2014-09-03 / Features


Nancy Agabian

Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000), a mixed genre collection of poems, short prose, and performance texts on young women’s sexuality and rage, and Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter (Aunt Lute Books, 2008) a memoir about the influence of her Armenian family’s history on her comingof age. Me as her again was honored as a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Nonfiction and shortlisted for a William Saroyan International Prize. Her essays have been published in Ararat, The Brooklyn Rail, Women Studies Quarterly (The Feminist Press) and the anthologies Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place and Time (Seal Press) and Forgotten Bread: First Generation Armenian American Writers (Heyday Books). Collections of her poems appear in the anthologies Birthmark (Open Letter Press) and Deviation (Inknagir).

Nancy Agabian: “It’s like writing and being a person go hand in hand; we grow through the writing.” Nancy Agabian: “It’s like writing and being a person go hand in hand; we grow through the writing.” Agabian has also written and performed several one-woman shows, which have been presented internationally—in Geneva, Milan and Yerevan. With Ann Perich, she formed the folk-punk duo Guitar Boy and released a CD, Freaks Like Me. A Fulbright scholar to Armenia from 2006 to 2007, she is currently working on The Fear of Large and Small Nations a novel on the influences of nationalism, corruption, and family on personal freedom in post-Soviet Armenia. As a community writing workshop leader, she has worked with multicultural groups in Los Angeles, women writers in Yerevan, and immigrants and firstgeneration writers in Queens, where she lives. Agabian has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She teaches writing at Queens College and at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. In 2012, she founded Heightening Stories, a series of writing workshops based in her living room in Jackson Heights.

For more information on Agabian, visit nancyagabian.com/?page_ id=2.

NB: You authored the book Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter, a memoir about your Armenian family history. Tell us briefly the story of your family coming to America and how growing up in this culture has affected you.

NA: My grandparents and great-grandparents fled violence against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (what’s now Turkey) arriving in America between 1895 and 1920 and settling in New England. I learned from an early age that Armenians were nearly wiped out in the genocide of 1915, and thus it was important to preserve our culture, something I’ve come to appreciate later in life, but at the time it felt like a burden as the odd kid out in the largely white suburb of Boston, where I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

My family, though loving and closely knit, was also traditional, critical, and overprotective, so as I came of age as an artist and bisexual, I very much felt like I needed to find my self apart from them. At the same time, they were very political, creative and supportive of the arts.

The only grandparent I knew growing up was my father’s mother, who had survived the massacres and lost most of her family during a death march when she was just a child. And yet my grandmother loved to laugh and tell stories. It’s her history with the genocide that I felt I needed to uncover and understand in greater depth: one of those incredible tales of survival involving unlikely turns of fate, as well as unfathomable sorrow.

I also tell the stories of the next generation, tracing the passing of shame and guilt, particularly to the women in the family. In the course of my research, I realized that I had to mourn this history as part of my coming of age – and writing our stories helped me to do that.

NB: What was it like being a Fulbright scholar? Why did you decide to go to Armenia and what did you discover when you were there that contributes to your studies?

NA: I went to Armenia for the first time the year before the Fulbright for a brief visit, just to feel what it would be like to be in the homeland. The emphasis on family, the generosity towards guests, the awareness and burdens of history were all very familiar, but the society in the midst of shaping itself in a new world order was foreign and intriguing. It seemed that my specialty of creative nonfiction – basically writing about life – could be helpful at a time when Armenia was defining itself. I wanted to learn more about the social changes taking place, so I applied for a teaching and research fellowship.

I learned a lot about the culture through the stories from the mostly female students of the English Philology Department at Yerevan State University. College students’ typical uncertainty about the future was amplified since there wasn’t much opportunity for these young women unless they were well connected. I learned how corruption limited people’s lives, and how it was present at every level of society. It was clear that writing personally and reflectively was new for these students who had grown up with Soviet models of education, and it was an important part of their self determination, against difficult odds. One young woman who bravely broke silences in writing about corruption – at her own school – has since gone on to become a successful teacher. I think it instilled in me just how crucial it is for people to write and value their stories.

NB: In applying for a Fulbright scholarship, were you discouraged by the high volume of applicants and the difficulty in being awarded a scholarship? What do you think distinguished you from the other applicants?

NA: You know, I applied in 2006 and went to Armenia later that fall, and I think it was probably easier at that time, before the recession, to get a fellowship. When I had been to Armenia for the first time in 2005, I had made great connections with some cultural organizations that agreed to sponsor me. A supervising colleague at Queens College and other peers and mentors were very supportive and wrote great letters for me. Also, my subject of creative nonfiction dovetailed well with the aims of the Fulbright program to share American culture, while also learning about the host country. It didn’t hurt that a couple years before me Armenia had had a successful creative writing fellow. So all the cards fell into place, so to speak.

NB: Do you believe that Armenia is still struggling in the post-Soviet era? What advancements has the country made?

NA: The last time I visited in 2010 Armenia had made many strides, especially in Yerevan, in terms of developing their infrastructure and economy. The “brain drain” – when the best and brightest left the country in the years right after independence in 1991 – had been filled by energetic and committed repatriates contributing to society. I think there’s been a lot of great entrepreneurship and a slow building of civil society with the influence of NGOs (non-government organizations) operating in social and environmental realms.

What seems to have remained is the level of corruption and the dependence on foreign remittances from family abroad for those who live in rural areas. There’s also a lack of social justice in that women largely do not have prominent roles in society, and LGBT people, though now living in less silence, face great prejudice. Because there is only so much that Armenia can thrive with closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and they face a constant threat of war over Nagorno Karabakh, it’s caught in stasis – culturally, politically and economically. That’s why we’re now seeing the deepening of ties to Russia, who is seen as a protector, even as they deal arms with Azerbaijan. Russia may not be Soviet anymore, but they still have a strong influence over Armenia.

NB: Being that you live in one of the most diverse cities in the world, have you encountered many Armenians in Queens? What experiences have you had sharing stories with other Armenians?

NA: When I first moved to Queens in 2007, I immediately became intrigued with the Armenian and Turkish communities living side by side in Sunnyside, so I wrote an article about them. It was fascinating to learn how circumstances brought them to the same neighborhood and how they have found tolerance over the years. I also learned that the Armenians of Sunnyside were largely from Romania and had their own subculture within the Armenian community of New York City – and that they too have preserved their own special culture as they have largely moved out of the neighborhood towards upward mobility.

I moved to New York in 1999, but didn’t feel like I had a purpose in the city till four years later, when I started teaching immigrant and first generation students at Queens College who hailed from all over the world; their stories echoed the struggles of my parents and grandparents. In Jackson Heights, where I live, there is an incredible array of ethnicities, mostly South Asians and Latinos; I get mistaken for both, and people approach me to speak Spanish all the time, which also makes me feel part of something. And yet the handful of times I’ve heard Armenian spoken on the street, I have been shocked to find myself stopping people to identify myself as Armenian, (which is not like me as my Armenian is not so great). This has reinforced in me just how strong the desire is to want to belong and to have a place. There are a couple of businesses in Jackson Heights owned by Armenians from Georgia, and I’ve enjoyed talking to them about the differences between life here and there – and many times these stories repeat themes explored by many of my Queens College students: the push and pull between family ties and individual freedom. So our specific stories are universal.

NB: What do you like best about teaching writing?

NA: I love learning about people’s lives and hearing the sense they make from their experiences. I also feel very gratified when people learn something new from telling their own stories and they find release and experience growth in their lives.

NB: What is your favorite class to teach and why?

NA: Usually it’s the last one I’ve taught because I put a lot of myself and my own interests into my teaching to keep it fresh. After keeping a blog of my experiences in Armenia, I developed an essay writing class at Queens College for students to write about their own communities, as well as communities of interest, on their own blogs. When I finished my memoir, I was fortunate to teach “Writing Your Ancestry” at the Gallatin School at NYU to help students research their family histories that would inform their creative nonfiction. I have loved teaching the Creative Nonfiction/Autobiographical Fiction workshop in my home since I’m now writing about my life experiences in Armenia, but fictionalizing them in order to get at the heart of the story. I love being able to learn along with and from my students as I teach.

NB: Why did you decide to host your writing workshops in your living room? Do you ever feel uncomfortable having “strangers” in your home?

NA: Well, I sort of fell into having a very large apartment, an anomaly in New York City, and I have always loved teaching in community. So I was excited to actually have a space to share and the chance to create an environment with people to write. I am protective of the space, too, since it can be a challenge to bring my working life into my living room, but for the most part it’s been a great honor to have friendships build and for creativity to blossom here. I also think the living room is a nice blend of homey and open, so that people feel comfortable that there is space for them.

NB: What types of writing workshops take place at Heightening Stories? What is empowering about these workshops?

NA: For the past two years, I’ve taught the Creative Nonfiction/Autobiographical Fiction workshop. On the first night, students discuss together what topics they are interested in exploring, both in terms of content and craft. Then I’ll create “lessons” to connect them. So racism might get paired up with description and reflection, for example. We’ll read two examples of stories or essays that exemplify the topics, discuss them, then write together using those concepts. The second half of the night, two people bring in longer pieces of their writing to be critiqued: we read, respond to, analyze and discuss these new pieces of writing in ways that help them to revise and improve.

I think people become empowered by learning the tools to craft their own stories. The writing can be therapeutic, but the workshop isn’t therapy. When we discuss their work, we take great care to separate the person sitting with us from the representation of themselves on the page, because that kind of distance is helpful in veering away from judgment and to help people to see their own stories more clearly. Stepping back from their stories in order to find a basic truth or wider meaning can be a process of personal growth.

NB: What is the most difficult situation you have encountered in writing a novel? The most rewarding?

NA: I feel like every step is difficult! It’s hard to discover what the story is really about, it’s hard to confront difficult or tense stories you didn’t know you had to write, it’s hard to know what will be important for other people to read, it’s hard to know what to let go of. But it’s rewarding to figure all of that out. It’s like writing and being a person go hand in hand; we grow through the writing.

NB: Were you an avid writer as a child or was it a passion you developed later on in life?

NA: I learned to read at a very early age, and I soon was writing my own story books. I always kept a diary or a journal, and I always loved writing and reading, but it wasn’t ever something I imagined doing for a living. I was also drawn to art and thought I would become an architect so that I could make a living. But in college, I realized architecture wasn’t for me, became an art major, and worked as an art assistant for a few years in L.A. after college. Words always appeared in my paintings, drawings, installations and visual books. At Beyond Baroque, a nearby literary art center, I took a free poetry workshop, and this started me on my path of becoming both a writer and a teacher in community.

NB: You have lived in Los Angeles and New York for many years. In your opinion, how does the lifestyle in L.A. differ from New York? Do you prefer one location over the other or do you enjoy switching it up?

NA: I loved living in Los Angeles as a young person in the early ’90s. It was a place people went to heal and re-invent themselves, so there was more acceptance of unconventional lives, of friendships developing across different age groups and cultures. It felt liberating to be in such a responsive and fertile creative community. There was also a great sense of urgency in the art community to discuss issues of race and its intersections with class, gender, sexuality, etc., fueled by HIV/ AIDS activism, as well as the insurrection after the Rodney King verdict.

The common perception is that L.A. is spread out and segregated, with neighborhoods separated by ribbons of freeways, and that New York is a shared space with people of infinite backgrounds riding the subway together. So the assumption is that L.A. has less tolerance for diversity while New York is equalizing. But I wonder if in daily steeling ourselves on the subway from outside influence – playing Candy Crush, wearing headphones, riding the commute in an agreed upon silence – makes us less open to taking in others’ experiences, as well as voicing our own dissent. And yet, I think we often move beyond neighborly tolerance into transcendence in those moments of unlikely connection across cultures.

A vibrant literary scene is taking shape in Queens now, which mirrors what I experienced in L.A. with a group of multicultural, mostly queer performance and spoken word artists telling an alternative narrative in the shadow of the mainstream stories of Hollywood. Because the publishing world centered in NYC is mostly white, and it has such a huge influence right here in our own backyard, I believe writers in Queens have to do everything in our power to value and to hear the voices of our diverse communities. I hope in some small way I can contribute to helping people tell and hear those stories that break through barriers.

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