William Zeytounlian

William Zeytounlian: ‘The Work of Memory Can Cure Our Anxieties’

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YEREVAN / SÃO PAULO — Brazilian fencer, psychoanalyst, poet and translator William Zeytounlian de Moraes was born in 1988 in São Paulo. He started to practice fencing at the age of 15. William is a four-time four times Brazilian fencing champion and South American champion in 2015, he represented Brazil at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, as part of the team that won the bronze medal in the men’s fencing. As psychoanalyst he graduated from Instituto D’Alma and took courses at Sedes Sapientiae. William holds a master’s degree in French History from the Federal University of São Paulo. In 2015 his poetry book Diáspora has been published by Demônio Negro label. Zeytounlian is also the assisting editor at Aller, a publishing house specialized in psychoanalysis.

William, you combine three main professions. Can you see similarities between, let say, fencing and poetry and psychoanalysis?

I consider the three of them different forms of art. Fencing is a martial art: it’s about using your body to defend and attack, anticipating the opponent’s thoughts — or creating them so that you can control the bout. Poetry is an art of language: it’s about using the linguistic material we inherit and share with others and creating new stuff with it — stuff that’s memory and novelty at the same time. Psychoanalysis, in its turn, is the art of listening: listening beyond what’s said, freeing an intimate truth hidden in the fabric of speech, thus relieving someone in pain.

In your essay “Political uncertainty in 2018: a collection of dreams and nightmares,” co-authored with Fabio Zuker, you bring together the nightmares of some interviewees’ regarding Brazil’s presidential election. Armenia is in political uncertainty for many years and our society has nightmares since the war of 2020. As a psychoanalyst what do you recommend us, living in a country sandwiched between two threatening enemies?

The nightmares we collected were the effect of a traumatic, harsh contact with the real: the anxiety related to the uncertainty for our lives and futures. Unfortunately, our worst dreams were proved right. Due to denialism, Brazil went through a catastrophe this last four years, with almost 700,000 deaths by covid. Also, we had a brutal Genocide against the Yanomami indigenous people, event denied as well. As we all know, a Genocide is not only about killing: it’s about denying the very act of erasing a people. As a psychoanalyst, I’d recommend the intensification of two labors I suppose Armenians are way more used to than Brazilians: remembering and mourning. The work of memory can cure our anxieties, and by working through what we lost — with those we lost — we can decide better what’s to be done next.

William Zeytounlian with his grandmother. Photo by Ivan Shupikov

What does it mean being Armenian in Brazil?

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My mother was born in Brazil to Armenian parents. My father is Portuguese, his surname is Moraes. That means that I chose — and prefer — to use my mother’s surname socially, instead of my father’s. Psychoanalysis thing here (laughs).

I suppose it depends on the Armenian family you were born in. In my case, it was a delicate process. My grandma and grandpa were very, very fond of their Armenian roots. They cherished their language, history, songs, and foods, which were transmitted to their sons and daughters, my aunts and uncles. But also, my grandpa had the destiny of many Levantine, Jewish and Armenian survivors worldwide: despair, impossibility to mourn, and trauma. He committed suicide in 1967. After that, all by herself, my grandma struggled to make her kids mingle with the Brazilians. The language started being used less and less within my family. I was raised to say it proudly – I am an Armenian. In some sense, in a struggling, survivalist, life-passionate sense, I feel that I know exactly what being an Armenian means. But, on the other hand, without knowing the language, without ever knowing my relatives in Lebanon and Armenia, without knowing how to say it — “I am an Armenian” — in this ancestral language, I somehow have no idea of what it means.

Your surname Zeytounlian hints the origin of Zeytoun historical city of Western Armenia. Are your roots from there?

Probably, from my grandfather’s side of the family. He was born in Marash, therefore not far from Zeytoun. But I couldn’t name my ancestors who were born there. My grandmother was born in Adana in 1921.

Anyway, I remember that back when I was a kid, one of my favorite plays was to imagine me entrenched on the top of a mountain, holding a gun, and guarding it for hours and hours… It was not about killing: it was about defending, holding a piece of ground. More recently, I dreamt I brought olives, “Azeitonas” in Portuguese, to a beloved woman. Even if I can’t retrace its exact origins, I suppose I made this name fully mine…

My grandma’s maiden name was Mahseredjian. Among my relatives that still carry this surname, there’s a beloved cousin, Fabio Mahseredjian, who’s the fitness coach to the Brazilian National Team. He just got back from the world cup, without the cup unfortunately.

Diaspora writers usually refer to their roots at the mature phase of their creativity, while you dedicated your first book to your grandmother Efrazuhi Zeytounlian, a genocide survivor. How did this book come about?

The book was born during the process of her decline and death. It was part of my mourning labor. I was raised by my grandmother. I used to call her Efraz, Vó (grandmother in Portuguese), Digin (Mrs.) Efraz (mostly as a joke) and Mens mama (no idea if that is Armenian, Turkish, or how it is written). And she used to call us many names, like kuzum or iavre (iavrı?). No idea if that is Armenian or Turkish either. (I don’t think it mattered to her or us). She fed me, talked to me, told me stories and the history of our family, she protected me, gave me a past and a future. She was 94 years old when she died. I had to work on something to understand what I was losing and keep something of her. I used to write poetry already, but I always thought to myself I’d never spend clean sheets of paper to publish unimportant introspective bullshit. I felt that was different. It was an opportunity to use what I learned and felt until that moment as a mean to think about collective remembrance, resistance, loss and continuity.

You also make translations. From what languages? As far as I know, so far, the Armenian poetry is represented in Brazil with two translated anthologies. My sincere wish is that one day you study Armenian language and make translations also from Armenian!

I do translate from French, English, Spanish, and Italian. I worked for publishing houses specialized in poetry, literature, and, more recently, psychoanalysis. We do have anthologies of Armenian poetry, but they’re still few. We need more! The University of São Paulo has an Armenian Language Department doing a great work anyway.

I sincerely wish that too, to learn Armenian! Do you have any good translations from Brazilian Portuguese authors to Armenian? Brazil has great literature and I wonder how Machado de Assis and Guimarães Rosa would sound in Armenian.

Well, very few samples from Brazilian literature has been translated from intermediary languages, although now there are some attempts to make translation directly from Portuguese. Do you have any Armenia-related projects and objectives for 2023?

I do. I just submitted a poetry project for the Gulbenkian’s Western Armenian Program. I want to write a book titled “The promised land” – Brazil? Armenia? Nowhere? – and I want to do it under the impact of learning my grandfather’s language, arevmdahayeren (Western Armenian). I also expect to go to Armenia for cultural and language research.

William, you are more than welcome any time!

Armenia

By William Zeytounlian

There is a dual dimension of history written from the testimonies of a survivor. It’s certainly a speech about the past. But first of all, it is a discourse about the present, or rather, a discourse about the project that the survivor has about the interlocutor. With a survivor, we enter the collective ditch of the past with our present-day clothing, like the apostles of a Renaissance painting in ancient Jerusalem or Dante in hell.

The alphabet on the shield

Unveils the grass,

The abridged sand

We – weak morrow

Muffled breath

Us – oblivion, memory

Of a breed

 

Ottoman moon

Shiny epidermis —

Reveals the seed,

The sober aria

Over sand:

 

Before we’re past

Breaths we were

 

Translated from Portuguese by Shushanik Hovakimyan

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