13 May 2017
Home and Belonging for Queer Armenian-American Women in Everyday Life and Memoir
Deanna Cachoian-Schanz & Nelli Sargsyan. Talk for “QUEER TIME-SPACES: INVAGINATING TEMPORALITY THROUGH TRANSNATIONAL CROSSINGS,” a panel organized by Tamar Shirinian at the conference Queer Places, Practices, and Lives III — The Ohio State University.
A co-presentation by the authors about our intersticed work, read not necessarily by the texts’ relevant authors — #feministcollaborations
Deanna— In the Armenian transnational narrative, heteronormativity functions as the ethnonationalist ideology par excellence. Employing heteropatriachal homogenization as a discursive tool for unity, stability, and hence, its progeny, the Armenian nation-state and its diaspora write themselves as stable sites of home-centered identity (pivoting around the “stable” homeland) while writing out gender identities and desires that threaten their pre-requisites of belonging: the heterosexual reproduction of the nation, one’s possibility to inherit belonging to it, and to preserve its fixity through time and translational space. Yet, contrary to its various postulations as homogenous and fixed, the concept of Diaspora itself bespeaks its own ontological status of migrational/transnational movement, un-fixity and plurality; a site of “ongoing negotiation” (Shirinian 5). It is important to note that Nelli and I approach the concept of diaspora from different angles, which allows us to give different insights into the queer diasporic experiences of our interlocutors. Nelli’s research participants, whether migrants to the US or US-born, consider the diaspora their home (or at least one of their many homes), where they expect to experience difference. I, on the other hand, approach diaspora with Dina Georgis, who suggests that “The space of diaspora is not the space of home but the space of loss of home… from which our “illness of love” and the terror of belonging and not belonging are re-imagined” (6).
With the mutual intent to decenter the single heteronormative narrative of being Armenian in the diaspora, our presentation weaves Nelli’s field-interviews with queer immigrant and US diaspora-born lesbian Armenian identified women living in New York, and my literary analysis of two US diaspora-born queer Armenian-identified women’s memoirs. We use the concept of diaspora as a site of movement and INCOMMENSURABILITY of ethnicity and queer desire. Elizabeth Povinelli defines incommensurability as a state of affairs where “an undistorted translation cannot be produced” between two systems of thought, language, or culture” (2001:320). The choice of our subject matter is informed by our respective research projects which have drawn particular attention to what Gopinath (2005) has called “the elision of queer female subjectivity in the diaspora” due to the hegemonic male-centered heteronormative and homosocial Armenian (trans)national and diasporic discourse/identity construction. As one of Nelli’s queer interviewees describes in rejecting the reproduction of masculinity in homonormative contexts, even gay Armenian men act “like the ‘favorite sons of their families” (Sargsyan). Consequently, rejecting either hetero- or homo-patriarchal dominance, taking up Gopinath’s charge to “mak[e] female subjectivity central to a queer diasporic project” enables us to “conceptualize diaspora in ways that do not invariably replicate heteronormative and patriarchal structures of kinship and community” (Gopinath 2005: 6), opening up to new forms of kinship and identity-making.
How might queerness, then, already align with notions of diaspora and exile, inscribing flux instead of stability as characteristic of the Armenian diasporic home? How do queer Armenian women present a particular challenge to the heteropatriarchal Armenian inheritance? What does a queer diasporic archive or queer temporality look like in the Armenian diaspora? These are the key questions that guide us.
I. (Mis)Gendering Home: Queer Women in the Stable, Heteropatriachal ‘Home’ Sites of the Nation and Diaspora
What it means to be an Armenian woman is not what it means to be a lesbian in the way that the culture presents [it]… So much of being an Armenian woman in my own experience… was… understanding the importance of how to make a cup of coffee for… your husband [or] when you would have people over for dinner…. all the women are working in the kitchen and all the men are sitting and doing nothing… Being a lesbian didn’t seem to fit into that picture at all.— Nina, one of my interlocutors offered.
Armenian identity in the diaspora has been reproduced institutionally with contested ideas of homeland (Tololyan 2007, Panossian 1998). The discourse of the production of Armenianness involves routinizable features, in Gumperz’s terms (Collins 2006) such as the uniqueness of the temporality of religion (Armenians as the first to adopt Christianity as state religion), origins, language, and culture in the Armenian transnation. This routinization of features, as Bourdieu points out (1991), allows a retrieval of social information and reproduces habitus, which is strategically employed to serve the nationalist and transnational purposes of the diasporic elites and their alignment toward each other and the perceived homeland(s). Queer Armenians inhabit multiple spaces shaped by and emanating from historical patriarchy, its morality, and heterosexism in a variety of ways, sometimes imploding the hetero-patriarchal spaces from within, at other times creating alternative collectivities elsewhere.
Nina’s anecdote above speaks to McClintock’s (1995) argument regarding the historical institutionalization of gender difference, wherein the dominant discourses of Armenianness privilege and impose particular kinds of gendered Armenianness at the expense of disenfranchising others (Butler 1993, Rosaldo 1980, Scott 1986, Ridgeway and Correll 2004). Albeit changing, certain historical hetero-patriarchal features of Armenianness — as Nina points out, women in the kitchen, men sitting around doing nothing — are persistently reproduced over time in Armenian diasporic communities through the conscious performance of identity work.
For Nina, being an Armenian woman is predicated on her participation in the binary heterosocial/sexual exchange between women’s subservience and men’s dominance. Yet, she expresses that her lesbian subjectivity further complicates the traditional ethnic gender roles of what it means to be an Armenian “woman.” As she specifies, it is her ethnically-produced gender role that is not concomitant with her desire: “being an Armenian woman is not what it means to be a lesbian,” as if lesbianism precludes being a part of both ethnic and gendered categories of identification. Given the above brief description, within the hetero-reproductive ethnic identity producing discourses, then, a non-hetero woman appears as if in limbo, a strange non-place of a potential non(hetero)-wife and a non(hetero)-mother — two identities that are foreclosed as viable performances of Armenian women’s world-making.
Deanna— In queer first and second-generation Armenian-American women’s memoir, the articulations of non-belonging as feminist and queer subjects ethnic Armenians are also expressed in terms of codified gender performances, as well as the incommensurablities with their ethnosexual subjectity as non-white diasporic subjects. In her 1992 bildungsroman memoir Lion Woman’s Legacy, Arlene Avakian writes heteronormative/patriarchal dissent as exclusions from Armenian belonging, depicting the Armenian home as a highly heteropatriarchal space. As she describes, in 1950s New York City, the measure of a “true” Armenian man in her family was primarily based on his biological, heteroreproductive inheritance (an Avakian did not have to prove his Avakianness) while the measures of “true” Armenianness for women in her house were qualitative and contingent, based on Armenian language fluency, her general silence, especially in political discussions; and remaining “homebound,” without the threatening American tendencies of going downtown unattended. In addition to these stringent or, as Nelli’s interviewee Nina remarks, “traditional” tendencies, as a child, Arlene is angered by her family’s gendered preference for her younger brother, their little “pasha” — a sentiment which some queer folks involved in Nelli’s research also expressed. Yet, the protagonist’s narrative (un)belonging to her Armenian home is not only predicated on a dissatisfaction with the ‘old-world’ gender roles of Turkey and Persia; she is also resentful of the reasons for which those gendered-roles are performed outside of their cultural context in the US. Remembering the horror she feels when her grandmother tells Arlene her escape story from Turkey in 1915 (of rape, murder and displacement), Arlene vows to escape her Armenianness by adopting the normative gender codes of white 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.Arlene Avakian, Lion Woman’s Legacy
“Tired of pushing for words that might never be spoken” (142) in her 2006 memoir, Nancy Agabian also paints the conflicts between her sexual consciousness, and the dissonances between her identities as an ethnic Armenian and as a woman. First and foremost a wordsmith, Nancy’s memoir reiterates her need for words and language, conceptualizing them either as reflecting loss–“But I wanted words” (132) she insists—or by bridging incommensurability—similar to Maral, one of Nelli’s interlocutors, who expresses her need for voice through language, about which we will hear shortly. Though Nancy’s immediate family does not speak Armenian as first/second-generation Diasporans, the language permeates her consciousness as it is used for euphemisms for topics “too embarrassing to say in English: vardeek for underpants, voor for butt, and betkaran for bathroom” (25).
Nancy’s queer desire is expressed through the added lens of desiring the ethnic other of her Armenian family. When her uncle learns about Emine, her childhood Turkish friend and secret crush, he rhetorically asks, “You know what the Turks did to us, right?” Reminding Nancy of the “Romeo and Juliet situation [they] were in,” Nancy later recalls this 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” (Agabian). Textually and thematically, the memoir equates queer desire as an anti-reproductive discourse parallel to the threat of ethnic extermination.
As a distortion which conflicts with her image of “a nice Armenian girl,” Nancy 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,” she writes. This discomfort is also 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.Nancy Agabian, Me as her again
The image of the anonymous man-monster haunts both Nancy and her grandmother, a fear which she also writes about in a poem 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.” Interestingly, while Nancy writes both her sexual paranoias and queer desires as incommensurable with her Armenian Diasporic identity, the memoir later ascribes the passing down of her grandmother’s genocide story and the implicit sexual violence she experienced as an ethnic Armenian woman in Turkey in 1915 as the intergenerational cause not just for Nancy’s in-between status as an Armenian-American, but also for her sexual identity dysphoria.
Fittingly then, through language play in its very title, Me as her again provokes a clever syllabic and phonetic play on Mi-a-ser-agan, the word for “homosexual” in Armenian. A cultural production of the Queer Diasporic Archive, Me as her again, the new ‘me’ to which one returns through family story, now incorporates queer identity back into the homespace: I am her, again, as I always was, as a product of my Armenian home.
Nelli— As Deanna’s examples above illustrate and asBlommaert (2005) argues, identity anchorages are tied into spatial trajectories. “[P]eople speak from a place” and shift places when they thematically switch codes – employ certain languages – thus shifting identities, also evoking variously scaled allegiances (223). Here I am engaging with Silverstein’s (2003) proposed scheduling of ethnolinguistic identity performance: the wheres, the whens, and the hows. I put him in a dialogue with Povinelli (2001) and her proposed incommensurability. In the Armenian diasporic circles there are different ways of negotiating the incommensurability (Povinelli 2001) of ethnodiasporic subjectivities and queer desire, as the example of Agabian’s memoir title [Me as her again] demonstrates. While I am careful in my usage of analogies so as not to colonize all difference and erase life-experiences in my examination and analysis of gendered ethnosexual diasporic subjectivity and queer desire, many of my research participants often used the analogy of ethnic difference and queerness. Queer Armenians collapsed the term queer and ethnic difference in an attempt to explain it in more relatable terms. Maral summarizes similar comments of fellow queer Armenians in her below comments.
I am queer because I am Armenian… If anything I am happy that I’ve come to this, that I can, you know, bash Armenians and be like, Yo, you need to realize that.Maral
For most of my hetero (and one gay) identified first, second, and third generation Armenian American research participants, Armenian Americans’ being white was taken for granted. In a way, this pointed to the particular migratory trajectories their families have had at particular times in the 20th century and the way Armenian American racial history has become part of the US racial politics. Most of my queer, lesbian, and gay identified research participants (and one hetero identified woman), however, think of themselves as non-white. This is a thematic trope also present in Deanna’s memoirists’ lives, Nancy describing herself, for example, as an olive-skinned mustachioed young girl with an obscure last name. Of my research participants who identify as non-white, perhaps Maral most passionately articulates these sentiments:
I met a lot of Armenians who just take the privilege of what it means to be Armenian in this country [in the US], because in this country being Armenian means that you’re white, especially if you don’t have an accent, especially if you can pass… But for me, [as a white-passing US citizen] you have to recognize the history of that… I don’t identify as white, but I always know that I have white privilege, you know… Not everywhere in the United States. And not everywhere in the world… And I don’t identify as a person of color, either. So, it’s like, I don’t fit anywhere… A lot of people don’t understand that actually in another place I am considered Black, you know…Maral
Here Maral articulates her discontent with US racial politics. I focus on Maral’s understanding of a racialized and gendered other, the incommensurability of whom is unsuccessfully dubbed (Boellstorff 2003) into legible and intelligible US history and politics of race of Black and White, and whiteability, much like in the Jewish experience (Brettschneider 2006:22). Maral also echoes Namjoshi’s proposition of multifaceted in-betweenness that it is because of her own experiences with racism and homophobia within her own family, wider ethnodiasporic community, much wider US mainstream society, then newly found alternative yet homonormative spaces where she locates herself “not within any one community but in the spaces between these different communities” (Mann 1997:101-102).
II. Queer Temporalities and the Queer Diasporic Archive
Nelli— Within this rendering of non-productive, non-hetero queer desire as incommensurable with ethnodiasporic subjectivities some of my queer Armenian research participants, who are artists, writers, and performers articulate collectivities that, on the one hand, challenge various nationalist absolutimsms, whether ethnic or religious, and resist Western homonormativity, on the other (Gopinath 2005:20). Through their writing, photography, video art, and architecture, queer, bisexual, and gay identified Armenian Americans create what Gopinath (2005) calls a “queer diasporic archive,” which documents the deliberate erasure of the queer agents, making it possible to imagine different potentialities of life-experiences, not forgetting historic violences (Dipesh Chakravarty qtd. in Gopinath 2005:21). Consider Maral’s below spoken word poetry, for example:
“…Listen to me. I am an intersection of identities. I am a boundless mystery.
Listen to me. I am many. I am an old root. I am an obstacle. I am a godless glory. I am unruly.
Listen to me. I am possible. I am who I was and will be. I am present.
Listen to me. I will represent myself.”excerpt from Maral’s spoken word video poetry
Maral and other research participants elsewhere, while collapsing ethnic difference and queer desire, point out how one experience of difference is predicated on the other. Throughout her interview, Maral spoke of various spaces of possibility that come with layered subjectivities, still allowing for yet another layer of difference (Foucault qtd. in Jakobsen 2003).
Deanna— Seeing Maral’s effort to collapse ethnic difference and queer desire at work, Avakian’s and Agabian’s memoirs are literary emblems of the making of that “queer diasporic archive,” their publications themselves well exemplifying a space in which the identities of queer, woman and Armenian/the Armenian diasporic experience might live concomitantly, even though dissonantly, between the pages of a memoir. Stylistically this collapse is rendered by the authors’ re-telling and intersticing of their grandmothers’ genocide stories alongside their own bildungsroman narratives, orienting themselves “within and between” stories, and thus “mapping identity onto the very spaces they (dis)inhabit” (Brostoff); a layered polyphony thats metadiscursively as a dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter. For Avakian, hearing and retelling her grandmother’s genocide survival story demonstrates that “even within a strict patriarchy, women were not rendered helpless,” a concept which ultimately encourages her to take strength in defying her own family’s heteropatriarchal customs, and her refusal to participate in them. For Agabian, the merging of her grandmother’s story catalyzes her to accept her queer identity as an Armenian-American. In her stage performance The Crochet Penis, she reads:
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.Nancy Agabian, Me as her again
By literally deterritorializing the crochet penis from the patriarchal realm, Nancy’s performance piece also de-centers patrilineal inheritance, culture and tradition from nation, kin and their formation vis-a-vis heteropatriarchal inheritance that our other examples also express.
I conceptualize the stylistic and thematic merging and inheritance of grandmother and granddaughters narratives that “go beyond limiting frames of geography or time” (Edwards) vis-a-vis Brent Edwards’ conception of diaspora as a décalage—an ineffable “difference within unity” that opens a space to consider what is articulated in that which “resists translation.” Thus, I read the negotiation of ethnosexual incommensurability in these two memoirs as disarticulations of the heteronormative Armenian Diasporic experience they resist, which, through their very articulation, engender Halberstam’s notion of 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.” If we read the authors’ return to their grandmothers’ stories as not only acts of queer mourning with Dina Georgis and David Kazanjian, but also as a queer reorientation or homecoming as does Anne-Marie Fortier, it would “suggestively unhinge [the] idea of an originary home(land)” (2001: 420) while also showing, by “movement towards an endlessly deferred space” (420), that homing desire also “emerges within the very spaces of inhabitance called home” (420).
As Georgis (2006) suggests, mourning “is a creative process generated from loss; and [that] loss… is an emotional resource for cultural production”(6). Perhaps then we might understand a part of the Queer Diasporic Archival repertoire of Armenian cultural productions as articulating the very un-fixed conditions that precede loss, diasporic and queer incommensurability, which lead to new spaces and possibilities of belonging.
Nelli— Employing a queer theoretical reading and destabilizing the institutional production of Armenianness through focusing on queer Armenian women’s production of Armenianness, and engaging with their own diasporicness through disidentification (Munoz 1999), we’ve attempted to provide a queered view of the production of diasporic Armenianness that in key diasporic Armenian public spheres (Werbner 1998) is heteronormatively produced with silent and erased queer habitation. The erasure of the Armenian experience of difference is often marked by its gendered conformity to the US politics of whiteable racial politics, inhabiting the gendered space of women as nurturers, upholders of the heteronormative family. In the Armenian diasporic experience that includes difference, factors such as migration, language, racialization, and class intersect and complicate the salience of queer desire non-linearly.
On the margins of the Armenian diasporic public spheres are alternative diasporic spheres: queer Armenian diasporic spheres. And while some are gendered and separate, others, like Avakian’s and Agabian’s memoirs, make room for a queer diasporic archive, which document the deliberate erasure of the queer agents, making it possible to imagine different potentialities of life-experiences, not forgetting historic violences (Dipesh Chakravarty qtd. in Gopinath 2005:21).
For our interlocutors, queer experience is like the Armenian experience in the diaspora. In other words, it is an experience of difference. They come from different chronotopic spaces and yet they speak of transgenerational connection between grandmothers and granddaughters through which they implode the hetero-reproductive home and create queer diasporic archive at the same time. They also speak of difference: differently experienced, lived, and discursively produced.
For the article version of Nelli Sargsyan’s research on this topic, see: “‘I Am Queer Because I Am Armenian’: On the Queerness of Racially Ambiguous Diasporic Belonging” in Transforming Anthropology, 29 April 2021.
Thank you to Nelli Sargsyan for her permission to publish this presentation.