A Critical Exclusive Book Review: The Fear and Longing of Small Nations

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To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.

Joan Didion

Long one of the most thought-provoking Armenian-American intellectuals, going back to her days as a punk lyricist and her 20-something memoir Princess Freak, Nancy Agabian continues to influence the culture. Her latest work, The Fear of Large and Small Nations, doubles as both a multi-genre novel and a feminist primer on building self-worth and emerging from abuse to boldly take control of one’s life.

This isn’t always easy for Armenian women who must not only shoulder often unreasonable expectations to somehow be perfect mothers and wives, but also fight patriarchy and contend with the weight of recent history. Genocide, war, sovietization — the list seems endless at times. Here, Agabian also writes from the distinct standpoint of a diasporan. This universalizes her project. While the diasporan’s search and longing for roots is a commonplace of sociology, Agabian pulls back the wallpaper on Armenian society to show that they too fear and long for things that they sometimes can and sometimes cannot perceive.

The Fear of Large and Small Nations tells the story of Na, an Armenian-American woman in her late 30s who embarks on the trip of a lifetime to teach English at a well-known university in Armenia. Na has some deep-seated reasons for wanting to fly almost 6,000 miles to this small, landlocked country in the Caucasus, seemingly always at odds with its neighbors or with itself. The daughter of two Armenian Genocide survivors, Na is not only trying to learn more about her heritage. Rather, she is also trying to fill a void that she cannot quite identify. Still single and nearing the end of child-bearing age, Na knows that culturally and otherwise she finds America somehow wanting. This comes through in wry one-liners and observations that Na makes throughout the book, particularly as she is packing in New York City for the journey in September 2006, which includes a veiled criticism of capitalist production and the idea that industrial R & D can make us happy: “I cannot take any fluids or gel-like substances in my carry-on luggage. This new measure must be making the product development people at Dr. Scholl’s miserable. Their state-of-the-art gel shoe inserts are now forbidden… Other items on the list also seem questionable: liquid mascara, for one. I highly doubt that other’s enough room in such a tiny bottle for a harmful amount of explosive material.”

Na does not speak Armenian fluently and does not really feel wholly Armenian either. Inside a deli on her first night in Yerevan, she has a first telling interaction with the Armenian language and culture: “Na was relieved to remember the word for bread, and the word for butter too (…) but she didn’t know how to make a sentence (…) The translation of the Armenian in the imperative mood was, ‘Give me the bread,’ which sounded rude.  Saying ‘I want the bread’ sounded primitive. Finally, she pointed to a loaf behind the clerk’s head and said ‘Hahts?’ very softly, her voice like that of a young woman. The clerk stared at Na, a fully grown woman. Na was so embarrassed by her inability to speak Armenian that she lowered her eyes and wordlessly slipped out the open door.”

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Once in Armenia, Na soon falls in love with a much younger man named Seyran and her world turns upside down. Expectations are dashed and stereotypes overturned in a series of events that test the mettle of the protagonist, whose kindness and almost self-effacing behavior turns against her. Seyran is a prototypical player: straight when it suits him, bisexual when he wants to intrigue, and gay when he feels the need to seduce men. On more than one occasion, when discussing a friend for example, Seyran purposely muddles the topic of their sexuality. One night in Seyran takes Na to his friend Krisdapor’s violin concert: “Seyran whispered gleefully in Na’s Ear ‘He’s bisexual.’ Na was struck with insecurity. She assumed that in a highly homophobic place, “bisexual” really meant “gay” as a way for some men to protect themselves. Separated from a support network, she defaulted to old stereotypes that bisexuality was a lie or a pit stop on the way to being gay (…) It wasn’t hard to feel sorry for herself. I am so lonely that I am seeking the attention of a twenty-one-year-old sexually ambiguous kid. She teared up a bit.”

Seyran is also brilliant and rather handsome, hence Na’s desire to please at all costs: Na also wants to ingratiate herself with Seyran’s parents, especially given the fact that Armenia remains a conservative society, even twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It soon becomes clear that aside from the age difference at hand, Seyran’s parents also don’t know if they are coming or going when it comes to interpreting their own son’s behavior. At first the reader thinks that Seyran is simply strange, but as the story goes on and Na offers to move back to America and marry him, we realize that he is in fact a selfish, cold-hearted narcissist. In the supposed sanctity of their Astoria, Queens house, Seyran sets about defiling her psychologically and physically. After one particularly humiliating incident, Na is slow to react because of complex issues having to do with lack of self-worth. As the narrator explains in a meta-writing entry: “In Astoria, I was in denial about the familial pattern of our relationship. I knew there were similarities, but I couldn’t believe my family was sick like Seyran. I know—if I had seen him as sick, then why did I stay with him? Rather than admit the hurt from my upbringing and identify bad behavior from the past, my sense of shame allowed his worse behavior in the present. And my guilt gave me a misplaced sense of purpose. I knew Seyran was missing his family. In another convoluted, twisted plot, I rationalized that love for his family was the source of disrespect toward me.”

The great stylistic originality in Fear and Longing lies in Agabian’s use of three styles or literary devices: novelistic prose, blog entries and “meta-writing” where Agabian beguilingly comments on the events that happened to Na. All three devices work well, but the blog entries can disorient the reader at first, until he gets used to parsing from one style to another. An example of one of NA’s blogposts when she and Seyran practice for his U.S. citizenship exam:

“Interviewer: What side of the bed does Natalee sleep on?

Seyran: the left side.

I: What kind of face cream does she use?:

Seyran: “She brought a big bottle of moisturizer from America. I think it is called Keri.”

Seyran’s abusive behavior, though apparent from the outset, worsens when they arrive in America. And why wouldn’t it? He has finally gotten what he always wanted — American citizenship. Now he must somehow disentangle himself from Na in order to be able to do exactly as he pleases in life. With whomever he pleases. Infidelities follow the psychological and physical abuse. It takes Na a while to regain her bearings. Like most victims of abuse, the harm done to her is so far removed from her previous experience that Na at first withdraws into a shell of denial and rationalization. But her inner fortitude slowly builds until she finally explodes one day as he attacks her physically. As Na explains near the end of the novel: “I should have recognized that I was being abused — emotionally, physically and emotionally — even if the web of identities Seyran inhabited were hard to pull apart. An Armenian-American woman entering Armenia may still have privilege as an American, but she loses her status as a human being. The global system of sexism gave powers to Seyran that he freely took advantage of. He broke boundaries and I let him, writing him off as a harmless kid. On the internet he found porn that dehumanized girls and he read a guidebook to take advantage of women…The more he took from me, the more he was empowered since there was nothing to check him: my shame and silence protected him.”

In spite of Na’s slow path to lucidness, the reader is sometimes at a loss regarding the amount of condescension and two-timing that Seyran heaps on her before she finally reacts. At the heart of Na’s self-abnegation lies a terrible longing, a desire to please — to feel loved, no matter the cost. The rest of this mostly affecting memoir describes Na’s escape from the cycle of abuse and her rise to fully reclaiming her power. The author’s assertion that this is indeed possible sends a message that readers — and not just young women — will appreciate.

The Fear of Large and Small Nations was a PEN America Literary Award finalist.

Purchase The Fear of Large and Small Nations: www.bookshop.org/p/books/the-fear-of-large-and-small-nations-nancy-agabian/19813717?

Learn More about Nancy Agabian: www.nancyagabian.com

 

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