Aida Zilelian (International Armenian Literary Alliance Photo)

A Critical Exclusive: Aida Zilelian Writes the Armenian Anti-Heroine

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Anti-heroine: 1-female protagonist not confined by the expectations put upon her. 2-someone who makes “unconventional life choices.”

NEW YORK — Aida Zilelian’s characters often lull the reader into a false sense of security or familiarity, in a verbal cat and mouse game of fort-da. The bored runaway who doesn’t seem to want to ever return home. The good girl immigrant daughter who goes along with whatever mamma says. The pothead who lets the mean Heathers have their say.  Then suddenly after you think that you can no longer bear the self-abnegation, or that the anti-heroine risks falling into the trap of being just — well, kind of a loser perhaps — Zilelian bears her writerly claws. Both the protagonist’s nemesis and the reader are caught in an act of perfectly pitched rage. The street encounter turns to violence. The former pothead gives her old rival the verbal tongue lashing that she’s been keeping to herself for literally decades. The good girl finally tells mommy dearest what she really thinks of her and her moldy old piano. A finely delivered one-two punch to the gut. Or as the French say: la revanche est un plat qui se mange froid.

A first-generation American-Armenian writer from Queens, New York and one of our most promising novelists, Zilelian delves into the under told stories of the Armenian outer boroughs. Her fiction explores the depths of love and family relationships, culture, and the connections between characters that transcend time and circumstance. Many novels about contemporary Armenian life are mired in sentimentality or outdated tropes. Not so the work of Zilelian, whose style is sparse and declarative, bold and unsparing. Zilelian made a splash with her 2015 Tololyan Prize-winning engrossing debut novel, The Legacy of Lost Things, which takes place in a Queens Armenian community like the one that Zilelian grew up in. Local private school girl and anti-heroine Araxi is a bored teenager rebelling against the social and ethnic restrictions that prevented her mother, born in the Armenian ghetto of Beirut, from marrying her true love. Both now live in America with their own families and their lives only occasionally overlap. One day Araxi can no longer bear the silences and unspoken recriminations that surround and threaten to engulf her. She runs away with her best friend and the tight bonds that once tenuously held her family together begin to unravel. Araxi is unsure herself if she will ever return. A chance encounters ensues and then this: “The image of Tom Jones’s battered face came to her. She remembered the rage that she had felt when she had lifted up the heavy rock and slammed it into his face.  His broken teeth had caved inside his mouth, and his nose had split in several places. Despite how or why it had happened, she knew she needed forgiveness.”

As we move back and forth between present day New York City, a series of cities that Araxi escapes to and the Beirut of the 1960s, the reader anxiously hopes that she will somehow find her way back home. The novelist manages the difficult and subtle prestidigitation of examining Armenian diasporic life in a complex and exciting angle that will attract readers regardless of their background. Everyone in America who comes from an immigrant background or grew up as part of a minority community will recognize a part of themselves in these wonderfully conflicted characters who, almost suffocated by their pasts, gasp for air in their struggle to emerge into their true, free selves.

If the anti-heroine is usually defined as someone who makes unconventional life choices, then Zilelian’s characters don’t quite fit the bill either. Araxi is an anti-heroine because she makes all the wrong choices but at the same time because she is escaping and thumbing her nose at convention — she’s not just the obedient hardworking daughter her parents expect. Because she is in part living out a rebellion that her mother can never muster, we cheer her on. In her short story “How Far Can You Go Before You Set Yourself Free?” the main character grows up in a judgmental Armenian community: her classmates spoiled gossip mongers. As a teenager at home or on a field trip to Armenia, she cannot fight back the onslaught of abuse that comes her way. As an adult at an Armenian Fair, she meets her nemesis and now she is on fire when she confronts her: “That’s what you are, Anahid. A bitch. More than that.”   Ibid with the main character in “The Piano” who after years of living under her mother carping dominion, finally explodes: “……you didn’t give a God damn all the years I played. Not once. And now, because you have to get rid of it – you never wanted it – it’s a problem that you’re trying to put on me.” These explosive codas to her characters often lifelong struggles with their own inner demons, come as a cold slap in the face to their intended victims, but a bracing one from her readers. Diasporan reality with a twist — delivered by Aida Zilelian, one of our most important, fearless writers.

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