Tenny Arlen

Tenny Arlen Remembered as Trailblazer for Armenian Poetry in America

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LOS ANGELES — On Friday, May 20, the UCLA Armenian Studies Department in conjunction with the Promise Institute, presented the long-awaited publication of the first volume poetry written in the Armenian language by an American-born writer, the late Tenny Arlen of California.

The event, which was attended by teachers, faculty, students, friends and family was also broadcast over Zoom.

Numerous speakers stressed the landmark historical character of this event, as in the over 125 years of development of the Armenian community in the United States, this is the first time a volume of creative writing (poetry or prose fiction) written in the Armenian language by a US-born author has been published.

Those knowledgeable of Armenian-American community history will recall that the William Saroyan was the first American-born Armenian writer to gain widespread recognition. Although Saroyan was born to immigrant parents from the Ottoman Empire and was fluent in conversational Armenian, apparently his writing and reading skills were weak or nonexistent. (He did once write an entire play in spoken Armenian using Latin script, but this has never been published.)

Master of Ceremonies was Prof. Hagop Kouloujian, lecturer at UCLA who teaches the beginner and intermediate courses in Western Armenian.

Tenny Arlen, who was raised in San Luis Obispo, far from the sizeable Armenian centers in the state, came to UCLA in 2011 with practically no prior knowledge of the Armenian language and began to study the “mother tongue” under Kouloujian. By the second year of language instruction, Arlen began to compose the poetry which has now been collected in the volume, Girkov useloo, inchoo hos em? (To Say With Passion, Why Am I Here?), and published by ARI Literature Foundation in Yerevan with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The question in the title refers to the Armenian language itself, asking why it should exist in the Diaspora.

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(The Arlen family’s surname was originally Arakelian and has no connection to the Armenian-British writers Michael Arlen Sr. and Jr., whose family name was originally Kouyoumdjian.)

After studying Armenian and French literature at UCLA and also in France, she was accepted to the PhD program in comparative literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Tragically, Arlen was killed in a car accident in the summer of 2015 just before she was to start at Michigan. She was 25.

Despite this, at no time did the family members, teachers or friends who spoke during Friday’s event spend time lamenting this tragedy. Instead, the entire evening took on the character of a celebration of Arlen’s life and work, reflection on its historic importance and its role as a source of inspiration to the next generation.

Speakers Pay Tribute

The speakers’ presentations  in Armenian and English reflected the dual linguistic background of the audience and of Arlen herself.

The first speaker, Prof. Peter Cowe, the Narekatsi Professor of Armenian Studies at UCLA, spoke in Armenian about Arlen’s student days when he was one of her teachers. He mentioned her interest in Armenian symbolist poetry including those by Medzarents, Siamanto, Indra and others, as well as her interest in French literature and symbolist poetry, which had influenced the Armenian. Cowe mentioned that like Zahrad and Zareh Khrakhouni, two mid-20th century Armenian poets from Istanbul, Arlen was a trailblazer (in Armenian, rahvirah) who forged a new path forward for literature in the Western Armenian language.

Despite an atmosphere of malaise in which Western Armenian has been considered an endangered language only utilized in conversation and community life in the Middle East, its literature all but dead, Arlen’s work is a sign in the opposite direction. For someone who, like many or perhaps most Armenian-American young people today, did not speak the language growing up, Arlen serves as a role model for others to follow, Cowe said.

Cover of Tenny Arlen’s book

Prof. Sebouh Aslanian, who holds the Richard Hovannisian Chair in Armenian History, spoke next, describing in English the “extraordinary and ephemeral life and works of Tenny Arlen.” Aslanian mentioned that Arlen was one of his first students when he began teaching at UCLA, noting that she was “mature and sophisticated well beyond her youthful years,” and also noted that her brother, “the formidable Prof. Jesse Arlen” was also a testament to the extraordinary upbringing both received from their parents.

Aslanian went on to note the importance of UCLA in the world of Armenian Studies, saying that it is the only place in the Western Hemisphere where one can take introductory and advanced classes in Eastern, Western, and Classical Armenian. He gave credit to Kouloujian for transforming Western Armenian from an “endangered relic of the past” into a living language for a new generation of heritage speakers. Aslanian expressed hope for the future, referring to Arlen’s many talented peers and friends, stating that what the Armenian Studies field and the Armenian community needs is “a new generation of critical thinkers” who “bring their cohort’s perspective into the Armenian past and present.”

The next speaker was Anoush Suni, who appeared virtually. Suni, who took the same introductory Armenian classes as Arlen, reminisced about their student days at UCLA. She humorously recalled how she was at first happy to see another American-Armenian young woman in the class who, like her, did not speak Armenian growing up; she had looked forward to “struggling together to learn the language.” Instead, what happened was that Arlen completely outstripped Suni in her linguistic and literary proficiency.

The next speaker was Kouloujian, who spoke in Armenian while projecting the typed English version of his speech on a screen. He discussed his teaching Armenian to Arlen, and her love of the language. Inspired by “bonds of love” (a phrase from Narekatsi) for the Armenian literature of figures like Narekatsi, Medzarents, Varouzhan, Beledian, Sarafian and Vahe Oshagan, Arlen began writing poetry in Armenian even before she had mastered the language. Kouloujian also noted the historical circumstances and importance of Arlen’s writing as the first published author in the Armenian language who was born in the United States, as well as discussing the history of the Armenian linguistic question in this country.

The next presenters were two students, Elena Ismailyan, who recited some of Arlen’s poetry in Armenian, and Arpine Kilinyan, who spoke on behalf of the UCLA Armenian Students’ Association on the importance of keeping the Armenian language alive.

Alexia Hatun, a student at UCLA who was the next speaker, is “the closest we may get to Tenny’s ideals,” according to Kouloujian. Hatun, like Arlen, learned Armenian at the university and has started writing herself as well. Her goal is seeing that the language becomes accessible to more people. She spoke in Armenian about how inspiring Tenny’s writing was for her, including her deep philosophical ideals. She then read two poems from the new book.

Finally, Kouloujian introduced the last speaker, the late poet’s brother, Dr. Jesse Arlen. Jesse Arlen has his PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA and is the director of the Zohrab Information Center at the Eastern Diocese in New York.

Opening his discourse in English and Armenian with the words, “my dream of seven years came true today,” Jesse Arlen discussed his view of his sister’s life and poetry. He pointed out that she cared to spend her time in her college years reading literature and writing poetry, rather than partying. Reading some of the poems in Armenian and then in English, Jesse Arlen explained that although some of these have a sad tone, they show that Tenny had experienced the most extreme emotions of life (abandonment, isolation, loneliness, sadness, betrayal, disillusionment with the world, and so on) and “by facing them head on, got to the end of them.” Jesse Arlen also shared family reminisces including about his and Tenny’s relationship with their older sister Faith, who inspired much of their inclination to art and creativity and is personified in some of Tenny’s poems as a muse-like figure. Jesse Arlen thanked the group closed with the poem “Endless Beginning” which ponders the thought that death is not the end, since everything we do influences and inspires other people who remain when we are gone.

To obtain a copy of Tenny Arlen’s book of Armenian poetry, Կիրքով ըսելու՝ ինչ՞ու հոս եմ (To Say With Passion: Why Am I Here?), contact Dr. Jesse Arlen at the Zohrab Information Center, 630 Second Avenue, New York, NY.

 

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