Marianne Auricoste

Marianne Auricoste: ‘I Grew Up with Armenia in My Heart’

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by Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/PARIS — Marianne Auricoste started as an actress, but then devoted herself to poetry and reciting. She founded the association Le Chant des Mots [The Song of Words] (supported by the French Ministry of Culture, the National Book Center and the Regional Directorate of Contemporary Art), which organizes creative writing workshops for adults and children. On stage, she performs Euripides, Racine, Chekhov, Claudel, Strindberg, Milosz and Brecht, but also gives poetry shows. Auricoste is also a producer for RFI and France-Culture public radio stations. Her published works include Letter from Beauce (Chambelland, 2001, poems), Conversation in the Dark (L’Harmattan, 2001), The Promise (L’Harmattan, 2003) Guillevic, the Wedding of Gull (L’Harmattan, 2007) and The Clay of Words (2015, Casterman, a poem). Auricoste has contributed to the magazines Vagabondages, Europe, Sud, Dire, Trousse Livre.

Dear Marianne, the origin of our first contact was your Armenian grandmother, as well as her sisters. During their long life, these incredible Babayan sisters, three art professionals – a singer, a painter and a pianist – served the Armenian and French cultures. You must remember them very well, do not you?

I grew up surrounded by my Armenian family. My grandmother, Arminia-Armenuhi, a painter, married to my grandfather, a Catalan doctor Charles Carbonell, lived in Meudon (a suburb near Paris), a few blocks from our house. My sister, my mom (Guidette Carbonell) and I were there almost every day. Every Sunday, the family met at my grandmother’s place, including my grand aunt Marguerite Babaïan (singer), my aunt, my uncle (the brother of Guidette) and my first cousins. It was then the tea ceremony, the chatter in French, in Armenian, the news of each other. My great-aunt Marguerite, very active in the Armenian community, told us about her students, her meetings and chronicled the latest Armenian events. She was our ambassador, always active and dynamic, very patriotic, very passionate. I loved her stories and her enthusiasm. She dreamed of teaching me Armenian. I began to decipher with her the alphabet and I already knew a few words. But above all, she passed on to me her love for her country and I felt confusedly that it was mine too. I have always felt from my childhood that I belonged to that culture and people of which I was proud. My grandmother told me about her childhood at Tiflis, and her stories made me dream. My great-grandfather, Avetik Babaian was a doctor, a great researcher. He had founded a research center in Tiflis and the whole family lived there in a big house. My great grandmother, Sofia Babayan, a great scholar, had opened a French school and took care of the education of her three daughters, Arminia, Marguerite and Chouchik. One was destined for painting, the second for singing and the third for music. And very young, the three sisters came to Paris to perfect their art. A very daring trip for the time. The three sisters have not left Paris.

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Your cousin, the American author Claire Hsu Accommando, the granddaughter of Chuchanik Babaïan, mentioned in her autobiography that they called her their Armenian grandmother. Did you also call your grandmother, Armenuhi or Arminia Babayan-Carbonelle, Armenian grandmother?

Arminia was a very oriental woman, tender and joyous, very in love with her husband and two children. A housewife, she painted beautiful still lifes and many portraits of her family. The famous French artist Eugène Carrière was her teacher and my grandmother was his favorite pupil.

I gave a few paintings of hers to the museum, but we fastidiously keep a large part of her work. I have a project to offer the Museum of Literature and Art of Yerevan portraits of my great-grandparents. I hope someday to bring them myself. to Yerevan – a gift that Arminia would surely approve.

She met my grandfather on the boat that brought him from Russia to Paris. My grandfather was then a naval doctor. A great passion was born between them during this crossing. Then each one followed his destiny and for a year they wrote to one another from one end of the world to the other. They met at Meudon. My grandfather left the navy. They married and settled in this suburb where they lived happily until their deaths, passing away in the same year in deep old age. Their story is like a tale. I never felt the slightest tension between them.

Arminia loved her home, caring for her husband, children and later grandchildren. She had adopted France as her second home, that of her husband and family. She kept happy memories of Armenia, but she was less patriotic than her sister Marguerite. However she had the Eastern soul and the art of telling stories with a lot of humor and verve. As a child, I listened to her passionately. I still remember all the wonderful stories she rocked me all my childhood. It is she, without a doubt that made me dream a lot about Armenia.

I remember that after your visit to Armenia in 2007, you wrote to me: “The return to Paris is difficult. I am still in Armenia and I revisit each of the great moments of this extraordinary journey. Armenia struck me deeply. This trip, I know, will prepare the future. I will come back soon with, I hope, some words of Armenian, our language.” How is it possible that, only one-quarter Armenian, you are so touched by your grandmother’s legacy?

That’s how I grew up, with Armenia in my heart, that feeling never left me. I always felt that I belonged to this people, to its history, that Armenian blood ran in my veins. I always knew that I was rich in a past that was passed on to me by my family. When I really met Armenia in 2007, I had confirmation of everything that had inhabited me since childhood. Certainly, I grew up in France, I do not speak Armenian, but my heritage is Armenian, my roots. It’s a very deep feeling, very entrenched.
In 2007, you presented in Paris a poetic performance entitled “Deep Songs of Armenia”, in which you recited the Armenian poets translated into French – from Mesrop Mashtots to our contemporaries. For this performance you even presented yourself under the name of your grandmother: Marianne Auricost-Babayan. Tell us about this project, please.

In 2007, the year of “Armenia My friend” celebrated by France, when I created my show “Deep Songs of Armenia” with two Armenian musicians, I made contact with the Armenian community, and I was very happy, very excited by the idea of ​​visiting this country that I had dreamed so much. It was a great year for me. I felt at home in the villages, in the mountains, with the inhabitants. The only sadness: I did not speak the language. A pain of not being able to really have exchanges with this people. This trip was legendary. I had long hoped for it. It was like a dream, that very powerful feeling of finding my roots and my family. This was also a chance to cross this country with native Armenians who also found their roots and who told me the tragic life of their family. During this trip, there was a lot of laughter and tears. But we were all proud to belong to this great people.

I was impressed to hear from you that you were the companion of the French poet Guillevic, who called you Armenia. Had he any interest in Armenian culture or perhaps you have transmitted it to him?

When little, I grew up and evolved in a milieu of artists, painters, sculptors, musicians. At school, I felt different from other children. I did not like school and school society. My natural environment was very far from other children in my class. I felt like a stranger in this school. Our house in Meudon had a special atmosphere. We were very free. My sister and I and grew up in the middle of adults — all artists, interesting and fun.

In addition I was very lonely and already I liked to invent stories that I told myself. I loved books and poetry. I recited poems that I did not understand but I liked to put words in my mouth and say them aloud in the paths of the other house, in Beauce where I went alone to walk.

And one day, I was fifteen or sixteen, I decided my destiny: actress. At seventeen, I went to the Charles Dullin School to learn my acting profession. I stayed there several years and I had the chance to study with famous actors. It was the time when Jean Vilar directed the theater of Chaillot and the teaching was formidable and exalting. Later, I played important roles in different companies in the provinces and in Paris. And one day, I met the poet Guillevic, a meeting that changed my life. I lived for fifteen years alongside Guillevic. I left the theater to devote myself to poetry. I traveled across France and abroad with poetry recitals, alone or accompanied by musicians. I created poetry shows that I proposed and performed in the provinces and suburbs of Paris. And since then I have not stopped reciting poems in different places. I also started writing and published several books. Along with my work as a reciter and poet, I conducted many writing workshops for children and adults. I also worked a lot on dance and martial arts that I associated with my writing workshops. My “Guillevic” years were decisive years. I learned a lot from him. I admired the poet, I loved the man. We were very close, very much accomplices. I talked a lot to Guillevic from Armenia, from my family and quite naturally he called me Arminia by the name of my grandmother and I was very happy. It was like reviving my grandmother. I like this name and it suited me. It suited us both. I was that other Arminia, a little Armenian baptized by the man I loved.

Do you have a new project related to Armenia and Armenian culture?

And now let’s talk about a project that I’ve been working on for some time, that of writing about my Armenian family, my memories, my childhood, all that Armenianness that inhabits me. I feel the urgency to leave traces, to ask words of gratitude to honor this family to which I owe so much, that I loved so much and who constituted me, who gave me my strength and my love of life. This Armenian energy, with which my family was so well endowed. The faith and joy of the Caucasus, the dancing and songs of our mountains, and the sense of the sacred that kept this people standing against all odds…

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