Confronting anti-blackness in Armenian Feminist Texts

7 April 2018

Feminist Interventions in Armenian Studies, Armenian Interventions in Feminist Studies: Translators’ Panel

McMillan Stewart Workshop: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MİT), Cambridge, MA, USA

Confronting Racism in Early 20th Century Armenian Feminists Texts: Thoughts and Methods

Anayis (Yevpime Avedisian), “Gnoj Vijage Martgayin Ěngerutean Mej” [The Conditions of Women in Society], Hay Gin [Armenian Woman] 2.8, (1921).

In a response to the question posed by Hayganoush Marc’s feminist journal Hay Gin about who is more preferable from the perspective of the national revival, the old or the new woman, Vartouhie Calantar tersely concludes, “Revolutions only snap dried branches and trim old trees. Whatever has life and is beneficent exists and will remain, and if it too dies, it will regenerate. Today always has a claim over yesterday and tomorrow always on today” (Vartouhie Calantar, Armenian Woman [Hay Gin], 1 September 1921). While hopeful for change, Calantar neither celebrates nor claims that the new woman is the woman of her today. Instead, the “new” woman belongs to tomorrow. She will never have been fully accomplished, she is always becoming, always to come.

Calantar’s comment is not an unfulfillable promise but an ongoing provocation: question how yesterday exists in our today, and how the events of past-present-future are ever-relational. How might attending to this constant dynamism—this assemblage—better inform the feminist praxis, politics, interactions and translations of today, knowing that we too, have always yet to arrive?

As we continue to trace and translate a genealogy of Armenian feminisms to encourage their emergence from censored historical and literary canons, how do we also: 1) responsibly read and critique them—that is, not just blindly recover and praise them? 2) question the nationalism that privileges an “Armenian” subject, asking what its exclusionary boundaries have been throughout various geohistorical contexts. That is, who is “in” and who is “out” of the Armenian community, or of the civilized community, at any given time and place? Ergo, what is a feminist versus an “Armenian feminist”? 3) how do we apprehend gendered, racist and ageist structural oppressions?

My translator colleagues Jennifer and Shushan have laid out some of the technical challenges and political choices a feminist praxis of translation opens. Now, I would like to anecdotally take you along into that practice’s intimate space, and suggest how it may raise some broader ethical questions. I would like to consider how that literal movement between languages allows us to think more profoundly about difference and its possibility.

The translator’s relationship to the work and its production is not just subjective, it is tenuous. As translators, we lure the original outside of its linguistic territory across borders and into a foreign tongue. Then, we attempt to bridge the gap between them—an already impossible feat—knowing that that bridge is always built imperfectly over shaky ground. The text absorbs us so that we can embody its passions, frustrations, disgust; feel these feelings as our own yet fully on its terms, then act as objective mediators between the words, expressions, tone, timbre, and emotions of the original and translate that into a text that inescapably uses our own words. Jennifer has shown us already how these subjective interpretations re-configure and re-animate the original. Our readers experience the text in its future arrival, Benjamin’s famous afterlife. The text is again thought anew in this moment. As the agent of this reterritorialization, the translator also and equally speaks the text she translates. But are all texts worthy of being re-spoken?

For Feminism in Armenian,* I translated the works of four authors—Yevpime Avetisian (Anayis), Zaruhi Bahri, Vartouhie Calantar, and Hayganoush Mark—over the course of one year as they accompanied me on my circular returns. In Istanbul, I translated Anayis and imagined her boat arriving from Büyükada as I sat carelessly sipping tea in Kadıköy, her port of entry. I imagined what the smoke of the steam boat she was sailing on with Mr. Papazian must have looked like over the Bosphorus that day when flocks of frightened Armenians crowded the docks to leave the city, anticipating massacres during the constitutional reform. What might their clustered footsteps have sounded like over the cobblestones now covered by the pavement I sat over? Could they have imagined it would be possible again for an Armenian to sit freely here in this city? Am I “free”? Through sheer physical proximity, could I re-summon the pangs of guilt Zahuri Bahri must have felt just meters from my walk home in Şişli as she cared for some of the Armenian women who wanted so desperately to abort their babies because they were reminders of their rapes, yet were sedated and forced to give birth by the hospital staff? The Armenian nation couldn’t bear to lose more citizens. All were welcome. I guess being half-Turkish, or half-anything didn’t so much matter then. Why is it then that halfie status has often tempered the degrees to which others have measured my “Armenianness”? Not a full-fledged Armenian surely, with those blue eyes, blonde hair, that acquired Armenian. Curious how belongings and exclusions change over time.

The luxury Four Seasons Hotel in Sultanahmet: the former central prison of Constantinople. Yesterday’s prisoners of the empire. Today’s neo-liberal global tourists. If I stood by the walls of this ex-prison-turned-hotel, could I still hear the echoes of the women coming from the room of the Lepers, their hands beating the wooden floors of their cells like drums, then cupped over their mouths as they circled, eyes wild, making rumbling cries with devilish laughter as they shouted yallah, yallah! into the air? I’m encircled too by their eyes lined with heavy black eye-liner, as they dance their circle dance to celebrate the arrival of the political prisoner Vartouhie Calantar and her mother. I’m the silent phantom from the future who will speak them into the present. Can these tourists feel, as I bring back to life through Calantar’s prison diaries, the ghost of Fatma the Arab, who right there where they sit each morning eating their simit and unfolding street maps of the city, cast her magic love spell over Ibrahim the prison guard? Fatma stood just there, 97 years ago to the day, naked beside the blazing fire, “her lead-colored body halfway lit in the midnight darkness, her curly hair lost in the smoke as she called out ‘bismillah’ seven times” (Calantar, “The Room of the Lepers” in Prison Diaries, 16 April 1920) casting grains of pepper seven-by-seven into the c[r]ackling flames, then “extending her arms out towards the door from whence, as if by a miracle, [Ibrahim] her love would come forth” (Calantar, “Fatma the Arab” in Prison Diaries, 1 November 1920).

And how I felt filled with excitement, pride, strength, that Hayganoush Mark laid bare her idea of the Women’s Cause in Constantinople in the first issues of Hay Gin as early as 1922! In utter exasperation—and I share this very same gripe!—she writes, “the word feminist is still completely misunderstood… thus, it’s not in vain that we [again] explain its meaning: ‘Feminism is a cry for justice, which extends to the rights and duties of men and women‘” (Marc, “What is the Women’s Cause” in Hay Gin). Justice, yes…. I pause.

And then my fingers, my voice, my emotions, give life in English to the following words in Anayis’ 1921 sociological retrospective entitled The Condition of Women in Society:

All the Christian branches of the white race (ցեղ) can be found where there is civilized society… The argument put forth by this study is that the white race… was discovered to have lived thousands of years ago in savage conditions… Our civilized society has already passed through all the phases which still exist today among the savage and half-civilized races.

-Anayis, “Women in Civilized Societies”

How to make these words my own, imbibe them objectively to relay them with conviction to my reader, and without letting on to my own disgust! Do these words deserve to be re-written? Re-read? A far cry from affective embodiment. Translation became regurgitation. How to live by what I believe to be the force of feminism—that ongoing cry for justice—and question the naturalness of racism, heteroreproductivity, essentialist assumptions, and thus question any kind of argument or identity built upon violent appropriation or subordination (Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 14)? How to build strategies of resistance through translation praxis or the sharing of feminist texts when the texts themselves rest upon racist assumptions, are embedded in structures of oppression and are invested in preserving the nationalized, Armenian subject as a white subject of privilege—a privilege that has been passed down to me? How to resist the oft-repeated exoneration “Deanna, she is a product of her time…”? The problem is, to respond like this is to naturalize bigotry and be willfully ignorant of the violence those words still inflict today; it is to excuse the premises of slavery, colonialism or genocide in any time period. That dismissal speaks from a position of unthreatened power and privilege because it does not see how those legacies still oppress, or how—as they oft remind—Armenians have suffered at the sword of similar logics. If we are to theorize from practice, then how to situate the translator as she re-produces these colonial models of naturalized, eugenicist claims for white, Christian Euro-American superiority?

My immediate instinct to my own participation in this violent repetition was to ease my tensions by turning to language. I first drafted: “the black-skinned peoples of Africa,” “the peoples of Oceania”; much more politically correct than “black-skinned races,” no? Jennifer is correct to point out that had we been translating a century ago, mart would have taken on the universal gender: “men,” and a feminist translation can remediate this. I too use this practice. However, is it always appropriate? Here, I was sanitizingerasing and forgetting…and the words themselves kept insisting: civilized, uncivilized, primitive, half-civilized, white, black-skinned, yellow races, red, brown, they eat their women, those races, tsegh, tsegh, tsegh… not peoples

Yet if I didn’t sanitize, wouldn’t I be exposing Anayis as a racist? Betraying her? Yes, and that is the goal of my praxis. I parsed this relationship out during the nights and days I sat before that text swallowing words that have structured my privilege, that violate my politics yet still have unavoidably inscribed my position:

Among the women [of the non-Christian white races residing in Asia], there is no veritable ambition to progress”. / “The races that make up half-civilized societies are the following (aside from the Japanese who are quite likeminded to Europeans): the brown-skinned races of India, the non-Christian races of Asia, the brown-skinned races that live in the northern parts of Africa, and lest we forget, the Peruvian Incas of America and the Aztecs of Mexico”. / Unlike in Oceania “it is rare that the black-skinned races of Africa are inclined to eat their women. Instead, they give women the most burdensome jobs.

Anayis, “Women in Half-Civilized Societies” & “Women in Primitive Societies,” Conditions of Women in Society

Where is our cry for justice in this essentialist, racial hierarchy that privileges the emerging liberal democratic, rights-granting, disciplining European nation-state as the ideal model of progress and civilization? We cannot write away (sanitize) or explain away (excuse) these systemic issues whose branches extend into the politics and power dynamics today. Anayis’ text illustrates an inherent ambiguity: she doesn’t question the authority of the sociological accounts by white European males. Instead, she unquestioningly bases her study upon their racialized hierarchies to buttress her progress narrative for gender equality. Equality is relative, not universal. How does that racism latently and overtly persist through the pejorative comments we have all heard at least one Armenian say to another: [in a whisper] “the sev [black] girl,” “sevamol” [derogatory term for blackness] “what percent Armenian are you?”, “odar e” [s/he’s a foreigner/other]. Perhaps we have even caught ourselves doing it. It is said knowingly and oft times to further instantiate a sense of Armenianness, or a sense of kinship and ethnic, moral superiority between the exceptional “us” and the “them.” In their book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Deleuze and Guattari argue that even “the most individual enunciation is a particular case of collective enunciation… The [subject/the artist] and the virtual community—both of them real—are the components of a collective assemblage” (83-4). If these structural oppressions have informed Armenian feminisms then how do we work on them and how do they work upon us?

For me, feminist praxis means that, as much as we empower egalitarianism and alliance, we must also be aware of another, sometimes hidden reflex to sanitize narratives of oppression and supremacy. Then, we must hold ourselves collectively accountable by actively confronting them. In the case of translating Anayis, for me it has meant to make sure her politics are visible, and that they screech our ears today, so that we are forced to contend with how structures of racism, belonging and ethnic legitimacy have developed in transnational Armenian discourse through time. The translator plays an important role in re-vitalizing that matter.

Just as Calantar suggests that the present is oriented towards both past and future, translation functions in the same way. Translation is a porous process of dialogue that necessitates a conversation between original and target languages. And the translator negotiates between the two to assemble something new. Creating something new means dismantling the hierarchy, or what I’ve called elsewhere in my translation of Shushan’s book Girq-Anvernagir, a praxis of de- domestication: the original must give up its privileged status as being a “significant substance” of authority, and the translator/tion must break away from being subjectified to the hierarchal authority of what came before. Only in this way can translation occur. Also, only in this way can it offer itself up for new interpretations, for difference. Translation is not of the original any longer, yet neither is it of the foreign tongue. It is a rebel text, it is a radical text because of its simultaneity. We can learn something too from this radical practice.

Taking the metaphor of a tree to describe the West’s obsession with roots, origins and hierarchies in their famous essay “Rhizomes,” Deleuze and Guattari warn that we shouldn’t confuse a re-tracing of the past, or a genealogy, as a radical act. To lose ourselves in the unsilencing of the past is not enough. The patriarchy is not brought down by simply bringing these voices to the fore. This move still functions within the binary system of silence-unsilence; or in a hierarchy that privileges the authority of the past. That same hierarchy gives authority to voice over silence; men over women; white over black; editors over translators, west over east, fact over fiction. Our present has not “uncovered” and progressed… it still is determined by binaries of forgetting/remembering, racism/inclusion, and patriarchy. Unsilencing and recovery, giving voice, are only the first steps. Unlike Deleuze and Guattari, I sit with Foucault in maintaining the importance of genealogical practice. But after mapping the tree, how to start the revolution? How “to snap old branches, trim old trees”? (15) How to radicalize the roots? To take the past and understand it as actively and simultaneously reforming the present: that our ghosts still haunt us. That racism among Armenians persists. And to see how the “trans-” prefix “calls attention to the operations of normitivity… and the structuration of power” (Stryker, “Transgender History, Homonormativity, and Disciplinarity,” 149). There is no beginning or end to this task, no original or copy in this practice. There is alliance, and it has always to be reworked.

I have been brought in a time capsule to the Constantinople of 100 years ago and back. And bringing these pieces into their afterlife re-invigorates me to continue asking the same questions: how have models of belonging, nationalism and feminism buttressed their legitimacy upon the exclusion of others—the Turk, the primitive savage, the non-Armenian—and imperialist, liberal models of progress, capitalist modes of ownership, and East/West hierarchies? In what ways might these texts, and our collaboration, go beyond those exclusions and not? How does our group of Armenian-identified feminist women working on these heritage texts also hold this tension? To what extent is our group, to borrow from Jasbir Puar, “trapped within the logic of identity” (Puar, Terrorist Assemblages,  60) when I strive, through feminist and queer praxis in my own work, to destabilize identities by decentering the narrative that follows, “I am…”? Who is this “we”? Who are “women”? What has at any given time determined the condition under which people claim Armenian identity—where they lived, what they ate, what religion they practiced? What are the conditions—historical, geographical, linguistic, cultural, gendered, sexual—under which some are excluded from that category? If we think of “we” as already having arrived instead of a constant becoming, then we will have already fixed, stagnated and closed off belonging. That border constantly needs to be critically challenged, that belonging always needs to expand if it is to make a coalitional, and livable life. I do not claim to have transcended or answered these questions, but merely wish to point to another line of inquiry I think feminist praxis can accomplish and to which it must attend as we continue to write a genealogy of Armenian feminist literature and imagine our coalitional politics.

Knowing how they harm, should these words be re-spoken: “The black races” and not, “the African peoples”? It was painful to translate Anayis’ text. I felt a traitor because as a translator in this project of feminist collaborators, I sensed the unspoken, time-honored, self-inflicted pressure of being the loyal daughter introducing her foremothers to the English-speaking world. This is the invisible tension between latent nationalist pride and queer-feminist praxis. Choosing the latter, I hope this unsanitized translation recovers a mode of discourse to be challenged through critical historiography. This praxis offers more insight into history and the production of knowledge. That ear-screeching racism should stop us in our tracks—it should scream out to us: “resist!”

Today always has a claim over yesterday and tomorrow always on today.” I read Calantar’s vision of the new woman as the woman always to come—influencing the past but also influenced by the future—as a prescient, possible iteration of this revolution… If we are radical enough to try to arrive.

*This essay was written as a presentation for the Translator’s Panel in regards to a forthcoming anthology on Armenian feminism. The prose translations for the book have since changed hands. I wish the editors a successful publication.

%d bloggers like this: