The Language of Discontent: Marcom’s Armenian Genocide Trilogy

In this article for the online arts and culture magazine Big Other, I review Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Armenian genocide trilogy.

[Originally published in February 2020 on Big Other along with other articles on Marcom’s oeuvre.]

Marcom’s Armenian genocide trilogy (photo credit: Big Other)

Two separate events spurred the fierce discontent that compelled Micheline Aharonian Marcom to write her first three novels—a trio that has come to be called her “genocide trilogy.”

The first event forced Marcom to grapple with her identity. In her late twenties, she worked for the Berkeley public schools as a bilingual teacher and for Oakland’s Mills College as an Upward Bound program coordinator. Her students’ pride in their own heritages forced her to confront her Armenian heritage and to attend to her own specific identity as an Armenian American descended from genocide survivors. The intense shame Marcom felt for not having a genuine emotional investment in her own ethnic background encouraged her to see her hazy Armenian past not only as a shortcoming of respect for family, but also as an absent part of her own makeup.

A second event further exacerbated Marcom’s discontent. In 1995, she had a passionate argument with her former husband’s friends from Istanbul. During a meal with the Turkish couple, Marcom mentioned the Armenian genocide that her own grandmother had survived in 1915. The argument with her then-husband’s friends was the first time that Marcom was called upon to respond to the demeaning designation of “civil war” for the event that she had always known as genocide. At the time of the argument, Marcom only knew the contours of the story from the handful of sentences she’d inherited about her grandmother’s survival from her mother, and yet the event was mythic in proportion, perhaps beyond imagination: the Turks killed 1.5 million Armenians in Central Anatolia. She had no specific details to offer the Turkish guests to convince them that the experience of her family members was real. Discontented by the evening’s end, ashamed that she didn’t know more about the genocide her own family members had survived, Marcom left the table in search of historical knowledge, the stuff of documents and monuments. She read survivor memoirs, consular reports, and histories of the Armenian genocide, and after “poring through it all, she decided to write a novel.”[1]

The novel born of Marcom’s discontent with her generic understanding of the past was Three Apples Fell from Heaven (2001). Marcom drew from eclectic sources to write it. Throughout the novel’s 264 pages, she borrowed images from her research into firsthand accounts by survivors and witnesses of the killings and deportations; folk tales and epic traditions; and her own grandmother’s experience of surviving the genocide with her sister and three brothers. These varied scenes inspired Marcom’s polyphonic novel.

Most of the chapters of the novel are narrated from a different character’s point of view. In one chapter, a deceased baby named Dickran offers his listener three possible scenarios for what happened to him in the Der-el-Zor desert. Another chapter is narrated by Rachel Eskijian, who never admits that she committed suicide, but who lists all the reasons why she did anyhow. Still others are narrated by a young scholar named Sargis who slowly descends into madness in an attic hiding from the gendarmes, while another pair of chapters are told by the personified character of Rumor, who offers the long history of the Armenians in the Anatolian plains. A trio of chapters ends with the Anatolian storytelling convention the novel is named after, “And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the eavesdropper.” Taken together, these multiple voices represent the telling of stories and their deployment for transformative ends that break from generic and detached understandings of the past. Instead of retelling unadulterated commemorative and redemptive stories about the imagined dead, Marcom often contrasts iconic images and plots from an ancient Armenian past with their perversion in the genocidal moment; she transforms the recollection of stories and fragments into a new ownership of their enduring emotional and defiant contents, which ultimately belong to the author herself when the reader—who takes the apple that falls to the eavesdropper—assumes his or her role as required, in the present moment, by the ancient storytelling convention. In other words, Marcom’s novel rejuvenates both the traumatic past and the storytelling convention—the convention now exists in reference to the specific demands for survival posed by the threatened extinction of the Armenian people, whereas earlier it served such traditional functions as celebrating heroism and affirming cultural identity. Assuming the readerly role of eavesdropper is therefore affectively to become a character in the novel Marcom created after feeling profoundly discontented with her generic relationship to the past.

Three Apples addresses not only Marcom’s discontent with her impersonal relationship with her Armenian identity. It also grapples with the discontent Marcom felt when confronted by a denier of the Armenian genocide who called on her to provide proof. In writing a novel that makes Rumor a character and ensures that rumors and hearsay have an afterlife, Marcom subscribes to the belief that “the novel (especially, perhaps, the postmodern novel) can embrace any kind and all kinds of narratives: the historical tracts, the newspaper article, letters, myths, songs, etc. as does Three Apples Fell from Heaven. It is perhaps a more-inclusive narrative than the historical one, more truthful, even, if I can be so bold.”[2]

A different discontentedness motivated Marcom to write her second novel, The Daydreaming Boy (2004). As with Three Apples, Marcom turned to archival and historical research to inspire her fiction. But she discovered there were few chronicles from orphans who survived the genocide. To supplant this paltry archive, Marcom turned to missionary chronicles, photographs, newspaper clippings, and other official documents.

The Daydreaming Boy’s main character, Vahé Tcheubjian, also manifests discontent. Vahé is a forty-seven-year-old carpenter living in Beirut in the 1960s who grew up in the Bird’s Nest Orphanage during the 1920s without ever knowing who his parents were, how he was orphaned, why he spoke only Turkish when he arrived at the orphanage, or how he managed to survive the genocide that likely claimed at least one of his parents as victims. Marcom reprints many of her own archival resources in the novel as Vahé searches in vain for answers to the questions he has about his family history and his own identity as a “notfeeling” orphan boy. These archival materials become venues for Vahé to project his developing feelings of abandonment, inadequacy, and confusion. In one chapter, Vahé inserts himself into an excerpt from a humanitarian organization’s chronicle of the genocide. He changes the excerpt—about an Armenian orphan girl named Salema who had been Turkified in name, language, and religion before arriving at the orphanage—to reflect his possible story as a boy named “Mustafa” who undergoes the same loss of heritage. He erases Salema and sets himself up in her stead.

The fragmented, discomfiting, back-and-forth form of the novel mirrors the processes of memory that Vahé seeks to harness, yet never achieves. Vahé’s desire to passionately remember founders upon his inability to reconfigure the available archive such that he can escape its haunting silence. As a result, the novel’s troubled main character suffers a destructive attempt to passionately remember that repeats the degrading experience of the past. Vahé is unsatisfied with the vestiges of the past. However, he attempts to transform his slender archive by employing a “sentimental imagination” whose operation cannot produce life-enriching effects. Feeling anxious and debased in modern Lebanon on the cusp of war, he revisits the very violence that might have been his conception and his lot. Vahé depicts the risks of a sentimental imagining of the past that seeks to restore and regain what was lost—Vahé’s imaginings in The Daydreaming Boy are self-annihilating daydreaming.

The discontent that prompted Marcom’s third novel, Draining the Sea (2008), came from a realization that, like the Armenian genocide, the 1977–1986 Guatemalan massacres have not been adequately nor appropriately recognized by current leaders of the countries that perpetrated violence. Both genocides had been relegated to the fringes of history. And so, she set out to write a book, one in which she “wanted in a way to collapse history,” “make a book that collapsed space and even time and put two things side by side so that their relationship to one another could be felt and experienced . . . And in the book these relations, I hoped, could be seen. Could be felt.”[3]

Feeling is central to Draining the Sea, the most formally difficult of Marcom’s trilogy. The novel’s five “Books” have neither a clear structure nor a clear plot. The man with no name—our inconsistent and constant writer/narrator—loops in and out of newspaper articles, photographs, TV shows, dreams, memories, fantasies, and musings. He writes to “inquire” and to “essay” his modern American malaise—he, too, is discontented—through the lenses of his grandmother’s experience of the Armenian genocide (as transmitted to him through five “paltry phrases”) and the experience of an imagined victim of the Guatemalan massacres (as transmitted to him through news stories and historical documents). He strives to live and he can only do so by passionately remembering the past, since, as he so poignantly puts it, “if the dead cannot live, neither do we” (190).

This lack of felt understanding of the past is what the man brings to the surface by imagining a Guatemalan victim named Marta, hearing her story, and forging connections between her experience and his own grandmother’s. In a run-together proclamation that syntactically links the two women, the man proudly claims, “Marta, I refused, finally, the mean separateness of things. Of every thing for this modern: the mind his laughs and loves machines, his grandmother in Turkey then Lebanon, and an Ixil girl in Acul then Guatemala City and how he feels thinks” (304). He realizes that asserting the differences between the massacres is “mean” because it’s both callous and intellectually lazy. He sees that there’s much he can understand (in both how he “feels” and “thinks,” conjoined here in his unpunctuated phrasing) if he sees the connections between them. He can intellectually understand that “here and there and here and there it is the same” (243). If he is able to feel for Marta and her losses, his conscience would be invigorated. Fortunately for the man, he achieves this invigoration through his analogic imagination that revives Marta’s losses and his grandmother’s losses such that his feelings of sadness translate into a conscience to be exercised. By the end of the many analogies the man makes between Marta’s story and his own family’s, the man realizes that the foreign can be familiar, too. In feeling so strongly for Marta and her losses, the man comes to feel for the phrases he had inherited by analogizing between the two genocides. In the man’s case, his sentience led to the invigoration of his conscience. Fundamentally, Draining the Sea teaches us that sentience and conscience are intimately joined.

Interestingly enough, because in Draining the Sea the fictional book emerges as the method for creating these alignments, the literary is reinvested with profound meaning for progressive politics. Marcom tells the man’s story with the frame that he is writing five “Books” that have a particular “Reader” he refers to explicitly through apostrophes. With this frame, Marcom highlights how important the twinned processes of writing and reading are to identifying with the stories of other victimized populations. She’s expressed this feeling in various public statements she’s made throughout the last decade, where she has argued that books “allow the reader’s consciousness, whomever he is and wherever he is, to be in the consciousness of a book’s: such a beautiful, radical act of pathos. It is in this way that each one of us can, however briefly, come to know an other, for in some sense we become him while we read, we walk in his shoes.”[4] The writing of the book allowed Marcom to bring two separate pasts together such that the relationship between them could be felt by her readers who are reminded of their incomplete task by a character they encounter in Marcom’s novel. In Draining the Sea, these felt alignments are marshaled for the purposes of a more just and less cruel world.

If readers of Marcom’s genocide trilogy feel discontent after getting through her difficult novels, so too did Marcom feel while writing them. With The Daydreaming Boy, Marcom admitted that, “In this book, I had to keep trying to open the language—English—up to get [Vahé] on this page. It was quite fun, in terms of punctuation. But intense! You’ll notice the blank spaces towards the end because there are no words for this. How do you write this suffering, this despair? How do you do it? You sort of write around it, in a way. You create, you hollow it out.”[5]

In pointing to both the possibilities and limitations of written language, Marcom echoes Toni Morrison’s eloquent words: “It is the deference that moves [the writer,] that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”[6]

Marcom’s language of discontent in her genocide trilogy has made the reach.

[1] Michael Krikorian, “Feeling Wronged, She Did Write,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2001.

[2] Ara Merjian, “Talking with Micheline Aharonian Marcom,” Ararat 43.4 (Autumn 2002): 8.

[3] Micheline Aharonian Marcom, conversation by Taylor Davis-Van Atta, Music & Literature 1 (Fall 2012): 139.

[4] Micheline Aharonian Marcom, “Truth Does Free Us, Just as Lies Blind Us,” Agos, April 24, 2014.

[5] Micheline Aharonian Marcom, interview by Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm, NPR (KCRW, Los Angeles), 29 July 2004.

[6] Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, 7 December 1993.

Note: This essay is part of the Big Other Folio: Micheline Aharonian Marcom.