Generation Independence: Armenia’s Literary Superheroes

January 20, 2022   •   By Christopher Atamian

THEY’RE LOOSELY KNOWN as Generation Independence. This cohort of wonderfully vibrant, experimental Armenian writers, now all in their 30s and early 40s, are exciting as much for the lyrical and literary qualities of their work as for what they have to say about war and peace, love and sexual relations, everyday life and the human condition. These young talents — Aram Pachyan, Anna Davtyan, Hovhannes Tekgyozyan, Armen Ohanyan, and the others touched upon below — were mere children when Armenia gained independence; thus, Soviet rule never had a major impact on their writing. Linguistically experimental, they successfully play with both form and content. Part Beat, part Nouveau Roman, part feminist lit, their work is often critical toward the state, touching upon previously banned topics such as sexuality, war, and crime, as well as more personal issues such as the search for identity and self-discovery.

When Armenia declared independence from the USSR in 1991, emotions ran high both at home and among the far-flung Armenian diaspora, yet a puzzling silence reigned in the world of letters. In a country with almost universal literacy, where books are revered, the economic crisis and the First War in Artsakh (1988–’94) seemed to have quieted the pens of young Armenians. Works of note were published, of course — Vahram Martirosyan’s social critique Landslide (2000), the edgy feminist poetry of Violet Grigoryan, the outstanding neo-Gothic short stories of Karine Khodikyan — but no young voices of revolution appeared. Some wondered where the Václav Havel or Czesław Miłosz of Armenia was hiding out. There were still old-style Soviet writers such as Hrant Matevosyan, now in their 70s mostly, who wrote about village and hearth, but no new voices that spoke urgently about contemporary themes or concerns.

Then suddenly, out of the literary mists, a new generation appeared in the late aughts that swiftly morphed into one of the most interesting in Eastern Europe. The publication of Aram Pachyan’s 2012 novel, Goodbye, Bird, was an explosive success: this difficult experimental tale of a soldier returning from war to civilian life became an instant best seller and still sits atop the “most read” lists in the country. (An English translation, by Nairi Hakhverdi, was published by the British press Glagoslav in 2017.) Pachyan and a small cohort of writers his age expressed themselves with rare stylistic and ideological freedom. Decrying life as they saw it, they took on previously taboo subjects such as sex and political corruption with gusto, winning praise and prizes. Most recently, Pachyan received the 2021 EU Prize for Literature, a first for an Armenian writer, for his second novel, P/F. Something was clearly brewing, but how would these new writers make their name in a small country with an established — read: intractable — intelligentsia of older gatekeepers, often resistant to change, and a rich literary tradition virtually unknown outside its own borders?

The answer came in large part from the first literary agent in Armenia, Arevik Ashkharoyan. She sensed that this new generation, led by the indomitable Pachyan, was somehow qualitatively different. The writers “were more open, existential, honest, critical toward the state, the army, and our parent’s generation,” Ashkharoyan told me. Pachyan, whose surgeon father operated on the injured during the first Artsakh war, writes scathingly of the effects of war on the human soul. Anna Davtyan writes explicitly about sexuality and the female body, while Hovhannes Tekgyozyan is one of the first openly gay writers in the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, he now makes his home in Strasbourg, France, and not Armenia, which remains rather homophobic. Ashkharoyan represents these writers with fierce devotion, attending book fairs and commissioning translations — a one-woman show whose agency, ARI, has signed up most of the major young talent. Slowly but surely, she is spreading the gospel of Generation Independence.

Agents are famously busy people, and Ashkharoyan’s schedule is a whirlwind of activity: finding, signing, and guiding her young writers; judging which translators are most apt to render their works vibrantly; entering her protégées into leading competitions; and finding publishing houses to put out their work in English. Requests for books to review or for author bios are answered within 24 hours, as this critic can attest. Combine all this work with her many trips to the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and the former Soviet republics, and you begin to get an idea of how busy Ashkharoyan can be — all the while seeming to love every minute of it!

Ashkharoyan also founded the ARI Literature Foundation to support the development of a local book market and thus bring Armenia into the dialogue surrounding international publishing. “There was no institutionalized representation of Armenian authors worldwide,” she told me. “Translations were rare and mainly the result of the writers’ own efforts, or state-funded anthologies, which never found their readers.” In the past three or four years alone, this one-woman literary powerhouse has signed almost a dozen international deals, which is remarkable given the lack of interest in small-language literature in general. Slowly, these Generation Independence writers are gaining a solid global reputation. Pachyan has become a well-known name in European literary circles, and it won’t be long before these young literary superheroes, guided by one indomitable super-agent, all make international names for themselves. The following is an overview of four of the most prominent of these writers.

Pachyan is the Superman of the group, or Captain Armenia if you will. Born in 1983 in Vanadzor, this literary wunderkind studied law at Yerevan State University before deciding to dedicate himself to literature. While his work covers many issues, such as the relation between the sexes and everyday human cruelty, he has most notably taken on the issue of war — its effect on soldiers but also on an entire generation suffering from PTSD after three successive wars with neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey. In his 2020 essay “War Dead or Alive,” he writes: “I don’t know how to write about war. What to write, perhaps.” And in a paragraph worth quoting at some length, he summarizes the Armenian situation to a tee:

Long before September 27, long before the bloody military actions, with Turkey’s open and direct participation, erupted along the entire Azerbaijan-Artsakh border, everybody was there: the “civilized world,” the UN, the UNESCO. They were all there to watch as the Middle East was devastated in real time, when Syria was leveled in real time, when “freedom fighters,” supposedly acting on behalf of entire nations, slayed authoritarian rulers, when Yezidis were slaughtered on Mount Sinjar, all in real time. […] Bereft of a way to defend themselves, the Armenians waited in vain for the “civilized world” in 1915 and were slaughtered in their homes and cities, left with nothing, alone with their expectation. A hundred years later, Turkey is attempting to perpetrate another genocide, this time using the “temple” of Armenophobia erected at the state level in Azerbaijan.

In Goodbye, Bird, a page-turning mystery that follows a soldier returning from mandatory military service with a wicked case of PTSD, Pachyan describes the terrible conditions endured by conscripts in the Armenian army:

It is forbidden to touch anything that has fallen in human waste in a dirty area I don’t know in the bathroom in the other areas adjoining the base’s arsenal under the gate of the mess hall in the woodshed where Mickey Mouse sits courteously Nar our unit’s untouchable the cleaner of dirty areas the king the savior of soldiers is coming with a broom […] he’s the only soldier who hasn’t held a gun or grenade in a year.

The hero witnesses death and near starvation, in barracks where abusive generals and excrement-filled bathrooms test human mettle. Pachyan’s message is clear: war is a game in which there are only losers, and the degradation it perpetrates scars a society for a lifetime. Pachyan’s latest novel, P/F (English translation yet to come), represents even more of a stylistic break. Written in truly experimental prose, it plays with the space of the page as it decries the loss of historical sense in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and the closing down of the city’s once fabled tramway. It also presages more good things to come from a young writer who has yet to reach the age of 40.

If Pachyan is the Superman of Generation Independence, then Anna Davtyan may well be its Wonder Woman. Born in Artik near Giumri, Davtyan brings the experiences of her native Shirak province to the reading public, much as Matevosyan and other more traditional writers did for their home areas a few generations back. Davtyan is a talented translator, short story writer, and poet, and her first novel, Khanna (2020), will be coming out in English translation in 2022. Khanna tells the story of a woman who longs for freedom — sexual, financial, and otherwise — and then reconciliation, as she tries to convert a property of her uncle’s into a guesthouse. The eponymous heroine is in love with her cousin, Abgar, while in the meantime having a sexual encounter with Atom while also being married to an unnamed “husband.” The prose is straightforward and racy, especially in the context of Armenian literature.

Yet, to my mind, it is Davtyan’s flexibility as a writer that impresses most. Her delicate poem paints a scene of nature in harmony with human emotions:

When one departs so far towards their dream,
The return becomes difficult. A lonely tree is hanging from the moon.
It’s not due to say,
But there is much suppressed sex in here, […]
The heart continues to jump from one second to another,
Sparrows cross the sky. But you don’t know why, it’s February.

In “Autumn: The Late. Winter: The Stones,” she writes elegantly of

[w]hite walls among whispers, and doors,
Outside winter is finishing under the cars without snow. […]
A white house without shortcomings.
The silver sound of the gravel is heard from the yard.
It’s not you. The wind blows the house towards the unseen lake.

It’s as spooky an image of nature as one finds in Frost or even Poe.

Finally, Davtyan’s short story “It Will Always Be Sung,” published in English in LARB this past March, presents a wondrous cinematic mélange of scenes. Like Marguerite Duras, who often used simple pronouns to describe her main characters, Davtyan doesn’t name all her protagonists. Is this a love story gone sour or one yet to happen? Are the characters straight or gay? The short story was written before the recent 44-Day War, but one could easily imagine it being about a soldier coming home or leaving for the front. The tale’s unspecified “state of emergency” is actually pleasing to one of the main characters, Mariam, since it gives her time to think, to simply be. Elsewhere, a third protagonist, referred to simply as “she,” reflects upon the month of March that she somehow had promised him, when events were blurred in her consciousness:

She remembers him now in serenity, without convulsion, with an ordinary, clear gaze, with eyes that look. The music lingered on, but something wasn’t happening; the three of them were simply sitting. They were probably happy. Mariam was uneasy about the state of emergency — she was feeling guilty. She spoke on the phone and said: yes, yes. Then turned off the phone and placed it on the table next to the ashtray.

Davtyan ends the story powerfully:

Should she stay in his memories, or let him go, too, to become clay in the trenches? My magazine is loaded, the fourth one would say. It’s really beautiful.

To have fired bullets in one’s head.

Outside, the crows caw on swollen poplar trees. Rustle by rustle, the branches jut out straight, upward.

It’s a haunting image, one that anticipates more war on the horizon and, perhaps as well, the sterility of the human condition. Ominously, Davtyan’s close friend, Alen, to whose memory she dedicated the story, died on September 30, the third day of the war.

Riding the crest of worldwide interest in LGBTQ literature are two gay Armenian writers, Hovhannes Tekgyozyan and Armen Ohanyan (a.k.a. Armen of Armenia). They could well be the Batman and Robin of Generation Independence, though I leave it up to the reader to decide which is which. To give an idea of how sensitive the topic of LGBTQ writing can be in Armenia, Harvard professor James Russell’s analysis, in his contribution to the 2003 book Yeghishe Charents: Poet of the Revolution, of homoerotic themes in the work of the revered poet laureate was derided by the Armenian literary establishment when it appeared. Charents’s gay cred has since been amply documented, most recently in Arpi Movsesian’s superlative translation of the 1936 poem “Erotic Song” in The Hye-Phen Magazine. Being gay isn’t easy in Armenia, a country still staunchly patriarchal and macho, with everything that implies. As noted, Tekgyozyan now lives in Strasbourg, where he is freer to express himself.

Tekgyozyan’s grandparents hailed from Lyon and Beirut before repatriating to Armenia, where the author was born. The author first became known for his novel Fleeting City, published in 2012 on the heels of two collections of stories, Wooden Shirt (2003) and Glass Sun (2006). His plays Metastasis and Non-People were staged in Armenia and, in 2012, at the Chekhov International Theater Festival, while his second novel, Skin Pain, was awarded the 2012 Orange Book Prize. His 2019 novel, The Third Sex, which came out in French in November, was written in light of the 2011 Istanbul Convention and the freedom it theoretically accords transgender people. The language is wonderfully crisp and experimental, as in this excerpt (translation mine) where one of the four female protagonists, Evelina, survives a bogus KGB-like trial:

“Dear Evelina,” an American accent appears in Jazoyan’s speech. “What is it that you don’t understand? Your trial has been suspended, sus-pen-ded? Since everyone on the plane at the time was a citizen of the USSR and the USSR no longer exists as such. You understand? Mrs. Yessayan…”

A blue passport suddenly appears in N. Yessayan’s hands.

“Thank you,” a smile remains on the woman’s face, “Dear Evalina given all the problems that we’ve caused you, we wanted to personally hand you your Armenian passport. Congratulations.”

A game? A game, an emphatic piece of theater.

“Let me congratulate you as well,” Jazoyan immediately backed up N. Yessayan: “I am truly happy. I hope you will understand our predicament. We’ve always held you in high esteem, but what can I say, it was one big shithole of a country, the Soviets. A real shithole.”

Me, an Armenian citizen? The country, a shithole? Stunned, I walk towards the leather-covered door.

In his new novel (yet to appear in English), Tekgyozyan writes about a Black man who never sees his roommates — a clever metaphor for the two Frances that rarely overlap: one inhabited by French citizens, the other by the so-called “sans papiers” (undocumented immigrants). With this latest effort, Tekgyozyan widens his reach to become a writer of truly European scope and importance.

Born in 1979, Armen Ohanyan writes under the pen name Armen of Armenia. A fiction writer, essayist, and literary translator, he is also politically active in the country, having served as president of PEN Armenia since 2017. Armen of Armenia is the author of the novelistic trilogy Mommyland (2015) and the short story collection The Return of Kikos (2013), a wonderfully original take on traditional fairy tales. One story, “Redhood,” narrated in brief takes like a TV show or film, conflates the tale of Little Red Riding Hood with that of a panelist confused as to which reality show he is on. Another, “Kikos,” is a complex autobiographical meditation that divides up Armenian history according to short stories by the beloved writer Hovhannes Tumanyan. “For a long time, after him, I had been looking for somebody to tell the real story of my life and I found him at last. His name is Armen and he is the author of these lines. We have a complicated relationship. We don’t get along well together.” At the end of the story, Armen addresses Tumanyan himself: “Oh my God, Hovhannes Tumanyan, I am on top of my tree, I will die from happiness now, and that would be the second death of Kikos. Then who would write about that?”

The remaining writers of Generation Independence all show a similar promise as these Fantastic Four. They include the novelists and short story writers Sargis Hovsepyan, Hrachya Saribekyan, Arpi Voskanyan, and Hambardzum Hambardzumyan, and the poets Hasmik Simonyan, Karen Antashyan, and Vahe Arsen, who follow in a long tradition that stretches back to Vahan Teryan, Yeghishe Charents, and other great Armenian bards. Some authors, such as Anush Kocharyan, Nara Vardanyan, and Lilit Karapetyan, have yet to appear in English translation, though hopefully the international success of Pachyan and others will soon rectify that neglect. Let’s call these remaining superheroes the Avengers of Generation Independence. Whoever’s work you choose to read, you’re unlikely to go wrong.

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Christopher Atamian is a New York–based writer, producer, and director who has been awarded two Tölölyan Literary Prizes. Christopher is currently finishing a novel, Manhattan Boy, and working on several film and theatrical projects.

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Featured image: “Aram Pachyan” by Անի Տագեր is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.