Untangling the Consequences of Genocide: A Conversation with Aram Mrjoian

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

“There is no such thing as a monolithic ethnic identity,” Aram Mrjoian writes in his Editor’s Note to We Are All Armenian: Voices from the Diaspora (University of Texas Press, 2023). All eighteen essays that follow are written by descendants of the 1915 Armenian genocide, a diverse group united by a history of displacement. The writers hail from Southern California, Alberta, Beirut, and Baltimore. Some are recent immigrants, others have lived in their new homes for generations. Some are double-refugees, first from the genocide, then from civil strife in the Middle East. Others straddle multiple ethnicities or identities. They share stories of activism, history, trauma, and healing. The collection that emerges is part party and part opera—both delightful and wrenching, altogether joyful.

We Are All Armenian opens with an essay about food—halva, to be specific—served at Armenian funerals in Southern California. Immediately, the reader is awash in sensation: the warmth of home, the delight in childhood treats, and the heaviness of grief, all of which resonate throughout the collection. From here, the reader is transported to a German disco, to Massachusetts, to historic Armenia (now part of Turkey), and to Armenia of the present day. Each essay builds on the last, deepening the reader’s understanding of the multi-generational impact of genocide on families and prompting contemplation on notions of ethnicity. The essays do not flinch in the face of sometimes harrowing events, but every one also offers sweetness, grace, and resolve to face these truths and to move forward with hope and compassion.

It’s an exquisite collection of essays. I was truly honored to interview Aram Mroian, editor of We Are All Armenian about how he crafted the anthology and how it fits into larger conversations around displacement and belonging.

—Kathryn O’Day


Kathryn O’Day: Before we start, I’d just like to thank you for putting together this anthology and for offering your insights about it here. I’m wondering if there was a sense of the collection’s shape from the beginning, or if the shape emerged organically over time. Were there any surprises along the way? If so, what were they?

Aram Mrjoian: Putting together this anthology came together from a few seemingly disparate ideas and inspirations. First, I became extremely invested in the question of singular narratives and commercial narrative patterns, which both led me to a lot of other Armenian writers and to thinking about what pressures they were under to tell their stories a certain way. I guess I envisioned a project like We Are All Armenian without knowing what it could look like yet. Then, in February 2020, the University of Texas Press sent me a beautiful anthology—My Shadow is My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora. I immediately admired the book for its breadth of perspectives and focus on community. The anthology offered diasporic stories without leaning into predictable portrayals. Right away, I thought, this is the model, this is what I’ve been trying to figure out.

For all the things I can’t do on the page, I consider myself a pretty organized editor and decent literary hype-man, so I pitched the idea to Jim Burr at UTP, and fast forward three years and now it’s in print. It’s a project I’m very proud of, one I saw through from email pitch to proposal to page proofs, though admittedly over time I’ve begun to feel more like a project manager in some ways. Strangely, my sense of distance from it has grown as the publication date nears. I feel like the book truly belongs to its stellar list of contributors, who wrote such beautiful essays, a group I’m so grateful to have built a community with over three years of collaboration, and a community I’m excited to see expand as We Are All Armenian reaches its readers.

This is to say the process was quite organic in the sense that I had a big idea and the writers I approached made it happen, so the shape came together on its own. There were surprises, of course, lots of bumps along the way I had to work through, things like peer review and contributors having to step away and always feeling three steps behind current events, but I feel really fortunate to have had a lot of people tell me yes and dedicate their time and work over such a long period of time.

KO: A big strength of this anthology is the way these stories resonate with those of other diasporic communities. How does this collection fit into larger conversations around migration?

AM: I’ve argued elsewhere that while I’ve been told I’m obsessed with the past, really what I am interested in is the future. The Armenian diaspora offers a profound perspective on larger conversations about displacement and migration in part because the Genocide began more than a century ago and we’re still untangling the consequences of it today. Conversations about identity, belonging, safety, asylum, and finding home are only going to become increasingly important as the climate crisis gets more severe, leading to more displacement from natural disasters, food scarcity, systemic violence, and unlivable conditions. We have to better understand the conflicting narratives that lead to systemic oppression, particularly in the U.S., since we’re taught this revisionist melting pot ideology while simultaneously banning people from seeking safe and livable environments, all while actively inflicting mass harm. We need to find ways—and I promise I’m not naive to the limited influence of personal essays—to talk about our complex experiences so that we can make sense of the present. I hope in some ways this anthology can be an entry point to numerous big conversations.

KO: You mention in the acknowledgements that Naira Kuzmich’s essay served as a significant source of inspiration for this collection. Kuzmich, tragically, passed away in 2017. When did you come across her work? In what way did it “inspire” the collection?

AM: Encountering Naira’s writing was one of the first times I thought, “Wow, this touches on some of what I’m trying to do as a writer, but is way better than anything I could ever do.” The first thing I read by her was the essay, “Hava Nagila,” which is reprinted in the anthology. I found the essay in an old copy of Michigan Quarterly Review a month after she died. When the University of Texas Press accepted my proposal, it was the first piece I knew I wanted to include, and I sent the link to the other contributors as an example of what kind of work might be a good fit. It’s hard to explain, but it made sense to me as a cornerstone of the project, and I’m very grateful to her family and MQR for the permission to reprint and share it.

KO: So much has happened in the three years since you pitched the anthology, most notably the ongoing Azerbaijani attacks on Armenian territory. How did outside events impact your work?

AM: The truth is that the moment I pivoted from the accepted proposal to putting together the manuscript, I already felt like the anthology was a set artifact, even though there were still a couple years of revisions and major changes (particularly to the introduction) ahead. I sent the proposal in the first few weeks of the pandemic and by September of that year, right around when the first draft of the full manuscript came together, war had broken out in Artsakh. It just felt like every day there was new context I wanted to add, but I eventually realized that would be impossible, and I also did my best to accept that the anthology could never cover everything. Additionally, the pandemic slowed down the publishing timeline, which made my awareness of time passing and the urge to add new information all that much more acute. I eventually rewrote the introduction with more recent geopolitical events in mind, but it has remained a tough question for me as an editor, knowing the anthology can’t necessarily be everything I or others want it to be.

KO: An important theme in We Are All Armenian is what Sophia Armen calls “the where of Armenians,” a “where” that is complicated by war, imperialism, genocide, and natural disaster. The Armenia that many fled, for example, is now ironically a part of Turkey. And yet there is this urge to “make memories rooted in soil,” as Aline Ohanesian puts it. Can you discuss the role of place in this anthology?

AM: The idea of place in this collection is admittedly complicated for me. I’ve neither traveled to Armenia nor do I speak Armenian, so I think I personally feel more distant from “the where” than many of the contributors. As the editor, I saw the role of place in this anthology as what I refer to in the editor’s note as “hyperlocal and intersectionally global,” by which I mean the factors you mentioned have scattered Armenians around the world, where they have built esoteric communities, and so place holds a lot of meaning.

KO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you feel more distant from “the where.” Quite a few of your contributors express a feeling of distance from the Armenian community while still identifying as Armenian. Scout Tufankjian calls it “imposter syndrome in your own culture.” In the editor's note, you connect this anxiety with “the legacy of genocide,” among other factors. Could you expand on this?

AM: I think it’s natural to feel imposter syndrome when you don’t have the education and community to fully understand your background, or when you have the community but there’s a kind of tiered sense of credibility. Scout’s essay does such a good job of exploring the idea that there’s no formula for constructing a specific identity, in this case, an Armenian identity, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to not notice various kinds of loss over time. 

Imposter syndrome was essentially a central part of putting together the anthology. The reality is I can’t even really say my own name with the correct pronunciation as it would be said in Armenia. That’s kind of a mind fuck, right? I think a lot of people have their own version of that, small things that make them feel like they don’t know enough or don’t act in ways that represent who they are. That sense of imposter syndrome is prominent throughout the collection, but also I would argue is pretty widespread.

KO: In your editor’s note, you also mention the phrase “never again.” It reminds me of Elie Wiesel’s pledge to “never forget.” This, however, seems to be at odds with what Naira Kuzmich calls “the American Dream of an endlessly forgotten past.” Could you talk a bit about this tension between remembering and forgetting and how it plays out in the anthology?

AM: In an ideal world, at least in my mind, the never forget part becomes tacit, in the sense that culturally (in the U.S. and globally) we become much more honest about the violence and plunder of the past. It becomes easier to write about other issues when you don’t have to incessantly educate and remind people about the past, so that is where so much of the tension in this anthology emerges. A lot of people have forgotten, or have never even known, so that creates a kind of erasure that is difficult to write beyond.

My sense is Kuzmich is hinting at how the American Dream can only be perpetuated by ignoring the nation’s history of immense wrongdoing, so I don’t know that these ideas are fully at odds. If we can’t agree on the past, if so much harm is intentionally forgotten and erased, it makes progress much more difficult. I’ve already started getting comments from early readers along the lines of “I never learned about the Genocide” or “I didn’t know about what’s going on now.” Hearing that kind of stuff creates an obligation to explain, to contextualize, to help people remember, and that’s extremely important, but also limiting and emotionally taxing.

KO: Your book is dedicated to “the diaspora.” Implicit in this is the Armenian diaspora, but many of the phenomena experienced by people of the Armenian diaspora are similar to other diasporic peoples—African-American, Native American, and so on. Was this your intention?

AM: The first dedication I wrote, without enough critical consideration, read: to all the displaced. However, I decided that was not really accurate to my experience or the experience of many people who are perhaps two or three generations assimilated somewhere else, but still maintain aspects of diasporic identity. I grew up comfortable in Michigan, generations removed from that initial displacement. After some thought and self-reflection, I made the change.

Yes, the book is dedicated to the Armenian diaspora, but also the understanding that people all around the world have been pushed out of their historic homelands or had their culture erased through systemic violence, colonialism, and genocide. It’s intentionally general because Armenians are far from the only largely diasporan population. Again, I hope this anthology can open up some big conversations, part of that being discussions that are not just about Armenians and Armenian history.

KO: Quite a few essayists in this anthology wrestle with the limitations of language. “There are not enough words here to carry these memories. There aren’t enough words to name our future,” writes Sophia Armen. Naira Kuzmich points out the fact that language is also used by some in the Turkish government to deny the Armenian Genocide, since “genocide” wasn’t a word until the 1940s. And yet language is the medium of writers. Could you talk about the constraints/opportunities of language in this collection?

AM: Not to keep stealing from my editor’s note, but there I argue, “Diasporan Armenians cannot be pinned to a number of essays that is any smaller than the total diasporan population, and even that is problematic, only a brief and glancing representation of each person and community at a singular moment.” Language is mostly constraints, even if we rely on it so much for communication, information, entertainment, and artistic expression. And once something is in print, there’s of course the reality of living with mistakes and losing control. When I think too much about all the constraints, that’s when I start to lose sleep at night.

But, in my mind, the biggest opportunity of language in this collection is that I really tried not to put too many superficial constraints on the contributors, even when I was advised to. I didn’t want to approach it where I was telling each writer, “okay, you’re writing about food and you’re writing about language” or “the contributions need to be academic in tone” and so on. I thought the best thing I could do is keep the call for submissions general and stay out of the way. It worked out, because one of the things I most love about the essays in this collection is how much range they individually cover and how the storytelling branches in unexpected directions.

KO: You are primarily a writer and editor of fiction, and yet you chose to edit/compile an anthology of essays. Could you talk a bit about why you chose nonfiction over short stories? What were the benefits/challenges of this choice?

AM: I love this question! I guess the short answer is that essays felt right, and I had a lot of journalists and nonfiction writers in mind when I started brainstorming. It just kind of made sense at the time, plus I thought that it filled a more urgent need in the literary communities I am part of.

When I look at the longer scope of my writing life, though, I’d say a big part of it is having gotten over the confining idea that I need to be or should be working in any one dominant genre. I went to school specializing in fiction and most of the editorial positions I’ve held are focused on fiction, but I think most working writers today cross genres all the time depending on the project and aren’t beholden to one title. We can call someone a novelist or memoirist or poet, but why limit them to any one thing? There’s so much to write.

I didn’t find too many challenges in making that choice, but I would be ecstatic to edit an anthology of short stories too, if any interested publishers happen to be reading this and want to follow up.