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CNF: Hayastan

by Nanar Khamo

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

When your country ceases to exist, will you fade from existence, as well? What is that cord that ties you to a place that gave birth to your ancestors but one that remains for you cloaked in opacity and unknowingness? She exists in abstract—lavash, sarma, lahmajoun—food that sustains us, even in the diaspora, even when they aren’t terms in our language. She is sustenance, after all; she is food and fuel, even if I cannot grasp her in her entirety.

“Let’s go to Armenia soon,” my sister insists, not finishing her sentence. What she means is: let’s go while there is still a country to visit. Let’s go before it’s another period of history where she vanishes off a map, although she does always seem to play the Phoenix game quite successfully over the past millennia. How long this time til the ashes blow off the paper and the map can proudly bear her name again? What name will I see when I use my fingers to zoom in on a map?

In contrast to my sister, I feel a precipice in every attempted articulation of the language. It spills out of her mouth in happy babbles, little comments and exclamations that mark the native speaker from the language learner. Yet for me, I take it in with bouts of reluctance, but I never let it escape me. For another language has usurped its place and every attempt to speak Armenian is now filtered by my français. The opposite happened when I had my first oral exam in my junior year of high school. Instead of answering a question with a simple non, an insistent voch tumbled out of my mouth. How could that have been? Armenian was my first language, but, somehow, over the years, it had been mentally relegated to foreign language. Had I relegated it? Mother tongues can slip and fall, but English stays firmly, coolly in place.

Is my cold distance a privilege that I can no longer exercise in face of existential terror? They lob bombs, words, insults. They create a museum of caricature, of our fallen bones and flesh, of our curved eyebrows and crooked noses, and I bite the flesh inside my mouth, refusing to allow the words to spill out, because of a fear that I don’t understand, cannot understand. I have lived in France and have never stepped foot inside Armenia. How could that have been? Moving to France felt like a homecoming, a long overdue reckoning that came after several years of language study. Its cultures felt known, new, nude. Armenia remains foreign and familiar at once, a memory that I can only conjure in imaginative flashes. She is diaspora to me. She is childhood and uniforms and bullies and pain. She is olive and apricot and salmon and grape.

France, on the other hand, is a respite, a contented sigh, a long massage that soothes my aching jaw. France has always had its arms wide open to its Armenians, a model minority if there ever was one. Armenians in France breathe life into abstractions, such as intégration and assimilation, abstractions that, as a postcolonialist, I know are complicated by its colonial past.

In a cinema course that I helped teach as a graduate student, we watched Les Intouchables, and a couple of students wrote that the character of Driss was based on a real person of Armenian descent. He is Algerian, not Armenian, and I laughed when I saw it for the first time, and grew increasingly concerned when I saw it again and then again. The differences between Armenia and Algeria couldn’t be more marked than their histories with France, but somehow foreign countries that begin with the letter A are easily intertwined in the minds of an American university student. What of you, Angola? Or you, Albania? The latter, of course, being the ultimate European other with its Muslim majority, so much so that a fictional you-know-who had to hide in its forests.

There is another country that begins with A whose bots spam the internet with its flag and propaganda. It is also an abstract to me. To them, I am not human. What a curious mark of our era that we still deny the humanity of the other. This country, this other A, wants to band with Armenia’s other neighbor and erase her, a process that has already begun with the destruction of millenia old churches and stone crosses. Monuments may crumble, but language, as long as it’s spoken, keeps a culture alive. So what of my fumbling, feeble attempts to speak the language, then?

Perhaps such half-hearted waves of my hand stem from the loss of the other half of the country, the ancestral lands of my family. For even a trip to Armenia wouldn’t be a homecoming in any way, because my great grandmother and her kin sprung from the land on the other side of Mount Ararat, its soil still covering the hidden jewels and tears and blood. I don’t anticipate ever visiting it; fear for my safety keeps me from knowing the lands of my ancestors. Still, what comfort it has been that there has been a country called Armenia, despite its shrinking borders. But the borders keep shrinking, even in this new century. Borders have always been in flux, but students seem to consider them forever fixed, perhaps the complacency of living in such a stable country.

Let’s go to Armenia, then, before they burn the country into abstraction and its people flee to their havens around the world. Let’s go to Armenia before Armenia is no longer Hayastan. Let’s go to Hayastan.

 

Nanar Khamo is a writer and academic from Los Angeles, California. She earned her PhD in French and Francophone Studies from UCLA in 2018. Her short story entitled ‘Eschatology’ was published in 2020 in the UK-based The Fiction Pool. She has an article and number of book reviews published, as well as a forthcoming chapter in an edited volume on the postcolonial bildungsroman.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Hayastan”?

As an academic in the humanities, I often vaunt the benefits of studying foreign languages and literatures—bilingual brain! CV mining! expand your world!—to keep student enrollment steady. Writing this piece alerted me to the benefits of crafting creative nonfiction in the classroom to think through nuances in sensitive topics and to layer onto the development of close reading practices. Fiction has always been the protective balm to my spleen, a way of casting a shiny bright sheen on all that bubbles underneath my subconscious. It’s also immensely pleasurable to craft a good story. But there is something so illuminating about creative nonfiction where I could use language to explore directly that which I wish to confront, without shrouding it, in some ways, by my imagination, particularly when it comes to exploring my anxiety-ridden, tortured relationship with my ethnic identity.

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