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A FORGOTTEN HERITAGE Armenian News Network / Groong July 15, 2003 by Shushan Avagyan Selected Works: Shushanik Kurghinian (1876-1927) It was in my sixth grade Armenian literature class that I first read this intriguing poet, who caught my attention because we shared the same name, and also because women writers rarely appeared in my textbooks. Last year I spent many hours leafing through her family album at the Museum of Art and Literature in Yerevan, browsing through her diligently handwritten notebooks and trying to decipher the sophisticated calligraphy. She, who romanticized: Lined up in the sky, the cranes come and go in files. Where shall I look for a homeland in spring, weep and mourn which heartache? also wrote: There are no chains to fold my soul or cease the heavenly flames within this heart, my dreams inexhaustible fires of the kinetic and nobody can subdue my song. I knew then, that I had discovered one of the unique littérateurs of the Armenian feminist arena. In that perspective, I would like to discuss selected works by Shushanik Kurghinian, and explore her complex survival that has remained underappreciated for many decades. Shushanik Popoljiants was born on August 18, 1876, in Alexandrapol (now Gyumri), in the Erevan province of Eastern Armenia. Her father, Harout, a poor craftsman, supported the family by working many hours at a shoe-repair workshop. At seven, Shushanik received elementary education at the local abbey but stayed there only for a year, after which she was transferred to the Arghutian Seminary. In the summers she worked in different places, weaving and making clay pottery, to help support the family. "She was very assertive among other girls - they listened to her. We got acquainted at the [Seminary], I had just arrived from Europe and she was close to graduation. She told me she wrote... Promised to read, but never kept her promise," recorded Avedik Isahakian in his book of memoirs. In 1893 Shushanik became a member of the Armenian Social-Democratic Hnchakian Party. That same year in fall she joined a group of eighteen women, who attempted to participate in the 1894 freedom struggles in Western Armenia. At that time Armenia was separated into Western and Eastern provinces, which were governed by the Turkish and Russian authorities. At this age, the dauntless young woman contemplated ways to liberate Armenians from the Turkish and Czarist oppressors and to secure an independent homeland. In 1895 she entered the Russian Progymnasium in Alexandrapol, preparing to leave for Moscow to continue her education. Circumstances changed and to appease her parents, who greatly valued family traditions, at twenty-one she married Arshak Kurghinian, a local tradesman. Her writings are sparse from this period, and they can be generally characterized as lyrical, but they do generate a blatant quality that soon would become her so-called trademark. In 1903, along with her husband and two children, Shavarsh and Arshakanush (Arsham, her youngest, was born later in 1910), Shushanik left for Moscow but ended up in Rostov. Experiencing utmost hardship and destitution, Kurghinian immersed herself in the revolutionary milieu and dedicated herself to writing. In her poem "Sold" of 1907 she writes: One day they sold her for a good price a wife for the rich agha, when father, a drunken brute, arrived home her virgin heart turned to distress no sleep or rest! [...] Then she followed her future man holding on to his giant paw silent, mute, pale, and puzzlement on a handsome face when she saw the tables. In her own will comes the bride? Asked the pastor with a cunning smile and as if hearing the answer recalled the groom bestowing him a bribe. Isahakian remembers, "The last time I saw her in 1907 -- in Rostov. She left the impression of an enigma: a true sibyl, a sorceress, an oracle -- slender, tall, strong, with phosphorescent eyes - completely isolated from a family setting." Here she had met a young Russian couple, Fedor and Maria, who took Kurghinian into their circle of laborer-proletarians. Life in Rostov was harsh; often left on her own, as Arshak traveled for business, the young woman was exposed to the turbulent world of the underground proletariat. In the letters to her husband and also Isahakian she often mentioned about the political currents occurring in Russia -- clearly she was very involved. "Dear Avedik," she wrote, "I am sending you two compositions and my [newly published] book - please be content with these for now. I am extremely busy, but soon will send you some OTHER works, conceived from all the tumult occurring within me." That year was a turning point in the writer's life and from here on her tone shifted from the soft lyrical to direct and demanding. Here is a sample of her writing of that time-period in a vociferous poem titled "I Want To Live." I want to live, but not a lavish life wedged in obscurity, unconcern, simple-mindedness, nor an outright hostage of beauty aids as a frail creature, delicate and feeble - but equal to you, oh men, auspicious, as you are - powerful and headstrong, fit against calamities, and ingenious with bodies full of fervor. [...] I want to act, next to you, in equality as my peoples loyal chapter; let me suffer over and again, night or day roaming from one place to another, struggling for those ideals of sovereignty And let this heft torment me in my exile only to gain the purpose of my life. [...] I want to fight, first as your rival, standing against you with an old vengeance, that absurdly and without mercy you turned me into a vassal through love and force Then after clearing these issues of my sex I want to fight against the agonies of life courageously like you, holding your hand, together facing this struggle of being or not Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, Kurghinian managed to publish her first small compilation of poetry under the title "Chimes at Dawn" (1907). The poet had submitted a second manuscript, but it was rejected by the Czarist censorship, mainly because of its sociopolitical content -- a taboo at the time. "Chimes at Dawn" was the only book that got published during her lifetime. Kurghinian's second book, "Best Works," arrived many years later, after Armenia had become a soviet republic -- it was compiled by her own daughter and published in Yerevan in 1939. Her third collection of selected best works was published in 1947, followed by the fourth book of "Poems" in 1971. A very significant addition to this collection was the pioneer edition of her previously unpublished works, titled "Literary Heritage: Poetry, Prose, Plays, Letters," selected and edited by J. Mirzabekian and published by the Yerevan National Academy of Sciences in 1981. The latter also contains important correspondence with Armenian literary figures such as Hovhannes Toumanian, Avedik Isahakian, Vrtanes Papazian, Ghazaros Aghayan and others, offering a kaleidoscopic outlook of the poet's legacy. Although Kurghinian tried her hand in prose and plays, the Armenian reader knows her best as a poet who occasionally used Arpenik as a pseudonym. Her plays were not as potent as her verse, but from performer H. Zarifian's letters, addressed to her in 1914, it is evident that there have been attempts to stage one of her pieces. "A few days ago in Tbilisi Mr. B. Ishkhanian handed me your new play "Maro" [also titled "Scorched Hearts"] and we would like to add it to our repertoire. You have probably read from the papers that I am leading a troupe to perform in Armenian communities in Turkey, Egypt and Iran. We are strictly looking for independent plays. Please let me know if you are interested," wrote Zarifian. Preserved at the Museum of Art and Literature, her oeuvre in entirety consists of fifty-nine hand-written notebooks - an incredible source of second-wave feminist writings. Amongst her contemporaries, Kurghinian admired particularly two great Russian thinkers -- Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov, whose populist ideology has had an obvious influence on her literary evolution. In 1916 she wrote in a journal, "Everyday I am opposed to Nietzsche's philosophy. There can be no life in a desert, one can not exist apart from the people." As a young intellectual, Kurghinian developed a distinct voice in addressing issues on class discrimination and women's rights. Her language is simple, but very effective for the time, considering how little formal education she had. She is concerned with the status quo of women and the exploitative economic forces that suppress them in a supremacist society. In several poems ("Seamstress," "Sold," "I Pity You," "Are You Still Sleeping?" etc) and literary articles she sends a powerful message to her sisters of burden, giving them hope and urging them to break away from the chains of patriarchal traditions. By doing so, Kurghinian does not attribute women to objects of beauty or motherhood, but presents them as the battered, voiceless sex -- sold and appropriated into marriages. In the following excerpt from "Let Us Join, Too," written in 1907, she appeals: Come, dear Sister, let us join, too - lets partake in the great holy battle, enough of our enslaved existence with thoughts covered by haze - dumbstruck with misery. Let the[m] lucky men not be so vain, for dashing forward - without us, trust me, Sister, they won't reach their purpose - will fall apart! Let's go, dear Sister, fearless, hand in hand - sacrificing all for a righteous trial, everyone is equal - the warrior so worthy - for the sacred spark of a liberating life. Kurghinians foremost priorities remained the political activity and writing, which took a great deal of time away from her husband and children. She never ceased being a loving mother and wife, but she knew that her calling was somewhere else outside the family. Shushanik and Arshak's relationship was founded on egalitarian grounds and they strongly supported each other in every aspect. Tragically, she lost him in 1917, after which she became very desolate and wrote less. Later in her life, she became much attached to her daughter and grandchildren; proof to that are the numerous archived letters. In a poem titled "Gift For My Daughter" she writes: In the grooves of your obsidian eyes that emanate a newborn life, unknowing sorrow, does my heart breathe in relief for infinite dreams of the days to come. In 1921, after long journeys in Russia, Kurghinian finally returned to a newly established Soviet Armenia. She actively took part in rebuilding the country, and whole-heartedly believed in Russia as the powerful ally for her star-crossed homeland. The poor living conditions and a weakened health hampered Kurghinian's activities, as she spent months at different hospitals for the treatment of her Graves' disease. In 1927 she lost her battle to the illness. First censored by Czarist editors and then by Marxist ideologists, who presented her solely as the proletarian singer, Kurghinian's voice is trapped in a narrow niche -- leaving hundreds of valuable works unrevealed. In this context, she received some recognition as a propagandist of social injustice in the canon of Armenian literature, not as a feminist. Only recently several of her works were translated into English, beautifully rendered by Diana Der Hovanessian. Nevertheless, Shushanik Kurghinian's poetry and literary existence remain unknown to many. -- BIBLIOGRAPHY Ghazarian, Hovhannes. Shushanik Kurghinian. Yerevan: National Academy of Sciences, 1955. Isahakian, Avedik. Compilation of Works. 5th ed. Yerevan: Sovetakan Grogh, 1977. Kurghinian, Shushanik. Literary Heritage: Poetry, Prose, Plays, Letters. Ed. J. Mirzabekian. Yerevan: National Academy of Sciences, 1981. Kurghinian, Shushanik. Poems. Ed. J. Mirzabekian. Yerevan: Hayastan Publishing, 1971. -- Shushan Avagyan is a recipient of the Center for Book Culture fellowship at the Illinois State University, and is working on her master's degree in English Literature. Original poems have appeared in the Mochila Review, Segue of Miami University-Middletown and the California Quarterly.