Arpi Sarafian

Interview: Author Arpi Sarafian Discusses New Book with Aris Janigian


LOS ANGELES — In November 2019, authors Arpi Sarafian and Aris Janigian partook in an interview about Sarafian’s recent book of essays titled Endless Crossings: Reflections on Armenian Art and Culture in Los Angeles.

Janigian: These essays span thirty years, and cover everything from dance to literature to music to painting. You are one of the best and perhaps most important observers and chroniclers of our culture and its evolution in America, at least in recent years. Can you tell me over the course of three decades, how our accounting of ourselves through the arts has changed, if it has changed at all?

Sarafian: When displacement is a global phenomenon, our unique position of having been at the crossroads of histories and geographies for centuries becomes a great asset. Indeed, our ability to negotiate the diversity of traditions, lifestyles, and languages we find ourselves immersed in in the Diaspora is evidence of our evolution. To survive a culture has to evolve. The ultimate concern of maintaining an Armenian identity away from the homeland may remain unchanged but second and third generation artists seem to confront the challenges of displacement with a new openness. Some fiction writers take us into the midst of the horrors of our recent history of deportation and massacre unflinchingly. Others weave beautiful love stories into a dark chapter. Still others write about the challenges of settling in a new country, thereby making their creations relevant to an even larger community of immigrants.

An interesting recent development is the proliferation of more research-oriented publications. The hidden Armenians of Turkey, revolutionary parties in the Ottoman Empire, even cookbooks that preserve our traditional recipes, are attempts to keep our history and our culture alive, but only time will show their relevance. Further evidence of our efforts to prevail is the ongoing debate over the Eastern and Western dialects of the Armenian language.

We have obviously moved beyond victimhood. We do, however, still ask the same questions and provide the same answers. The Genocide is still our key point of reference. Memoirs and personal accounts of the massacres and the deportations abound. Playwrights also draw on our recent past for inspiration. Richard Kalinoski’s 1992 “Beast on the Moon,” a play about two young immigrants who escape the Genocide and start a new life in America in the 1920’s, or Aram Kouyoumjian’s more recent “Constantinople,” which focuses on the Armenian community in post-Genocide Constantinople, are good examples. It is perhaps true that one does not repeat the essential enough.

However, while the artistic output is impressive, I see little attempt to challenge ourselves by thinking more critically and transcending our (almost obsessive?) focus on the fear of extinction. An Armenian identity is certainly crucial but we could perhaps try to embrace more of what “others” have to offer so that, while still retaining our distinct identity as Armenians, we cease to exist as an entity apart. Existing within the framework of a multiplicity of cultures greatly enhances our efforts to survive, our ultimate goal.

Aris Janigian

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Janigian: What themes, concerns, motifs, if any, do you find running through these works? Is there an “essence” to Armenian American art that distinguishes it from, say Korean American or Jewish American art?

Sarafian: I would think that the challenge to survive in a new country–the need to be included yet fearing assimilation–is a common concern for all hyphenated Americans. However, because the community life of each ethnic group is intertwined with the specific history of its people, the struggle is different for each.

I find preserving our Armenianness, even as we redefine that Armenianess, to be the “essence” of our struggle as Armenian Americans. It is perhaps because of the fear of extinction following the deportations and the massacres of the years 1915-1922, that keeping our identity as Armenians transcends every other concern. In some paradoxical way, even in our efforts to be included in a new culture, we revert to our Armenianness. The recent exhibits of Armenian religious and Medieval art at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, the “discovery” of Arthur Pinajian, the many talented musicians who perform in the most prestigious Concert Halls around the country bring us recognition and help us find our way into the mainstream. Our art has become a tool of survival.

I would like to add that a specific history does not contradict the artist’s more refined sensibilities that, by definition, transcend the narrow focus on nationalism. In other words, having distinctly Armenian identities does not detract from the universal appeal of writers like Surmelian, Najarian, Aharonian Marcom or Janigian.

Janigian: The opening essay is a kind of eulogy to Leon Surmelian, who taught at California State University Los Angeles, and the book ends with an essay on Peter Najarian’s Voyages. Neither of these extremely talented writers are known beyond a handful of people outside the Armenian community, and, indeed, I think it’s fair to say that Armenian American literature is not even on the radar of literature departments that are ostensibly committed to “Diversity.” Nobody today, that I can think of, even here in Fresno, where I live, teaches Saroyan. Can you speak to why this is the case?

Exclusion is the name of the game here. The majority/minority mentality in the United States has led to minority groups being repressed by the so-called “dominant” culture. Even at a time — roughly in the early 1970s to the 1990s — when celebrating our diversity and multiculturalism was the politically correct thing to do, the works of minority (i.e. ethnic) writers were pretty much excluded from the list of “accepted” texts on English Department booklists.

Even though many of these texts deal with issues that are relevant to our (immigrant) students‘ experiences, they are treated as “separate and other,” deemed worthy of study only in Ethnic Literature classes. Besides their cultural role, the works could be used to enhance the critical thinking skills of our students, a much-stated aim of our education. I hope it is clear that my suggestion is not to include every second-rate text in our courses because it has been excluded. The works we offer our students, whether ethnic or not, should meet the highest aesthetic standards.

Exclusionary politics is nothing new. It is no secret that the literary canon has been dominated by white male writers. For example, it took a while for Virginia Woolf, regarded as one of the great writers of the 20th century, to be included in courses on literary Modernism. Similarly, it was not until the 70‘s and the 80‘s that women writers began to be included in anthologies and core classes.

The case of William Saroyan is a little more complex. Why would we stop teaching a writer whose works enjoyed enormous popularity when they were first published? Saroyan’s obvious celebration of our diversity may be a factor in excluding him from a literary canon that privileges Anglo-Saxon writers. I also think that the autobiographical strand in much of Saroyan’s writing places him outside the academic mainstream which for decades following the 30’s, when Saroyan’s works were being published, was dominated by New Criticism, a critical approach that privileges literary texts that separate the work from its context and that lend themselves more readily to close textual study. One would think though that the shift to context, as opposed to text, in more recent literary theory would bring Saroyan back. But only time will tell.

There are also the obvious time constraints on teachers totally exhausted with an insane workload and thus with literally no time to do the research necessary to discover new works to introduce into their courses. Most teachers I have talked to at AP Reading sessions have not even heard of Saroyan, just as many of us have not heard of good non-Armenian ethnic writers. I understand that Saroyan is still taught in some ESL classes in Community Colleges. But those are colleges with a large Armenian student body, once again supporting the relegation of ethnic writers to ethnic literature classes only. Saroyan clearly belongs outside.

To revise the canon is not easy and the “problem” may never be rectified. Nonetheless, introducing non-canonical texts into our course offerings would be a move in the right direction.

Janigian: One of the great benefit of this book is its thoroughness, how it covers cultural events, particularly in Southern California, that many of us were not aware of, reflecting a stunning and varied output over the last twenty years alone. What explains the exuberance of Armenian artistic production at this time?

Sarafian: The Genocide continues to be a key player in our efforts to preserve our identity as Armenians in the Diaspora. Indeed, the decades around the year 2015, the year that marked the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, saw an upsurge of artistic activity in the Armenian communities around the world and in Southern California, all attempts to confront Turkey’s ongoing denial through art. An impressive output of publications, theatrical productions, fine art exhibits, and much more, showcased our centuries-old cultural and artistic heritage, testifying that our creativity goes on. Artists, especially young artists, seemed to be emboldened by their determination to “remember and demand,” and by a new consciousness that with our pain we can bring attention to the ongoing atrocities in the world and help advance the cause of justice and of human rights globally.

The influx of Armenians from Soviet Armenia, Iran and Lebanon due to political unrest in their respective countries also brought many talented artists to Southern California. These opened galleries, started dance studios, put together traditional and experimental music ensembles. Young Armenians flock to Abril Bookstore in Glendale, almost every night of the week for yet another book launch, another art exhibit, another screening and discussion of films by Armenian filmmakers. Self-publishing also accounts for numerous publications that would otherwise not see the light.

It must be noted, however, that because of a significant decline in the number of Genocide survivors and of their immediate offspring who wrote in Armenian, the number of Armenian periodicals and of writers who created in Armenian is continually dwindling.

(Aris Janigian is the author of several books, including Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont and Riverbig.)


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