In the 20th century, a large part of Armenian literary production took place outside the borders of Armenia. In the diaspora, the philosopher and editor-in-chief of the GAM Literary Magazine, Marc Nichanian, reminds us of the injustice that the Armenian literary world suffered by the censoring of Western Armenian by the Soviet regime. Access to important literary figures such as Hagop Oshagan, Indra or even the writers of the Paris School (Chahan Chahnour, Nigoghos Sarafian, Zareh Vorpuni, etc.) were limited. This question, which has been relegated to secondary importance in the face of the existential challenges facing the Armenian world, has one merit: It implicitly calls for a new paradigm in the relationship between the literary elite of Armenia and the diaspora.
During the first years after independence, ignorance and indifference characterized the relationship between intellectuals on both sides of the homeland-diaspora divide. The cold and dark years, the urgency of the war and survival in the chaos relegated the liberation of Armenian thought, called for by poet Vahe Oshagan in his 1990 manifesto in GAM entitled “Literary Proclamation”, to the backburner. He understood that the slogan “one people, one country, one culture” remained the ideal for the Armenian intelligentsia.
It was not until 2008, with the creation of a Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, that a framework, a platform was put in place for the benefit of writers both in Armenia and the diaspora. But these initiatives had a limited impact. None of the meetings resulted in a draft roadmap, nor a vision on what should be the role of the intellectuals of Armenia and those of the diaspora to work on the modernization of a mindset struck by obsolescence.
Generations succeed one another but the questions remain unchanged. Can the diaspora, in its deterritorialized reality, survive assimilation and loss of Armenian identity? Are we dealing with a problem of language (Eastern Armenian versus Western Armenian) and orthography (traditional versus simplified)? Or is it more prosaically a problem of language?
Already in the late 1970s, a few prominent Armenian intellectuals in the diaspora had expressed concern about the lack of public space in the Armenian world. In 1979, Vahe Oshagan, academic Khachig Tololyan and writer Krikor Beledian signed a joint letter, agreeing that there was a lack of communication among the intellectuals of the Armenian world. The absence of dialogue was among themselves first, but also between Armenia and non-Armenians. This brings us to the logic of the three concentric circles: the diasporan intellectual, in order to have material to give to “his people”, must position himself in the circle of his community, then in that of his country, and finally in that of the diasporan world, which now included the reality of an independent Armenia. Now, this “material” that the Armenian literary intellectuals of the diaspora have drawn, for the most part, only from a traditional repertoire is increasingly out of touch with the realities of the present. Conversely, the young radical Armenian-Lebanese intellectuals of the late 1960s were heavily influenced by third worldism and liberation struggles and movements. Evidence of the influence of third worldism upon the intellectual thinking of Armenian-Lebanese intellectuals can be found in the archives of the monthly Yeridasart Hay of Beirut (1969-1975), a political and literary publication.
Revisiting “Reparative History”
Though the issue of communication should have been facilitated after the fall of the Iron Curtain, real cooperation was slow to materialize outside the academic framework. It was not until the 2010s that the work of experienced editors and researchers emerged in Armenia, driven by a fierce desire to dust off the traces of Sovietism. Thus, alongside a school of thought still very much marked by Sovietism, a “new Armenian thought” began to make its presence felt in the early 2010s, led by researchers, philologists, writers, critics, writers and publishers.
The Ashot Johannissyan Research Institute in the Humanities, founded in 2014 in Yerevan and whose vision is to conduct and promote research in the field of humanities, Armenology and beyond, is a kind of lighthouse in the storm. One could call its work “restorative history,” insofar as this institute raises Armenology to a universal standard by fully embedding it in contemporary issues and in Armenia’s regional and international environment. As a bridge between Armenia and the outside world, this institute plays a remarkable role in the training and career development of the young generation of Armenian scholars. It has published several reference books. One of them is the publication of the novel trilogy of the French Armenian writer Zareh Vorpuni.
Alongside the Johannissyan Institute is the remarkable work of publisher Sargis Khachents, whose catalog of publications of Western/Eastern Armenian and foreign authors marks a fierce desire to prepare a new generation. It is particularly thanks to the incentive of this courageous publisher that the French Armenian writer Krikor Beledian was able to gain a real readership in Armenia and to pursue not only his masterly literary work but also his work on Armenian literature.
In this regard, we can underscore the work of the academic Suren Danielyan, who is very committed to the defense of Western Armenian, and of poet and literary critic Arthur Antranikian, who compiled and edited the collections of a number of famous Diaspora Armenian poets and writers with several Armenian publishers including Actual Art and Edit Print. The commitment of the publishing house Actual Art led by Mkrtich Matevossian and his eponymous magazine played a tremendous role.
For two years now, this magazine has resurfaced and constitutes a kind of intellectual breathing space and curiosity about the world, thanks to the collaboration of talented writers, poets, philosophers and artists who constitute the new voice of Armenia, among them Ashot Voskanyan, Marine Petrossian, Vahram Martirosyan, Tigran Paskevichyan and Davit Mosinyan. This open-minded publisher has inaugurated a collection devoted to the diaspora, which has published a series of Western Armenian authors such as Hagop Mntsuri, Hagop Oshagan, Zareh Vorpuni, Chahan Chahnour, Nigoghos Sarafian, Nshan Beshiktashlian and Garo Poladian. From now on, it is no longer a question of producing textbooks—although this is also necessary—but of “reconstituting the library” after a century of neglect. This is why the role of committed publishers must be both praised and strengthened in their mission of the public interest.
What to Legitimately Expect From Armenia and the Diaspora
Independence of mind and vision, professionalism and modernity characterize the editorial line of Khachents/Print Info and Actual Art. But although widely-recognized, their work is not sufficiently disseminated both in Armenia, for lack of a broader audience, and in the diaspora, for lack of distribution channels and often of Armenian-speaking readership. Initiatives are beginning to be taken to rationalize the distribution cycle of Armenian books. These include the new online bookstore created by Jirayr Tcholakian, editor-in-chief of the French Armenian newspaper Nor Haratch, and the publication of the “Zartiss” collection of children’s books in partnership with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Let’s also consider the work done by the ARI Literature Foundation, which promotes literary creativity, the translation of social science classics in partnership with the Gulbenkian Foundation, the status of women, the encouragement of reading among the young, and the translation of Armenian works into Western languages. Or the revival of the Cilicia Publishing House, historically based in Aleppo and later moving to Geneva under the impetus of its founding director, Mateos Eblighatian.
Alongside these editorial structures, old journals have been modernized, such as Pakin of Beirut, which works to better integrate the new writers of Armenia, Inknagir, and GAM, which is being reborn in Armenia after a 15-year eclipse thanks to the commitment of Yerevan-based intellectuals. This is what one can legitimately expect from these journals: to provide spiritual nourishment that can help Armenian intellectuals in the diaspora build a new tradition that is not compartmentalized or dependent on parties or chapels. To be an Armenian intellectual in the diaspora is to live in a perpetual state of translation between Armenian and the surrounding languages.
Writers and thinkers from Armenia and the diaspora are now linked. This rapprochement is indispensable for the liberation of Armenian thought because it integrates all forms of language and representations of reality. It participates in a necessary reorganization of the relation to Armenia outside the adulated Platonic relation. On a European scale, the last great manifestos date from the beginning of the 1980s, a time when connections with Armenia were rare.
Diasporans need Armenia not only to create but also to free themselves from the weight of myths that pollute their relationship with their own identity, to demystify what can be demystified. In spite of this, there are still many expectations. There is still a lack of full recognition of Western Armenian as an official language of the Republic of Armenia, with consequent programs in public education and in the public broadcasting media. Armenian universities have still not established real chairs of diasporan studies that could work on the history of the ancient and recent Armenian communities in the world, their heritage, and so on. Nevertheless, the relationship between these men and women, for whom the idea of civilization begins with a critical look at oneself, is becoming more horizontal, based on a close human, spiritual and intellectual link. This is what we call critical thinking.
The challenge of the moral and spiritual unity of the Armenian world also involves the search for a common language. And this language cannot materialize without the existence of a true framework of reception.
“EVN Report,” November 14, 2021