Diasporist Paradox: On Mothers and the Myth of Return

December 23, 2021   •   By Angela Brussel

I HAVE SPENT my life thinking of faraway places. All those towns, as poet Adrienne Rich puts it, that I could have lived and died in. But none quite so tenaciously as the country my mother is from. And I think that is because I more than longed for it. I was haunted by it. Armenia, the cradle of Christianity, the land caught in the crosshairs of one ambitious empire after the next, the ancient kingdom composed of pottery, warriors, and chariots, was where my mother was born, but that is not where this story begins.

The prevailing story of so many Armenians around the world begins with an event far more momentous than the conception of any human being or nation. Far more binding, in some ways, than joy or contentment. The prevailing story of so many Armenians around the world begins with a genocide. The harrowing images of all 1.5 million of its fallen have played on loop in the minds of its survivors’ descendants ever since.

I am one such descendant, one such mind the fallen have frequented like ghosts. My great-great-grandfather, for instance, who was slaughtered near his home in cold blood. My great-great-aunts who threw themselves into a rushing river to escape torture by Ottoman gendarmes. These images were passed down to me by my grandmother like heirlooms, but the longer the ghosts remained, the more certain I was that while it was not me who put them there, it was me who commanded they stay.

I see now that they were always around. Long before they had shape or form, long before they had a context within which I could properly place them, they were there bearing witness to me. But I was uncomfortable in their presence. The large pleading eyes, the woebegone-ness of it all. Throughout my childhood, my mother made sure to fully assimilate me into American society, going so far as to not teach me her native tongue, so how was I meant to even communicate with them? When I was finally old enough to probe our past, brave enough to resurrect those ghosts, I held this against her with great fury and sometimes, even vengeance.

You robbed me of an identity, I growled at her again and again and again, as if she had singlehandedly, maliciously done so. As if she were the sole architect of my anguish. It took me a long time to understand the reasons behind such a decision. Ones that even she couldn’t make sense of. It took me an even longer time to understand that it wasn’t her that I was cursing. It wasn’t even the ghosts. It was myself.

I would come to learn that there was a word for people like me. I was diaspora, and it seemed like we formed a whole demarcated society, paradoxically as pervasive as it was invisible. Etymology revealed that the word itself derived from a phrase in the Septuagint, “thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth,” but it didn’t reveal to me the true inscrutableness of the condition or the laws of its liminal space. It didn’t take me into the twisted tract of “neither-here-nor-there” where its children, like my mother, seem to live. Nevertheless, insinuated in the text was that there were kingdoms to be unearthed, ones in which I could find pieces of myself dispersed, and that it was my duty to go and find them.

¤

“We’re three characters in search of an exit.” This was the prophecy my plain-clothed father delivered to me and my mother as we were all waiting to board the plane. With the air between us highly charged and the steady hum of industry cranking above our heads, there was a looming sense that anything, dark or pleasurable or otherwise, was possible, and we were barreling toward it. I surveyed the perimeter, considered it feasible we were somehow ensnared, but for how long? And at whose behest? Furthermore, what kind of exit were we in search of and how would we know if we found it?

The words, they rattled in my mind like loose screws meant to fasten something together. I looked at my mother for answers, any intimation of what was next, searched for the young girl who left Armenia nearly half a century ago under the folds of her painted skin. Maybe there wasn’t an exit, per se. At least not in the word’s strict definition. Maybe we were just three people flung together under unexpected circumstances trying to understand their place in this world. Three people who believed that there were still sacred things inside of it. We were just crazy enough to try to find and save them.

The plane careened steadily through the still night. I felt it softly buzz as though something supernatural were afoot. History, perhaps, catching up with us or the present colliding determinedly into the future. And my whole being buzzed alongside it, the thrust of a thousand memories that were not my own propelling me toward their very place of origin. The hope that the decades-long battle in which my mother and I attempted, in vain, to understand one another would end in our return to it, still so deeply incorrigible.

When the plane finally began its descent, my father and I looked at her to see if something new or important had already revealed itself, so near as it was to its source. Three characters, indeed, exiting life as they respectively knew it and entering into the uncharted beyond.

Was the final score between us nearly settled? The great mystery almost solved? She peered out of the window at the glittering sprawl of Yerevan below, then back at us with bright, beady eyes. Finally, after all these years, home.

¤

“The home country, in its stark reality,” writes William Safran in Deconstructing and Comparing Diasporas, “is never quite so good as its imagined form; often enough ‘coming home’ results in the replacement of one nostalgia by another — and it may give rise to a longing for the diaspora, which then appears as the ‘real’ home.”

I was raised on this nostalgia, raised with these memories that were not my own. My whole family, in fact, was trapped inside a Russian nesting doll of them. Plagued by the longing for a land they were hardly able to remember anymore. And with each recounting of the homeland, with each utterance from her native tongue, I felt my mother recede further and further into the reaches of a most cold and impenetrable space. One that in my adolescence, I did not want and could not bear to cross, but one whose urgency grew to be so unruly it started to feel like I had no choice if I wanted to understand her. To love her.

My mother helped ferry me across and once on the other side, in that great beyond I had spent my life being haunted by, our roles seemed to have reversed. I watched the woman I thought I knew stagger through the almost unrecognizable terrain of her childhood, opening doors to rooms in a memory palace she hadn’t entered in nearly half a century. I felt the weight of her remembrance as she held on to me, fingers clasped around my arm as if to say she was frightened by what she saw. Precipitated, it seemed she was, into this vortex in which all parts of herself were clashing with one another in primordial chaos. Which part of her prevailed, though, we could not tell. We did not know. And neither, in a sense, did she.

We both wanted very much to believe that with the return would come a resolution. For my mother, it was one of more materialist roots. She wanted to revisit those proverbial cornerstones of childhood. See if her and Armenia’s respective evolutions were somehow contiguous. For me, it was steeped in abstraction, in symbolism. The myth, in other words, of return. I wanted to see if there was indeed a house of belonging, and if once there at its gates, I would be granted entry into it. I never thought there could be multiple houses of belonging.

“Members of ‘serial diasporas’ who are going from one hostland to another,” Safran writes, “may keep the homeland in their consciousness, but such a homeland, if it exists at all, may be little more than a utopia to which one is not expected to ‘return.’”

My family, I would learn, was a perfect example of this. Hachik, my great-grandfather, was born in Anatolia shortly before the 1915 Genocide. Agavne, my grandmother, in Lebanon when it was placed under French mandate after the end of World War I. My mother, in Armenia when it was subject to Soviet rule. And me, in America. Considering this now, it seems I made a grave error in my calculations. What motherland was I even meant to be returning to? To what mother kingdom did my family belong?

Zionist discourse will tell you that in order for diaspora to flourish, the displaced must claim a state in which to take root. One delimited territory that caters to their singularly unique needs and demands. But we must ask ourselves: In its securing, what is there to be gained and what will inevitably be lost? What tragedy can be incurred and at what egregious cost?

“Only in its homeland,” writes Armenian American activist and guerilla fighter Monte Melkonian, “can a people develop economically, culturally, and socially as a homogenous entity. In fact, this is the crux of why some of us consider it necessary to struggle to live in our homeland.”

Just like I was, Melkonian was raised in the American West. And though there was a time when I subscribed to his philosophy, that we must struggle to live in said homeland, I never believed in it so fervently that I was willing to die for it. He was and he did. I just wanted to taste its fruit. I wanted to know what I’d been missing.

I recall Bruno Schulz, the Polish Jewish writer who has become a cult ambassador of sorts for diasporism. But not the kind that resolves itself in the attainment of a nation or a return to a homeland. “Schulz’s diasporist vision,” writes Nathan Goldman, “counters the understanding of the diasporic Jew as a cursed exile longing for a return to a holy land overflowing with milk and honey; in Schulz’s stories, milk and honey abound in exile.”

It’s an unpopular opinion, one regarded by many as some kind of indirect justification of wholesale displacement and slaughtering. One that people don’t think takes into account some of the dismal conditions that in fact engender and prolong diaspora. Armenians, for instance, have a long history of being driven from their homeland by incursions of Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Mamelukes, and Ottoman Turks. The country itself barely existed as a nation, its inhabitants quite literally scattering across all kingdoms of the earth, just as the Septuagint foretold.

In my family’s case, it was a genocide followed by the apocryphal allure of repatriation (Ner Kacht) and compounded by the threat of Soviet-era communism. But not all children of diaspora are cursed forevermore to some kind of grim exilic existence. Neither must they all return to the motherland in order to put an end to it. Because I have been in its folds, the purported motherland, and I know that diaspora is not a physical space you could slip in and out of. And neither is belonging.

¤

For so much of my life, I found my mother deeply unnerving. I felt as though there were an extraterrestrial presence in what could have been a normal, wholesome life. I looked like her, but there was something that told me I wasn’t and I punished her for it, this woman who abducted me from a life I could have had, a woman I could have been. But this is my retrospective interpretation. At the time, I was just retaliating against her otherness.

I spent years circling the nightmare that was me wanting and not wanting to be touched, needing and not needing to be loved. My whole adolescence a desperate, flailing act of desiring to belong, but the very woman who created me, her mother tongue was not my own and her being was as dark and mysterious as the faraway land she came from. To what mother kingdom do I belong?

As I write this, there is a great storm trying to break through the sky. The church bells are clanging as though a premonition of some cataclysm to come and the streets, emptied and darkening save a few stragglers rushing to meet their loneliness. Through the great rush of rain, I hear what sounds like an Armenian mystic chanting above a most biblical roar of wind and crane my neck out of the window in search of him. My heart flush as much with awe as it is with terror. My longing to be seen, to be accepted, to be loved, as wild and unruly as my compulsion to run.

Medieval anchorite Julian of Norwich has a more apt word for this terror. It was dread and it can take four forms. “The first of these forms,” writes Mary Ruefle when referencing it in Madness, Rack, and Honey,

is what I will describe as the unconscious emotion fear. […] The second form of dread is the anticipatory dread of pain. […] The third form of dread is doubt, or despair. And the fourth is “born of reverence,” the holy dread with which we face that which we love most, or that which loves us most.

When I went with my mother to Armenia, this holy dread was everywhere. The air, I felt, was pregnant with it and my nervous body was its earthly host. As full of thrill as I was trepidation, I trailed her as she surveyed the new perimeter, negotiated the ancient land. A whole nation of people who looked exactly like us swarmed, but they were no longer memories that were not my own. They were in front of us, fleshy, tufty masses who broke through the fourth wall of my nostalgia and into the world with distances between us that felt nearly as great.

She’s Armenian, I would proclaim whenever someone would try to speak to us in English, for the first time in my life proud of who she was and baffled that they couldn’t see it. That she was one of them. And they, in turn, were one of us. But my proclamations, though acknowledged and maybe even entertained, were met with the sympathetic tenderness reserved not for brethren, but for strangers.

Speak to them in Armenian, I would urge, trying to convince them that she was what I said she was, watching them watch me struggle to do it, the doors to the house of belonging creaking irrevocably shut. Go on. But she would fall silent. And I, vexed. She had finally returned to the place she had spent the entirety of my life summoning. Why was she acting as though she were a tourist and not a citizen?

In the 1940s, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic organized an international repatriation campaign. Armenians who had fled to countries near the Ottoman Empire like Egypt and Syria and Lebanon after the Genocide were lured by the promise of free housing, land to build upon, and job opportunities on ancestral soil circa the reign of Darius the Great. Perhaps most notably though, they were lured by the promise of belonging. Of home. They were instead met by the wiles of another power-drunk empire, the Soviet Union, whose motivation lay solely in securing skilled workers and craftsmen with which to bolster their fortitude and reach. My great-grandfather, a watchmaker who learned his trade in the wake of the genocide, was one such craftsman.

“The basic repatriation story is riddled with individual twists and turns,” writes Hazel Antaramian-Hofman in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, “but in most cases, there was a common thread: more often, a nationalistic, or at times, a socialist-leaning decision was made by a patriarch or a matriarch, who uprooted their family in response to an emotional global appeal encouraged by Soviet propaganda.”

When I ask my grandmother about the sequence of events that led to their ultimate repatriation, it is almost uncanny to hear how immaculately her recollections match those found in various archives. An oral patchwork of black-market enterprises, cryptic outbound letters, and malfeasance. Malaise, betrayal, and deceit. It was as if they had all rehearsed the same script, but that wasn’t exactly it. It was just that they had been dealt the same blow. What’s worse? It wasn’t only delivered by their oppressor.

Upon my family’s return to the motherland, for instance, they were called akhbar shooner (foreign dogs) by their ancestral countrymen. It was a particularly cruel pejorative considering how reminiscent it was of what their more notorious aggressors used to (and still) call them: infidel dogs. And it didn’t just last the duration of one generation. My mother and her siblings who were born in Armenia proper were also subject to the abuse and what Antaramian-Hofman refers to as the “culture shock, loss of freedom and the ideological turmoil that shaped the historical time of the akhbars.” To what mother kingdom did my mother belong?

When it came closer to the time of planning our return, I sensed a reluctance from my mother that I couldn’t at the time understand. It eventually turned into declarative conviction. I don’t want to go, she said four months prior to our slated departure and I nearly lost my mind. I have been waiting my whole life for this, I snapped, a child again, full of puerile rage and remonstrance. I was so preoccupied with my needing to make amends with history that I lost sight of the very woman who forged my relation to it.

I wrote earlier that she held on to me, fingers clasped around my arms as she explored that memory palace of her youth. As though I were something solid and stalwart she could press against. But the truth is we were pressing against each other. She was not my gatekeeper or my guide, my captor or my oppressor. She was my creator. The country and its legacy, a map upon which to trace the lines of our plight, our longing, our journey.

This is what really haunted me. It was not Armenia or the ghosts. It was not even my mother. It was my not being able to understand the very thing that gave me life. It was my wanting to love and at the same time destroy it.

I consider some of the events that helped me inch closer to her, to myself. Going back with her to Yerevan 40 years after she emigrated. Finding my great-grandfather’s watch shop in Baalbek nearly 100 years after he founded it. Partaking in a revolution on the grounds on which my grandparents were born and raised. The shifting boundaries of land as constant and ceaseless as those of self.

“Do you still feel Armenian?” I asked my mother on my most recent visit home. It wasn’t until I had finally made it to all of those faraway places that I realized to which kingdom I ultimately belonged.

She paused, looked at me blankly as though reminded of something that used to be a part of her. Something she loved, but was too painful or too impossible to hold on to. And me, I hoped that in some circuitous way her answer would help me formulate my own.

“No,” she retorted, the brown hair of her youth stripped to blonde, the clothing of her Soviet years replaced by more flashy and eccentric Western garb. “I feel like I exist.”

It would be too easy to interpret this as what has been coined “white genocide” by the Armenian people. A term used to describe the threat of full assimilation within the population of the country where they were forced to emigrate. It would also be too myopic to not consider how such an admittance contains multitudes, as fraught with yearning for what was and what could have been as it is with what could be, what has yet to become.

“Armenians were […] a presence long before the world conceived of nations and nationhood in the modern fashion,” writes Michael J. Arlen in Passage to Ararat. “But perhaps in the end the message of the Armenians is more particular than mere persistence. Perhaps, if there exists a deeper possibility in the psyche of this ancient, sturdy, and minor race, it is this: the capacity of a people for proceeding beyond nationhood.”

I imagine a world in which my ancestors were able to circumvent imperatives like nationhood and property. A world in which our ghosts are finally able to sleep. A world in which my mother and I are able to move past the frontier of understanding, beyond the threshold of words, and into that landless space where everything is without knowing it. Where everything is without being told what it should or shouldn’t be.

Maybe, just maybe, we are already there, milk and honey abounding in quantities we couldn’t have possibly foreseen.

¤

Angela Brussel is an Armenian Lebanese American writer and photographer based in Beirut with nonfiction and fiction that have appeared in New Statesman, Literary Hub, Catapult, Electric Literature, Nylon, The Awl, The Wrong Quarterly, Brooklyn Magazine, and KCET’s Migrant Kitchen, to name a few. She is also the founder of Nour Jan Presents, a multisensory platform promoting the intangible cultural heritage of Armenian diaspora, its latest project being the recently released podcast This Diaspora Life, which uses oral histories and archival music to do ethnographic deep dives into different diaspora communities around the world.

¤

Featured image: “Mount Ararat and the Yerevan skyline in spring from the Cascade” by Serouj Ourishian is licensed under CC BY 4.0. Image has been cropped and color changed.