Aram Mrjoian | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2624 words)
On the periphery of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the basement of my parents’ house, resting on a pool table among spare tools, mildew-stained textbooks, and model trains, I recently found an overstuffed manila envelope fraying at the edges. Official letterhead from Wayne State University is stamped in the upper left corner. If not for the message written at the center, where an address would usually be scribbled out, it would be unassuming. Instead, penciled in neat capital letters, a message to my father reads:
The note’s lack of punctuation seems almost intentional, as if the author wanted the statement to remain open-ended. I was born 15 months after the date, late June of the following year. The well-informed historian might use context clues to gather what the folder holds. For me, as the author of this essay, my name, along with Wayne State University’s rough location, provide esoteric hints as to the envelope’s contents, but for the average reader there’s not enough to go on to come to a confident conclusion.
Q: So what’s in the folder?
A: Decades worth of newspaper clippings about the Armenian genocide.
Old school Armenians can be, to put it lightly, unwavering in their grudges. My grandfather, having been born in the United States to parents who fled Armenia as the Ottoman Empire attempted to murder their families, remained passionate in his hatred of Turkey until he passed away from complications of a heart attack in 1997, when I was 8 years old. I don’t know what year he began collecting newspaper clippings prior to 1988. I didn’t browse the articles in detail, because they’re not for me. At least, not yet.
Growing up, I never learned about the genocide directly, but instead gathered small bits and pieces from listening to my father and his relatives. All I knew was our general boycott of Turkish products and businesses. There was a Turkish café in downtown Ann Arbor that was strictly verboten. Finally, in my adolescence, my dad passed along a worn paperback of Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, a contemporary text he considered essential for learning about our ethnic history. Since then, I’ve frequently written about Balakian’s work in academic and professional contexts. Like the writing I strive to produce, many of his poems and essays focus on the self-discovery of his family history and ethnic identity.
Growing up, I never learned about the Armenian genocide directly, but instead gathered small bits and pieces from listening to my father and his relatives.
By the time I first read Balakian, in the years following the September 11th attacks, I’d already come to recognize that my name could be used as a weapon against me, but I didn’t understand how closely it tied to the survival of my family lineage. I couldn’t have imagined how much my grandfather was filled with pride in seeing his grandson bear a strong Armenian name. In being Aram, rather than, say, Justin (my parents’ second choice), not only do I carry on my paternal ancestry, but also actively fight more than a century’s attempts at erasing the Armenian people and their history. My name is not an arbitrary decision. It’s filled with specific meaning.
When writing fiction, whether I’m examining ethnic identity or focused on some other subject matter entirely, I have always been more interested in archiving memories and recreating the world around me than frolicking in the infinite thrills of imagination. That is to say I often write to record altered versions of my experiences or approach a tangible problem in a fictive setting. I avoid too much, if any, autobiographical information, but even our wildest dreams are grounded in our sensory understanding of the world as we perceive it. The romantic idea of separating our senses or identities from writing is impossible. With this mentality, my understanding of my ethnicity has proven integral to my choices as an author. What I’ve come to love most about fiction is its ability to help me examine issues such as ethnic identity from a new perspective. In my nonfiction, it’s easier to approach such subject matter head-on. By putting words on the page, I can solidify thoughts that would otherwise remain undefined, as well as prove — to what I’m certain is my grandfather’s eternal delight — that I’m still here. My name, in the act of being written anywhere or on anything, offers inherent proof of our survival.
A year ago, this train of thought would never have occurred to me. Looking back at my early 20s, I was unsure of myself as a writer, convinced that it was more a hobby I’d find time for outside of whatever else I needed to do to pay rent. I didn’t become comfortable writing about my ethnicity until I first attended graduate school, which was when I finally began to have minute confidence in my understanding of craft. Before then, I strayed as far as possible from writing about my ethnicity out of concerns of being pigeonholed, exploitative, or inaccurate. Approaching ethnic identity in my writing thus eventually involved a conscious decision: I needed to believe that writing about Armenian history and my relationship to my Armenian ethnic identity was more important than the internal conflict it brought forth.
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This is as good a time as any to note that my mother’s side is Polish through and through. In my academic and creative work, my maternal ethnicity is often overlooked or footnoted or mentioned as an afterthought. (Take the structure of this essay, for example). As half of my ethnic identity, this is where a significant portion of my internal conflict resides. I constantly fret over what it means to prioritize specific aspects of who I am. I wonder how it affects my mom or if my lack of attention dishonors the history of another country that has faced countless atrocities and moments of turmoil. How do such decisions devalue or misinform my potential readership? How do I reconcile providing certain areas of my writer’s identity more space than others? No text is perfect, and certainly no piece of writing can provide robust, unequivocal truth, but I can’t help but shake the fear that my intentional omissions or lack of comprehensiveness as a writer lead to the same type of erasure against which I actively fight in a significant portion of my work. There is — so it seems — no possible way to include everything. However, what’s not included is equally, if not more, important.
Long before any of this was on my mind, I was just a kid who liked to read. I devoured books, insisting that my parents read them to me over and over, long before I could decipher letters and words. It was a privileged childhood. My parents were always home and available to sit me down with a book and they would’ve purchased all the books in the world for me if I’d asked for them. Somewhere in storage there must be boxes overflowing with Curious George and Berenstain Bears. My parents are hesitant to rid themselves of most belongings, even though they often lament collecting so much junk over the years. While, like many children, I had a fairly rigid bedtime, I was allowed to remain awake in my room as late as I wanted if I was reading. Books helped me imagine what was possible. As I got older, I became fascinated by the distinctly personal ways in which authors composed sentences. It still fills me with awe today. Learning new words brings me an inexplicable kind of joy. What I didn’t recognize was how much my early experiences with reading would perpetuate my love for language, which resulted in my desire to write and give more thought to my ethnicity and other aspects of my identity.
Many writers have similar origin stories that begin with a good book or two. I don’t consider mine particularly interesting or unique, but as previously mentioned I was given significant advantages. Besides the overwhelming support of my parents, I also grew up in a good school district with a reliable book depository and a wide range of literacy-oriented youth programs. In high school, I was a finalist in the Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam, an event I entered after taking a creative writing course taught by the slam’s director during my senior year. It was the first time I attempted to write about Armenia. I wrote a heated poem attacking my history teacher for glossing over the genocide while she was teaching a unit on World War I. After I brought it up, she deferred to me and asked me to spend a few minutes educating the class on the subject. In retrospect, I don’t think she knew much about it outside of what was included in the textbook (i.e., not a word). When the time came to perform my Armenia poem, though, I opted to read something else, because I wasn’t ready to share that part of myself in public.
After a brief stint as an undergraduate business major, I decided to pursue my English degree in most part because I still loved to read and had discovered writing was how I best expressed myself. Despite entering college determined to learn finance and economics, I couldn’t betray my true academic interests. College was also when I first dedicated significant time to my creative writing. Most of the fiction and poetry from that period remains buried on an old hard drive tucked away in the storage room of my parents’ basement. For that, I am grateful. It’s often difficult for me to stomach what I’ve written the previous day, nevertheless my juvenilia.
Today, I remain in constant doubt of my writing abilities, especially when I place myself in a position of examining — through fiction or nonfiction — complex histories and parts of my identity that remain fluid. Via Twitter, email, or in person, several people have told me my writing is the first place they’ve heard about the Armenian genocide and Turkey’s ongoing denial of any wrongdoing. Who am I to be that point of entry? Why not someone more qualified? And what if I get the details wrong?
Via Twitter, email, or in person, several people have told me my writing is the first place they’ve heard about the Armenian genocide and Turkey’s ongoing denial of any wrongdoing.
I’m confident that my finding inadequacies in my work will never go away. I believe this is a good thing. While much of my personal enjoyment in writing comes from the act of drafting, I’ve come to find a new type of satisfaction in the revision process, and revision is imperative when you find yourself in the position of educating others about the century-long factors leading to your family’s diasporic condition. Indeed, accuracy and attention to detail are aspects of writing I value, and these aspects rarely if ever reach their apogee within the first few drafts. Most of the time, when I type out a first draft — regardless of my familiarity with general mechanics and confidence in my personal aesthetic preferences — I expect it to be exploratory and loaded with errors, historical, structural, grammatical, or otherwise. Yet, the writing process ensures that my fleeting ideas and stories are retained long-term. In their nascence, young writing projects can be the most exciting because they are organically scattered and unbound, but if my ultimate goal is to pass on information, and when engaging with Armenian ethnic identity also maintaining some obligation to historical accuracy, then my writing demands more clarity and precision so that it is valuable to a hypothetical future readership. Additionally, my revision process is more iterative than corrective. In other words, I like to save multiple drafts and avoid true deletions whenever possible, even if a clause or paragraph or entire section is removed from the final product. These lost sections might wind up in another document or older version. This philosophy too relates to the idea of avoiding erasure, even if on an extremely low scale.
I started working toward my MFA when I was twenty-six years old. Leading up to that point, I’d been rejected several times by programs, including the one at Northwestern University, where I was ultimately offered admission. By the time I completed the program in March 2018, I’d published a handful of short stories and essays centered on Armenian ethnic identity. For the time being, emphasizing ethnic identity has taken hold of my aesthetic. The writers I meet who know my work know the Armenia stories, that’s just the way it tends to shake out. My family too has started to pick up on the general theme of my recent work. We don’t talk about it too much. I send along an email or text to my parents and brother when something is published, but it doesn’t enter our routine conversations.
Recently, on a trip to visit my parents in Michigan, while we made small talk at the dinner table, my father paused at some unremembered comment I made and said, “You know, you don’t have to be an angry Armenian writer. There are enough of those. Write whatever you want.”
My immediate reaction, which I kept to myself, was to be taken aback. I knew very well I could write whatever I wanted without being granted permission. I simply chose to write a lot about what was important to me. In this case, understanding a history that defined much of how other people view and relate to me. Upon first introduction, I am incessantly asked to pronounce my name, or spell my name, or where I’m from, or to talk about my ethnic origins.
My father and I disagree on many things, but how much I write about his family lineage was not an anticipated pain point. He is perpetually proud of his sons and boasts of our accomplishments. My brother and I hear it all the time, from other people. Your dad said you’re doing X great thing now or I read this thing you wrote your dad sent me. Yet, here we were, in the middle of a dinner consisting of Armenian food nonetheless, a first instance in which he appeared genuinely concerned that the subject matter of much of my writing might reach a breaking point.
I don’t think there’s a right answer, but I imagine — for I have no way of knowing — my dad has a number of concerns: writing too much about my Armenian ethnicity will put me in a box; that he and his father have inexorably influenced who I am as an artist; and that his own stories and those of his ancestors are diluted as they are passed on, one further step removed. While I suggest I am fighting erasure, he perhaps worries about the difficulties of holding onto the truth for several generations, on a family level at the very least. After all, there’s only so much to be gleaned from a brief message on a manila envelope. This is all conjecture, because he keeps many of his thoughts to himself. What he does share is guarded. We’re both stubborn and reactionary. I can tell he and my mother are wary of pushing me in any one direction.
Given all of these external factors, my writing has never been and never can be completely personal. Even the words that remain unread rely on a shared system of understanding, through a common language or set of social experiences or simple matter of human existence. We’re all building something, collectively, and have been going about building it for a long time. I’m not always sure where I fit in that system, whether or not my writing reaches its intended goals. For my grandfather, forgiveness was never an option. While I’m still unsure of where I stand in that regard, I certainly will never forget and, through the act of writing, assist in our history not being forgotten.
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Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an interviews editor at the Southeast Review, and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. He is currently a PhD student in creative writing at Florida State University.
Editor: Sari Botton