Armenians have created many outlets dedicated to keeping our culture alive. Our youth become enriched in organizations like the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA). Our traditional dances continue to be performed by ensembles like those with Hamazkayin. Our music is reinvented by the likes of KOHAR or Collectif Medz Bazar. Even our very history has found its way into film and into the crowded world of podcasts.
We’re in summer camps. We’re on stage. We’re on the big screen and on Spotify. Why, then, are we not on bookshelves?
This thought first crossed my mind while I was taking a world literature course at Montclair State University. We read and discussed works by authors of various ethnic backgrounds who shared aspects of their culture through the world and characters of their stories. I wondered why Armenians aren’t doing the same. Why aren’t Armenians writing novels with Armenian protagonists? Why is nearly every book about Armenians directly or indirectly related to the Genocide? Is this all we have to offer?
There are very few novels in which the main character is Armenian, especially in works of fiction. Think about it. When was the last time you went to a bookstore and picked up a book about a girl named Tamar? Or about a boy named Vartan? It doesn’t happen. It’s rare. When you look up “Armenian books” or “books about Armenians” online, the results will immediately produce memoirs and biographies of people who escaped the Genocide. You’ll get hit with Eric Boghossian’s Operation Nemesis or Karnig Panian’s Goodbye, Antoura. But these are all retellings of a history we’ve all been taught and continue to reflect on year after year after year. Armenians can have a greater presence in contemporary literary fiction.
A few years ago, my cousin gifted me a copy of Michael Barakiva’s One Man Guy, a queer young-adult novel about Alek Khederian and his new “friend” Ethan. In this story, Alek’s Armenian heritage, though touched upon, is not his sole defining characteristic, nor is it what gives the story a purpose. It’s the representation—reading about someone who looks like you, sounds like you, has the same history as you, that made this story feel personal, like it was written for me. Since reading this novel, I’ve had trouble finding anything similar—a story that takes place now. Not in the days of the Genocide, not in the days of Soviet-Armenian immigrants finding their bearing in Glendale, California. Now. Just a story of, say, a girl named Nayiri and her journey in a new environment. Something along those lines surely can’t be too much to ask for. Right?
Literature about Armenians still has a lot of room to expand beyond the horrors of 1915, and until that happens, our already limited representation in the book world will remain unchanged, minimized to a people tossed between empires, facing the occasional atrocity. True as in all cultures, our long history is important to us. We strive to keep it alive, to keep conversations about our struggles relevant. Yes, our dark and unfortunate history is worn on our sleeves, but it doesn’t have to be what defines us.
Representation is important. Adequate, modern depictions of Armenians in literature both in the homeland and the diaspora can help our community progress. Seeing people who are similar to us in pop culture can allow us to feel included in society. We may feel welcomed and at home within our local Armenian communities, but it’s just as important that we feel seen and understood outside the confines of our youth groups and cultural centers. Accurate representation of modern Armenians also allows non-Armenians to have well-developed, three-dimensional perceptions of us. Many non-Armenians have no preconceived notion of what an Armenian is, and though that’s better than someone having a negative idea of us, having accurate representation will allow others to see us for who we are and can be. To Armenian readers, accurate representation can improve self-worth and deepen a sense of belonging in non-Armenian spaces.
It’s important for us to have a greater spot in literature, especially literary fiction. Our youth should be able to walk into their school libraries and find more stories whose protagonist has an -ian/-yan last name. College students should have the opportunity to analyze more prose centered around an Armenian hero. Parents on vacation with their kids should be able to sit on the beach with a book about a romance between two people named Njdeh and Armenouhi. Stories with imagery and references to our culture should not be hard to find, and it’s time we Armenians start seeing ourselves sitting on the shelves of libraries and bookstores everywhere.