Armenian International Women’s Association’s (AIWA) most recent publication–[I Want to Live: Poems of Shushanik Kurghinian] brings–for the first time–the stunning and powerful poetry of a woman who lived one hundred years ago on the fringes of the Russian Empire and the newly emerging Soviet Union. Her name was Shushanik Kurghinian. Her message is as contemporary as that of any person writing today. Her concerns were universal human’suffering–and her aim to create a more equitable world.
Kurghinian was a passionate advocate of the human rights of the oppressed–women–children–the working class–and refugees of the Armenian genocide. She viewed her poetry as giving voice to the voiceless and she saw her role as a poet as profoundly political. In Kurghinian’s time there were those who argued for an aesthetics based on art for art’s sake. Kurghinian recognized and rejected the political ideology of those who depicted ethics and aesthetics as incongruent.
Her universal call for social justice now deman’s an expanded audience. She writes in her poem–"Nobody":
There are no bonds to chain my soul
or tame the heavenly flame within my heart,
my dreams are impregnable fires of strength,
and nobody can subdue my song.
Kurghinian’s "song" urges us to support our ideal of "universal human unalienable rights," which include "life–liberty–and the pursuit of happiness." She describes graphically the overpowering effects of poverty–and how economic disadvantage and unjust social norms oppress–to a greater degree–young girls and women. In her poem "I Want to Live," the title poem of this volume–she is a powerful proponent for equality between the sexes–believing that women’s happiness resides in leading lives as purposeful and as powerful as men’s–ready to face with them–in equal measure–the exigencies of life. Yet–defying all labels–Kurghinian was foremost a tireless advocate for those less fortunate–her concern for them palpable–and her mission–to influence all to create a more just world.
Shushan Avagyan–the translator of this volume–is a doctoral candidate at Illinois State University. The translation is edited by Victoria Row–Ph.D. from Toronto–Canada–currently a lecturer at the University of Chou in Tokyo and author of [A History of Armenian Women Writing: 1880-1922]–and by Susan Barba–doctoral candidate (2006) at Harvard University in comparative literature–experienced in translating from Armenian.
Shushanik Kurghinian’s poetry has appeared in translation as early as 1917–by Alice Stone Blackwell–and as recently as 2005 in an anthology by New England poet Diana Der-Hovanessian. This particular book is unique–however–in that it dedicates a whole volume to the poetry of this daring poet. The translation is both literal and poetic in its rendition. While the book’s aim is to reach a general American and English-speaking audience–the book is bilingual in order to stimulate further research into Shushanik Kurghinian and her compelling personality–her poetry with its vivid imagery and the turbulent times in which she lived and wrote. For others the Armenian script is an added aesthetic–as are the numerous photographs of the poet and her friends and family dispersed throughout the volume.
The book is available from the publisher–AIWA–at their website (aiwa-net.org) and bookstores that specialize in Armenia-related publications.
I Want to Live
I want to live–but not a lavish life
trapped in obscurity–indifferent and foolish,
nor as an outright hostage of artificial beauty,
a frail creature–delicate and feeble,
but equal to you–oh men–prosperous
as you are–powerful and headstrong–
fit against calamities–ingenious in mind,
with bodies full of vigor.
I want to love–unreserved–without a mask–
self-willed like you–so that when in love
I can sing my feelings to the world
and unchain my heart–a woman’s heart,
before the crowds?ignoring their stern
judgmen’s with my shield and destroy
the pointed arrows aimed at me
with all my vitality unrestrained!
I want to act–equal–next to you–
as a loyal member of the people,
let me suffer again and again–night or day–
wandering from one place to another–
always struggling for the ideal
of freedom?and let this burden
torment me in my exile,
if only I may gain a purpose in this life.
I want to eat comfortably–as you do,
from that same fair bread–for which
I gave my share of holy work;
in the struggle for existence–humble and meek,
without feeling shame–let me
shed sweat and tears for a blessed earning,
let scarlet blood flow from my worker’s hands
and let my back tire in pain!
I want to fight–first as your rival,
standing against you with an old vengeance,
since absurdly and without mercy you
turned me into a vassal through love and force.
Then after clearing these disputes of my gender,
I want to fight against the agonies of life,
courageously like you–hand in hand,
facing this struggle to be or not.
7 June 1907