Once there was and there was not …
Etched somewhere in your memories of childhood must surely be a moment, an image, a fleeting impression, or a moment of you in your yesteryear buying a book or borrowing one from the library.
Etched inexplicably in my memory is this one moment at a bookshop in Damascus, Syria –Cleopatra’s wedding present. This Twilight Zone-ish moment is one of my dad buying three books in English for me, of the polluted stench of spent fuels in the air, the dozens of whizzing scooters feet away, traffic horns, jets flying above, and the buzzing of construction drills above the noises of hawkers and street peddlers.
In that moment and since my earliest memories, there was something special about books. Perhaps it’s a cultural or generational thing, but books were cherished, handled carefully, and were more important than our Matchbox cars and other toys.
The printed word, hardbound, softbound – covered with transparent plastic jackets or with brown grocery bags like we did in Fresno – were more than belongings to schlep around in backpacks in high school or college. They were magic. They held secrets that an author would pass on only to you, the reader. They were the key to intimacies never experienced before… or after. They were full of new worlds and experiences that television and movies could never wholly create.
Flash forward to me taking the elevator down to my apartment building’s management office with that childlike anticipation of what’s locked up behind the cover of a new book I’ve ordered.
When literary translator Shushan Avagyan from Illinois State University e-mailed me her review of this new book, my day stopped . Shushan’s e-mail was pregnant with news that my favorite Armenian-American writer – genius, guru, poetess, novelist, wordsmith, creator of a new English, creator of a new Armenian-ness, my Grand Poobah of soul and mind – had released a new book. I read Shushan’s e-mail and clicked directly to the great cybermall of books to order my own copy of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s new work of art.
Since youth, I’ve heard the same cliché verbiage about my ethnicity, about being Armenian, about Armenia being the first Christian nation, Armenians coming from the mythical place where the Bible says Noah’s Arc landed after the Great Flood, Hayk and Bel, Komitas, Sayat Nova, revolutionaries, independence, and repatriation.
Seems our story and the language with which we or others tell our story are limited to prescribed notions, a narrow lexicon of sentences, train of thoughts passed down through revolutionary songs, and rephrased time and again in print and in person. Whenever we talk or write about things Armenian, when we speak at a rally, at church, at a seminar, or at the reunion, we seems to use the same sequence of thoughts, the same logic, same adjectives, adverbs, nouns, pronouns, metaphors, same syntax, same, same, same-ness.
Then suddenly, like an unexpected thunderous strike of lightening, like an unexpected sneeze, goose bumps or chills, came this small book called Three Apples Fell from the Heaven. It was a Genocide novel, and it was penned in the most novel way. It was art because it moved its reader mentally, emotionally, and physical. Scratchings of ink on paper had the power to get you right between the shoulder blades.
Micheline’s language, its cadence, the microscopic accuracy with which it allowed me to time travel were a shock to my mind. Three Apples Fell from the Heaven was unlike any other work of art I had read to date. Its author quickly replaced Ayn Rand, Bret Easton Ellis, my USC writing professor TC Boyle, John Steinbeck, and David Foster Wallace from the top of my list of most favorite writers.
The year was 2002 or 2003, and I was ecstatic. Not since Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle in 1998 had I been excited about a work of fiction. Not since Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero had I found something related to my existential angst. I must’ve bought a dozen copies of Three Apples and handed it out as if it was the new Encyclopedia of things Armenian. People I knew got it for birthdays, baptisms, house-warmings, and anniversaries.
“In her distinctive voice that brilliantly captures the bleak and hallucinatory world of her exilic characters, Marcom narrates the “unhistories” of humanity imbued with echoes of cultural ambivalence, melancholy, and fractured subjectivity,” writes Shushan. “Stylistically Marcom’s prose reenacts trauma through non-linearity, compulsive repetition and negation:
This is an essay against Progress (it is not a progressive story), this essay does not do it, but like the maze of days of thoughts of memories and notmemories, like the phrases which tumbled willy-nilly from a mother’s mouth, or an invocation, a song;—repeat themselves endlessly, without form or with it?
– from Draining the Sea
Our personal unhistories and histories, our GENOCIDE, this huge word, this foreign, inexplicable experience have finally been told in new light thanks to Micheline. Genocide for me has finally been given a face, a voice, a soul – many voices, many faces, many souls, some even lost. Born through Micheline are characters that I would have never imagined existing, would have never met, would have never been blessed to know.
As if she was there
Channeled through Micheline’s pen were these humans, these people, my people, these characters – fact or fiction – who had come to be in my mind and in my soul. Their collective of ghosts were finally able to give this thing called Genocide some depth and breadth.
The Armenian Genocide had finally become tangible and digestible to me through art. The three apples that had fallen from heaven had brought me emotions and first hand accounts of this mysterious chapter in my history that no one book, fact or fiction, had been able to breathe life into. Through Micheline’s pen, the vignettes and voices, the choir of souls that had come to life had brought me closer to my ancestors than ever before.
It was inexplicable fondness I came to have for this book. It was more dear to me that the Bible itself, for it was my story. It wasn’t about the Arc or the end of days. It wasn’t about the meaningless of life as put forth by Ecclesiastes.
Micheline’s people, these voices, these emotions, were what I was born from and why I was living as me in the 21st century. And to try to describe to you the importance of this book and this writer, even now, renders me speechless.
“I must stop writing, for this book says it all and better” writes poetess Armine Iknadossian about Micheline’s Three Apples Fell from Heaven. “I thought it had all been said and done, about the Armenian question, that is. What else could be said about the atrocities that hasn’t been painted or composed? The art of suffering is so difficult to express in words without being too polemic or sentimental.”
The face gifting us language
In 2005, I had a chance to meet Micheline face-to-face on the set of my television talk show in Yerevan. She had come to attend the 90th anniversary symposium hosted by then-Foreign Minster Vartan Oskanian titled “Ultimate Crime, Ultimate Challenge.”
My memory of her is of a soft-spoken woman whose words were carefully crafted, whose voice was magically channeling the Armenian souls that were interrupted, deranged, displaced, rerouted with emotional scars, and even aborted through genocide.
I can’t recall our interview but remember being in awe of this wordsmith that was able to bring a new set of words, new sentences, new ideas, fresh ideas to my Armenian world. I was in awe of a writer who had created a new language with which I would know the Armenian Genocide. She had brought the great catastrophe to life for me unlike anyone had been able to.
Seconds and third helpings
Micheline’s second book was another godsend for the world of literature and from the world of literature. Through The Daydreaming Boy, I realized why there was no end to the Armenian Genocide, how the resolution of this story was so far-reaching, how our case and cause were eternal, a curse, a blessing, and a way of life.
This second novel was about the second Genocide that we had to endure as we made rapid exits out of the worlds we had found refuge in after Der Zor. I will let you discover it on your own, because saying any more will take away from the gifts, the insight, the emotion, and entertainment the book offers.
Then came Micheline’s third book, Draining the Sea, last year, and I sat up and realized this woman was more than what I had thought. She was not just a mere scribe, a novelist, intelligentsia, or philosopher camouflaged as author. Her books must be studied and handled careful, with wisdom. Do not cast them aside after reading a hundred words. Do not dismiss them for they are the new greats from American and World literature.
I realize now that Micheline is the one writer who ‘got it,’ the one who ‘gets it.’ I don’t know what that ‘it’ is, whether it’s a perspective, a viewpoint, a belief system, or a way to capture our times; but Micheline has the gift to capture my 21st Century America, pin its ills to paper, capture its modus operandi, and capture a living history through literature that future generations will look for to understand us in the here and now.
According to Shushan, Micheline’s books are the present-day equivalents to work William Faulkner and Toni Morrison would create — they might seem difficult, but that’s because they have the potential of transforming your worldview.
Thus arrived to my apartment in North Hollywood this week my copy of The Mirror in the Well via Amazon, and again I devoured her words and realized that the truth she tells may be too truthful for us, for those, who as she writes, “are the inhabitants, masked and tight and living behind the faces behind the limits behind the I am fines Yous?”
This fourth book from Micheline is about a woman’s sexuality, and it appropriate for adult audiences only. Yet, what some would say is pornographic language seems like the only way for a writer to bridge the physical to the existential. One would find it otherwise impossible to bridge the very human issues like need, desire, and want without using a taboo subject like sex… and all the shame and repression that comes with it.
What haunts my mind in the aftermath of Micheline’s third and fourth works of art are the themes of modern man’s un-fulfillment, his or her inability to quench that ethereal wholeness and wholesomeness. No other books I have read in modern literature are able to capture that modern existential angst Camus and Sartre penned and others have imitated since.
Perhaps this experience of loneliness, alienation, and a mechanized race for fulfillment through riches and notoriety, fame and position, are strictly American, Western, capitalist, but they are told in a new, clearer light, by a woman born from one of the greatest catastrophes of the modern era, the “Medz Yeghern.”
As Aznavour has been able to use music to tell the most moving stories, as Egoyan has been able to use the art of film like never before, Micheline uses literature and language to create a new world, a new use of an old language, of staid sentences, of repeated mechanisms, or aging and outdated uses of words and language.
“Language is deliberately broken down, it often doesn’t make any sense,” says Shushan. “Words that become inadequate are reformulated in new negative forms:”
These the books we unwrite unread: unthought books, a prewritten kind of text: the interstitial books: the sort of narrative that makes loops in the mind, like ribbons and flood rivers that leave only a trace of the before.
– from Draining the Sea
“The essaying of such sordid things is difficult,” says Shushan, “yet Marcom’s books are articulate and relentless in their search for optimism and beauty.”
I’m not the chronicler of the English language, the studied professor of English literature, or the historian who has surveyed the cannon of Genocide literature. What I am is a reader, an Armenian reader who believes Micheline’s first two books are the new language with which we can understand the reality of our collective past.
These books are the HD (high definition) versions of the old tellings of our story. Micheline is the new voice of our collective experience that must be shared. Her books should be not just on the shelves of each Armenian household, but they should be on our coffee tables, on our breakfast tables, in places where we pass them, pick them up, picking random graphs from these voiceless souls that have come to our realities thanks to a talented writer.
And it is in Micheline’s honor that I have named this column following a great Armenian tradition in storytelling, a tradition that Micheline brought back into fashion.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.