Magda Tagtachian: In Search of Memory, Truth and Justice

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YEREVAN / BUENOS AIRES — Magda Tagtachian is a writer and journalist. Born in Buenos Aires, she studied meteorology at University of Buenos Aires. She then worked at Clarin newspaper for twenty years and at Gente y Para Ti magazine. In 2016 she published the first edition of Nomeolvides Armenuhi (Forget me not, Armenuhi, by Penguin Random House), and in 2020 she launched Alma Armenia, published in Argentina and in several Latin American countries (VR Editoras). In her third novel, Rojava (P&J, 2021), she continues with fiction to show the current conflicts in the Middle East, this time in northern Syria. Magda Tagtachian has an active participation in the Armenian community of Argentina and the world and collaborates in different journalistic media and literary fields.

Dear Magda, in the history of the Armenian Diaspora we have many cases when an Armenian author writes in local languages, yet does not become a part of local literature. With your books are you already a part of contemporary Argentinean literature?

Yes, my books have been integrated into Argentine literature. There are in all the bookstores of the country and luckily they sell very well among both Armenian and non-Armenian readers. They also buy them from abroad by shipments or in digital stores. I know because they write me and comment on me. Many readers confess me they dare to investigate their origins after reading my books, whether they are Armenian or not. And non-Armenians and in general thank me because they do not know the complex problems of the Middle East and the South Caucasus. Novels are a way of entertainment. And that is also a way of traveling and learning. That is what I seek with my work. To leave a legacy. Like my grandmothers did with me, even if they did not speak about the Genocide. On those Saturdays and Sundays I spent with them cooking, knitting or helping to sell shoes in my grandmother Maria Balian’s “Cotté” shoe store in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Urquiza, the DNA that our history brings was impregnated in me. The seed that led me to investigate, write and transform our pain and injustice in the active search for Memory, Truth and Justice.

Last year your novel Rojava was considered one of the 50 best books of the week. The main heroine of the novel is a young Armenian woman who is looking for her father and finds herself among Kurdish women freedom fighters. Is there a prototype for your heroine?

Yes, Nané Parsehyan is the protagonist of Rojava. She is an Armenian woman raised in Soviet Armenia, who discovers when she grows up that her real father is a Kurdish revolutionary. The history of the Kurds and Armenians has always been linked, in one way or another. The Kurds were used in the Ottoman Empire to exterminate the Armenians. They were the front line. As a minority Turks considered them “worthless.” The Armenians were a significant minority in the Ottoman Empire, so the Young Turk party, led by Talaat Pasha, masterminded the Genocide. Today the Kurds suffer like the Armenians from the same threat from Turkey. Nané Parsehyan, the main character of Rojava, is my heroine because she dares to look within herself, to dive into her most contradictory emotions, to know the truth as much as it hurts. She is encouraged to fight and she is not resigned to look for true love, despite having been raised under the strict rules of patriarchy that significantly affected her position in society. Nané’s path is that of liberation and transformation, like Kurdish and Yazidi women now are refunding the Women Revolution in Rojava, to live in an equal new society, far from patriarchal rules. In my novel, Nané Parsehyan is accompanied by Alma Parsehyan, her Armenian cousin and a journalist, raised in Boston. I identify with both of them. Like the struggle of Armenian women in the Middle East and the West. Both fights, perhaps in different ways, for women liberation, antipatriarchal society and to find the true love for their lives.

Being a third-generation Argentinian-Armenian, you are active in Armenian affairs. In what extent and how your generation maintains the national memory and identity alive?

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My grandparents suffered the horrors of the Genocide. They hardly spoke of what they had been through. They tried to forget, although they never forgot, but they had to move on. It is the trauma of the victims that is being worsened when the facts are not recognized, as happened with the Armenian Genocide. My parents did not talk about what my grandparents had been through either. They only said that the grandparents had escaped from the Turks and the Genocide. This is pretty much the only thing I heard as a kid. I did not go to Armenian school. I lived as Armenian at my grandparents’ house on weekends, where we ate lehmejhun, shish kebab, kefté and baklava, kadaif, gurabia. My grandmother Armenuhi Demirjian Tagtachian was an expert cook. My grandfather, Yervant Tagtachian, was a shoemaker and he made me “guillermina” model shoes to go to school. He died when I was 13. If I heard him say more than five sentences in his life, that was a lot. He was always working in his workshop and drying pumpkin seeds in the sun that we all ate later. His green eyes were always veiled by a film of water. What I now understand was that that was sadness. My grandmother Armenuhi was more active. If only I had known her story when I was little! But they did not tell me, and they say that the third generation is the one that talks, the one that investigates and is encouraged to ask about those that parents and grandparents kept quiet about. My parents had all the Genocide books at home. Also books on Armenian art and architecture. Today, all deceased, I treasure them at home, as a valuable legacy and message. Today I understand their silences, and their silences speak to me all the time. It is what led me to write, and the flame that drives me to continue fighting for the Memory of the Armenian people and to continue creating and writing. In my generation, as in all, everyone does what they can. I believe that the journey of Memory and Identity is a very intimate and personal journey. Different in each case. In mine it was strongly awakened in 2015, with the centenary of the Genocide. I had a kind of revelation. I suddenly felt that I should know in detail what had happened to my whole family. I gathered them together, explained them, and for a year we got together to eat like when I had lunch at Armenuhi’s house as a child, but this time with the recorder on the table, among the delicacies prepared by my great-aunt Zarman Demijrian Daghlian, Armenuhi’s younger sister. Between her and Hasmig Demirjian Kabakian and my Grandma Armenuhi’s brother Wahe Demirjian, we recreated the history. My aunt Alicia Tagtachian and my cousins Elizabeth, Rosig, Cecilia, Manuel, Amelia, Cristina, all participated in this new construction of Memory. All of this was reflected in my first book Forget-me-not Armenuhi: The Story of my Armenian Grandmother. The story lives on as long as we work to make that flame last. That is why I am excited when schools call me to talk with students and teachers. Many are not of Armenian descent and, through my work, they investigate, they find out, they want to know more. I also developed a very good exchange with my readers, Armenians and non-Armenians. We are all on the same journey of Identity and Memory. I take the time to answer each of the messages. I am aware that in each act and in each word we continue to found Memory. It is a key, even more, as 107 years after the Genocide, the Armenian people continues to be victims of threats from the Erdogan and Aliyev regimes in Turkey and Azerbaijan, those denier and genocidal states. It is a shame that after the 107 years only about 30 countries have recognized the Armenian Genocide. And that also explains what we see now in Ukraine. The “Poem of Indifference,” attributed to the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, illustrates this very well:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It would be necessary to add a verse for the Armenians and so many other forgotten minorities. Like the Kurds today who are also being persecuted by the Erdogan regime.

Many third- and fourth-generation Armenian already are not aware from what part of the old country their ancestors were. I am sure you do know!

I know the history of both Tagtachian and Demirjian families. My paternal grandparents, Armenuhi Demirjian and Yervant Tagtachian were born in Aintab, today Gaziantep in Turkey. My maternal grandparents, Maria Yelanguezian and Simon Balian, were from Marash, Cilicia region, also in the Ottoman Empire, today Turkey. The greatest amount of data I gathered was around the history of the Demirjians: of the rest I know is less, because, unfortunately, they have not remembered or there was no one to ask. My grandmother Maria Yelanguezian Balian’s story is even sadder than Armenuhi’s. Her mother and brothers were killed in the Genocide. Her father left her in an orphanage in Beirut when she was one and half year old and they never saw each other again. She grew up alone and at the age of 14 they shipped her to Argentina so that she could marry my grandfather Simon Balian, whom she of course did not know. They had three children: Rosa, Jorge and Beatriz, my mother. My grandfather, Simon Balian, died when my mother was seven years old. My mother passed away on May 28, 2020 and she did not want to talk about or remember her past, her childhood. It hurts. She did not even know the name of her grandparents, as my grandmother Maria barely remembered the name of her father. So, one understands very well the reason for her pain, her resistance to emotion, the importance of maintaining traditions and everything that is not said in words, but says a lot.

You have published three books and they all are about Armenians. Are you going to continue write on Armenian subjects?

Yes, in the second half of 2022, my fourth novel will be published. It is my third work of fiction; the genre is “romantic geopolitical.” And it will complete the trilogy with Alma Armenia and Rojava. It will be published by Penguin Random House. At the moment I cannot anticipate anything more.

Writing about the Middle East and Armenia, have you ever visited these parts of the world?

I traveled to Armenia twice. In 2016 I flew on a military helicopter to Artsakh. We departed from the Erebuni military airport towards Stepanakert. We flew two hundred meters high because above that level we could be shot down. This warning was the first germ of inspiration for Armenian Soul, but at that time I did not realize it. In 2018, I returned to Armenia and Artsakh. Both times I was in Shushi. In the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which today is bombed, and in the areas today handed over to Azerbaijan, my inspiration to write “Armenian Soul” was consolidated. When I came back five months later, I was already writing, transforming reality into fiction, but with journalistic investigation. The characters are fictional. Facts are based on reality. I have not visited Syria or Rojava, although I would love to. I have not been to Turkey either, and I find it difficult. And I would never go to Azerbaijan; it is just impossible, because of my Armenian origin and my struggle and denunciation, which is public through my work.

 

In 2018, you received the Hrant Dink award from by the Armenian National Council of South America for your work on Human Rights. Could you please tell us what in particular you do in this field?

Having received the Hrant Dink award is an honor and responsibility. My commitment is to continue disseminating our history and continue fighting for the construction of Memory. Regardless of receiving it, I would have done it, as I do it today. I consider it a moral duty and an ethical and historical debt to my ancestors. In any case, I greatly appreciate this distinction: it makes me proud and gives me even more strength to keep fighting.

You have written: “May the lyrics, our struggle and history continue to meet us in the construction of the Memory.” Yet, what else should the diaspora do for surviving except of constructing the Memory?

The role of the diaspora is fundamental, even more today, when Armenia and Artsakh are threatened. And, although the struggle is collective, it is essential that each one can give testimony about our history individually. This happens in small daily acts, in the routines, in conversations with a neighbor or colleagues from college or work, interested in our history. I believe in the duty to pass on the legacy. It is like passing a relay in an Olympics. I have non-Armenian readers who, after reading my works, have begun to investigate and have committed themselves and carried out works and exhibitions to spread the Armenian cause in non-Armenian circles. The Turkish-Azerbaijani lobby is getting stronger every day. And the ignorance of the people in general is very great. Many do not even know where Armenia is. They are not even talking about our history. Others do not even know what Azerbaijan is. You have to start at the beginning. And do not get tired of explaining. As if we were lower first grade students, we have to tell and provide the sources. Because the story has not been told or, even worse, has been silenced. Giving voice is an individual and collective act. A possibility and a life decision. A commitment. Condemning atrocities against press freedom is also a fundamental fact. Today there is a journalist imprisoned in Poland — Pablo González who is of  Russian origin with Spanish nationality. He was covering the war in Ukraine and was arrested on charges of being a spy for Russia. Those were unfounded charges. He cannot communicate with external world, and the Spanish government has not taken sufficient steps for his immediate release and guarantee that his fundamental rights are not violated. Pablo González is a journalist and political scientist, an expert war correspondent. He covered the Artsakh war in 2020. Shame on the international silence! If there is no visibility or condemnation, there is carte blanche for impunity. The lack of commitment of the community, of some media and some international human rights organizations, and of each individual person, should call our attention and is a call to continue fighting. It can always be done. And if it is not done, it is a problem. Today we have communication in every sense: web, social media, newspapers. In 1915 the news did not travel. It was difficult to know what was going on. Today we see the wars live. Silence will weigh on the morale of whoever exercises it.

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