August 21, 2009

Artist's Query

In Oaxaca, the people are small, about my size. They are a few shades darker than me, many of them Indians, the lesser-known Zapotecs and Mixtecs who were conquered by the Aztecs, famous for human sacrifice and being decimated by Spanish conquistadors -- you don't hear people in Mexico saying they are Aztec anymore, though they are still around and go by another name. The indigenous people in Oaxaca are a little like Armenians, contemporary people who have survived an ancient past. There are other similarities between the two places. Like Yerevan, the education system is not so good, no one has a job, and everyone lives with their family. In 2006, there was unrest here against the corrupt government. It originated with teachers striking and taking over the town square; the government in turn attacked the protesters with bulldozers and hoses and tear gas, and the place is still corrupt with huge disparities between rich and poor. A lot of Oaxacans go to L.A. to send money back home.

The city streets here are laid out in a grid instead of a circle. Much of the architecture in the center is Spanish colonial, with houses behind walls with courtyards. There is a stone that has been used for the buildings and the walls that is locally quarried and light seafoam green in color. There are beautiful trees here that I have never seen before; leaves in lopsided teardrop shapes and giant pods and flowers that look like pinwheels. The city is surrounded by mountains that are covered in green trees. Today I walked into a church and discovered figures of saints extending from the ceiling and everything painted with gold. It's easy to be creatively inspired here, if you just look around.

I am in Oaxaca to write about Armenia. Apparently, I couldn't write about Armenia in New York. I don't have the language there. Even though I live in Queens, the borough with the inferiority complex, New York is just too big and aggrandizing for me to say something. There is always going to be someone or something to tell me that I have not written smartly enough. There is always some reminder that I am not well connected, well published, or well read. I have a room of my own but I think I need a completely different reality, preferably on another piece of the planet, of my own.

It has been twenty-one years since I declared myself an artist. In those twenty-one years, I have found various media and subsets of media to create things: paintings or installations or poems or performances or essays or books. Now I want to use a different medium, or a different subset of media. I am not so sure I want to write another book and yet here I am in Oaxaca to work on a book about Armenia. Part of what I want to do is find a new voice or a new system or a new idea in order to communicate some of what I noticed and learned in Yerevan. Previously, I have used art to explore the biggest problems in my life. But I am not so sure I want to do this anymore. Here is why:

When I declared myself an artist, I really didn't think I was one, so I had to prove it to myself. I was in college at the time; a few years before, in high school, I took art classes, but I wasn't the best artist; two boys vied for that title. So I cut my hair assymetrically and wore clothes that I sewed myself. In college, after I declared myself an art major, I spent every hour that I could in the studio. I drew or painted images that intrigued me and tried to discover what they meant, like heiroglyphics: babies, wombs, dolls. I painted onto window shades, a periodic chart of the elements and a Twister game. I tried to impress my art professors; if they were interested in what I was doing, then that would mean I must be an artist, too.

This didn't mean that I tried to adhere to their philosophies. For example, there was one 2-d design professor that I couldn't stand. She made us use an Exacto knife to cut out shapes with black paper and paste them onto white paper to explore the concepts of point, line and plane. This seemed purely anal retentive to me, and I couldn't understand why anyone would want to make art that was neat and orderly, when it was clear to me that the great boon of art was that it provided total freedom of expression. Why not be loud and large and messy? What was the point of being conventional and boring? For our final project, she had us make a book of all the exercises we did over the course of the semester. I decided to make an accordion bound book, and I wrote jokes on all of my pages and I pasted plastic jewels onto the front cover. Somehow, this woman appreciated my project and used it as an example for the next year's class. When I was a senior this professor got pregnant; she told me at a cocktail party that it was an accident and she never wanted to be a mother. But her husband wanted the child, so she was stuck. She didn't strike me as a pushover. For example, she got annoyed with me when I came in late and she pushed back at me when I expressed irritation at her assignments so that I was actually prompted to learn something. I was confused. Weren't we being taught as women to make our own lives?

I forgot to mention that this was a women's college and practically every single woman had her own identity formed by her major and interests and talents. No one knew each other by what guy she dated, because guys didn't exist in this world. In fact, those women who spent time off campus with their boyfriends somehow seemed less present, less full. Appearance was only important in accessorizing an identity shaped by major and interests and talent, not by how sexually appealing you were to men (but maybe by how sexually appealing you were to women).

I was unprepared for life outside of this world. I moved from Boston to Los Angeles and I got slammed with the rest of America's weird view of women. I felt very uncomfortable in my skin most of the time, but luckily, I found a women's poetry workshop which allowed me to express all of this. I chose a kind of stream of consciousness style to state my rage. I also started doing performances because I wanted to combine my art skills with my writing skills. Then I started a band so that I could wear crazy outfits and scream in public. It was really fun and probably the happiest period in my life.

But this great shift happened when I went graduate school in New York and tried to write a book. Because my story comprised not just my own rage, but a sober look at the way the lives of my mother and grandmother and me were interwoven, I decided to write it as simply as possible, since the story itself was so complex and I needed to find my way around it.

Now for my job I teach writing and although I started out enjoying the kinds of interesting language patterns that my students, with varying facility with English, would make in their mistakes, I have increasingly put more emphasis on proper grammar so that these immigrant kids don't get shorthchanged as they try to be upwardly mobile in America. I don't so much inspire students, but perform some sort of service for them. And this has an effect on my own writing to be serviceable. Also, I am not reading, which is what you are supposed to do as a writer; I am reading student papers, and academic anthologies with texts chosen by professors. My writing thus has become less emotional and imagistic and more logical and conventional. Since I haven't been reading books, I haven't been practicing the kind of reading where you analyze and admire a text as a way to prepare yourself to shape and create your own text.

The other problem is that what I want to write about is unwritable. Creative nonfiction, it seems to me, is a medium where the artist has to be moral. You have to create yourself on the page as a relatable or sympathetic character. It's okay to read fiction about immoral characters; they're just characters, inventions, symbols of something else, signifiers of the social and political conflicts of the times. But when people pick up a book that is about the life of the living person who wrote it, you feel like you are actually spending your time with that person, and who wants to spend time with an asshole? Or a person learning a lesson because they are so stupid that they haven't learned it yet?

I could write in third person, maybe, to give the reader some distance from me. Or distance from myself. But I feel the need to do something else besides being bigger, louder, messier and just getting the story down on a page. I need to find a new language.

Here I am in Mexico trying to speak Spanish. I know it about as poorly as I know Armenian. If I can understand one key word in a sentence -- bolsa, ventana, dulce -- purse, window, sweet -- then I can get by. If I just give one word in a sentence, will I be able to get by?

I have also been thinking about my knowledge and how I know what I know and it seems to me that books that I have read -- either on my own or through the educational system in the U.S. -- have made the biggest impact.

I am wondering if WOW and our blog readers can post a list of books that made the most impact on their lives and creative life, whether sought out on your own or taught in the Armenian educational system (diasporan or within Armenia). I am thinking that if I do some of this reading too, it will help me find a language. And perhaps such an activity will help inform us about each other.

Here are mine. These are sort of in chronological order of when I read them:

- Lord of the Flies, William Goldman
- A Separate Peace, John Knowles
- Animal Farm, 1984, George Orwell
- Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte
- The Diary of Anne Frank
- The Anne of Green Gables series
- all Judy Blume books
- Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
- Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
- The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
- The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Carson McCullers
- The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein
- The Importance of Being Earnest, and the Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
- To The Lighthouse, Virgina Woolf
- A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
- Zami, by Audre Lorde
- Beloved, Toni Morrison
- Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
- Not Me, Eileen Myles (poetry)
- Zabelle, Nancy Kricorian
- Black Dog of Fate, Peter Balakian
- Naked, David Sedaris
- A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid
- Among the Ruins, Zabel Yessayan
- Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi
- Lion Woman's Legacy, Arlene Voski Avakian
- Snow, Orhan Pamuk
- Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
- Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

It's a little embarrassing to list these books. I am not near my bookshelf, so I am sure there is something I am forgetting. But the sad fact is that I cannot remember many books that I have read in the last five years that had a significant impact on me as a writer and an artist and a person. I think it's interesting that I didn't read any books by Armenian American writers until I was in my twenties and no Armenian writers till I was in my thirties. I'm also embarrassed that there are no books on philosophy or history or theory.

I can't say that these books would still impact me today, but they did help me become somebody enough to tell my own story, and they did help shape my brain around how art can be made with words.


  1. yeah i was thinking about adding a reading list to the blog --- so let's do it ---

    is it okay if i select a few from your list of books for the blog list of titles?

  2. I started compiling a list of books that had the most impact on my life (as you requested); however, I think this list has expanded to include books that I really, really liked. There are some crossovers between our two lists :)

    The Choose Your Own Adventure series
    The Griffin and Sabine trilogy by Nick Bantock (though I only have the second book in the collection, “Sabine’s Notebook”)
    George Orwell’s 1984
    Audre Lorde’s Zami
    Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists by Joanna Kadi. The first book I read which included a short piece by an Armenian lesbian (who was writing under a pseudonym).
    Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, as well as Art & Lies (and many more by her)
    Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, then later “Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature”
    Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues
    Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories
    Inga Muscio’s Cunt: a declaration of independence
    Dionne Brand’s Bread Out of Stone, and then later “What We All Long For”
    Nancy Agabian’s Princess Freak followed by “Me as her again” a few years later :)
    CrimethInc.’s Off the Map
    Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Free
    Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For (all of them!)
    Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul

    As you can see, my list contains many, many fiction novels. I’m happy to say that there are many female authors in the list, but I’m sure there are many that I have forgotten. I too am not near my bookshelf (in fact, I’m on the other side of the ocean as I write this), but hey, it’s a start, right?

    (oh, and apologies for the delay...)