and sexual identity formation. As a result, the memoirs operate as metadiscursive: a dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter, where the books themselves represent the in-between space of two first-person narratives, a space created through the Act of Writing. As Nancy Agabian describes, this space is one blended between “fiction and non-fiction”, memory and interpretation; “a true story,” (Agabian: Me as her again, 3) where both authors Find Place in Exile.
Avakian and Agabian depict exile in several narrative permutations: a “polarity of existence” (34), as Agabian explains, as typical to the “cross-cultural American experience… a feeling of never fully being yourself, in both the predominantly white world and in the traditional ethnic community of your family” (Avakian: Lion Woman’s Legacy, 16). They are also exiles from both communities due to their feminist politics and queer identities. Because each of the narratives’ iterations of exile deserves a paper in itself, I will only focus here first, on the interweaving of exile and belonging as the authors link their feminist/queer bildungsroman with their Armenian-American family/experience. I will then suggest that the Writing/Recording process for both authors becomes the metaphysical dual-space of Home and Exile, their actual place, as they integrate their grandmothers’ stories into the Memoirs. Finally, I will conclude with the reasons we may consider these works “queer” texts beyond their content, expressing the particular urgency for attention to be paid to these voices 100 years after the Armenian Genocide.
I. Queer Feminist Identities: The Experience of Exile
Arlene Avakian’s Lion Woman’s Legacy describes her coming to an anti-racist feminist consciousness and later discovering her lesbianism. On this journey, Avakian finds herself a stranger to most of her friends, her husband, her “maternal instincts”, the anti-feminist academic institution and her Armenian family. Throughout the memoir, Arlene makes her family’s participation in the formation of her exiled gender role clear. Her first pangs of feminist consciousness and Exile are directly catalyzed by her mother and grandmother’s special, gendered treatment of Arlene’s brother, their little “paşa.” Arriving home the hospital after he is born, Arlene recalls that “Sitting next to [my mother, grandmother and brother] I felt for the first time a circle of intimacy from which I was excluded” (16).
Arlene’s reaction from her family exclusion is expressed in gendered terms. After hearing her grandmother’s story of survival for the first time as a child, Arlene is angry. Rejecting this story, she vows to escape her Armenianness by adopting the normative gender codes of American women that her conservative Armenian family forbids:
“My anger began to erupt—at my mother for her strict controls over me…at the Turks for having done what they did to my family, and at my grandmother for having lived through such horror and for telling it to me. I vowed to be like my friends. I would tweeze my eyebrows. I would wear lipstick. I would go out with boys. And, most of all, I would get away from my family as soon as I could.”Avakian, Lion Woman’s Legacy, 34
Arlene’s attempt to escape one rigid identity opens the pathway for her adopting gendered conventions in an American context—one that first regulates her life and then creates serious conflict as she struggles to liberate herself from the patriarchal and heteronormative constructs of both Armenian and American communities.
When Arlene finds herself falling in love with a woman named Martha, she describes their relationship through the image of building a scattered, patchwork garden, “one that broke all the traditional rules for gardens” (234). It is through this building of a garden (perhaps a queer Eden), that Arlene feels free for the first time. It is also because of Martha’s encouragement that Arlene returns to her family’s Armenian story after a long hiatus after several vehement fights in which Arlene’s sense of racial injustice and the victimization of women seems almost hyperbolic. It is this relationship with a woman, one that sets Arlene outside the image of “a good Armenian woman” (284) that catalyzes Arlene’s return home.
Nancy Agabian’s memoir focuses more explicitly on the relationship between her sexual consciousness and its conflicts with her Armenian identity. Through language play in its very title, Me as her again, Agabian provokes a clever syllabic and phonetic play on Mi-a-ser-agan, the word for “gay” in Armenian. Me as her again, the new “me” to which one returns through family story, now incorporates also a queer identity. Fittingly, as Agabian plays with language, she identifies Language as the sight of the first conflicts between Sex and Armenian in her family in what she calls her “Armenian-challenged household.” Though her immediate family does not speak Armenian, the language permeates her consciousness as it functions as a language of euphemisms for topics “too embarrassing to say in English: vardeek for underpants, vor for butt, and betkaran for bathroom” (36). Thus, beginning with language, Agabian, relates her relationship to Armenianness with her sexual bildungsroman as centered around the question one of her later audience members asks after one of Nancy’s provocative performances (The Crochet Penis): “What is it about Armenians that make them so uptight about sex?” (177).
Throughout her childhood, Nancy and her older brother constantly use the term “gay” and “fag” to make fun of anyone acting outside of their socially expected gender roles. She even imagines her teachers “Diggin Arlene” and “Diggin Carol” in racy lesbian romance in an act of rebellion against being tortured as she’s assigned to re- learn declensions in Armenian school. Although a game as a child, as Nancy approaches adolescents, she becomes terrified not just by what might be the signs of her queer sexuality, but by her attraction to her only friend in middle school, a Turkish girl named Emine; an attraction which threatens to doubly transgress her “Armenian” identity. Learning about her Turkish friend, her uncle lectures to her and asks, “You know what the Turks did to us, right?” This reminds Nancy of the “Romeo and Juliet situation [they] were in” (72). In the next scene, Nancy recalls her doubly-queer desire: “Emine lay on her side, facing me, and I noticed the curve of her hip… I thought about how messed up and gay I would be if I wanted to kiss her. Then I tried really hard… to wipe it out of my mind” (72).
Nancy later confesses that her “insides just never felt feminine; they felt neutral, without gender. My body lived in the real world, and I lived in my head” (154), a distortion which conflicts with her image of “a nice Armenian girl” (73). Further, the discomfort with her body becomes associated with another danger: “my feminine appearance dwelled outside the realm of my mind’s control, and it could lead to something dangerous, like a scary man wandering around, just waiting to strike. This guy had been with me almost as long as I could remember, lurking at the edge of my consciousness. He shook Grammy and haunted her from the walls…He was not just a regular guy to whom you gave over your tender insides, but a monster to protect yourself from with dear life” (155).
The image of the anonymous man-monster haunts both Nancy and her grandmother. This fear of men is also expressed in one of Nancy’s poems published after the memoir, entitled “Reality.” The opening lines read: “Are you a lesbian? he asked/ No, I said, I’m bisexual but I’m afraid of men/ What exactly do you fear? He asked./ Their penises, I said” (Agabian, “The Experiment,” 2007, 16p). Later, as Nancy hears the Oral History tapes of her grandmother, the reader links Nancy’s sexual paranoia to her grandmother’s story of survival. For Nancy, as we’ll later see, this interweaving of these stories also helps her to come to terms with her own fear of being bisexual.
Prior to listening to the tapes, this fear, she reasons, is also one of the sources of her chronic panic attacks, which she admits (after learning her appendix needed to be removed) had always thought had “been the result of stress, a psychosomatic symptom, an intensity of being Armenian” (Me as Her Again, 179). Yet, on her way to a pilgrimage trip to Turkey, she begins to piece together the “crazy and controlling” behavior of Armenians, and the categories of exclusion as a survival mechanism which echo analyses of nationalism and its role in the policing of gender and sexuality construction:
“If we didn’t cling together as a group, we would get clobbered individually until extinction. It would explain why I still needed by mother’s approval to embark on anything risky… it would also explain the tendency I sensed in the Armenian community towards conformity; since it seemed there were so few of us, any divergence from the traditions of family and church (such as marrying a non-Armenian or being gay) was seen as disunity threatening the survival of the entire culture.”Agabian, Me as her again, 185
Yet, to what resources do our marginalized authors turn when it is they who threaten that disunity? As Julia Kristeva and other feminists of the l’ecriture feminine movement would argue, it is through writing—a semiotic (and in this case literal!) return to the womb—that the authors interweave their bildungsroman with their grandmothers’ stories, combating against the “regularit[y] of conventional language” (Jones: “Writing the Body,” 1981, 247-263) that they are able to reach both semiotic and emotional liberation from phal(logo)centric historical narrative and ethnic identity.
II. Linking Stories: The Power of Writing Queer
“Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive— recurrent, eddying, troublant… Keenly, it is relational, and strange.” .Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet
In her essay ‘Writing’, Barbara Johnson reminds us of Barthes’ challenge to look beyond the content of what is written to read the message embedded in how it is written to decode it. We thus must examine the intersection between content and form in Avakian’s and Agabian’s texts in order to arrive at the liminal “true story,” and how the actual Act of Writing, the need to tell a story, strongly drives these narratives. What are the formal literary effects as the authors merge their own gender/sexual identity with their grandmothers’ stories, and how might this amalgamation favor a queer reading? Due to the fact that both memoirists interweave actual Oral History transcripts into their works, they inevitably render a meta-memoir with three major characters: their Grandmother’s Oral History as character, the Granddaughter as Narrator, and the Author who creates a meta-discursive mixing of the two. Both memoirs publish selections from their grandmothers’ transcribed Oral History tapes, ultimately engendering queer space via the very act of Writing it.
J. Halberstam defines queer space as one in which “the notion of a body- centered identity gives way to a model that locates sexual subjectivities within and between embodiment, place, and practice” (Halberstam: In a Queer Time and Place, 2005). Both Avakian and Agabian’s memoirs do so because 1) they breach the taboo topic of divergent sexual identities by superimposing them onto a heteronormative patriarchal Armenian-American context, thus acting as politically subversive texts; and 2) Writing as LGBTQ Armenians, they offer us an alternative textual space that reminds us that Armenian identity is hybrid, constantly in- flux, and continually adapting—lending itself naturally to the analytical framework of “queer” itself.
This further problematizes how the story of the Armenian people, both pre- and post-1915, may or may not engender queer space—ever changing, as Jane Garrity expounds in English Language Notes’ special issue, in “nonnormative locales that are physical, social, and constituted by and through social relations” (Garrity: “Introduction: Mapping Queer Space,” 1997). This definition does not seem very far from the experience of a Diaspora and the in-between space of Armenia/ns geographically, politically and socially.
As both narratives progress, it becomes clear that Avakian’s sensitivity to the racial and gender injustice that surround her, and Agabian’s sensitivity to her sexuality and distanced feelings of Armenianness, is highly informed by the stories of their grandmothers that they were told as children. In order to orient themselves “within and between” these stories, the authors “map identity onto the very spaces they (dis)inhabit” (Brostoff: unpublished paper, 2015). By interweaving their stories through Writing, creating this Queer Space of the third meta-memoir, the authors give their grandmothers’ stories agency in the creation of their own dissident subjectivities. This Revolutionary, Queer Space allows both authors to transgress phal(logo)centric nationalist discourse which denies the construct of “gay” as oppositional to that of “Armenian.” In addition, by challenging other vitriolic assertions like one Agabian recounts in her memoir: “Gay Armenians don’t exist!… You’re nothing but a bunch of Turks!” (245) the memoirs doubly challenge synonymous constructs that ‘threaten’ the Armenian home.
While reading these subversive texts, we must heed to Barthes’ challenge to read “textuality” and the “disruptive force of signification and erasure that transgresses all closure” (Johnson: “Writing,” 1990, 229). In these texts, not to mention that it may be a queer thing to think about one’s sexual politics at the same time as they imagine their grandmothers, the process of Writing and Interweaving queer identity with their grandmothers’ stories is, as Barbara Johnson suggests, the act of subversion against the master, the “open[ing] up [of] a stance of domination, a space of exile… the pathway to freedom” (ibid).
Transforming the reality of oppositional sexual and ethnic identities to possibilities, these texts participate in the type of meta-language Barthes describes in Mythologies as “Revolutionary language”—the only type of language production FREE from Myth. I thus align Barthes’ Revolutionary Language with the writing of “Queer Space” which, as contemporary artist Jean-Ulrick Désert contends, “is in large part the function of wishful thinking or desires that become solidified” (in Garrity: 1997).
But Queer Writing and Storytelling doesn’t just act metadiscursively: Arlene’s grandmother comes to life when she is telling her story of survival to her granddaughter; and Nancy returns to Graduate School for an MFA in writing, “In a sense…to make her [grandmother] live again” (199), demonstrating that Writing is not only iconoclastic and politically subversive, but also an empowering act.
It is through the Transcription/Writing process of her Grandmother’s Oral History that Arlene, for the first time, “felt connected to her [grandmother’s] pain, to the pain of [her] mother, aunt, and uncle, and, by extension, the Armenian people” (281). Not only does this process, catalyzed by her lesbian relationship, emotively reintegrate her with a feeling of solidarity with the Armenian people and her own history, but through her grandmother’s resistance, Arlene realizes that “even within a strict patriarchy, women were not rendered helpless” (282). This story helps Arlene to realize her own openness to the women’s movement and her dissatisfactions with it, along with the irony that: “The same woman who taught me to defer to men, whom I had grown to dislike after the birth of my brother because she so obviously favored him, was also the woman who taught me, through her story, that women were strong” (282). In effect, writing is also an act of catharsis.
Understanding “some of the origins of [her] politics” (283) after her grandmother’s story, she admits that “My grandmother would never know what her story had meant for me” (281) Arlene understands that this story stands as a lesson for the next generation of women to fight for identity and survival—as anti-racists, as feminists, as queers—in the face of hegemonic power structures that seek to silence these marginal identities, even if those structures are in the home. While her grandmother’s story exemplifies that fight for her granddaughter, Avakian’s narrative exemplifies her own fight for us, as readers. This is the most revolutionary and Powerful aspect of Avakian’s memoir: the paradox that the very legacy of resistance and anti-victimization she inherits from her grandmother is the very thing that gives her the strength to not accept the limiting terms of participating in the Armenian community, even after her new-found solidarity with it: “I could never live in an Armenian community where my politics, values, and lifestyle would not be accepted… being an Armenian was important to me, but I had no intention of giving up any other part of my life” (287). As a result, the Legacy of the Resistance of Armenian Women is what sets Arlene free from limiting categories of identity that seek to deny her existence as a queer Armenian feminist.
For Nancy Agabian, it is not as much the legacy of resistance but a story of intergenerational psychological legacy of gendered violence which leads her to the acceptance of her difference, and healing. Perhaps the most powerful scene in Agabian’s narrative that demonstrates her structure of interweaving is in a scene in which she recollects one of her first sexual experiences with men. When she tries to open up and relax during intercourse, her partner suddenly stops and says, “You squeezed me out” (153). Analyzing the situation, terrified of what this experience might mean about her identity, she immediately parallels her grandmother’s fear of being touched by a man to her own psycho-sexual identity crisis: “Wasn’t it pretty obvious I was a big lesbian in denial if I was going around repelling penises from my vagina? It was like I was wearing some kind of an invisible girdle, an iron chastity belt inherited from my grandmother” (153). Spliced throughout the memoir is the piecing together of her Grandmother Zanik’s resistance to men and, as a result of her socially constructed role as a respectable Armenian woman, the decorum she possessed over her own body, even in the most extreme of circumstances (148). To Agabian’s surprise, she learns from “the aunts” that her grandmother wore a girdle all her life: “She said that because of men, even she, an old lady, had to wear one, all the time.” Curious about why her grandmother wore a girdle to “look good for men,” her sister Valerie clarifies: “No, she wore it to protect herself from them” (148). Reflecting on her grandmother’s death, Agabian explains that her end became immanent to the aunts the moment that “Grammy took off her pantyhose” (148). Hours later, she took her last breaths. Thus, Agabian paints a strong metaphorical image of her grandmother’s self-liberation, or the death of her gender victimization, though able to occur only in the hours before physical death.
In a later performance piece she shares in the memoir about this topic, Agabian speaks directly to her grandmother’s experience of genocide and her own sexual psychosis in a performance piece called The Crochet Penis:
My grandmother was different. She saw her mother die, she saw her sister die, she saw her brother and father get dragged away to die and after a long death walk through the desert in circles she survived disease, death camps, orphanage and rape. After all that and a family she created to replace the real brothers and sisters she was more like a sibling than a mother to them my grandfather said, and she didn’t wanna be touched. My father saw this and he wed a woman, my mother and she didn’t wanna be touched, and I saw this and I didn’t wanna be touched. I am different now.Agabian, Me as her again, 160
And, as Nancy is different with the merging of these stories, the hope is that we too, as readers, as listeners, will also be different.
100 years after the Armenian Genocide, we find ourselves as Armenians yet again in a moment of exclusionary, nationalist discourse based on identity politics that is a matter of life and death. This time, it is not along lines of ethnic or nationalist identification like in 1915. The all-too familiar Blacklist of 1915 has morphed in 2014 into the blacklist of “The Country’s and Nation’s Enemies,” published by the newspaper Iravunk—the “Right”—calling for the public shunning of those who support the LGBTQ cause in Armenia, being called not only the nation’s enemies, but also paralleled to Enemy of the State #1: “The Turk”.
So, to approach these texts as creating Queer Space is not just an aesthetic endeavor—it is also HIGHLY political. The existence of these queer memoirs, which through their Revolutionary language fight to destabilize the Myth that queer and Armenian identities are irreconcilable, stand as Proof in Writing that, as the first LGBTQ organization in Turkey KAOS GL proclaimed in their recent speech for their acceptance of the Hrant Dink Award this year, “We are here, we’re not going anywhere, better get used to us!” (KAOS GL’s speech at Hrant Dink Award Ceremony, 2015). We must make direct links to these texts and the Political Urgency to the cause of LGBTQ Armenians and their supporters in Armenia who are RIGHT NOW facing social ostracization, job loss, and state- and self-imposed geographic exile. Literature empowers us to identify with and embrace diversity. Both Avakian and Agabian’s memoirs show us that we do not have to deny the past. In fact, we must return to it to learn from the injustices of exclusion and the strengths of the subaltern that have overcome them. Only in this way, and in gatherings like this that provide forums for making links to the continuity and urgency of the present, can we productively move forward while honoring the past.
- Krikor Zohrab
- Komitas Vartabed
- Adom Yerdjanian (Siamanto)
- Daniel Varoujan
- Zabel Yesayan …and 253 others
- Mamikon ——yan
- Simon ——yan
- Arevik ———ian
- Vahe ——yan
- Nvard ——yan …and 55 others
List One: April 24, 1915. Turkey.
List Two: May 17, 2014. Armenia.
When will we stop?