Anush Aslibekyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Author Aslibekyan Wants to Get to the Heart of the Matter

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WATERTOWN — Anush Aslibekyan is a multitalented woman, a prolific theater critic, short story writer and playwright who visited the US at the end of 2022 while her play “Mercedes and Zarouhi” appeared in New York. From 2008, Aslibekyan has been a researcher at the theater division of the Art Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, and a lecturer on foreign theater and dramaturgy at the Yerevan State Institute of Theatre and Cinema from 2006, and completed her graduate aspirantura work in 2018. She has worked as a television reporter and commentator on Armenian stations and has been a cultural correspondent for the newspaper Azg for the last 5-6 years. In a wide-ranging discussion she revealed her views on art and Armenian intellectual and creative life.

Anush Aslibekyan (photo Aram Arkun)

Mercedes

“Mercedes and Zaruhi” was performed as a monologue in New York by actress Nora Armani, but Aslibekyan originally wrote it in the form of a short story based on true life episodes. She said that she heard the story of the heroine Mercedes from her husband’s mother, who heard it in turn from friends who had repatriated to Soviet Armenia. Aslibekyan said that she combined the stories of various Turkish-Armenian families to create a collective character typical for this period of time. She wrote the story with the shorter name “Mercedes” in 2012 and it was printed in the Nartsis monthly that year. It inspired great enthusiasm, Aslibekyan said, and she realized that the protagonists were suitable for drama, so she quickly turned it into a play in about five days, presenting the completed drama to several directors. Hakob Ghazanchyan, who in 2014 was both head of the Adolescent Spectator [Patani Handisates] Theater and chairman of Armenia’s Union of Theater Workers, telephoned to say that he saw the story of his grandparents in her play and wanted to direct it.

It was staged at the Adolescent Spectator Theater in the framework of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Ghazanchyan invited Armani from New York since she could speak both in Western and Eastern Armenian, which were used in the play. Armani performed several times and then left, with a young actress continuing in the role. The play was also invited to be performed at Cairo’s Experimental Theater Festival, and then for several days for the local Armenian community.

Later, Aslibekyan turned this version of the play, with multiple characters, into a monodrama and offered to place it at Armani’s disposal. The latter was invited to the United Solo Festival in New York, which is the world’s largest solo festival, and performed the new version of the play, which she translated into English, on November 6, 2022 in Aslibekyan’s presence.

Poster for “Mercedes and Zaruhi”

Aslibekyan observed that the theme of repatriation to Soviet Armenia was not represented in Armenian dramaturgy and in general had been idealized, especially through propaganda in the Soviet period. Armenians returned believing that rivers flowed full of honey and milk in the homeland but immediately collided with a completely different reality, she said. “We are afraid to talk about this, but this is our history and we should not fear to confront history, because it is only by facing mistakes that they can be corrected,” Aslibekyan exclaimed. On the other hand, she said that when a historical topic turns into a theme for art, theater, film or literature, it becomes more popularized and those topics have their reverberations among the public, and she hoped that “Mercedes” had its distinct place in this process.

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Aslibekyan’s story follows the trajectory of a century, beginning with the events of the genocide and ending in 1991 as Armenia becomes independent. She declared, “When I was writing it, Armenia was again in a troubled state. It was prior to the [“Velvet”] revolution. The protests and feelings of injustice had reached their zenith…When my heroine says in 1991, before closing her eyes at the end of her life, ‘I hope that my children will live in a safe Armenia,’ I as a writer put it as questionable – will it be like that, though hoping greatly that it would indeed be like that.”

Later, however, she concluded, “It became clear that difficulties still awaited Armenia, still a harsh reality, and that safety? I don’t know when it is written in our nation’s fate that it will be safe and peaceful. I hope, we all hope, every generation dedicating its life to this country hopes that their children will have a happier life than at least they did, as [the writer Hovhannes] Toumanyan used to say.”

Aslibekyan’s first two books, both collections of short stories, were published through Levon Ananyan, then president of the Writers Union of Armenia. The first one, which he edited, appeared in 2009 and was called Bari galusd, im hekiyat [Welcome to My Fairy Tale]. It included one play along with the stories. The second, Moyraneri notatetrits [From the Diary of the Moiras], appeared in 2014, edited by Davit Muratyan, and included the story “Mercedes.”

Aslibekyan said, “I sometimes jokingly say that of all my creations, this [story] was the one born under the luckiest star, being the most read and bringing me the greatest recognition. It has been commented on numerous times. It was translated into various languages, the story version into Greek, Russian, Polish and German in various anthologies and journals of various countries. When I created the solo play, in 2017, it was entered into the Yerevan Festival of Books, and was one of the winners in the drama category.”

The play was printed in the biannual Chekhov International Theater Festival of Moscow’s young playwrights anthology of former USSR countries, which led to an invitation to participate in Minsk (Belorusia) at the youth theater forum. There a professor at Warsaw University, Dr. Andreij Moskwin, was intrigued with “Mercedes,” and said, according to Aslibekyan, that the secret of its success was that it takes up a national theme but is written in a very contemporary manner which speaks to the world. Moskwin proposed translating the play into Polish, and publishing an anthology of Armenian writers with Aslibekyan’s help.

Family and Career

Aslibekyan was one of four children and she was the only one who entered a creative field. Her parents’ families were doctors and teachers who had some artistic or creative interests. Her father’s family originally came from Artsakh. A melik (princely) family, they moved to Tavush Province in Eastern Armenia and were well known kemancha players. The parents of her maternal grandparents were from Western Armenia, with her maternal grandfather’s family from a village in the Moush area and that of her grandmother from Alashkert. Her grandfather’s grandfather was a priest in Sourp Garabed Monastery of Moush and the family was called Der Garabedian until in the Soviet period.

“I belong to that group of writers who were born with that talent,” Aslibekyan related. “I was five years old when I said my first rhymed words, while playing.” From five years old she had a fiery desire to write and would cry, asking to be sent to school, although she had to wait till turning six because of the customs there.

A book of Hovhannes Tumanyan’s quatrains and ballads, beautifully illustrated, became her window to the limitless universe of literature. She said, “My school years were unsatiated reading.” Initially she wrote poetry. As a seven-year old, during the first Artsakh war, inspired by the atmosphere of patriotic songs and news of victory, she wrote patriotic poems which won her attention.

She loved art too, and her parents sent her to the Henrik Igityan National Center for Aesthetics, where she painted for 10 years alongside her regular schoolwork. At music schools, she learned to play the flute, and at the Symphonic Estrada they performed songs she composed. She said, “I had the difficult choice during my last years of school of choosing which branch of the arts to follow. I could have gone on to the conservatory’s composition division or the Artistic Academy’s art division, but speech – the word, triumphed, and I entered the Theatrical Institute [Yerevan State Institute of Theater and Cinema]’s Dramaturgical Division….The theater, literature, pedagogy, and later scholarship, became the four paths of my life.”

Her discovery of Shakespeare was a literary earthquake, and after discovering Chekhov and later Pirandello, Aslibekyan said she fell in love with theater.

She ruminated, “I understand now that I am a painter to the degree that it was necessary to be a good writer. In other words, sensitivity to color, taste, composition, etc., these all were formed in me through painting. I see the world as very colorful. … Music deeply helped me because literature itself is the sister of music. Just as there is melody in song, there is melody and rhythm in stories and plays, and they are composed in the same fashion.”

Her husband is a musician and she continues to be involved with music through her children, she said, while maybe when her children are older she will return to painting.

Style

She went on to graduate studies (aspirantura) and wrote her dissertation on the production of William Saroyan’s dramatic works and Armenian theatre. She said she has adopted Saroyan’s literary approach, declaring: “If I speak about any school, I will say that I am a follower of the creed of Saroyan’s literature, because Saroyan, speaking of people in the most difficult situations of life, never creates in the reader a feeling of the lack of hope. In such circumstances, he shows the beauty of life, the beauty of people’s souls, and the beauty of human relations, which is higher than everything else. In reading Saroyan, you think you are living, together with Saroyan, the lives of his protagonists. You are feeling their tears and their pain, but you come out better, loving life more, with a soul filled with great gratitude and love towards God, life and nature.”

However, she said that in each of her five published books, her style is different. The first volume has impressionistic small works, symbols and the self-awareness of the young writer standing before the world but looking inwards towards her internal world, finding her place while understanding herself. “The second collection, which comes five years after the first, is an Anush Aslibekyan of a totally different style – unrecognizably different. Here, the writer stands more mature, more open before the world. Now having achieved a certain degree of wisdom, looking towards the world, has a point of view analyzing the world. The length of the stories also increase,” she said.

The stories of this volume are written in a more realistic style and are all based on true life figures, including some historical figures such as Dr. Vahan Artsruni, who was a cofounder of the Yerevan State Medical University, and others who are ordinary Yerevan natives. She said that she heard very interesting stories about people in various Yerevan neighborhoods and kept them in her “mind’s drawers.” However, “one day, they suddenly rebelled and wanted to come out of those drawers, so in a short period of time, with great inspiration, I wrote this book,” she explained.

Her third volume, Trichk kaghaki vrayov [Flight Over the City] (2018), is a collection of plays, so it represents primarily a change in genre. It includes the play of the same name which was her first work in the field of drama. Prior to that, she said, she only wrote reviews and was a theorist of theater, as well as of course a prose writer, but she was convinced to write it by actress and director Narine Grigoryan. Grigoryan wanted her to try to transfer her prose style to drama. “Flight Over the City” was performed in around 20 international festivals and nearly always returned with grand prizes, Aslibekyan related. “At a certain point, it became a calling card for Armenian theater,” she said.

Of course the volume also contains “Mercedes” and a third play, “Mi lrir Remi” [Don’t Be Silent, Remi].

Aslibekyan also has published a novella, Profesore [The Professor] in 2019, and, in 2022, together with Valeri Gasparyan, a short guide, Stsenaradramaturgiakan arvest: grakan varpetutyun: Metodakan ughetsoyts [The Art of Script Dramaturgy: Literary Mastery: Methodological Guide].

Literary Schools in Armenia

Aslibekyan has strong views on the role of art and various literary tendencies or groups in Armenia. She said, “Sometimes those literary groups basically are the result of Western artificially introduced currents, whether forced or through various grants, and it seems that those writers in all ways have the intention to move away from the national, from our national values and history. When you look at these tendencies, you see that this literature is a literature of despair, which does not give any trace of light. In the end, together with their heroes, people lose the desire to live. I don’t accept this in literature.”

Instead, she related, “I believe literature must sustain people, because even without this, our life is full of many difficulties. In Armenia in recent years, sadly, life is full of war, and our youth experienced a very difficult time. I have also noticed as a lecturer that every consecutive year, when you enter the classroom, you see sadder eyes. … the serenity in our children’s eyes further disappears. In the most recent years it is the saddest reality, when the boys standing before you were participants in the 44-day war. They witnessed loss, blood and pain. I as a teacher understand that in addition to giving knowledge, we must also, as lecturers, today work with redoubled effort in the university. We have another goal too, to return these people to life, to make these people forget the horrors of war, to make them believe that they are to live, they are necessary, that life continues and they must live the full value of the life which has fallen to their lot. In other words, in a certain sense, it is therapeutic – the lecturer will have a role treating the soul.”

In this vein, she said, “The goal of art, in my opinion, is to convey hope to people. It is possible through art to speak on everything, on the most serious realities, but the writer must give to his readers, and artists in all other spheres to their audience or viewers, that hope, that strength, those wings which are the pledge of being mankind.”

She also believes that Armenian writers, and writers in general, must connect national themes with universal sorrows, as she did with “Mercedes.” She said, “Often in Armenia, as perhaps everywhere, people think that in order to be integrated it is necessary to be a citizen of the world, speak in the world’s language and speak on global themes. We forget our national roots and history, and what we have to say. We often in dramaturgy choose heroes with foreign names and foreign environments, not understanding that if we are going to appear on the map of the world, it must be with our national themes and identity, presenting our history.”

Role of the State

Most theaters in Armenia today belong to the state. Aslibekyan said, “There are only a few independent theaters because no law about independent art exists in Armenia. In other words, the sphere of independent art has not been systematized, neither through law nor through equal opportunities. That is the reason why it remains under state patronage. This is good on the one hand because in a country like Armenia which is economically insecure, the patronage of arts is important as it gives a certain stability. On the other hand, it would have been very correct and important to have established legislative points about independent art which would have assured equal rights for state employees and those involved with independent art.”

Aslibekyan said she never noticed any ideological obstacles imposed by the Armenian state. In fact, she argued for a more active role for the state in art. She said, “Sometimes we even think that the sphere is so overlooked that perhaps it would have been worth in a certain sense working out state ideological directions since our country sadly after the latest developments does not have the right today to make mistakes. After such horrors, the politics of our theatrical repertoire must be very well thought out and our literature. What I am saying is not about censorship, or ideological forcing, which could kill everything. This is the enemy of art, but certain ideological guidance or prompting is necessary by the state, especially for state theaters and organizations under state patronage.”

This would pertain to theatrical repertoires. She said, “We cannot just produce by accident because the time has passed when we can produce any sort of vaudeville or happy standup, laugh, and then go home. Such questions have emerged before the nation that we can only by thinking and analyzing solve them in public, and art must aid in this. The artistic directors of theaters today do not have the right to solely provide entertainment. They must be creative hearths where a person entering must leave thinking.”

At the same time she pointed to the German playwright Bertold Brecht, who said in the 20th century that theater must be a place of intellectual discomfort, as well as to the views of French playwright Jean Giraudoux in the same period, in support of her position that theatre and art must always keep the authorities sensible, and not just the populace. She said, “by nature, artists are always anti-authority. They must be pro-state, especially today, but not close to power…The artist must awaken both the authorities and the unthinking public, and make them stand as if before a tribunal, giving them questions and calling them to think and to be responsible.”

Furthermore, she said that art must always be for the sake of art, declaring, “When you create, you don’t think that you are creating this work for a specific purpose, or writing this work for this specific group, or in order to say this specific thing. No, never…I don’t think purposes must be placed for at. Goals must be set for people dealing with cultural politics, but creators must remain free, without constriction or censorship.”

The Velvet Revolution

“In the days prior to the revolution,” Aslibekyan recalled, “there was mass excitement because social injustice, deceit and corruption had no bounds…It seemed as if the revolution had come to solve all those issues.”

What was the result? According to her, “None of the promises of the program points turned into reality. It seems that it became the continuation of the mistakes permitted in the thirty-year independence period.” In the field of the arts and academia, she said, “We do not value our creative and intellectual force. We have abased our scholars, teachers and lecturers, paying them kopecks and not giving them the possibility to do what they are able to do.”

Attitudes and moods in Armenia today are extremely dual, she said, with people who are still believers in the revolution and others whose eyes have been opened and do not have vain hopes. Meanwhile, she said, “The artist, the intellectual remains alone in his personal responsibility, not being supported from anywhere, not being guided from anywhere, but alone before his professional responsibility and his conscience and his moral responsibility.”

Even more negatively, she said, “I have the impression that these new authorities desire to destroy everything and create the new, but anything that is completely refused and destroyed cannot productively build the new. We can create the new [based] on the best of the past.” She contrasted European organic development of education and culture, based on experience and precedents to the current Armenian government acting to destroy the old before the new has been developed. In the Armenian educational system, “the result is that chaos commences,” she concluded.

She also noted that the government is closing theaters and combining institutions of higher education without giving any thought-out reasoning to explain why. She said that this is a destructive approach, exclaiming, “Each time when there are alarmed declarations, imagine the psychological state of the people who work in these spheres…it creates anxiety in them and yet after this these people must still work in academic or creative activity.”

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