Interview: Nancy Agabian
Set alternately in Yerevan, Armenia, and Queens, New York, Nancy Agabian’s novel The Fear of Large and Small Nations is a beautifully crafted interweaving of third-person storytelling with first-person metawriting and journaling. The main character is Na, a young bisexual woman who moves to Armenia to reclaim her cultural roots and immerse herself in the raw beauty of her homeland and people. She is a diasporan, one of millions of Armenian diasporans who were not born in their native land as a result of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an overlooked genocide denied by the Turkish government for over a century. Thus, Armenians who survived and fled have passed on their lineage, culture, and history to their children and future generations.
Agabian is a writer, activist, and educator. The complexity of her novel is breathtaking in the parallels she creates between Na’s disillusionment of Armenia’s homophobia and adoption of strict gender roles and her experience of falling in love with a younger, bisexual Armenian man, who proves to be destructive. Both challenge her identity, leaving her bewildered and disconnected from herself. Nancy’s previous book, a memoir, Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter, is in many ways a prelude to The Fear of Small and Large Nations. In her memoir, her family stories confront the difficulty of growing up in America as a diasporan, bisexual woman. The themes reverberate in her new novel with depth, passion, and unflinching honesty, guiding the reader through the tumultuous landscape of her homeland as she grapples with a failing relationship and quest for self-love. I wanted to talk to Nancy about the evolution of her themes and her writing at a time when diasporan Armenians continue to define their relationship with an embattled homeland.
Aida Zilelian: The narration of your novel shifts from third-person storytelling to your main character’s blog posts to metawriting and journaling. What made you decide to use this approach in writing your novel?
Nancy Agabian: For a while, I’d been enjoying work that collaged or alternated forms—A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa, Citizen by Claudia Rankine—and how they were able to represent various layers of history and trauma from multiple perspectives. I actually did live in Armenia and kept a blog of what I’d witnessed at the time. And I did journal about a breakup from an abusive relationship. The third-person narrative helped me weave these elements together and give myself room to fictionalize all of them. I’m primarily a nonfiction writer, and the metawriting passages allowed me to have the main character, Na, reflect on her experiences the way memoirists do. I felt the reflection was necessary for readers to keep their trust in Na while she was unable to disengage from a destructive relationship. In the novel, Na notices that Armenian artists are doing a lot of sampling, referencing, and collaging. She thinks they needed other forms to express themselves indirectly; to be personal and subjective didn’t feel possible in a small and critical space. So the fragmented/collaged narrative works with the themes, setting, and content of an Armenian-American woman grappling with her identity: privileged as an American but disempowered as a woman in Armenia.
AZ: Though your novel is not a love story, there is a scene where the main character, Na, goes on a tour to Sanahin and Haghpat, two ancient monasteries. She finds herself on a bus with a couple disproportionate in age, the older man an American and the younger woman an Armenian. Na is dubious about the integrity of their relationship. Yet she realizes that perhaps she is being judgmental. The scene concludes with the line, “So she lit a candle to have a love story of her own,” reflecting hope and foreshadowing for the reader. How much of your novel would you consider a love story, if at all?
NA: Such a great question! For a long time I called it an anti-love story. You see Na fall in love at the same time you see her trying to extricate herself from what turns out to be a dangerous relationship. But a lot of love grows apart from that main story—in her friendship with the characters Mardi and Gharib, a gay male Armenian couple, and her work with women writers in Armenia. And with Armenia itself—in all its contrasts of being vulnerable and brutal and generous, and guarded, in all its amazing culture that thrives despite the lack of resources for artists. And I think Na finds self-love, too. She’s trying to restore herself culturally—she wants to learn the language but keeps failing, she wants to be immersed in a culture lost to her because of genocide—until she realizes her imperfection is lovable, even if it contains loss.
AZ: Your novel affirms and delves deeply into many taboos about sex, gender, and sexuality in Armenia. You refer to Hovhaness Toumanian’s poem “Anoush,” written in 1892, about a female character who is shamed for having a love interest. In a metawriting entry your character writes: “To see shame present in a work from the Armenian canon affirms what all Armenian women know—we are raised to be ashamed, whether we desire or not.” Do you think diasporan Armenian women are raised similarly? And has that sense of shame transcended generations?
NA: Brené Brown has made a huge business out of studying, writing about, and unpacking women’s shame, so I think it’s a universal theme. But that story of Anoush feels particularly striking to me, like her shame was a given. The way I connect with it is in a contemporary sense—how much silence exists among women in Armenian families about women’s desire and about women’s bodies. And when the silence is broken, it’s usually to express shame. But younger generations are actively trying to counter the silence. Anamot Press (anamot meaning “without shame” in Armenian) and their anthology The Sun Isn’t Out Long Enough is a great example of transcending shame, by creating dialogue among queer diasporan writers of diverse backgrounds. I hope my novel unpacks shame in enough ways that it will encourage all kinds of people to realize and release their own shame.
AZ: The novel shifts in time and setting, yet interconnects those spaces with vivacious characters and telling moments. One example is when Na is back in New York at the Queer Armenians of New York Christmas party. She leaves the party with Mardi and Gharib, who had recently moved from Armenia to Brooklyn. At one point, they are on the subway platform and the two are dancing and singing while the narrator laughs, feeling like she has been transported back to Armenia, “the land of orphans.” Why the land of orphans?
NA: That reference to orphans is a callback to the theme of the chapter and some of the family history Na recalls to reflect on the concept of rescue—her great aunt was “rescued” from an orphanage by her future husband—and how, if, and why Na is rescuing Seyran, or vice versa. The orphan is an archetype that looms large in Armenian culture and even family folklore. Sassountsi Davit is an orphan, for example. I remember knowing from a young age that many of our grandparents were orphans when images of aerial group photos of hundreds of orphans were shown at Armenian school to teach about the genocide. Na is grappling with the myth of the orphan as helpless, trying to see that idea from a different angle through various stories she recounts. The Queer Armenians of New York are partying separately from other folx, which could be seen as insular or outcast—but they are doing it to support each other and to strengthen their bonds: they aren’t to be pitied. So I think the reader can land at that point and sense the complexity of Armenia and hold its multiple realities: as a small, relatively powerless country with a tragic history, and yet incredibly strong and joyful culturally.
AZ: In Armenia, the narration unfolds with journalistic accuracy, ripe with keen details, the character’s observations nonjudgmental. The description of the Armenian landscape is a historical journey. This is Na’s homeland, an unfamiliar place where she is trying to feel a connection, a sense of belonging. Metaphorically, traversing into the unknown world of dating a young, bisexual Armenian man seemed to parallel Na’s bewilderment and confusion in Armenia. Was this intentional?
NA: Armenia is both familiar and unfamiliar to Na, and the same can be said for the relationship. Seyran is so appealing to her at first because she unexpectedly finds both the familiar and the unfamiliar in him, which helps her to feel more Armenian. She’s learning about herself culturally when she encounters the unfamiliar, but his familiar characteristics—at least what he presents to her—tempt her into feeling that she really is Armenian. And sometimes, she feels his Armenianness makes up for her lack. The parallels between the sense of mystery of Armenia and Seyran’s opacity are intentional. The mystery of Armenia made it possible for Na to be vulnerable to Seyran. That mystery is expressed in one of the epigrams I chose by nineteenth-century Armenian feminist writer Zabel Yessayan: “I am so close and yet so far from the strange life that / throbs around me. A thousand threads connect / me to my homeland, yet its life seems to be shrouded / in mystery. Will I ever penetrate that mystery and / acquire a clear insight into its existence?”
Na is also a mystery to herself in that she’s unable to end an abusive, codependent cycle. The story gradually uncovers her weaknesses so that she can claim them and break free.
AZ: Now that The Fear of Large and Small Nations has been released, is this the novel you intended to write? That you imagined as a whole?
NA: Well, when I first set out, I wanted to write a reported book about Armenian artists and activists. It’s not that book, but it ended up becoming one diasporan woman’s story that explores her desperation to make change when it seems impossible. That desperation is probably a story I would tell through a nonfiction book as well, since it was a recurring theme I saw around me in both the US and Armenia—that people wanted to make change to their governments and systemic injustice but couldn’t find the means. But Na’s story enabled me to tell it in a more personal, intimate, and maybe even more political way.
AZ: As writers, our previous bodies of work oftentimes inform us or prepare us for what we write next. Is this the case for you with Me as her again? In what ways did your previous book help you write The Fear of Large and Small Nations?
NA: Finding a genre and form that would help me tell a specific story has been a constant endeavor. So my first book, Princess Freak, a poetry and performance collection—which is so rooted in a young queer Armenian woman expressing her identity—delved into many of the same issues as Me as her again, a memoir—but the memoir went deeper across various characters’ stories, was more reflective, and allowed me to explore history. I think this latter, in-depth approach worked well to portray the tensions of being an individual and part of a collective as a queer member of an Armenian-American family. I’d been wanting to use collaged forms in Me as her again, but I didn’t have the skills yet—and I don’t think it would have worked for that book. The tableau form worked well to create the fiction in The Fear of Large and Small Nations, putting the reader’s attention on one mode or voice, then surprising them with another format or facet of the story.
I love historical fiction, and I love research, so perhaps I’ll write a historical novel next. In some ways, The Fear of Large and Small Nations feels like historical fiction since it took me so long to write it and to get it published—I started writing it in 2009 and completed the bulk of it in 2015—and it took me another seven years to find a publisher. We’re now in a very different historical space. This suspended, unrecognized state is often the fate of the Armenian writer, who operates on a longer time frame, compelled to make visible a largely still unknown, hundred-year-old genocide. And finding oneself in a vastly different historical space is a common fate of vulnerable countries, the most affected during geopolitical shifts, as we’re seeing how the war in Ukraine negatively impacted the 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh who have been blockaded by Azerbaijan. Perhaps historical fiction isn’t the right form to reflect our cultural whiplash; I’d like to experiment with a hybrid of history and magical realism instead.
Right now, I’m trying to wrap up a collection of personal essays about taking care of my parents who have dementia, a condition that also plays with our sense of time. I use that lens to look at other aspects of life, to slow time down and see its beauty. The Fear of Large and Small Nations challenged me to create something beautiful from difficult, complex situations. I am ready to explore that beauty more directly.
NANCY AGABIAN’s previous books include Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter, a memoir honored as a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Nonfiction and shortlisted for a William Saroyan International Writing Prize; and Princess Freak, a collection of poetry and performance art texts. In 2021, she was awarded Lambda Literary Foundation’s Jeanne Cordova Prize for Lesbian/Queer Nonfiction. The Fear of Large and Small Nations is her first novel. Find Nancy on Instagram @nancyagabian.
AIDA ZILELIAN is a first-generation American-Armenian writer, educator, and storyteller from Queens, New York. She is the author of The Legacy of Lost Things (Bleeding Heart Publications, 2015) and the recipient of the 2014 Tölölyan Literary Award. Aida has been featured on NPR, in The Huffington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Poets & Writers, and at various storytelling and reading series throughout the boroughs. Her short story collection, These Hills Were Meant for You, was shortlisted for the 2018 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Aida’s most recently completed novel, All the Ways We Lied, is slated for release in January 2024 (Keylight Books/Turner Bookstore). Find Aida on Instagram @aidazilelian.