Sirvart Zarian at Santa Marinella, Italy, in front of a piece of work by her aunt, Nevart Zarian

Sirvart Zarian: Living a Multicultural Life on Four Continents

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YEREVAN/MONTREAL, Canada — All my life I have been fascinated by the literary heritage and colorful biography of the eminent Armenian writer of the 20th century, Kostan Zarian, as well as the unusual history of the Zarian family, by their multiculturalism, various talents and far-flung geography.

The offspring of this family now lives in various countries, from Italy to Ukraine, from Thailand to Canada, from Cyprus to South Africa. My subject is one of them — Sirvart Zarian — a teacher, poet and artist. The eldest of the four children of Kostan Zarian’s second son, architect Armen Zarian, Sirvart has lived on four continents. She was born in Morocco (Tangier) and spent her childhood in Italy (Rome) and her adulthood in Soviet Armenia (Yerevan). She lived and worked in Africa (Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan), and is currently based in Canada (Montreal).

Dear Sirvart, this interview with you is very exciting for me. Kostan Zarian is my favorite Armenian writer; I have read and reread him constantly since the age of 20. One time, your father said that Zarian was a persecuted writer in his own country, since his works were barely published in Armenia. Thank God, those years have passed, although some of Zarian’s works still need to be brought to light. You were 17 when Kostan Zarian passed away. What memories do you have from your grandfather?

My grandfather Kostan used to travel a lot. During my childhood years in Italy, he came a couple of times to Rome, where our family lived, with his wife, American artist Frances Brooks. While in Rome, he stayed with my aunt, sculptor Nevart Zarian, and her family. Kostan was busy meeting his fellow writers and artists at the cafes along via del Veneto or dropping at Nevart’s art gallery “La Cassapanca” in via del Babuino corner Piazza di Spagna. Armen, my father, who was often at the cafés of via Vittorio Veneto with his father Kostan, penned in his diary this remarkable meeting between him, Kostan and Glauco Viazzi. Viazzi was a well-known literary critic and personality in the circle of Italian writers. Despite his Italian name, he was Husik Hovsep Ashrafian. Viazzi used to write speeches for Cardinal Aghajanian for his official visits to the Vatican and elsewhere. Soon, one of Kostan’s old friends joined: Anton Giulio Bragaglia was well known as a theatrical critic, founder and artistic director of the company “Independent Theatre.” Bragaglia turns to Viazzi and says, “Why don’t you write about Kostan Zarian’s poem ‘Three Songs?’ Do you know that T. S. Eliot wrote his “Murder in the Cathedral” inspired by that poem, particularly from “The Voices in the Church” section?

Throughout his stays in Rome, Kostan used to meet Takuhi, his first wife. She was his best literary adviser, and Kostan was always eager to get her opinion. At one point, Takuhi and Clara Carlini translated the novel The Ship on the Mountain into Italian, but I have never seen it. Clara Carlini was the only daughter of Anna (Takuhi’s sister), and Carlo Carlini was an official of the Italian army tragically killed in the battle of Asiago during World War 1.

Whom I remember well in Italy is my grandmother Takuhi or “nonna,” as we usually called her. She spent most of her last years in Cincinnato, a small village on the shoreline of the Tyrrhenian sea. My father Armen did the project and provided the manpower to build it. It was a small villa, and Takuhi named it “Villa Sirun” (beautiful in Armenian). At that time, the place was pretty wild; it had just a few scattered sandy paths edged by thick blackberry bushes. A strong smell of salt and rosemary announced the closeness of the sea. Takuhi’s villa had also a big garden and a huge eucalyptus tree with a typical cement table underneath, made with lots of sea shells. We used to spend happy summer vacations with her. Our cousins Rusan and Haik would often join us from Vienna. For two months, the house would be full of laughter and giggles, especially when we tried to understand our German-speaking cousins with their Austrian dialect! As a special gesture, Takuhi would play for us on her piano some of her favorite pieces by Bach and Chopin.

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When we arrived in Armenia in the summer of 1963, grandfather Kostan had already settled down in his apartment on Abovyan Street. Unfortunately, he was living alone, not what he intended to be. Frances was battling leukemia and the treatment at the local hospital didn’t help. She decided to give it a last try and left for Holland, hoping for a cure. In Amsterdam, she had Hovan, their son, and her two sisters by her side. After only a couple of months, Frances passed away at the age of 63. It was a heavy blow for grandfather. Things got worse when Kostan was not allowed to leave Soviet Armenia for his wife’s funeral.

For me, Frances was always an interesting person, a remarkable artist who was American many generations back. Takuhi and Frances, the first and second wives of Kostan, had an equally big role in standing by Kostan’s side, a great thinker and writer always on the road, full of projects. Two female artists who didn’t aspire to just being wives and mothers, but were respectively aware of their artistic life call. A concert pianist and a painter, Frances’ artistic call started at the age of fifteen, she was a student of well-known marine painter Armin Hansen. She was the youngest daughter of G. W. Brooks, founder and director of California Insurance Company in San Francisco. Her mother, Olivia E. Harris, native of Oroville, came from a family of wheat raisers at Chico, Northern California. She went to Europe and studied art in Germany, then in Paris and Italy, which was an achievement extremely rare for a woman in those days. While in Monterey Bay, Frances’ subjects at the time were often the life of migrant workers and the sardine canneries in Salinas. This brings us straight to John Steinbeck’s period and familiar places. John Steinbeck’s father John Ernst was, for a while, the manager of the Sperry flour milling business. Frances’s older sister Loraine was Fred W. Sperry’s wife. It will be interesting one day to find out what history has in store for us. Meanwhile, in closing up some of Frances’ family history, let me tell you about Frances and Kostan’s first encounter. As Kostan often stated, his life’s major events could be found in his literary works. This is the case with “Venetikian Noravep” (Venetian Novella), recently translated into Italian by Ara Zarian. “Novella Veneziana,” was adapted for a stage play by Teresa Tentori and performed by the “Terepia Il Teatro della figura,” at Thiene Provincial Theatre in September 2022. Two of Kostan’s grandchildren participated: Ara as coordinator and Anais as a performer joined the theatrical group of artists. In 2019, in the splendid “Foresteria di Villa Valmarana ai Nani,” two theatrical groups joined forces, Terepia and Yerevan’s theatrical group Epsidon, to present “Spring” from Kostan Zarian’s “Three Songs.” This time it was Akira, Kostan’s great-great-granddaughter that took part in the play.

After spending years of disappointment and loneliness in Soviet Armenia, Kostan Zarian is regaining his rightful place in Armenian literature. A fresh perspective view came from the literary critic Yervand (Yuri) Khachatrian. Thanks to his determination and knowledge, he managed to publish in Yerevan more than 12 volumes of Kostan Zarian’s novels, poems, essays, and critical work about literature and the arts.

Some years ago, your brother Ara Zarian published an interesting extract from Takuhi Zarian’s memoirs. Do you think about publishing I Quaderni di Nonna?

Three years ago, my sister Anais and I started to translate Takuhi’s memoirs from French to Armenian. It is an ongoing work of love that we will bring to a conclusion. To my knowledge, Takuhi wrote three handwritten notebooks for each of her sons and daughter. When my father Armen decided to emigrate with his family to Soviet Armenia, he took his copy of Takuhi’s memories and two trunks full of Kostan’s correspondence and unpublished manuscripts. A year later, when we opened the trunks, we discovered how much care Takuhi put into sorting out Kostan’s huge correspondence with so many writers, artists, and historians of his time. Every bundle of letters and postcards was wrapped in a white page and bound with a black silk thread. The trunks have their own story too. They belonged to Luigi Cimara when he was on tour with his troupe of actors. Nevart, my aunt, a painter and sculptor in Rome, married Mario Cimara, an artist well known to the Roman school of painters in the 40s, together with Mafai and Scipione. Mario was the son of Luigi Cimara, and like his brother Giovanni, was an actor from a renowned dynasty of cinema, theatre artists, and musicians. Pietro Cimara, the younger brother, was a composer, student of Ottorino Respighi (who, as it is known, composed songs based on Kostan Zarian’s poems), and, for many years, conductor at the Metropolitan Opera.

I am happy to say that, after many years of safekeeping, in 2021, we, the sisters from Montreal, Québec, and my brother from Mirano, Italy, were able to send the entire archive of Kostan Zarian to Yerevan’s Matenadaran.

I cherish a bright memory of my single meeting with your father, architect Armen Zarian, in 1993. For me, it was just delightful to meet an Armenian-German family in Yerevan whose family language was Italian. How was it to live as Westerners in a closed Soviet society?

Evoking strong recollections of my nine years spent in Soviet Armenia can be quite a challenge. After all, finding myself in Armenia, not knowing the language (only my father Armen knew), was frightening and sometimes hateful. As a result, I went through a long integration process. The best way to balance things out for me was to switch toward a self-preservation mode. I continued to live in two distinct realities, one at home on Abovian Street surrounded by all our familiar belongings from our house in Rome, and the outside existence, going to school, trying to make friends, constantly learning how to be part of a very different milieu. As a result, it was quite normal to continue speaking Italian at home, while our parents would often speak German.

I also cherish the memories of my friendship with your mother, Maria Gawronsky Zarian or Frau Maria, as many knew her in Yerevan. For seven years I used to visit her periodically, taking German and Italian art journals to her. It was great and unusual to see her in downtown Yerevan. She rarely complained that her life in Italy had been substituted with that of Soviet Armenia, but I am sure it was quite hard for her.

To describe my mother Maria’s life in Soviet Armenia is to talk first of all about her ability to overcome such hardships that only a total dedication to her husband and family gave her the strength to overcome. It was an inhuman regime and a difficult lifestyle. To her great relief, two Armenian ladies, professors of German at the Yerevan State University, came to the rescue. To make ends meet, they started to send my mother students eager to learn German. This made our situation became less tragic. Soon my mom got a teaching position at the university and she dedicated herself to teaching her mother tongue and German literature. She was a great adviser for my father, a loving mother that endured long queues to put a decent meal on the table for her four kids. She was crucial in caring for my grandfather Kostan, especially after he was assaulted in his apartment and needed a lot of care. She welcomed many local artists and architects into our house, even when it was hard for her to understand the conversation. She was happy once the Italian architects started to come from Rome and Milan to Yerevan every summer for many years. Our house became a meeting hub for many projects, and the outcome was a superb series of documents dedicated to Armenian ancient architecture coordinated by Armen Zarian and the Academy. Out of this cooperation came out symposia dedicated to Armenian art in Italy and Yerevan, and books, just to mention a few. This unique atmosphere had a big influence on my brother Ara. As a young boy, he had the opportunity to join my father and the Italian architects on their numerous field trips to research, photograph, and measure ancient Armenian churches. He later studied architecture and for many years dedicated himself to the restoration of religious wall paintings in churches during his trips to Armenia, publishing wonderful books and giving many lectures in Italy.

When my father passed away three months shy of his eightieth birthday in 1994, my mother Maria refused all our invitations to join us in Italy, Canada or Ukraine, where our younger brother Valter lives. We had no choice but to honor her last wish.

I keep in my library your Armenian book of poems, Primordial Voices, presented to me by Frau Maria, as she signed on it in German, “in honor of our friendship.” That’s why now it is unusual for me to have this interview with you in English, with an author who has written poems in pure literary Armenian about Yerablour, Sevan, Karintak village, etcetera.

My literary Armenian came at a price. As I already told you, I learned Armenian in Yerevan in the 1960s. There were no special classes at school to integrate kids that didn’t speak Armenian! I was picking up new words from my environment, trying to figure out their meaning. The Armenian at that time in Yerevan was quite colorful, mostly a mixture of the local slang and many Turkish and Russian words. I simply couldn’t tell the difference between this mixture and pure Armenian words. For me, it was all Armenian. When I got engaged to my future husband, he started to purge my Armenian until I reached a decent level. When I left Armenia, I had to learn fast Western Armenian, the language of my grandmother and father. I started to read Teotik’s wonderful Almanac, Eghia Demirjibashian, and Shahan Shahnour: I had good teachers.

In my opinion, your poetry reminds me very much of Kostan Zarian style. Indeed, I have found only in poems of your grandfather and yours some words like “tsarasi”(birch tree), while the Armenian usual word for that tree is “kechi”.

I believe every writer and artist have their unique style. The words I choose are selected with care according to the poem’s content and tone. It is important that they voice my feelings and emotions. Yes, I use figurative language, metaphors, and symbolism. It is my style that best refers to the content. In my poems I use lots of images from nature, which express my internal rhythm best. When Susan Sontag was asked to distill her most essential advice on the craft, she answered: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

“Primordial Voices” is dedicated to my parents and fortunately, father was able to see it before he passed away.

“A Girl from Rome” ((The Portrait of Sirvart Zarian) by Minas Avetisyan (1965, private collection, Yerevan)

You lived in diverse countries, both geographically and culturally. What did your birthplace Morocco give you? I know that Spanish was your first language. What did the other countries where you have lived give to you?

During the 1950s, with the economic miracle in full swing, Armen, at the time a young architect, was working with the studio of architect Messina in Rome. He participated in an international competition to build a housing neighborhood in Tangier and he succeeded in getting the contract and building agreement. This is the reason I was born in Tangier. At that time, it was an international city and we were living in the Spanish section. I was very little when we left Tangier with the ill-fated Andrea Doria (this ocean liner known for its sinking in 1956) for Italy.

Each country that I lived and worked in since my early twenties has given me a unique experience, knowledge, and unforgettable memories. Ethiopia has a special place in my heart, for my first child Her was born in Addis Ababa. We were very well received by the thriving Armenian community; they were simply wonderful. Unfortunately, after a year of our stay, a coup d’état happened against the ruling Emperor. The wealthy and proud Armenian community was hard hit, and many left. We lost most of our students at the Kevorkoff Armenian School; it was simply time to pack and go. In Egypt, we had the unique opportunity to travel and visit most of the ancient pyramids, temples and monuments. I cherish one of our travel adventures with a dear friend, artist Shant Avedissian. His many conversations about French Egyptologist and mystic Schwaller de Lubicz’s spiritual and cosmological insights into ancient Egypt and his place in the evolution of human consciousness gave me a new, broader understanding. Another exciting debut was the presentation of the “Gayane” ballet in Cairo, Egypt, with Sonia Sarkees (Chamkertenian) as prima ballerina, Vilen Galstyan’s choreography and Robert Elibekyan’s stage design. What they were able to achieve was simply amazing. William Saroyan’s visit to the Kalousdian Armenian school in Cairo and the message he left for the students on the blackboard were unforgettable. We travelled from Egypt to Lebanon, to Nigeria, to the northern city of Kaduna, the birthplace of my second son Dyrr. All these countries, their different cultures, the many interesting encounters, and the challenges are part of the adventure that was life.

The Armenian community of Sudan, now very small, is less known. What memories you can share about it?

Sudan was our last post before emigration to Québec, Canada. In the early eighties, we were there for nearly two years. At that time, the Armenian community was maybe around 50 souls. The St. Grigor Church, the National School, and our house were all in a compound with tall walls all around it and a heavy metal gate. Soon the Shariah law came into effect and many Armenians left. Life became very difficult, and food and fuel were scarce. We needed somewhere more permanent and this time we decided to migrate to a safe country, to give our boys a stable future. When we left in 1985; only the priest, his family and a few children were left. There was no more need for a school principal and teachers.

Do you continue writing poems? In what language?

I was born into a household with a strong culture of reading and listening to classical music. I was exposed to visual arts and lots of architecture and interior design. During my teen years in Yerevan, there was a great appreciation for books. I found myself often on the queue in front of the Abovyan Street bookstore, eager to get my hands on a new publication. Today, the web got the best of it, it’s a great advantage to have so much information, but reading remains for me precious. Coming to your question, I divide my time between reading, drawing, and writing, sometimes in Armenian, but mostly in Italian.

I once met your late husband, the literary critic, writer and teacher Manuel Keusseyan. I assume the Zarian family literary genes have been passed to your son Dyrr. I read way back his extraordinary poems on Facebook.

Dyrr is a born artist. While a young boy, he was into ceramics, drawing, writing, and later intaglio printing techniques. Writing is an integral part of his life. He writes in English and French, but mostly in English. He is fond of Eastern philosophy and poetry. He posts online his writings on the “All Poetry” site. His poems can be found in the “Late Night Poets” anthology. We are hoping to publish soon his poems.

Good luck with Dyrr’s book of poetry, Sirvart! And I wish Anais and you finish the translation of your grandmother’s memoirs in near future and publish it as a brilliant gift to all fans of Kostan Zarian’s literature!

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