Tenny Arlen

Two Questing Young Minds: Tenny Arlen and Sharisse Zeroonian

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Published posthumously by the ARI Literature Foundation (Yerevan, 2021), with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the poems in To Say with Passion: Why Am I Here? show a depth of perception unusual for a 20-year-old. In these poems, Tenny Arlen mourns the loss of a child’s endless questioning, his endless “Whys.” Indeed, the persona in the poems trusts that if grown-ups did not, with their “I know”s, destroy a child’s sense of wonder and his curiosity, and instead “asked more questions, we would probably have no wars.” When man wants to be the center of it all there can be no holiness left in nature. “We set on fire, we saw, we empty,” writes Arlen. She, in fact, wonders if “climbing the silver staircase to the moon” would help answer life’s “inexplicable questions.” Even if life were to grant that possibility, however, it is a possibility Tenny Arlen was denied. The fledgling poet lost her life in a car crash a few months before starting the doctoral program in comparative literature she was admitted into at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor.

Arlen’s questions posit a world full of fear, devastation, sadness, and especially loneliness. “I was born dead/voiceless,” confides the persona. Nonetheless, there is no outrage, no anger, in Arlen’s attempts to give expression to the devastation. No fear of the darkness either. Perhaps a degree of sadness that she is, “After all the promises and the waiting, alone in a an empty room,” that the “You and I” has changed to “I and I.” The pain is always confronted with courage and with awe. The questing artist is determined to create. “Words are within me,/they follow me,/they sing to me,/they talk to me,/I am not alone,” she insists.

While words do offer the persona some respite from the loneliness and the “vast silence,” “they can offer no solace.” Her older sister tells her of fairies that would whisper to her from under her pillows, but the younger sister never heard them “behind the trees and in the spiders’ cobwebs:” “I never saw them, not even one.”  “Fairies are an illusion,” writes Arlen in “Memoirs,” a poem in the collection. We are ultimately alone.” “We die in silence.”

Arlen writes in Western Armenian, a language she started to learn in adulthood, but had no time to master. In fact, Arlen began her university education with no prior knowledge of Armenian and steered herself towards an Armenian identity. At 24, just a few months before she died, she changed her name to Soghovme. To Say with Passion: Why Am I Here? is the first full-length volume of creative literature written and published in Armenian by a US-born author.

As Dr. Hagop Kouloujian, Arlen’s Armenian language teacher at UCLA, also editor of the collection, avers, by putting the language to everyday use, Arlen helps keep Western Armenian alive and contemporary. When those who were born into Armenian and acquired it as they grew up — the best way to learn a language — abandon it, Arlen, who grew up removed from any Armenian community, goes out of her way to study it, and uses it to write poetry. The poet gives those who see no future for Western Armenian in the Diaspora much to ponder. Miracles do happen.

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Another young writer who has recently caught my attention is Sharisse Zeroonian, author of Floater (Las Vegas, 2022), a refreshing collection of short fiction that takes the reader from tattoo parlors in New Hampshire to family vacations in Cape Cod. Zeroonian expands her focus beyond her Armenian background to include characters from different ethnicities. The stories are strikingly contemporary, full of references to recent technological innovations — text messaging, Facebook, funny memes, smiley face emojis — young and old are immersed in.

Sharisse Zeroonian

Zeroonian has an amazing ability to observe and to record. This is how she describes Provincetown, a town on the very tip of the Cape: “In this tiny part of Massachusetts, the words ‘I’m sorry’ are considered more revolting than the words ‘I love guns.’ You don’t apologize because no one looks at you funny, whether you’re a man whose eyelids and lips shimmer like tinsel, or a mother of three who needs to touch every door knob five times before walking into or leaving a room.” With ease, and much wit, Sharisse writes about the everyday lives of young people in conflicted states of emotion, making no attempt to commend or to condemn. The title of the collection does indeed capture, to borrow her words, “the men, women, and children of varying backgrounds who hover between nebulous, conflicting states of emotion and being because their environments are just a few sizes too big or small for them.”

The 27-year-old author has a unique sensitivity to the emotions of both her peers and the older adults in her life. Her insights into the suburban mentality, and into the dynamics of relationships between parents and their kids, or between a mom and a dad on the verge of a divorce, are shockingly penetrating. With incredible delicacy Sharisse describes the hurt feelings of a daughter whose room, after his divorce, her father “destroys,” to convert into a painting studio. Underlying her descriptions of the psychological states of mind of her characters is a self-assurance that engages the reader and invites her to “dive in.”

With no intent to sensationalize or to alarm, Zeroonian records the painful details of a depressed mother compulsively checking things over and over. As the title of one of her stories suggests, the characters that come to life in her stories are “Real People.” While there is much good-humored sarcasm, there is no judgement, no preaching here. A little girl’s shock at seeing two women kiss in a restaurant does not construe as criticism. The budding writer reveals herself as a person with a genuine acceptance of the folks she is surrounded with.

The stories are also full of many eye-catching metaphors which, as she tells the reader in her introduction to the collection, Zeroonian has consciously labored for, and continues to “torture myself for,” because finding one is “my greatest joy.” Indeed, “A wispy curl of slumber, like smoke left behind from a just-blown-out candle, unfolded inside her body,” “This excuse, like all his others, would just be another Hail Mary echoing in a box,” or, “being around this crew felt like putting on an itchy sweater,” make her “torture” worthwhile.

Many of the stories in this debut collection were published in the Armenian Weekly, between 2019 and 2020.

Two young writers full of promise. One snuffed out too soon, a grievous loss. The other is well on her way to fulfilling her promise. Zeroonian is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen at Lesley University.

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