Author Archives

Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Longreads, Joyland, Colorado Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Masters Review, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in fiction at Florida State University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com

Bearing the Weight of My Grandfathers’ Old Clothes

Illustration by Homestead

Aram Mrjoian | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,320 words)

The first time I was mistaken for my father on the phone, I feigned annoyance. It was around 2004, I was 14 or 15 years old, and my family’s main form of communication was still the cordless phone mounted to the wall at the threshold of the kitchen, important numbers listed in thick pencil on a faded pad of yellow paper taped to the inside of the neighboring cabinet door. My mother and father also had cell phones, single-function dull silver models with green calculator screens and pixelated numbers, but these devices were strictly for work or emergencies. I was too young for my own phone, which was still an uncommon luxury among my friends, especially those still without a driver’s license. At home, the majority of calls we received were from telemarketers, and by my adolescence my parents had trained me to decline the onslaught of polite, prodding inquiries from unknown numbers, so that once or twice a day I hung up on an unfamiliar voice the moment they butchered our last name.

This time, though, it was a number I recognized, from a family member, someone who knew both my dad and me well enough to identify the distinct tones and cadences of our voices. She confused us anyway. I remember the static over the line, my momentary pause as I tried to make sense of this error. How could I be mistaken for my father? How could there be any confusion given the unsure wavering in my adolescent voice? Even as a teenager, I understood one distant moment of misidentification was neither some portentous sign of manhood nor a hint that I had matured in a more physical sense of the word. At least, I didn’t see it that way. Today, the feeling of being lost in adulthood is as constant as ever, like I am still an anachronistic version of my younger self, winging it day to day, uncertain of who I am and what the hell I’m doing. This mood was intensely magnified in my adolescence. My conceptions of masculinity and adulthood were out of whack with my perception of myself. It wasn’t simply that I wasn’t a man yet, but a larger question of how could I ever be half the man my father is, at all?
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Writing to Avoid Erasure

Photo courtesy the author

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:

MARC,

NEVER FORGET

NEVER FORGIVE

DAD,

3-30-88

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.
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Weighing the Costs — and Occasional Benefits — of Ethnic Ambiguity

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Aram Mrjoian | Longreads | September 2018 | 16 minutes (3,949 words)

 

At the beginning of 7th grade, sitting toward the back of a column of brown laminate desks, I was first told I had an emerging unibrow. Michigan still radiated of summer. The September air hugged my skin. I was lanky and undefined, a soon-to-be teenager who’d bought into the culture of extreme sports, so I wore oversized cargo shorts and a baggy t-shirt that hung down to my knees. At the time, skaters like me were prone to wearing clothes that didn’t fit well, as if swimming around in an extra large negated the fragility of our young bodies.

Our German class, an introductory course more focused on the country’s culture than language acquisition, was mostly filled with young men. It had the reputation for being a blow-off, less intellectually strenuous than Spanish or French. Originally from Deutschland, Mr. E liked to play old clips of Michael Schumacher celebrating Formula One racing victories in glamorous locales — Monaco or Barcelona. This pastime lent itself to the underlying masculinity of the classroom.

One morning, while we were supposed to read a conversation from the textbook aloud with a partner, the boy sitting in front of me pivoted around in his desk. “You have to shave that or something,” he goaded, pointing toward my forehead. I spent the next five minutes trying to convince him he was mistaken. We ignored the scripted dialogue in front of us. He didn’t let it go. From then on the shrinking gap between my eyebrows became a daily topic of conversation. He brought other kids in our area of the classroom in on the joke. I worried that if I removed the fuzz I would only set myself up for more ridicule.

A week or so into that school year, the Twin Towers fell. I was in math class, algebra, which was taught by a skeletal man with a thick mustache and ponytail. He wore corduroy pants most days, a mug of burnt-smelling coffee glued to his right hand. He was the type to squat down next to the desk and talk to students face to face. We knew something was wrong when he turned on the television while we scribbled proofs in our workbooks. The class watched the news in stunned silence. By lunchtime, we were sent home. A few days later, my neighbor in German class gave me a new nickname: “Arama bin Laden.”

By the end of the semester, I started plucking the mess of black hairs bridging the space above my nose. I couldn’t tolerate the worms wriggling toward each other across my face, hinting that I was different. I bleached my hair. I found numerous ways to blend in, but nothing could change the five foreign syllables of my full name, the simple alteration of the first that transformed me into a terrorist.

I did have something of an out, need be. My parents, with remarkable foresight, had given me the middle name Joseph so that I could go by AJ. It was a failsafe designed precisely for such circumstances. A last resort for retroactive assimilation. However, I never used my initials. It always felt unnatural to me, having been called by my given name since I was born. Seventh grade was the first time I realized my name could be used against me. I learned that to be an unknown was to be other, that to be difficult to pronounce was to be threatening, and that to be ethnically ambiguous was to be somehow less American.

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