Parents Against Books: A Conversation with Nancy Agabian
By Haig ChahinianJanuary 8, 2024
The Fear of Large and Small Nations by Nancy Agabian
Given Agabian’s command at distilling complex events into relatable narratives, I jumped at the chance to speak with her about recent protests in the Glendale Unified School District. We were both unsettled by news that physical fighting had erupted outside a 2023 school board meeting convened to declare June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month. Among the loudest voices against the declaration that passed unanimously were those of our own ethnic background.
Our conversation sometimes turned to the conflict between the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh—which we call Artsakh—and Azerbaijan surrounding it. For the first eight months of 2023, the Azerbaijani government blockaded a vital route into the region, starving an estimated 120,000 of our people. In September, a deadly military assault forced survivors to flee the territory en masse. Agabian and I have been distraught by Azerbaijan’s recent overtures to overtake our homeland’s southern terrain.
HAIG CHAHINIAN: What brought you to Los Angeles from Massachusetts, where you were born and raised?
NANCY AGABIAN: After graduating college, I’d read in ARTnews and Art in America about the vibrant creative scene in L.A. I wanted to be somewhere I could have an adventure, find myself apart from my family. Growing up in an overprotective bicultural household, I knew that if I stayed close to home, I couldn’t be my whole self. It’d be a struggle to be an artist because of the traditional expectations my family had for me: get married, have kids, pursue a stable career.
What was the city like then?
In the early 1990s, it was such a rich and fertile place to be a young creative. The city was completely supportive to people coming together to unpack the racist, sexist, homophobic messages we grew up with, and to feel united around how we undo all of these ills. Especially in the performance art scene, which I hadn’t anticipated getting involved with.
Performing used the whole body in making art. In Venice, there’s this literary arts center called Beyond Baroque that has poetry and performance art workshops. I was like, ooh, performance art, I want to try that. But I felt shy. I thought I’d start with poetry. I’d hoped it would help lead me into the performance art seminars conducted by two amazing queer Black women, Michelle T. Clinton and Akilah Oliver, who became mentors. They gave me a place to write about things I’d experienced but didn’t have a means to talk about. We gave a reading at the end, and it was the first time I performed.
You recently read your debut novel at the Glendale Central Library. Why is Glendale the epicenter for Armenians in Los Angeles?
Glendale has the biggest population of Armenians outside of Armenia, right? More than 80,000. We’ve come from all over the world—everywhere we dispersed after the 1915 genocide. Glendale’s a double diaspora for so many of our people. In the last several years, with the neighborhoods becoming less affordable, Armenians are still immigrating to the areas around it. I think of Glendale now as an umbrella term for the vicinity. I like to say that if East Hollywood is “Little Armenia,” Glendale is “Big Armenia.”
That works. There were security guards at your summer event, whose timing coincided with the protests against Glendale Unified School District. The book launch must have been fraught.
Armenians and others in the area had been protesting against the Glendale public schools for designating June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month. Attendees needed to feel safe coming to my event. The Fear of Large and Small Nations is about so many things. Queer Armenians, yes, but it’s also about domestic violence within Armenia. I wondered if that wasn’t the right book for the moment. The event became a place for people to congregate and be together, which I think is so necessary during times of crisis.
You’re involved with GALAS, the Armenian LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. What part have they played?
Glendale has its own version of the national backlash against gay youth and families that is happening all over the States. GALAS has been really critical in resisting that backlash against the schools here that are participating in Pride Month—which was somewhat shocking for Los Angeles, one of the biggest salad bowls of the country. Americans think of California as this blue bastion, and the Right picked up on that. Oh, here’s a segment in a blue state that’s aligned with us. And maybe that’s why it’s shocking.
It’s also startling for Armenian Americans who may not realize where this could lead. Do we want our literature to be banned? Do we want to be banned? The latest news is that Azerbaijan put out a map of new street names in the capital of Artsakh, Stepanakert. One of the thoroughfares is to be called Enver Pasha, after the main architect of the Armenian genocide. They’re working to eliminate us, again.
But on another level, the political organizing in Glendale is not super surprising. It feels very deliberate. There’s an organization … I want to call it “Parents Against Books”—
Moms for Liberty.
They have been encouraging and training conservative-leaning Angelenos to run for school boards, and they’re doing this across the country.
Some of the dialogue around the issue was like, “Oh, it’s just the Armenian families.” And so, there was this anti-Armenian rhetoric, connecting us only to homophobia when in fact GALAS exists as an advocacy organization, a beacon for homophile Armenians all over the world. GALAS insisted, “Don’t erase us.” We’re not a monolith. We have gay folks, trans folks, and straight folks, too, who support having a safe space for every Armenian kid and their families. Some of the bigoted Armenians who are railing against us—what are they going to do when their child comes out? Don’t they want a safe space for them? We all would’ve wanted that for ourselves. We know the harm it’s done.
What has it been like to see two vital parts of yourself—your Armenian self and your bisexual self—play out against each other in the news?
When the events were unfolding over the summer, I felt a real sadness. We lesbian, gay, bi, and trans Armenians have contributed so much to our culture. We take care of our elders. We contribute income to our families. We cook the food. For those of us who don’t know the language, we try to learn. We represent so proudly in all the spheres we belong to. So that’s where the sadness came in.
In 2020, when the war happened over Artsakh, many Armenians were in the streets speaking out. The same activism is happening now. With this recent genocide of Armenians, who were forcibly driven out of Artsakh with violence and hatred, many of us in the diaspora have been called to sound an alarm. Gay and trans Armenians have been prominent among them.
It felt like, all this is going down in Artsakh, but you guys are attacking your queer brothers and sisters? Have you lost your souls? And by the way, you’re going to waste the Glendale school district’s time with this foolishness when children need education? You’re being co-opted by white nationalists. So, good job. Good job as an American, and as an Armenian. That’s really effective activity. You’ll forgive my sarcasm.
I’d love to laugh at the prejudice, yet the vitriol against us, by our own people, hurts.
Laughing comes in because the rhetoric is just so absurd, and laughing is a release. We’ve been under so much stress and strain. It’s been awful the past few weeks. Sometimes I feel I shouldn’t be criticizing narrow-minded Armenians right now, but they’re the ones who started it!
The other reality is that the most vulnerable in a group are often the ones who get the worst treatment, or the least protection. In some ways, I thought, Well, they feel powerless over the blockade, and massacres, and ultimately the government collapse in Artsakh. Lashing out at queer people is something they can control. I fear we’re going to see more acting out because the Armenian public is sustaining so much violence, and trauma just keeps circulating.
Would you say the social climate has always been this brutal?
It’s important to remember that over the last 20 years there has been more and more opening up of minds. When I first started getting involved with political activism, having moved from Los Angeles to New York in 1999, lesbian and gay Armenian organizations were starting to form because we were finding each other on the internet. There were parallel groups in San Francisco, L.A., and New York.
We were having conversations, asking questions such as “Why are our communities so homophobic?” and “Where does the homophobia come from?” We attached it to the anguish and suffering from genocide. There was a misperception then that if you were gay, you couldn’t have children. Raising a family is such a vital Armenian value. Of course, that’s been proven wrong.
It’s troubling to think that amidst all this enduring distress over what’s happening in Artsakh, you and I and our kind may continue to be punching bags.
I feel a lot of anger and rage right now, and it’s hard to know what to do with it. Yet what we have is two decades of building connections amongst one another, forging a community, and that will be sustaining. I don’t think anyone can erase that. Not at all.
How does your writing help in these circumstances?
I write to figure out answers to problems. That’s my first motivation. At Beyond Baroque, I suddenly had a place to write about the silences of my family. I knew we were supposed to be white, but people were making fun of my looks and no one had heard about what Armenia was. That’s where my writing in the ’90s stemmed from: being a shy, bisexual woman just coming out. Writing became a means to say things I couldn’t express otherwise.
In The Fear of Large and Small Nations, you talk about Armenians shaming one another: for not being culturally connected enough, not speaking the language well enough, not being straight enough, not being involved in current events enough. I’ve known this feeling my whole life. The current shame being projected onto us in Glendale is part of a cycle I don’t know how to stop. Do you?
Any kind of healing effort is an undoing of shame, which keeps us frozen and blaming instead of operating from an “I” voice and taking responsibility. It’s hard to undo because it means being vulnerable and saying, “I made a mistake.” Sometimes we hold ourselves to a standard that no one can really be held to. I see hope when there are more Armenians becoming psychotherapists and yoga teachers and getting into the healing arts, which I don’t think we saw in our parents’ generation or even in Gen X. It’s really in the younger set where you see a lot more Armenians working in healing specialties. And I think that’s a disruptor to the cycle of shaming.
Interesting. I’d love it if we had a whole toolkit to interrupt the negativity.
As an ethnic group, we have a means to be kind to ourselves and to others, all the time. For example, our giving, hospitality culture—having coffee together and cooking and feeding each other. It’s always there. We often need more than that: we need words too. Yet when you have a wonderful meal, sometimes Armenian families just focus on the delicious dishes and avoid talking about pain. Food, dancing—these comforting rituals are reparative. In an era when we feel so powerless, caring for the people around us is a form of resistance.
Your affecting memoir Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter (2008) inspired me to pilgrimage to ancient Armenia, from where my grandparents had been exiled, like your grandfather. I had been told by extended family never to visit present-day Turkey so as not to give them money. But traveling there grounded me. It bears saying that as a writer, you have a track record of leading readers toward social progress. In this way, you’re revolutionary.
I didn’t think of my work as revolutionary. It’s part of a wider whole. Even as Princess Freak was getting published, it felt like part of a conversation about unpacking bigotry in an Armenian context. I remember I did an event at a big L.A. chain bookstore around 1999, and just reading a poem about getting your period was so controversial.
See what I mean about leading the charge?
I didn’t see myself as a leader. I really value what people contribute collectively. Gradually over time, I have seen that people need certain things to be said. I definitely felt that when I went to Armenia in 2005; they were asking me to say what they felt needed to be said out loud. Someone confided to me that I was expressing things that a girl in the village was going through. People didn’t have the space to speak. Because I could just parachute in and fly out, it was safe for me to do that. I don’t know if that’s leadership.
You sound so not American, refusing to claim individual credit. One aspect of your novel’s artistry lies in its collage-like structure. The five-segment format—journal, story, letter, blog post, and meta-writing—really jars the reader into understanding Na, the protagonist, and her splintered self. How did you conceive of this poetic design?
I think of it more as four main threads, with a couple letters thrown in. I wrote a blog during my time in Armenia, and knew I wanted to build on it. At first, I conceived the project as nonfiction, basically reporting what I had experienced among artists and activists trying to make change. As I wrote about the relationship at the center of the book, I would think of myself in the third person, like in a movie. Writing in third person helped me fictionalize the narrative.
I had already been a fan of collaged texts that break up the narrative. As a performance artist, I was used to the form, because the surprise of changing course keeps the audience engaged. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (1996), bell hooks’s memoir in which she shifts point of view, and Gloria Anzaldúa, who shifts between poetry and languages and history and personal history in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), have been an inspiration.
The fragmented text also reflected the themes of public and private lives feeling fractured. Like being in a closet—not just queer folks. In Armenia, everyone was guarding their personal lives. I felt splintered as well, keeping so much of my relationship secret. I started using my journal entries in the narrative, so writing the book became a way to survive this destructive partnership. The different threads allowed me to be both in the moment and beside the moment at the same time. And I needed the voice of the writer in the present—the meta-writing—to tie all the parts together.
The nations referenced in the title ostensibly are the United States and Armenia. What was Na afraid of?
I came up with the title early on, right after my first trip to Armenia. When I saw how George W. Bush failed to protect Black residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, I asked myself, What was he so afraid of? It felt like fear was at the root of all isms. Na is a fearful character. Fearful about what she doesn’t know. Fearful of the negative voices in her head.
I hoped the book would shine a light on a diaspora experience—the fear that manifests when your identity is invisible within a hugely powerful country, and that same identity makes you feel responsible for a small, historically beleaguered country. A push-pull of feeling powerless, and yet being confronted with your own power.
The title reads another way––what are small and large nations afraid of? What do they have in common, in terms of their patterns of fear and oppression? And now, as we see so much violence wrought by powerful nations—what are their blind spots? What is a nation itself?
Last question: There’s a moment in the novel when Na contemplates a bleak future. She observes that “all the books and libraries turning to dust, even the stuff we put on hard drives and plastic disks[,] will disintegrate in 10,000 years. Shakespeare, the Mona Lisa, Bach, all of it gone. Human intellectual production is fleeting and irrelevant.” If this scenario could occur, then why do you write?
My hope is that it does good, becomes part of a conversation that leads to greater action. I’ve felt so disillusioned about the atrocities happening overseas. It can feel like writing doesn’t make any difference. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing it. Because what else can I do? Seeing the bigotry in Los Angeles, on top of the apathy toward full-scale ethnic cleansing in Artsakh, and not to write about it—that would be a defeat. It’s hard; it’s been one of the worst things I’ve felt in my life. I don’t have any words. But I have to keep trying to find them.
Nancy Agabian is a writer, teacher, and literary organizer who works at the intersections of queer, feminist, and Armenian American identity. She will be reading from The Fear of Large and Small Nations on Saturday, April 13, 2024, at 7:00 p.m. at Beyond Baroque in Venice, Los Angeles.
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