Hrayr Varaz

A Critical Exclusive Jiving with Hrayr Varaz’s- #jivjiv #ճիվճիվ գիրք


A unique pocket-sized sliver of a book, #jivjiiv provides evidence that Western Armenian may be experiencing a renaissance of sorts. This compendium of Twitter poems penned by poet and linguist Hrayr Varaz, then posted by him on Instagram was composed starting in October, 2020 during the 44-day attack on Artsakh. As a rule on Twitter, each tweet must be 280 characters or shorter, with every letter, number, symbol, space one character long (emojis and some complex punctuations count as two characters.)

A graduate of UCLA’s Chamlian and Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Day Schools (both his parents attended Jemaran in Beirut), Varaz is a shining example of why donors should continue to support Armenian schools and expand on the current limited number of these institutions in America: “I consider myself an ideal product of the Western Armenian community. I went to Armenian school full-time and got used to typing Armenian in high school thanks to my classmate Ara Kazandjian, who put me in charge of the Armenian submissions for the school’s literary magazine.“ Varaz also took Armenian courses as a UCLA undergrad; later on at MIT he studied patterns which occur across languages, as they relate to Western Armenian. A first example of the touching and sometimes humorous poems included in #jijiv:

“ln the pool of love around you/hearts unload, cleanse, replenish.”

A certain amount of joy in creating is evident throughout the volume — it’s entertaining rather than serious, colloquial rather than literary: “Part of the fun is innovating by expanding, adding, crushing, squeezing, forming the current language as if it were clay and I were creating unique ceramic pieces. I am disappointed that Western Armenian got slapped with the endangered label by UNESCO, but I think it helped jolt some people to action.”

The first volume of #jivjiv — a second volume is soon to be in the offing — includes 29 pieces divided into four broad categories: Armenian culture, Armenian language, Night sky, Queer. Topics include Armenian food and holidays, specific people, coffee-cup readings.

The true genesis of the book lies in Varaz’s desire to demystify Western Armenian for learners of all ages, who are sometimes afraid of making mistakes to the extent of being unable to form even basic sentences, something referred to in the linguistic parlance a xenoglossophobia: “I wanted there to exist a Western Armenian book that showed the written form as it came out of the writer, before the spellcheck/revision process. I wanted an Armenian book with spelling mistakes, to encourage others to write and not worry about spelling as they create,” explains Varaz: “I found that creation for me required putting aside the worry and shame of spelling mistakes and the ‘correct form’ of a word. I allowed my language to flow and write freely. This is why at the bottom of every page of my book I put ‘written with spelling freedoms’ (ուղղագրական ազատութիւններով գրված – ughakragan azadutyunnerov kervadz).’”

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#jivjiv’s innovations extend beyond the simple fact that Varaz, who holds a PhD in linguistics from MIT, purposefully writes things the way he wants, ignoring traditional orthography and grammar at will. He also mixes Eastern and Western Armenian, following neither Western nor “reformed” Eastern orthography rules, often writing things simply the way he says them — implicitly inviting readers to do the same. T

his may hopefully free the often crippling fear of not speaking “makour Hayeren” i.e. “clean” or perfect Armenian that many people experience.

Hence the writer is more likely to create and explore while “expanding the reader’s possible worlds with connections to my life.” The process was liberating for the author as well: “For my language streams to flow, i’ve been ignoring the pressures of ‘correct’ ‘pure’ ‘non-foreign’. This made it possible to create with Armenian, instead of worrying about what the dictionary spelling or the ‘more-Armenian’ version of a word is. it’s extra. If we allow ourselves to put this aside, we’ll get new-ities from the different Armenian communities. The important part is to use the language. By using the language, ripples will reach others. You CAN write, withOUT worry.” The book’s physical typography also innovates, with accessibility and approachability the author’s main concerns. The layout looks something like this:

“First off the word ‘jivjiv’ means:

A short poem in the Twitter universe

Yes l “made it up”

Topics: jivjiv, poetry
People: Hrayr Varaz

Follow me@ramgner”

Varaz explains: “This allows the reader to experience the sound and poetic play I do with Western Armenian. The Armenian-lettered English pronunciations located under the English balances out the left and right sides. It also provides a fun way to learn/practice the Armenian letters. By using Armenian letters for the pronunciation of the English, I am able to get speakers of English to figure out the sounds of the Armenian letters.”

#jivjiv may not be everyone’s idea of proper literature but then again Varaz never meant it to be. Though slightly disorienting at first due to its format and the grammatical liberties that the author takes, it ultimately delivers a rewarding read. The book displays the type of linguistic innovation that points to a language — Western Armenian — still in full evolution. An extra bonus: Amy Kazandjian’s playful graphic illustrations. As a parting note, Varaz emphasizes that he composed #jivjiv while living in Yelamu, known as San Francisco, on the historic lands of the Ramaytush Ohlone First Peoples.

Purchase #jivjiv from Abril Books:

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