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The Critical Corner - 06/28/2005

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Why we should read...

Armenian Women's Poetry Through the Ages
Translated by Diana Der-Hovanessian
[AIWA Press, 2005, 153 pp., ISBN: 0-9648787-4-7]

Armenian News Network / Groong
June 28, 2005


Many centuries ago, the Armenians used to celebrate the second
Saturday of October as Surb targmanchats ton, the Saint Translator's
Day. There would be great festivities, wine and folk music, circle
dances and poetry recitals. Ironically, in the modern days we
celebrate wars, not language, literature or those who safeguard our
culture and pass it on to the coming generations. In this regard,
Diana Der-Hovanessian's new volume "The Other Voice" is like a gem
that has been recovered from our nation's heritage, a renaissance of
poetry that was lost, forgotten and abandoned.  Armenian women poets
have had a long and honored tradition in the art of writing. This
kaleidoscopic volume brings together old lullabies, ancient chants,
medieval, nineteenth century, modern and contemporary poetry.

Most of the folk chants and lullabies belong to the oral tradition of
our foremothers, the songs that they sang while rocking the cradle. As
typical to the Armenian folklore, these were chants expressing sorrow
and heartache, like in `The Bride to Her Mother':

    Myrig, Myrig, do not weep.
    Myrig try to smile.
    I'm the one who's leaving
    the one who needs to cry.

The rueful tone is slightly elevated in lullabies, in which women
sought hope and brighter days. Quite exquisite are some of the
lesser-known chants as the fortune-telling verses, ancient cures and
spells.  Overtly superstitious, these probably originated in pagan
times, and later evolved into prayer-like verses.

Khosrovidoukht Koghtantsi and Sahakdoukht Siunetsi were two eighth
century poets most of whose works have been lost. Sahakdoukht Siunetsi
was also a matron of music and founded music schools, where she taught
discreetly behind a curtain. Her poetic style was rather sophisticated,
she worked in many forms such as acrostics, riddles and formulaic
verses. Sahakdoukht Siunetsi may have been one of the first Armenian
poets who consciously celebrated womanhood and female priesthood, as
in her poem dedicated to the Virgin she wrote:

    Saint Mary, incorruptible altar,
    giver of life, mother of life-giving words,
    blessed are you among women,
    joyful virgin mother of God. 

During the period of the Mongol and Turkish invasions, our women
suffered tremendously by losing their freedom and rights to any kind
of independent existence. This cultural silence persisted until the
turn of nineteenth century, the golden age that gave us such
remarkable writers as Diana Agabeg Apcar, Sybille and Shushanik
Kurghinian. These women were pioneers of their kind, their activities
ranged widely from individual to national. Apcar was the first woman
diplomat stationed in Yokohama, Japan, who helped Armenian refugees
and wrote prolifically on the Armenian question. Sybille was founder
of the Patriotic Armenian Women's Association and contributed greatly
to the cause of educating Armenian girls in Anatolia.  Kurghinian
partook in the socialist revolution and led working class women to a
united struggle.

The twentieth century modernists like Metakse, Silva Kaputikian and
Alicia Ghiragossian, continue the tradition of patriotic spiritualism
and preservation of the Armenian culture. In Kaputikian's famous poem
`Words for My Child,' a mother teaches her child the love for native

    Forget your mother
    before forgetting your mother tongue.

I remember as fifth-graders we learned this poem by heart and it
evoked so much passion, filling us with pride to know, speak and read
a language that was passed on to us by such self-sacrificing mothers.

The volume also includes the three most important voices of
contemporary Armenian literature, Tanya Hovanessian, Sonia
Tashjian-Tavtyan and Violette Grigoryan. Hovanessian was a very
promising young poet, whose life was cut short by the 1988 earthquake
in Leninakan. In her almost prophetic voice, she wrote:

    My fate
    was to live
    in this fearful century.
    My fate was
    to have a dream
    I could not reach
    and to die without
    even your eyes.

Tashjian-Tavtyan belongs to the newer group of writers in Yerevan
whose work, like that of the American Language Poets, is very process
oriented and difficult to translate. Grigoryan is the editor of
Bnagir, a journal of contemporary and experimental Armenian literature,
which is an important portal for writers whose works are marginalized
by such groups as the Armenian Writers' Union.  Grigoryan's work is
rather playful and brazen, carefully layered with mysticism and,
sometimes, irony. At the end of the book, Der-Hovanessian has also
compiled the names and short biographies of other writers who have not
been included in the volume.

For a shrinking nation like the Armenian, whose literature is unread,
whose history is denied, whose name is forgotten, this impressive
volume sheds a new kind of light on our culture by introducing the
works of over seventy poets. Returning to the idea of honoring and
celebrating the Translators, we have to bear in mind that the
knowledge of just one language limits a person, confines and isolates
one from other cultures and experiences. We do not give enough credit
or attention to translations, the transmitters of perception, the
bridge to understanding each other as a unified race. The work of a
translator is very difficult and time consuming because just the
knowledge of a language is not enough to successfully transmit a
culture; the translator is like the lens inside of a telescope,
bringing constellations of stars to the reader. In Der-Hovanessian's
case, the constellation of stars is rather wide-ranging, meaning the
translator is dealing with a variety of radically different voices,
tones and styles. I know that this is not an easy task at all, and I
applaud Der-Hovanessian, one of our best translators, for her courage,
persistence and dedication to bring `the Voice of the Other' to you,
the English reader.

To read more on selected figures such as Diana Agabeg Apcar,
Metakse, Shushanik Kurghinian and Silva Kaputikian, visit

Shushan Avagyan is currently working on her master's degree in English
Literature, and is a recipient of the Dalkey Archive Press fellowship
at the Illinois State University.

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