December 5, 2008

Queer issues in The Armenian Reporter

Me as Her Again: An utterly queer memoir
by Shushan Avagyan

Published: Sunday November 30, 2008
The Armenian Reporter

Under review: Nancy Agabian, Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter. Aunt Lute, October 2008, 243 pages.

I met Nancy Agabian for the first time in April 2001, after I read her book Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque, 2000), which greatly impressed me for its audacity. Her small, bold book, which fused poetry, creative nonfiction, and texts from performance art, was controversial for Armenian society because it explored the polymorphous and elusive nature of identity and dared to openly speak about sexuality - something that rarely surfaced in a literary tradition that was overwhelmingly dominated by male and heterosexual discourses.

Released in October, Agabian's new book, Me as Her Again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter, was eagerly awaited by her fans in America, Europe, and Armenia. It is a memoir about identity and family history that Agabian worked on for over six years. It is also, perhaps in the vein of David Sedaris, a brazen examination of queerness - a deviation from the expected, the norm, and the conventional - through a discovery of a queer self, the hilarious attempt to deny it through self-banishment, and, finally, the recognition and acceptance of that "odd" self.

The opening of the book sets a tone reminiscent of the introductory scene of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues: "I bet you're worried. We were worried." In Agabian's book, however, the tone is even more urgent and insistent, as a grandmother addresses her granddaughter in a letter that begins like this: "Dear Nancy: I'm still worrying about you." Unlike Ensler's women, who speak in unison, echoing one another and asserting their needs, the 87-year-old Zanik in Me as Her Again is running out of time ("I'm worrying, I'd like to go home, you know, they won't take me there") and space ("I have a lot to say but can't tell you in the letter"). "No more," she writes in a postscript with regard to her terse, almost frugal letter, "we're not making a newspaper, you know." Here is an urgent message that ironically refuses to broadcast its exigency, that's still anticipating a possibility of change and needs our attention now.

Zanik's request remains unanswered. How might Nancy have responded to a woman who years ago, as a child, had been displaced from her home, and now yearned to go back? What worried her most: the reason that her granddaughter was in self-exile or that she (Zanik) wasn't free to return home? What compelled her to reach out to her errant granddaughter? But no word follows her declaration of transfer. The silence is profound, more profound than the meaning of the ambiguity of her letter. Then this silence is gradually and painstakingly filled with Nancy's narrative - a search for ways to grapple with a legacy of genocide, to seek acceptance and recognition in her own family that denies her sexuality, and to fully exist and take part in two worlds (the Armenian and the American) that seem to exist in contradiction with one another. These internal conflicts are further established in a chapter titled "Two-headed bird," where Agabian reveals the hidden meaning of her memoir's title - Me as Her Again is homophonous with the word miaseragan, which means homosexual in Armenian. In a different chapter, Agabian explains: "The truth was, Grammy had managed to do both with me - be herself and love me unconditionally."

Agabian narrates hilarious, strange, and elegiac stories about her sister, who moves to Northampton to live in a women's commune and comes out to her family as a lesbian; about her homophobic brother who comes out of the closet later in life; and, finally, about her parents, who are clueless that their youngest daughter is writing performance pieces about their dysfunctional family.

Agabian's prose is playful, as it shifts from extremely serious to almost farcical. One of the strongest aspects of this book is the author's ability to take something as outrageous as, for example, being confronted by someone in the audience who has completely missed your art, and narrate it in such a way that is at once comical and ironic. Here is a classic Agabian, wearing a costume of thin white cotton pajamas, facing a packed house of Armenians in the tiny back room of a café in Pasadena: "They were close enough to hear my heart beating. Attempting to manufacture an emotional distance, I looked into the back row and announced in a stage voice, ‘This performance is called The Crochet Penis.' A woman in her late 40s, sitting to my right, our knees almost touching, said with an accent, ‘Ugh, why they have to call it that?' to no one in particular." Later in the performance the woman stands up and demonstratively leaves the room.

A few days later the same woman disrupts another performance titled WANT at the Glendale Public Library: "It was not serious poetry, it was more of a low-class comedy act... I am a literature professor!" she yells. "I know what I am talking about. I could have told you in private, but I wanted everyone to hear my opinion." As Agabian confesses, the woman's reaction is her "worst nightmare come true." Ironically, this outbreak is followed by an earnest discussion about taboos and the audience engages in an insightful conversation about silences surrounding sexuality in Armenian society. This all-too-familiar scene implicitly alludes to similar occasions when lectures or panels about the Armenian Genocide are disrupted by deniers in the audience and demonstrates the importance of a supportive community.

Through her stories, Agabian addresses issues that have worried and still worry her today. But unlike Zanik or her mother, who only told their stories of loss and survival to their own children, Agabian is transmitting her (and their) stories to an audience of strangers - people who she hopes are receptive and capable of listening and responding adequately to her concerns. Me as Her Again is remarkable in its driving force to truthfully speak about unspoken things, its sensibility that is at once comical and empathic, and its persistent refusal to expurgate parts of a vibrant voice in order to fit in with the collective stories of our ancestors.


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