PEN AMERICA Women in Translation Series, with Shushan Avagyan. Tuesday, August 23, 2022 | 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm ET (Virtual Event).
“Cerberus’s Many Heads: Ethnoreligious Entanglements and Uncommon Kinships on the Women’s Block of Constantinople’s Central Prison.” Panel: Comparative Perspectives on Forced Displacement, Religion, and Communal Reconstruction among Minorities of the Middle East (20th-21st Centuries), organized by Nanor Kebranian, European Academy of Religion (EuARE) — Annual Conference, “Religion and Diversity,” Bologna, Italy. June 20 — 23, 2022
Atiye the Persian; Sinem the Kurd; Fatma the Arab; Muhacir (Muslim refugee-émigré) Feride; maymun (monkey) Nazlı: such are some of the ethno-religio-racial epithets that title and pepper the various entries of the 20-year-old Vartouhie Calantar’s prison diaries, written during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Serialized in 16 entries between 1920 and 1921 in the Istanbul-based Armenian journal Hay Gin [Armenian Woman], Calantar’s series The Women’s Block of the Central Prison chronicles the bourgeoning intellectual and developing nationalist’s 2½ years as a political prisoner (siyasi) in Constantinople’s Sultanahmet Central Prison between 1915 and 1918. Accused of inciting Armenian nationalism by the central government in the autumn of 1915—six months following the beginning stages of the ethno-confessionally motivated genocide against its Armenian population during the final years of the empire—none other than Enver Paşa, the Minister of War, signed a decree for the imprisonment of Vartouhie Calantar and her two parents. Calantar’s prison diaries are a rarity of their genre, especially of this era and geography, and even more so given their author’s age and gender, in addition to the subaltern subjects they depict.
Calantar’s diaries paint a vivid microcosm of the late empire and how its captive subjects animatedly defined and negotiated their ethnoreligious relationalities within it. (Dis)placed to the underworld of the prison due in part to their susceptibility to criminalization as non-Turkish ethnoracial subjects, the close-quarters of the prison-enclosure necessitate that inmates self-govern as well as improvise new kinships, community structures and allegiances—ones that at times reinforce, and at others betray the more abstract classed, ethno-religious, -national and -racial ideological-enclosures swelling just beyond its walls. Calantar’s sympathetic depictions of her central characters—primarily illiterate, non-Turkish Muslim women from the proletarian class—belie her own racialized condescension of them in an era and geography in which hierarchies of “race” are structured through the lens of ethnoconfessional and religious categories. Over and against her proclivities that privilege her position as a European-educated “Christian” Armenian subject (indeed, a position that led to her own imprisonment), Calantar’s affective descriptions of her fellow inmates render them as the most multidimensional and agential characters of her entries. As three-headed Cerberus provides entry to the River Styx, Calantar acts as readers’ multi-perspectival gatekeeper to the underworld of late Ottoman life—one she likens, for an Armenian, as entering into a “laughter-filled hell.” Attending to the messy entanglements of a multiconfessional empire that structured community, disunity and its narration on the Women’s Block of Constantinople’s Central Prison, I will discuss, from a literary perspective, how the text and narrative registers of one politically-imprisoned ethnic minority animates, (re)constructs and (re)configures the many heads of the ethno-confessionally conscribed underworld of Constantinople in the final years of the empire.
“Surveille and Survey: Re(b)ordering the Body through DNA-Testing,” with Katia Schwerzmann. Online-Conference: On Future-Making—Undoing Predictive Algorithms, GRAMA. December 9 – 10, 2021
“‘One Unique You’: Affective Attachments and DNA-Testing as Ethnotechnological Apparatus,” with Katia Schwerzmann. Panel: Mistaken Identities: Passing and the (In)Human, organized by Takeo Rivera and Joshua Williams, American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) — Annual Conference (online). April 2021
With the increasing global use of the highly marketed scientific-ideological apparatus of DNA testing, identity politics circulates as a commodity of differentiation in a globalizing world, capitalizing on the premise and promise to return to an originary, self-possessed subject. Reckoning with this panel’s underlying trepidation regarding the concept of “mis/recognition,” this co-written paper seeks to uncover the condition of possibility for “passing,” that is, the logic of identity. Taking the current (pseudo)scientific and biopolitical trend of DNA testing as a case study, we problematize identity’s implicit concepts of recognition and ownership. As we argue, this logic, capitalist in that it functions upon the premise of sovereignty over the self, is the unquestioned foundation of identity discourses from the far right all the way to the progressive left. The material-scientific practice of DNA testing by private companies is productively ambivalent: at the same time that the tests play on the liberal projection of a global “one unique you,” the rhetorical staging of the results reinstate a new kind of ethnonationalist subject. We will show how this simultaneous disruption and reinforcement of “passing” provoked by DNA testing implies the circulation and constant differentiation of identity categories. Such identity proliferation distracts from the endless fungibility under capitalism and is one of the bases upon which the polarized political sphere thrives.
“On the Technology of DNA-Testing and Affective Attachments,” with Katia Schwerzmann. Invited Speaker for Black Studies and Media Philosophy course, Bauhaus Universität Weimar — Weimar, Germany. Jan 2021
“Animating Archives and Tales of Hearsay: A Case Study in Historical Redaction.” Afterlives of Catastrophes: “Western Armenia” in Comparative Perspective, Armenian Studies Program interdisciplinary workshop. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor — Ann Arbor, Michigan. Feb 2020
This presentation discusses the theoretical and practical work of archive-making by two women from “opposite” sides of history who, through their meeting, came to inherit two archives that, if kept apart, tell drastically different stories about the events surrounding the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. “Չünքüşաbaտum” considers the (memory) objects (maps, books, altar pieces, photographs, oral histories) of the city of Çüngüş in Eastern Turkey/Western Armenia/Kurdistan collected by myself and my project partner, Bengi Güldoğan, as quasi-objects whose affective and abject embodiments of loss are animated primarily through their interaction with each other and their interlocutors as they make counter-archives through collage.
Çüngüş is the hometown of my great-grandfather Melik Kahya-Khachoian. He’d left Çüngüş and his family in 1909 for the United States before the massacres, subsequently losing his entire family. The majority of the village’s Armenian inhabitants perished in the abyss of the nearby Düden gorge in 1915. In New York City, Melik became the founder and secretary of the Chunkoosh Patriotic Union and the Reconstruction Union of Chunkoush. Çüngüş is also the hometown of Bengi Güldoğan and the Güldoğan family. Bengi’s great- grandfather on both sides of her family was the prominent local Turkish tax collector of Çüngüş, Güllü Bey, who is known as the main perpetrator and organizer of the 1915 deportations and massacres not only in Çüngüş, but in the greater region. The Güldoğan family has maintained its symbolic and fiscal power among the villagers in the region. As wealthy landowners, they also own several derelict Armenian properties, and were among the primary collectors of Armenian objects and wealth after they had been “abandoned.”
Ruminating upon scholarship on the colonial archive and the tradition of “writing the impossible” (Hartman) that has in part been a legacy of thought in black ontology, this presentation asks what the possibility is for creating new fields of vision with a collective/collaged archive that is composed of inherent and intentional internal contradictions—one composed of violence, its representations, and its ruptures? Narrative absence in the presence of ruins (Turkey), in addition to narrative presence in the absence of material objects (Armenian diaspora), will be taken up as a structural frame through which the performative gesture of collaging oral histories, objects and narratives that constitute postmemory, images of architectural ruins, family photos and other relics, constitutes a new site of knowing beyond the what is affirmed, and what is forgotten. As such, I will turn to our current artistic intervention—the making of “The Dictionary of (In)Animate Objects and Tales of Hearsay”—that animates these objects and interacts with the physical and immaterial/memory spaces that have informed each woman’s patrilineal stories. Collaging our archival material, we argue, is not a recovery project that seeks to give voice to the past, nor does it extenuate the gaps between the “facticity” and “hearsay” that its content might display. Instead, taking up the archive-as-subject (Stoler), our “counter-archive” creates a space through redaction (Campt) in which these disparate narratives and objects exist side-by-side, intersubjectively speaking with and through each other, to gesture towards a new interstitial narrative, temporality and space for the Çüngüş both living and imagined. If what surrounds the discourse of 1915 between its Armenian, Turkish and Kurdish interlocutors has become stagnated in a constant loop of proof and denial, then how might collage between the inheritors of these narratives dismantle them, rupturing this cycle through the ambiguous animation of archives and its ever-reconfiguring afterlives?
Invited Roundtable Discussant at Troubling Translations Conference, University of Pennsylvania — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Feb 2020
“Dare (Again) To Not Speak Its Name? Translating Race Into Early Western Armenian Feminist Texts.” 17th Annual Graduate Colloquium in Armenian Studies. UCLA—Los Angeles, California, USA. April 2019
Crossing the threshold between theory and praxis, this paper interrogates the translator’s ethical parameters as faithful mediator of the past, creative fabricator and queer resistor in the present when called upon to translate racist nationalist texts. How might the translator—a political subject who passes readers through the threshold from one language and temporality to the next—disrupt the historical continuity of the racist structures upon which the texts she is translating are predicated? This autotheoretical expository takes an ex-translation project as the subject of its critique: a forthcoming anthology of twelve Armenian feminist authors from early-20th century Istanbul. While the authors seek to define the “new” Armenian woman in the wake of genocide, their texts espouse the paradoxical fervor of feminist revolution and a fear of ethno-cultural extinction that informs their nationalism and racialized othering. Thinking Translation Theory with “passing” and embodiment in Trans Studies, this paper explores an autotheoretical praxis of making innocuous racial slurs in the Armenian source-text explicit in translation as a refusal of inheritance—an act of “not passing on.” I suggest that the translator mediates an embodied site for transformative struggle that re-orients emerging historiographies as Armenian Studies scholars write them from the archives.
“Armenian Feminism and Racist Texts.” Translator’s Panel for Feminism in Armenian, McMillan Stewart Workshop: “Feminist Interventions in Armenian Studies, Armenian Interventions in Feminist Studies.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. April 2018
“Translation, Feminism, Praxis,” Invited Speaker for Armenian Literature seminar. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor — Ann Arbor, Michigan. April 2018
“Home and Belonging for Queer Armenian-American Women in Everyday Life and Memoir,” with Nelli Sargsyan. Queer Places, Practices, and Lives III, Panel: Queer Time-Spaces: Invaginating TemporalityThrough Transnational Crossings, organized by Tamar Shirinian and Christina Karapetian Giorgi. The Ohio State University— Columbus, Ohio, USA. May 2017
Speaking nation and its diaspora bespeaks the project of assimilating difference to adopt stable homogeneity in semiotic opposition to the threatening instability of others. Here, heteronormativity functions within the stable confines of nation, diaspora and home as the ethnonationalist ideology par excellance, subsequently rendering the communal policing of ethnic and sexual conformity. Yet ironically, as Nagel (2000) reminds us, border crossings across racial, ethnic and national subjectivities, as well as across larger collectivities, analogically erase the very borders of difference their non-normative ethnosexual frontiers expose. Armenian diasporic circles present various articulations of how the incommensurability (Povinelli 2001) of ethnodiasporic and sexual subjectivities are negotiated. Intersecting ethnographic and literary analysis, this paper attempts to decenter the single heteronormative narrative of Armeniannes in the diaspora. Conceptualizing ‘diaspora’ as a space of movement and (dis)articulation, we problematize acute nationalist rhetoric that writes nation/home and bodies as sites of stability. How does transnational heteropatriarchal discourse assign women’s bodies to heteronormative reproductive roles that regulate normative gendered/sexual identities? In an attempt to undo the “nationalist, heterosexist, epistemic and ontological erasure” (Mann 1997:106) of non-heteronormative women’s subjectivities in the diaspora, this paper conceptualizes queer temporality in the diaspora through the voices of queer Armenian women. How does the queer Armenian woman present a particular challenge to the heteropatriarchal Armenian hegemon and its inheritance? How might queerness already align with notions of Diaspora and exile, inscribing flux instead of stability as characteristic of the Armenian diasporic home? Through ethnographic research and textual exegesis of memoir, aesthetic considerations and psychosexual identity (de)construction via language, storytelling and its inheritance, we consider queer temporality’s possibility to shift modes of ethnic identity’s inheritance by queer ethnosexual Armenian subjects. Shaped by the multiple disciplinary border crossings across feminist anthropology, literary studies, and queer studies, this paper demonstrates the productive coincidental timing (Boellstorff 2007) for methodological enrichment that the collaborative intersections of ethnographic, aesthetic and literary praxis might herald for opening up new possibilities for Armenian identity.
“In the (Un)Space: Transnational Armenian Feminist Dialogues Between Identities, Belongings and Mother Tongues.” Critical Approaches to Armenian Identity in the 21st Century: Vulnerability, Resilience and Transformation. Hrant Dink Foundation— Istanbul, Turkey. Oct. 2016
“The laws try to make us disappear, silence and immobilize us, but we continue to draft in black (sevagrel), excavate and experiment,” writes Shushan Avagyan in “Sevamenk,” or “Blackselves.” Avagyan’s essay is the final piece in In the (Un)Space (2007), an experimental collaboration by feminist Armenian authors Lara Aharonian, Nancy Agabian, and Shushan Avagyan. Written in French, English and Eastern Armenian—each of its author’s native tongues—the compilation mirrors the transnational, hybrid status of contemporary Armenian experience, which not only challenges the idea of belonging and sharing a single ‘mother tongue’, but also of a single homespace, history, and otherness. While the authors hail from several diasporic spaces, they share a narrative of alterity as feminists and queers; a space they conceptualize as the “(un)space,” much like Homi Bhahba’s “third space.” Here, they write their otherness in relation to their Armenian heritage while simultaneously creating room for its existence within Armenian experience.
Seeking to explore the plurality of contemporary transnational Armenian women’s experiences, I question how this dialogue of ‘exiles’ challenges inheritance and integrates feminist aesthetics and politics into the Armenian literary-scape. How might such aesthetics fit into Halberstam’s framework of queer space and time? What are the sociopolitical consequences of autobiographical “inverting” language and “roaming” (shrjel) through the thicket of heteropatriarchal relations in the diaspora and Armenia? How might these essays destabilize ‘belonging’ to a diaspora, state, or transnational patriarchal Armenian tradition—all disruptions that subvert categories of identity? Might the writing of blackselves in/as an (un)space be conceptualized as more of a Deleuzian ‘becoming’ than a ‘belonging’—“a ceaseless movement of being that is not coordinated by teleology and that never results in anything resembling an identity”? In arguing that these blackselves are ever-becoming, they thus invite their readers to question the ever- becomingness of Armenian identities inside and out of the diaspora in the contemporary transnational and feminist framework.
“Չünքüşաbaտum (Çüngüşabadoum): Chasing the Un-known Past through (In)animate Objects and Tales of Hearsay,” with Bengi Güldoğan. After Genocide: Gendered Trauma, Transmission and Reinvention organized by Women in War (Paris) & Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography (Yerevan). AGBU Center— Yerevan, Armenia. Sept. 2016
“Queerly Diasporic,” Invited Speaker on Panel: Diaspora’da LGBTI+ Olmak ve Örgütlenme Alanları (Being LGBTI+ in Diaspora) 14. Istanbul LGBTI+ Onur Haftası (14.Istanbul LGBTI+ Pride Week). See Interview and related article by Tuğba Esen in AGOS. Cezayir Palas — Istanbul, Turkey. June 2016
“Deviation and De-domestication: The Politics of Translating Shushan Avagyan’s Book, untitled.” 7th Annual International Graduate Student Workshop in Armenian Studies: Translating Armenians, Armenians Translated: Rethinking Methodologies for Armenian Studies. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor— Ann Arbor, Michigan. April 2016
Situated between theory and praxis, this presentation will interrogate the politics of translating Shushan Avagyan’s Girk-Anvernagir [Book-Untitled] (2006) as an act of double de-domestication. In Girk, Avagyan subverts the phal(logo)centric formation of Armenian historiography and the literary canon, as well as the violence of censorship practiced by editors. Avagyan’s text likewise auto-censors through the use of ***, plagiarizes poetry, and appropriates theoretical concepts that did not previously exist in Armenian. I argue that the resulting transhistorical and transcultural polyphony both deprivatize what Venuti calls an “individual concept of authorship,” and challenges the idea of authenticity. The text’s English translation further layers Avagyan’s sense of co-authorship by adding another layer of linguistic choices nonexistent in the Armenian. Such choices hoist its translator into a position of hyper-visibility by virtue of necessitating what I call double de-domestication: a second layer of textual foreignization caused by constraints codified in the English language.
What is a translator to do when approaching a text that speaks sensitively and beseechingly against its own distortion, while simultaneously declaring that “[t]here is one purpose, which is to deviate from the original aim”? Does this give the translator the creative license to deviate vis-à-vis interpretation? By problematizing how the translator renders Armenian neologisms into English, and thus displaying the text’s ‘foreignness’ both in the original and target languages, this paper calls into question how the translator and her political subjectivity further foreignizes the original. How does the hyper-visibility of foreignness in the English-language translation ironically pay homage to and further challenge themes of deviation in the Armenian? If, as Avagyan states in Girk, “knowing only one language closes the border between you and another person,” how can we look to the process of deviation via translation as opening up, through de-domestication, another possibility to recover both Avagyan’s and other feminists’ works from canonical obscurity in Armenian and their English translations?
“Finding Place In Exile: Queer Armenian Voices Speak.” Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship (WATS) Conference. Sabancı Üniversitesi, Minerva Palas— Istanbul, Turkey. Oct. 2015
Through a close reading of Arlene Avakian’s Lion Woman’s Legacy (1992) and Nancy Agabian’s Me As Her Again (2008), the only two bildungsroman memoirs published by queer women in the Armenian transnation, this essay explores the stakes of the oppositional constructs of queer sexuality and heteronormative, nationalist Armenian identity—and how genocide might play a key and disruptive role in their articulations. Striving to find place in exile as ‘queers’ who self-identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, both authors explore the exclusionary effects of nationalism, and provide an optic for how subjects of marginalized gender and sexual identities might reorient their subjectivities and senses of belonging within and without the hegemonic nationalist frame. Locating queer identity within and as a result of their Armenian diasporic homespaces, I argue that the memoirs are subversive contributions to transnational Armenian literary production. (Re)presenting feminist, queer identity and the diasporic Armenian-American experience as inextricably bound, they provide a grounds for Armenian identity to be imaginatively contested and transformed.