From Events in 2017-18 to Setting up the April 24th Fund: A Reflection on Continuing to Create Space for Armenian Studies through HGMS
By: Helen Makhdoumian
I want to begin this blog post differently than previous ones that I’ve written regarding programming supported by the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies (HGMS) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
I will, of course, still write in detail about the wonderful campus visits we had this year from Khatchig Mouradian (Columbia), Diana Hambardzumyan (Yerevan State Linguistic University), and Victor Pambuccian (Arizona State) as well as other related events. However, to emphasize how a single event has the potential to produce lasting effects beyond sparking fascinating questions, fostering avenues for innovative research, and bringing together a campus community in positive ways, I want to share a brief story.
A few years ago, as a McNair Scholar at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, I listened to a panel of graduate students discuss their experiences in academia. Opportunities like these gave me hope for the possibility of being fortunate enough to continue to receive a higher education and invaluable insights that would help me further think through the questions I was asking about the Armenian diaspora and its memory work, the travels of Western Armenian and its potential vibrancy between two mountain ranges locally and across borders globally, and our ever-changing transnational community’s beautiful artistic and literary production.
Still, with the daunting question in my mind as to whether a space would even welcome me to do just that, I could not have imagined that in the not too distant future, I would participate for the second time as a panelist myself and champion another cohort of McNarians. Indeed, as I think about what I will tell these future graduate students about my journey, I can’t help but smile.
Why? Well, it’s been incredible (to say the least), and the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies has played an instrumental role in making it so! As an undergraduate, I had wonderful professors who encouraged me to design directed studies and research projects to pursue my inquiries. It was there that I started to believe in the potential to create spaces for Armenian Studies in unexpected places, and it was there that I started to learn the value of mentorship. And, it’s been through HGMS that my faith in both of these things has skyrocketed!
In April 2016, HGMS organized a visit from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, memoirist, and scholar Peter Balakian who delivered a CAS/MillerComm lecture titled “The Armenian Genocide, Poetry of Witness, and Postmemory.” In April 2017, for the Spaces of Remembering the Armenian Genocide Conference and Film Screening, HGMS was delighted to host a group of talented, sharp, and inspiring scholars and artists: Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, Nancy Kricorian, Scout Tufankjian, Talar Chahinian, and Myrna Douzjian. These are some of the events that HGMS has supported me and other graduate students in organizing over the years. Additionally, this year, as part of its commitment to offering an annual, on-campus Armenian Studies event in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, HGMS set up the April 24th Fund (links to info/donation page for the fund).
From this trajectory of events, I have learned that a workshop, lecture, or conference is more than just an opportunity to exchange knowledge, gain feedback, and engage the public. As the community of faculty and graduate students affiliated with HGMS has led me to see, an event is part of a larger way to “pay it forward.” It is this message of paying it forward that I will carry with me and share with students, whether at the upcoming panel or in the classroom.
So, while I now turn to the spaces that wonderful guest lecturers activated this year at UIUC, I hope that this larger context also helps you see, as I do, the following events as more than just events.
For the HGMS Faculty Seminar Series, Khatchig Mouradian first gave a workshop titled “‘The Very Limit of Our Endurance’: Unarmed Resistance During the Armenian Genocide.” Mouradian invited the audience to first understand that a “perpetrator driven narrative” has traditionally framed studies of the Armenian Genocide. This emphasis, he argued, overlooks victims’ voices and resistance efforts. He further suggested that in contrast, a shift in the discussion to unarmed resistance, such as humanitarian efforts against the will of authorities, allows for a more complex understanding of the catastrophe. For example, looking at this network of acts of resistance, including the formation of relief communities through churches and efforts to document refugees’ stories and familial histories, underscores the importance of gender and class as lenses through which to analyze this period.
In the evening, Mouradian also delivered a lecture titled “Internment and Destruction: Concentration Camps During the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1917.” Mouradian provided a nuanced account of the perpetrators’ process of removing populations out of their homes and the combination of circumstances and conditions that undergirded the genocidal project. Specifically, he discussed the administrative infrastructure and daily operations of concentration camps along the Euphrates River. The interdisciplinary community of HGMS faculty and grad students had several questions for Mouradian, and he deftly responded, often by situating the history of the Armenian Genocide in relation to other case studies of mass violence and dispossession. Many of us in HGMS work comparatively within the larger umbrella of trauma and memory studies; thus, Mouradian’s careful, thoughtful connective gestures were well-received.
In this vein of comparison and connection, Mouradian’s lecture and workshop couldn’t have come at a better time. Previously, HGMS hosted an on-campus screening of the 2016 documentary The Destruction of Memory, which was followed by a Skype Q and A with director Tim Slade. I mention the documentary here because of a point that fellow HGMS graduate student Claire Baytas and I didn’t address in our post about the film. Towards the end of the documentary, interviewees connect the experiences of Armenian Genocide refugees with those of Syrian Civil War refugees. Both through his presentations and conversations with us afterwards, Mouradian helped us return to and refine questions about memory work that the documentary had prompted us to grapple with.
It wasn’t just through the study of history, though, that we mapped connections and charted comparisons. Indeed, this year, several events on literature and translation brought together diverse audiences and, perhaps, laid the foundations for future student work on campus.
In November, literary translator, writer, and professor Diana Hambardzumyan (Yerevan State Linguistic University) gave a presentation on modern Armenian literature. Specifically, Hambardzumyan discussed her own writing experiences, her translation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Armenian-themed Bluebeard, and Armenian American writers such as William Saroyan and Peter Najarian. We are deeply grateful for two of our wonderful community members, Tigran Hakobyan and Arpi Arakelyan, who generously arranged for Hambardzumyan to visit our campus. It was Arpi who first approached me about organizing this event, and the enthusiasm and energy she brought to the table still inspires me months later.
A lively conversation followed the presentation and as a graduate student instructor of literature, I especially loved watching undergraduate students pose complex and exigent questions. Hambardzumyan’s responses prompted audience members to reflect upon the following: what do we mean when we refer to “Armenian literature,” what might we include under that rubric, and what factors inform the rationales behind our selections? Another student asked whether the development of technology in Armenia has played a role in prompting youth to develop an interest in translating literature. Hambardzumyan stressed that despite the proliferation of technological tools, it is still necessary to train individuals to become good translators. She also emphasized both the need for and importance of translating literature from other languages into Armenian and vice versa.
Questions like these led me to view my own research interests from a different angle. That is, I had not thoroughly inquired before if and how literature produced by writers of Armenian descent in dispersion and in a myriad of languages has migrated into public and private spheres within a nation-state formation of Armenia. For me, then, one of the meaningful takeaways from Hambardzumyan’s visit was for those of us in the diaspora and those of us in the nation-state to ask ourselves, how have we come to understand (or misunderstand) one another through the circulation of our literatures? And, if our literatures are “stuck” in isolated sites, how do we create connective spokes so that, as I’ve written about in my own work, we “translate” our stories, lived conditions, and memoryscapes to one another and in so doing, better conceptualize the fabric of our transnational kinship?
Since Hambardzumyan’s visit, Assistant Professor Anush Tserunyan (Mathematics), my dear friend and Western-Eastern Armenian language ally on campus, has been a sharp and willing interlocutor and has pushed me to keep asking questions along these routes. Indeed, it was Anush who first got the ball rolling for another event on literature and translation on campus. Anush had invited Professor Victor Pambuccian (Arizona State) to give a lecture for the Logic Seminar that she organizes on campus and in the meantime, she introduced me to some of his translations (including the poetry of Vahe Godel, a Swiss-French writer of Armenian heritage). With Anush’s encouragement, I asked Pambuccian if he would be interested in giving an informal talk while he visited campus, and we were thrilled when he said “yes.” And, so, that’s how we got a Romanian-born, Armenian Mathematics professor with a passion for translating poetry to discuss his translations of Romanian avant-garde poetry!
Pambuccian introduced an audience to three generations of poets, many of whom were of different ethnic backgrounds, wrote in languages other than Romanian, and worked outside the territory of Romania. We learned about poets whose works have regularly appeared in anthologies (such as Tristan Tzara, Eugene Ionesco, and Paul Celan) alongside perhaps lesser-familiar poets (such as Nora Iuga and Mariana Marin). Pambuccian historicized the poets’ work and their contributions to Dadaism, Symbolism, and Onirism. Additionally, Pambuccian read some of his translations, which generated a lively discussion about what we saw in the poems: negotiation of identity, rootlessness, and belonging; thick descriptions of landscape and place; and play with sound.
Despite humbly pointing out that he has not been trained in literary or translation studies, Pambuccian’s informal talk sparked thoughtful questions from audience members. We came to see that Romanian avant-garde poetry remains a ripe site through which to return to and complicate some of the theories many of us engage as students interested in diasporic, transnational, cosmopolitan, world, and comparative literatures. I’d like to also think that among the lasting impressions that both talks by Hambardzumyan and Pambuccian left on our campus is some inspiration in us to begin (or continue) our own journeys with translation.
The final literature- and translation-related event I want to highlight is an annual event organized by the students of the Armenian Association on campus: a candlelight vigil on April 24th to commemorate the Armenian Genocide. It’s been my great pleasure to lead a literary reading as part of this event, which is open to the public. Some volunteer readers come prepared with their own literary selections but in the days leading up, I think critically about picking texts that help us make meaning of that day in relation to the world around us, the present “moment” in which we find ourselves. Last year, I picked poems and short passages of prose that would help us think about the past and our gathering in the context of what we were hearing about the Syrian Civil War, reading about refugee crises globally, and the land on which we were going to hold the then upcoming Spaces of Remembering the Armenian Genocide Conference and Film Screening.
This year, as I watched individuals on campus ask “What’s happening in Armenia?” hour-to-hour and as I saw the phrase “revolution” crop up in one news headline after another, I felt we needed to conclude the commemoration that evening with messages in literature about Spring (about change, resilience, upbuilding communities, and ushering in a bright future). Ultimately, I selected texts by the following writers (which we read in Armenian and English): Diana Der-Hovanessian, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Michael Arlen, Peter Balakian, Arto Vaun, Yeghishe Charents, and Vahan Tekeyan. Dilara Çalışkan also brought and read from an English translation of Zabel Yesayan’s prose, and Albert Tamazyan recited poetry by Paruyr Sevak.
What’s next for HGMS and me? I’ll definitely continue to read, think, and write a lot in this next stage of my graduate education (and afterwards, of course). HGMS will continue to work with amazing people who also believe in creating spaces for Armenian Studies events on campus. And, as I said earlier, an event is never just an event. Through it all, I know that I’ll continue to learn how to become a great mentor and “pay it forward. ”Դէպի առա՜ջ։ Onward we go!
Helen Makhdoumian is pursuing her PhD through English and HGMS. She has spearheaded many of HGMS’s events and served as a co-organizer of the Future of Trauma and Memory Studies, an interdisciplinary Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) reading group, as well as a co-organizer of the HGMS graduate student conference. Her dissertation brings together but also carries forward two research frameworks in contemporary cultural memory studies—the migration of memory as well as migration and memory—by staging a conversation between diasporic Armenian, Palestinian, and American Indian literatures.
Illinois Jewish Studieswww.facebook.com/IllinoisJewishStudies/
The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies
is an interdisciplinary program based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Founded in 2009 and located within the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, HGMS provides a platform for cutting-edge, comparative research, teaching, and public engagement related to genocide, trauma, and collective memory.