The conversation was conducted by email correspondence over the period between January 15 and March 15, 2018.
Shushan Avagyan: You said in an earlier interview, published in CONTEXT ten years ago, that you were interested in “how the mind makes iconic images, archetypes.” Most of your work is very image-driven. The same image is constructed and reconstructed obsessively, persistently, meticulously, like the invisible image of the hermit thrush singing his ingrained blood song in A Brief History of Yes, or the uninvited image of Vosto, unexisted, disappeared, then “reappeared like some monstrous dark film specter” in The Daydreaming Boy. But you also include in your work, very purposefully, photographic images—it’s usually a single photograph—embedded in the text. Despite the widespread use of photographic manipulation, the photograph still has the power to reproduce a certain documentary or factual effect. I read those images from Susan Sontag’s point of view in Regarding the Pain of Others: “A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show . . . Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs.” What are you trying to show through the photograph of, say, Maria’s eyes “taken in the week after the lover took his love back,” or the boys from the Bird’s Nest Orphanage (“I could be the boy in the second row, seven in from the right”) that you can’t say through words alone? How do you choose the photograph? At what point does it enter the novel?
Micheline Aharonian Marcom: Most of my books have begun with a very vivid “picture” in my imagination, which I then work outwards from. In my first novel, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, the opening sequence is of a young girl who is walking to the public market to buy eggs for her mother. It was the first image I saw as I began that novel: a girl by herself on a mission of some kind. But it took some time, research, and writing, for me to understand why she was so nervous (women in the Ottoman Empire did not go out alone or to market), and what was at stake: in this case, her mother was very ill, her father had been disappeared, her brothers were in hiding, and she had to take action for her family’s survival. So the image came first: a girl alone walking; and the story behind and of it came in the years afterward as the novel developed and as my inquiring deepened—as the novel itself unfurled in time.
As for the photographs, I would say at least in the case of The Daydreaming Boy and the photo you mentioned (Three Apples and Draining the Sea also have documentary-style photographs in them), these work, in part, within a framework of stories which have been denied, elided, or erased: in all three books’ cases by “official” national narratives and nationalist historians, but also by the forces of shame and fear which do so much to silence voices. So the photos in some sense do what Sontag wrote of, they “show”: we were here. In the continuing discourse between Turkish nationalist historians (what we might more accurately call mouthpieces for the state) versus independent scholars (Armenian, Turkish, and other) who take up the subject of the Armenian genocide and its historical veracity—its origins, its details—the photo stares back at us from history. The documentary photograph was taken at the orphanage in 1921, all the children survivors of the genocide and living in exile in Lebanon.
As for the other example—perhaps somewhat akin to the illuminations Fowzia Karimi did for The Brick House—it is not to reveal an historical moment, or to “prove” anything, per se, but via juxtaposition with the text to create a conversation where, perhaps, a third kind of experience might open up: a dialogue between story and image.
The only photograph found in Three Apples, at its beginning, is of five children. It was taken in 1917 or thereabouts and was given to me by my great-aunt’s daughter-in-law. I can’t remember when I didn’t know I would include this image at the book’s opening—it is the first photograph in my family’s possession of my grandmother and her siblings after the genocide when their parents had already died and the children stand alone. In the case of A Brief History, I’m not sure when I decided to include the photograph of the eyes, but I will say this: I’ve long been interested in self-portraits, especially Rembrandt’s and Van Gogh’s, and in these it is mostly the eyes which call my attention. I suppose “selfies” in some sense are the way many try to see themselves now, but the self-portrait is a deep study of the self, an honest and beautiful inquiry if it is an accomplishment, for the world and not a snapshot to display a self at his or her “best”—which often is just a mask, a fake, and in this sense, not true. If I were a visual artist, I would probably have drawn something instead of using a photograph in that book!
Avagyan: But I don’t “read” the photographs as illustrations or as proofs in your novels. They aren’t just links to the real world. They also serve as epigraphs or as frameworks—they organize the plot, stringing the seemingly disconnected threads together. Is this a misreading on my part?
Marcom: I think that’s right: they are not illustrations, I suppose they might be historical fragments of a kind, “evidence,” but maybe, as you are suggesting, that’s really the least of it, for in reality I don’t seek to prove anything in my novels. I see the images in their juxtaposition with text as I mentioned as a kind of third implicit conversation, and part of that conversation happens in what is articulated in language and in what remains unsaid but rises: out of images adjacent to the articulated and to the unarticulated. An attempt, perhaps, at expressing what is not-sayable or not-said, but immanent. Literature encodes knowledge.
Avagyan: That’s exactly it—there is an implicit conversation, a dialogue between the photographic image and the narrative. The most vivid example is the opening of Draining the Sea: Book One opens with two photographs (they are “quiet” photographs: a shot taken from a car looking onto a highway crammed with cars and a shot of a small village house in the mountains—they don’t shock (in Sontag’s words: “For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct, they must shock”) and they represent, as photographs are usually expected to do, “a transparent account of reality” (Regarding the Pain of Others). And on the very next page, facing the photographs, appear the first words of the novel—they are anything but quiet: “This is a fiction: a man, a man collects corpses, proceeds on the streets of this city, the city an amass of street, of canine corpses he collects, loads them into his motorcar, and the bleeding snout, crushed full canines, the black and blow flies in the anus the snout the genitals; these black corpses, these half-breeds, and not worth a dollar, he thinks; he thinks that if he could kill them all he would do it.” The photographic images claiming to represent reality are juxtaposed against this verbal image that unswervingly claims to be fiction.
Marcom: America is, of course, a grand and fairly recent fiction: the United States and Guatemala, the two countries, which feature in the book, are young enough in their formations that we can follow the threads. We can, for example, easily find the strange, almost comic, origin of the name “America” itself. It comes from the Latinized name of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian who traveled to the newly discovered continents and whose famous letters, which may or may not have been written by him and include many fabrications, were how a novice German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller—who thought Vespucci was their discoverer—decided upon his (feminized) name for his new map of the new world—and it happened to be Waldseemüller’s naming that stuck! (And curiously Vespucci, like Columbus before him (who saw “India” in the unknown land he stumbled upon), was influenced in his seeing by the writings of Marco Polo: another great fabulist!) America, perhaps like every part of the human-named geo-political world, we might say, is a series of fictions that are often affected by chance. The world, like the Yoga Vasistha tells us, “is like the impression left by the telling of a story.”
I remain interested in the many ways in which we “make”—for good and mischief—ourselves and our communities via various fictions in the personal and public realm. How we are connected and affected by stories of floods and fires and distant empires and the prodigal son and Job and God and the discovery of a new Jerusalem and the nationalist histories we learn in school, etc. How our histories, our technologies and economies, bind us, hold us in visible and invisible relationships. One of the things I love most about the novel is that it allows for some not always apparent relationships to be seen, which is what I was after in Draining the Sea and in the use of the photos you mentioned: one of Highway 101 in LA and the other of the military building in Guatemala City where so many people were disappeared during the war. Those two places have a shared history and reality and relationship although they are separated by thousands of miles. I think that art, at its best, allows and supports a “new seeing” of reality via the pattern/unity it creates—this is part of what I mean when I say that literature encodes knowledge.
Avagyan: Sontag writes: “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” And I am not sure whether it is the photographs that haunt me, or the narrative, your prose, your verbal images.
Marcom: I guess I too feel haunted: by ghosts, obsessions, images, by untold stories, by certain photographs of the dead, by narratives which wait, I sometimes have felt, to have an utterance. Vosto of The Daydreaming Boy, who you mentioned earlier, was actually based on a photograph of an Armenian child taken by a German photographer during the deportation march. The boy’s look in that photo wouldn’t leave me and so I tried to tell the history and story of what I felt and saw as I looked at the black-and-white image of an ugly emaciated boy in rags begging, it seemed to me, not only for food but for succor. But, as you know, I chose not to use that image in the book; instead it informed the writing.
Sometimes it is the living which haunt me, as it is in my latest book, The New American, about Central American migrants who make the very dangerous journey across Mexico to reach the US. There are snippets of raw documentary footage I’ve seen, bits of stories I’ve heard, which roll around in my imagination seeking and suggesting to me a larger story lurking in the as yet unarticulated. And, truthfully, once I have been witness to something which feels urgent in some sense it has felt like a duty to try and tell it.
Avagyan: You also have a very distinct way of describing photographs: in Draining the Sea: “I have a photograph in my possession of these foreigners. They are dark haired and their eyes are dark and they don’t look like anything I can recognize: they are from a distant place and I can’t understand them when they talk to me.” And in The Daydreaming Boy: “I have a photograph taken by a German soldier during the Great War . . . In the photo the child is covered head to toe in rags, in layers of torn cotton and wools . . . his look is one of sorrow and despair—he wears the mask of the orphan.” Or in A Brief History: “Maria looks into a photograph of herself that was taken in the week after the lover took his love back, like a backpack to be slung over his offensive shoulder.” Are we more prone to recognize pain in a photograph than in a piece of writing?
Marcom: I’m not sure we are more prone to recognize pain in images, but as far as I experience and understand it, we are visually driven animals: the image is fundamental in homo sapiens. Perhaps images are pre-language, or impact places that language doesn’t reach—like music does; or perhaps it’s simply that our eyes are directly connected to our brains. I think documentary photographs are tricky, however, especially if you’ve ever been on the side of being “othered,” because the subject inevitably becomes an object, a type, constructed, to a large degree, by the person framing the shot: so then what are we seeing? Are we seeing the image or a mix of preconceived ideas by the seer/photographer, or some combination thereof? How can we see the photographer’s “frame,” which often is not acknowledged? Oftentimes, photographs don’t make us re-see or see anew, but instead re-inscribe notions we already have. Which is probably why I chose not to use the image Vosto is based on in DDBoy but instead to describe it and recontextualize it.
Avagyan: All of your novels have some kind of Armenian reference (for example, a mention of the “dead Urartian tongue” in The Brick House, or “an Armenian grandmother mixed in with the Portuguese” in A Brief History of Yes). They have a foreignizing effect: they seem strange, unexpected, out of place. What’s their function? How are we supposed to read them?
Marcom: Their function, primarily, I suppose is that they please this author! I imagine most people won’t know that the Urartians are the ancestors of modern Armenians, so that reference is perhaps, in some sense, for the listeners/readers like you who do! I guess it’s partly a “wink,” partly a continuing homage to my family and the displacement and losses and exile, partly the small things I leave in every book, small markers, of my own life, its historical references, its particular, personal details: a small map of the individual living artist who made the book; part whim and whimsy.
Avagyan: When you were visiting Yerevan in 2012, you gave me your copy of Clarice Lispector’s collection of stories (The Foreign Legion), which you were reading then. What draws you to her prose?
Marcom: Everything draws me to Clarice Lispector! If a writer has one or two “fundamental” mentors, sources of inspiration and admiration, then she is one of mine. It’s deeply personal: I found The Foreign Legion through my teacher Ginu Kamani in graduate school and that work (and the subsequent books of hers I’ve come to know and love) spoke directly to me in its story, its style, its extraordinary aliveness—work that is sui generis and so unabashedly, beautifully honest and deeply feminine: it often takes up the terrain of the domestic, of the woman, of the private self and how this self moves in the world; of the mystical; of the great Comedy that is human life. Some call her work metaphysical, which it is in the sense that it is thinking about everything: our desire for a new dress and how while getting the dress fitted we learn a young man has just drowned not one hundred feet away in the sea and contemplate our mortality (Lispector’s: The young man pickled in brine. I don’t want to die!) and then immediately return to our thoughts about how the dress looks and fits. Lispector holds both the banal and the larger questions of life and its meaning in the same short story, often in the same sentence. Something about her work, while very different from mine, was a grand permission of sorts—a saying across space, time, and language (Lispector writes in Portuguese, of course): do it! Do your work exactly as you’d like, following your own particular vision. For that, for her books, I remain grateful and inspired.
Avagyan: You often make me think of how destructive language can be, or how language is put to use (Toni Morrison’s own poignant message in her Nobel lecture: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity-driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek—it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”). “Undoing” language is a distinctive motif (and a motive for writing) that threads through all of your books. How do you see the reader interacting with this “undoing”?
Marcom: In a continuing vein of Morrison and her work, she said something a while ago that has stayed with me and which has always felt true for me: writing is inquiry. I don’t write books because I know something, or even because I’m trying to undo anything—I am seeking, through the imagination and language, to make something, to understand better, to explore deeply, and yes I suppose in some sense, to transform in story, via the word and its alchemy, some things to gold.
Avagyan: Some critics have failed to understand the presence, the passion, the grace of your fiction. In one such attempt to make sense of what I think is your most brilliant novel—The Daydreaming Boy—Hovig Tchalian calls it “a failed experiment” and Ara Oshagan defends it by saying: “For some books, the writing is done for the writing, not for the reading.” But I have always felt that your books are, in fact, conversations with the reader, they are dialogic, compassionate, demanding. They attempt to reach out to the reader in ways that the reader isn’t used to and that’s what makes them unique, strange, necessary. Do you write for the sake of writing, or is there more to it?
Marcom: I love to read: it is one of my life’s greatest pleasures and it goes hand in hand with my continual urge and obsession to make books: I can no longer imagine my life without the time spent writing, reading, researching, and daydreaming. A book, of course, implies a reader by its nature, but I’ve never written for a particular reader (or “market”) because I don’t really know what that would mean. Writing is like a descent for me, I go down, I’m not really even thinking, I’m listening, or as Lispector might say in one of her many neologisms: thinking-feeling. I don’t worry about a reader, or who the readers will be, perhaps they are not alive yet? Perhaps they don’t speak English and wait for the translation? I think of so many books I love and how they waited for me: to be born, to go to school, to learn to read, to be translated into English, and then when I was in my twenties to read them with devotion and seriousness; and of how I found the right books at the right time, like opening a treasure chest, when I was ready for them: Clarice Lispector, Herman Melville, António Lobo Antunes, Faulkner, Danilo Kiš, Bruno Schulz, and countless others. Books are funny things, they are not for everybody, not always understood in their times, and many fail while some sing for a thousand years, and often the most lauded at first are quickly forgotten—who can recall even one Pulitzer Prize winner from the 1930s when Faulkner notably did not win for his masterpieces? (Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge won the year As I Lay Dying was published.) At the end of the day, I do my best and I please myself in the sense that I follow my own proclivities and interests. I love and believe in literature, its beauties, its ability to endure, its deep contemplations and truth. And I feel grateful that in this life I get to do this work. Do I get disappointed sometimes that so many of my books are out of print? Or go unreviewed and mostly unread? I do. But it is literature itself which consoles me: reading, writing sentences, and teaching as well: I love to talk about books with my students, and turn them on to what are the “difficult pleasures,” as Harold Bloom calls it, of reading serious imaginative literature.
Avagyan: You’re not as “unread” as you might think! Two of your books have been translated into French and published by the Swiss Métis Presses. (In what other languages have your books appeared?) Being translated certainly means being read—and read repeatedly, thoroughly, and, as Walter Benjamin writes, “with loving particularity.” I’ve translated several excerpts from The Daydreaming Boy into Armenian, and I must confess, some of your sentences are so sublimely difficult they are nearly untranslatable—you write, to quote from Draining the Sea, “the sort of narrative that makes loops in the mind, like ribbons and flood rivers that leave only a trace of the before: both the past and the future bound up in the disappeared and prewritten writings, a lover’s tarmac, the blues.” What’s your relationship with the translators: do you supervise their work, or do you let them work on their own?
Marcom: Well, it’s strange in some ways how, at least in my case, I don’t know much about my books’ readers. But as for translations, some of the novels have been translated into Hebrew, German, French, Spanish, and Dutch. I know my French translator, and interacted a bit with my German translator while she was working on Three Apples—but in both cases I wasn’t consulted very much, although I find myself very interested in translation and the choices a translator has to make. But I imagine that the complexities and intricacies of translation always confront a translator—one only has to look at the various and varied translations, of, say, Kafka’s stories into English to begin to understand how much a translator’s art and choices affect the work. Or Rilke’s poems. I’m currently reading the newest translation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and I’m enjoying it so much and although the spirit of the book could be found in the last translation I read, this one feels more fluid and it is much funnier, which makes me think it might be closer to Bulgakov’s style in Russian. Without the translator’s ear and abilities in her or his native tongue so much literature would not be available to me, and because I read so much in translation, I remain very grateful for the translators’ work across the centuries.
Avagyan: Bulgakov’s one of the luckier writers who’s been translated into the same language more than once—I think it’s critical, as you’re saying, to have more than one translation (i.e., reading) of a text, as you always gain a new perspective . . . I know that you are currently finishing the third book of your second trilogy—The Nothing on Which the Fire Depends. Where does the title come from?
Marcom: I’m currently finishing The New American and working on my digital storytelling project The New American Story Project, so I’m afraid Nothing has been sitting in “the drawer” for a few years now. It’s the third book in the domestic trilogy, all of which feature women narrators in the throes of some kind of breakdown, you might call it, related to love and their erotic lives. The third book is perhaps the strangest of all: it follows a woman who is driving to LA from the Bay Area to a funeral of a friend and during the drive several dead characters speak, including the friend herself. It’s a book which takes up betrayal as its main theme, and so many of the narratives of those who speak circle around this subject: a difficult one, for in betrayal the bundle of violence and hatred around a love denied or harmed, can be . . . intense and extreme. As for the book’s title, the book in part takes up what is not visible and often not spoken, and although not seen with eyes or heard with ears, nonetheless real. The no-thing which creates the conflagration.
Avagyan: What hasn’t been noticed about your work?
Marcom: I have no idea.
Note: This conversation is part of Big Other Folio: Micheline Aharonian Marcom.
Shushan Avagyan teaches translation theory and practice at the American University of Armenia. She is the translator of Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, A Hunt for Optimism, and The Hamburg Score, by Viktor Shklovsky; Art and Production, by Boris Arvatov; and I Want To Live: Poems of Shushanik Kurghinian.