Nancy Kricorian loves proverbs, especially Armenian ones. She has been collecting them for years, finding them in various books and corners of the internet and then saving them in her ever growing collection, which she shares through social media. Her current favorite—“Law is written for the rich, punishment for the poor”—is more than fitting for the novelist, poet, and activist, who strives to highlight those standing at the margins of society, whether through her novels or the various campaigns she has organized as a staff member of the grassroots social justice and anti-war movement, CODEPINK: Women for Peace.
Born in Watertown, Massachusetts, Kricorian has received praise for her novels Zabelle (1998), described as “haunting and convincing” by the New Yorker, and Dreams of Bread and Fire (2003), in which we follow protagonist Ani Silver as she comes of age through romance and college, as well as through her family`s tragic past during the Armenian Genocide. “Kricorian does for young women what James Joyce did for middle aged men,” the Los Angeles Times Book Review swooned, “she allows us to scramble safely amid the debris of new love, rejection, sex, and identity.”
Kricorian`s newest book, All the Light There Was, published in 2013, tells the story of an Armenian family during the Nazi occupation of 1940s Paris, with fourteen-year-old Maral Pegorian vividly narrating. The heroine takes us deep into life during war in the neighborhood of Belleville, describing her brother`s involvement in the Resistance and her romance with Zaven, her brother`s close friend and neighbor. But as Zaven flees to avoid conscription, the war invades Maral`s life in ways she hadn`t prepared for.
Unlike her previous two novels, which drew on autobiographical inspiration, All The Light There Was represents new territory for the author, who threw herself into the Pegorians’ world so vividly that it began to invade her own reality.
I spoke to Kricorian from her home in New York City, as she was deep in researching for her next novel, set in Beirut during the Civil War, whose characters, as you might have guessed, are Armenian.
“It`s the community I came from; it`s what I know,” Kricorian says of her concentration on the Armenian experience. “It also has to do with my very deep concern for human rights, social justice, and truth telling, and I feel like there is still so much to be explored in the Armenian Diaspora experience. It ties in with all of my political concerns.”
Liana Aghajanian (LA): Your novels all deal with some aspect of being Armenian, and more specifically, diasporan Armenian. What attracts you to writing in this specific cultural theme?
Nancy Kricorian (NK): I grew up in the Armenian community. I grew up in a two-family house in Watertown, Massachusetts; on the block where I grew up half the families were Armenian. I went to the Armenian church, and a third of my classmates at school were Armenian. I really was in the community and then I desperately wanted to get out of there, I wanted to get away, so when I went to college I thought, you know, “I`m escaping,” but then somehow it ended up that that is somewhere my imagination went. I ended up in this “home” place.
LA: You go through this change and transformation and then at some point circle back to that.
NK: But you come back in a different place; you`re choosing how to be involved in that community and you are choosing. It’s not that you come full circle and come exactly back to the same place. It is that you come back to the themes and the concerns with a new set of tools that you have assembled after having left.
LA: Your latest piece of work, All the Light There Was, took ten years to write and research. What was that process like?
NK: That was really, really long, but there were a couple of factors. The first two books were based on family experience and stories. With this one, my family was not in France during the occupation and I had to do extensive research. I know that different writers have different processes, but I really have to make sure that I have all the facts straight. It drives me crazy that I would have some anachronistic thing happening in the book, so I really wanted it to be as factually accurate as possible. And then the other two pieces were my kids. It turns out it is harder to have space in your head for your writing when your kids are going from the ages of seven to seventeen. When they`re younger, they are more physically exhausting, so you have more space in your head for your work, and then I found as they were older, they were more intellectually demanding. Also, in the meantime, I was working with CODEPINK. I was working thirty hours a week for this anti-war women`s organization, so that cut into it too.
LA: You actually spent time in Paris. You wanted to experience what your characters were experiencing. Why was that so important for you?
NK: I had to build the whole place in my head. I had to have the apartment, the streets, the lycée, the park where she met with the guy she was seeing. Going to Paris was to help do that, reading voluminously about Belleville throughout the occupation, memoirs, letters, to actually build it in my head, so that when I was working on it, I went there.
I only have probably two solid hours of writing in my head a day. It`s not like its twenty-four/seven for ten years; it was more like Monday through Friday for two hours of the day I was in Paris during the occupation, and there were bits and pieces sort of flowing up off and on during the rest of the week.
LA: During the writing process, you also thought your characters were coming alive; at one point you were stockpiling your pantry.
NK: I was thinking things like: “Oh poor Maral, she has no soap,” and then I look—I would stockpile all this soap, thinking, “Well, if war ever came here, we wouldn`t have soap either. I better be saving the soap.” [laughs]
People have told me when they are reading the book that they feel hungry reading it and feel cold reading it, and I really felt that when I was working on it. The thing I was saying about building the place and going to it? I was really in it, and so that sort of spilled over into this worry about cold and hungry and not having soap in my life here.
When I told my husband my next book was going to be on Armenians in Beirut during the civil war, he said: “Great, are you going to start collecting shell casings?”
LA: How did you go about choosing a very young girl as your main character, and how did you transition from speaking in her voice rather than in an adult voice?
NK: I feel that it is told from the girl, but it`s really Maral as an adult, at least fifteen years after the war. It goes from when she`s age fourteen to age twenty-one. I think in addition to being interested in the Armenian diaspora experience, I am also deeply a feminist, and I`m really interested in a woman`s experience—it has to do with wanting to tell untold stories and also wanting to tell things from a woman`s point of view.
There were books and films written about Missak Manouchian and the Armenian involvement in the French Resistance, but I didn`t want it to be heroic, where people were blowing things up and assassinating Nazis. I really wanted it to be how did an ordinary girl survive and live through this experience, and how do you stay humane and how do you live your daily life?
LA: The one word that I often use to describe what the collective Armenian experience is, is “resilience.” To have gone through everything—war, genocide, forced migration, and more—and to somehow survive all of that, “resilience” feels appropriate. How do you sum up the experience?
NK: The thing that I love about it is the sort of humor and sadness, but the word resilience is really a key word. I think what I have been thinking about a lot now, I keep thinking of Armenians as birds. Think about all the birds that are important to Armenians: there are songs and poems about them, like the crane and swallow. You just think about Armenians as birds who build nests that get knocked down again and again and again, and they just keep rebuilding them; they move to another place and rebuild. I find that really fascinating and really inspiring.
LA: I remember reading a piece you wrote about a talk you gave on a panel about the transmission of trauma. It involved an incident with a Turkish psychologist who denied the existence of any genocide. You said you weren`t someone who clings to victimhood as identity, yet the truth couldn`t be stolen from you in the name of dialogue. You`re the granddaughter of genocide survivors—can you explain the transmission of trauma?
NK: It`s this idea that you grow up with these stories that are being told to you—you grow up with these traumatic experiences and a lot of them are unspoken—that are somehow transmitted to the next generation. There`s a line in Zabelle where Zabelle says something like: “we didn`t speak of those times, but they were like dead and rotting animals behind the walls of our house.” So it is this idea that there is this terrible smell that is somehow permeating the air, and you don`t even have to talk about it, but it is transmitted and it is felt and it is known.
LA: You got involved with CODEPINK: Women for Peace right before the war in Iraq started. You have attended demonstrations and organized local and national campaigns—there are a lot of great photos of you holding signs that say “Love troops, not the War”—and coordinating the Stolen Beauty Campaign, which boycotts Ahava Cosmetics, whose products come from natural resources in the West Bank. What has your experience been like with CODEPINK?
NK: One of the things that CODEPINK has done successfully is amplifying the voices of women who have come from places where US wars and occupations are taking place. So we have brought women over from Iraq and Afghanistan. We helped organize a book tour for Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya (for her book A Woman Among Warlords), where I hosted her at our apartment for a few nights. We have worked with Jewish Voice for Peace in organizing a tour for two young Israeli women who had been jailed for refusing service in the Israeli army; we hosted them and went to a number of their events and they were houseguests too. I loved doing that, being around them hearing their stories and amplifying their voices, which you don`t hear in the mainstream media.