Anthologies are simultaneously one of the most important venues for literature and an almost impossible task to create. Readers expect to be enlightened on multiple levels, with each individual entry telling a cohesive story while also working collectively with the other entries to add up to a larger meaning. At the heart of every anthology is a series of important choices—what authors should be featured, in what order should these stories be arranged, and what message should be conveyed.
In We Are All Armenian: Voices from the Diaspora, editor Aram Mrjoian handles the responsibility of bringing disparate voices together with the utmost care. Every essay from this compelling group of featured authors brings a unique and powerful perspective on what it means to search for one’s authentic identity when disconnected from homeland, language, and heritage. Textured and emotionally resonant, these entries ask the question What does it mean to be “Armenian enough”? Together, the anthology honors the history of the lives lost and forever changed by the Armenian Genocide and resulting diaspora and charts a course forward through the power of telling and retelling important stories. It’s both a stunning achievement and a welcome addition to our literary record.
I talked with Aram over email about the process of bringing an anthology to life, the fraught and often forgotten legacy of the Armenian Genocide, and the importance and impact of diasporic literature.
This is such an incredible group of writers included in this anthology whose voices really build upon one another. As the editor, how do you begin to make those tough choices on deciding whose work you’re going to bring together?
I think I was really lucky in that part of what University of Texas Press requested in the proposal was a list of possible contributors. It forced me to do a lot of reading and curation on the front end. As an editor at literary magazines, I’m used to a wide approach, that is reviewing hundreds or thousands of submissions and deciding what fits for a particular issue, but in this case, the proposal guidelines encouraged me to take a more targeted approach, so once I started building out my wish list, it felt pretty organic. A couple things changed after the proposal was accepted—some early contributors had to step aside to focus on other projects and I found new work I wanted to include—but I had a sense of who I really wanted to ask and how I wanted to organize it from the start.
Another key difference is that usually I’m reading through finished submissions and trying to find writing that really catches my attention. In this case, I was reaching out to most of the contributors and asking them to start from scratch to produce original work, basically a commission, so I had no way of knowing what they would send me. Those first few months were a really fun part of the process, because it felt profoundly collaborative. I was constantly having conversations to discuss ideas, reviewing early drafts, and offering substantive feedback.
The hard part, of course, is that there’s no possible way to be comprehensive. I’m always learning about new writers who I would love to work with, so I’m hoping the anthology can serve as a kind of inspiration and help spark conversations and more writing outside of its pages.
What I love about anthologies is to see what you can take away from individual pieces and what messages start to form when viewed collectively. Did you have any specific ideas or themes you were thinking about as you began to lay out the book?
It was extremely important to me that the anthology gave the contributors the freedom to write about what they wanted to without the expectation of providing excessive context or following commercial narrative patterns. In other words, I sought out essays that were focused on the present, essays that did not require brief encyclopedic passages about the Armenian Genocide, and essays that explored the fragmentation and intersectionality of identity. Basically, I wanted the contributors to feel uninhibited in what they wrote about and how they went about it. Before the deadline for first drafts, I had a minor concern that since I didn’t provide strict guidelines a lot of the essays might end up with too much crossover, but I was really overjoyed (and not surprised) to find that the opposite proved true. There was so much range when some of the traditional restrictions were removed.
Were there any essays that particularly surprised you or any authors that you discovered in the process of working on the book?
The short answer is that all the original essays in the anthology (there are a couple reprints) surprised me in the best way when I first read them, and it was overwhelmingly rewarding to help develop them. There’s something really special about approaching a group of writers with an idea and seeing the brilliant, eclectic ways they respond to it. When the first round of drafts came in, I was ecstatic.
A few do come to mind though. After I asked Raffi Joe Wartanian for a contribution, we set up a phone call because he wanted to discuss it in more detail. I vividly remember pacing on a windy stretch of beach on St. George Island (near where I lived in Florida at the time) while Raffi pitched me this idea to write an essay as a letter written by his great-grandfather. I was smiling the whole phone call, trying to calculate in my head how an academic press would respond to work that blurs the genre border of creative nonfiction. When I later saw a full draft, the form and structure immediately made sense to me, and I love how it turned out.
The two longest essays in the book, by Hrag Vartanian and Nancy Agabian, both awed me in their breadth and attention to detail. Both of the essays feel like they could be book-length projects and are written with immense care and craft.
I had not worked with Kohar Avakian before and the first draft she sent me was so beautiful and polished that it took me a little while to even figure out how I wanted to edit it. I could go on and on, because in my mind every piece in there is a standout.
It’s so striking that the Armenian Genocide has been so widely denied and erased over a century later, so much so that Joe Biden became the first sitting US president to formally acknowledge it in 2021. What role does storytelling play in not only honoring the lives lost but also asserting the historical record?
That’s a tough question and my opinion on it continues to evolve. The reality is if writers, artists, scholars, and activists weren’t constantly working to assert a historical record—not only about the Armenian Genocide, but also other mass atrocities and ongoing forms of systemic violence—I worry many events would be revised, forgotten, and covered up. There’s so much misinformation today too, so the need for accurate documentation and research becomes that much more important. When I taught a literature class on contemporary narratives of the Armenian Genocide, I was so surprised by how much disinformation and denialist propaganda my students found online. I’ve had similar realizations on other subjects in my first-year writing courses. It’s been really difficult for me to sort through pedagogically.
The hard part for me is that the demand for trauma porn is too often the expectation of Armenian artists. It’s not a coincidence that it was so easy for me to create a literature syllabus focused on books and films about the Armenian Genocide that came out recently. That’s part of why it’s exciting to see new books like Taleen Voskuni’s Sorry, Bro, a sapphic Armenian rom-com, getting good buzz.
A big part of this anthology was telling the writers upfront that it was not a project where they had to be asserting a historical record, that they could pursue storytelling about anything at all. I think that’s why the essays are so wide-ranging. I want to honor the past without entirely being stuck in the past and to open space for emotions other than grief.
One of the common themes of these essays was the fear of not being “Armenian enough,” whether that be through language, connection with the culture or traditions, or physical displacement. What I loved about the anthology is that readers get to see these writers work through complicated aspects of identity on the page while also at the same time exemplifying the diversity of life and experience. As someone who’s written about this as well, how do you see identity at play in this book?
In my experiences as a writer, I’ve felt firsthand both the self-imposed and editorial expectations to only write about a singular aspect of identity, or to write about identity in specific ways. I guess what I mean is that there are literary patterns—not only for Armenian writers—that can be limiting and reduce the writer’s or character’s identity to an approved set of subject matter or structures (again, the trauma plot). Most readers pick up on these tropes over time, the array of reductive plot points and character arcs one can feel forced to write, and so the contributors were well familiar with things I was trying to work around when I first approached them.
My goal as an editor was to give the contributors ample space to explore the intersectional and wide-ranging aspects of diasporan Armenian identity in the anthology. I know I’m repeating myself, but I really didn’t want to put any unnecessary limitations on what they wrote. That might not sound that radical, but I think it made a big difference.
What do you see as the importance and impact of diasporic literature, and particularly the writing about the Armenian diaspora?
Our world is going to get increasingly difficult to navigate in terms of place in the face of climate crisis, expanding wealth inequality, natural disasters, and food and water scarcity. We need to be able to have more conversations about legacies of displacement and the plunder of vital resources because diasporic populations are only going to grow.
Diasporic literature is also important to me because it reveals many of the ways a person can feel connected and disconnected from their heritage. The theme of imposter syndrome throughout the anthology is a result of the Armenian diaspora changing from community to community over several generations. Through storytelling, we can see what those changes look like over time and what we hold onto and value. Additionally, I’d say diasporan literature in general can be a lens for examining and critiquing national and global systems of oppression, power, and control. Again, I don’t know that commercial patterns always grant that critique ample space, or if they do it has to be in an accepted and approved way, but there are a lot of writers and editors way more talented than me doing what they can to change that.
We Are All Armenian: Voices from the Diaspora
Edited by Aram Mrjoian
University of Texas Press
Published March 14, 2023
Michael Welch is the Editor-In-Chief for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Electric Lit, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.