Last year, on the occasion of the new year, Back to the Sources discussed the complex interplay between tradition and renewal, arguing that a well-functioning tradition offers tools and content for constantly renewing contemporary times. Tradition is not static, but an inherently dynamic set of resources to meet the needs of the present. At the New Year, a calendrical reminder of novelty and renewal, including in popular culture where it we make “New Year’s Resolutions” intended to create new, “better” versions of ourselves, it is an appropriate time to reflect on these themes of creation and renewal. From the Christian perspective, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, His Birth (Christmas), the coming into the world of one person of the Trinity, itself renews creation. Through Jesus Christ, the “new Adam,” not only are humans saved, but the entire world, all of God’s creation, marred since the Fall of the first Adam, is itself renewed. This is a profound ecological insight, highly applicable to our present times. The Zohrab Information Center, in the coming months, will be presenting a series of “Enrichment Evenings” on the Environment, emphasizing the potential of Armenian Christianity to enter a conversation about the care of God’s creation that many Christian denominations, especially the Orthodox Church, has already been having. Renewal, both in popular ideas of the New Year and in the Armenian Christian celebration of Christmas on January 6—the birth of Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of the Word of God—is at the heart of the current season. When we transition not only to a new year, but a new decade, the confluence of retrospection and renewal becomes even more pressing.
Today, we will focus briefly on one specific kind of renewal that emerged as a major concern in the past decade: language and literature of Armenian, especially Western Armenian. In 2010, UNESCO declared Western Armenian to be “definitely endangered,” the second category the organization uses, the first being “vulnerable.” According to UNESCO, a language is “definitely endangered” when “children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.” For many speakers of Western Armenian and for those interested in the vitality of Western Armenian, this designation did not come as a surprise. Conversations about how to “stay Armenian” are almost as old as diasporic Armenian communities. The specific question of language vitality took on an added urgency during the course of the twentieth century in America. First, Western Armenian is the variant of the language that was standardized in Istanbul in the nineteenth century and reflects closely what many Armenian speakers of the former Ottoman Empire spoke. While the Eastern Armenian variant has had continuous state-sponsorship in the Soviet Republic of Armenia and now the independent Republic of Armenia, Western Armenian after the Genocide is stateless, perpetuated in the home and the handful of crucial institutions throughout the Genocide. While there are genuine concerns over the vitality of Eastern Armenian, especially among Armenian immigrants to America from the Republic of Armenia following the fall of the Soviet Union, it is Western Armenian, as the language of Genocide survivors, that has attracted the most attention in America. The preservation of Western Armenian is rightly tied to resilience in the aftermath of Genocide. At the same time, the American “melting pot”—not to mention the overwhelming monolingualism of American society—has been a particularly difficult environment for the perpetuation of Armenian. So, when UNESCO declared Western Armenian as “definitely endangered,” there was both a sense of recognition concerning the situation of the language and a renewed urgency.
Since 2010, there has been a major push to understand and combat the decline of Western Armenian. At the same time, there has been greater recognition of the importance of creating and bolstering the infrastructure for Eastern Armenian speakers in America. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, through its “Armenian Communities Department” currently directed by Razmik Panossian, provides major support for various initiatives designed to invigorate Western Armenian. Perhaps most dynamic among these initiatives is the Zarmanazan Summer Camp, an immersive language summer camp for youth and young adults held in France. An important book, Western Armenian in the 21st Century: Challenges and New Approaches, was published last year by the Society for Armenian Studies imprint at California State University, Fresno, edited by Bedross Der Matossian and Barlow Der Mugrdechian. Emerging from an earlier conference, this book brings together essays by some of the most important scholars and teachers of Western Armenian. Ultimately, the tone of many of these essays is constructive and even tentatively optimistic. However, it is realistic about the past and the need for radical innovation in order for Western Armenian to be a vibrant language in today’s world. Hagop Gulludjian, who teaches Western Armenian at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that in all the years of the Armenian school system in the Americas (including Canada and South America), there has not been a single book of full-length fiction published in Western Armenian by American-born authors. Books have been published in Armenian, certainly, but always by individuals born elsewhere. Garo and Raff Sarkissian, two brothers in Toronto published a book of poetry in the past decade, and Vartan Matiossian, currently the Executive Director of the Armenian Prelacy in New York, has written several books on literature and poetry. To date, these are the sole exceptions to this trend.
|Western Armenian the 21st Century: Challenges and New Approaches||Published by the Press at California State University, Fresno with support from the Society for Armenian Studies, this important recent volume includes essays by teachers and scholars of Western Armenian. Anyone concerned with Western Armenian will find important insights in this book.|
|Girk’-anvernagir||By Shushan Avagyan, one of the most exciting and experiment works to be written in the Armenian language (Western or Eastern) in recent years. In Armenian. A portion has been translated to English by Deanna Cachoian-Schanz.|
|Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France||By Krikor Beledian, translated into English by Christopher Atamian. This book, focusing largely on the Menk group of writers in France, also contains important insights into Western Armenian literature in Diaspora more broadly.|
In the next sentence, however, Gulludjian sounds a note of renewal and cautious optimism: “This state of affairs has a fair chance to end in the near future, as there are currently a few books of poetry or fiction in preparation lining up for publication” (2019, 110). All of these forthcoming books are written by authors who were not products of the Armenian school system and instead have learned Armenian later in life. They are known as new speakers, a category of speaker that has recently taken hold in linguistic study. As Jennifer Manoukian, a graduate student in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA (a new speaker and translator of Armenian herself) notes, new speakers are characterized by choosing to learn a minority language, who have a “conviction in the value of the language’s perpetuation and expansion” and who learn the language not from parents at home but from teachers in a classroom (2017, 198). By themselves, new speakers mark an optimistic trend in the history of Western Armenian. As new speakers use Western Armenian to talk and write about contemporary life, the language will evolve—as languages have done and always will do. Perhaps, as Manoukian writes, “seemingly invisible new speakers may find themselves at the helm of Western Armenian, bringing with them stamps of their multilingualism” (2017, 204).
There are glimpses of this trend and a potential renewal of not only Western Armenian, but a broadening and revitalization of Armenian language and literature in general. First, it is important to note that both Eastern and Western Armenian in other countries have continuously reinvigorated themselves in the past century. Eastern Armenian writers participated in literary trends that crossed borders within the Soviet Union and contemporary literature in the Republic of Armenia is vibrant. Many of the most experimental and creative writers in Eastern Armenian today are women, highlighted in this “Words Without Borders” online magazine issue. Study of this literature as part of academic comparative literature in and outside of Armenia has also increased. For instance, Deanna Cachoian-Schanz, who translated the work of Shushan Avagyan’s text Book-Untitled (the first chapter is in the “Words Without Borders Collection”) is a graduate student of Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. New writing coming from Armenia and scholarship on this literature are part of a broader revitalization of Armenian language and literature globally. At the same time, even if the Americas have not thus far produced many indigenous Armenian writers, other Diasporic Armenian communities have. In addition to the robust literary production in the Middle East, especially in Beirut and Aleppo, according to Krikor Beledian, the Armenians in France not only continued to write in Western Armenian, but produced a genuine literary movement, centered on the Menk (“We”) group in Paris. In addition to literary history and criticism, Beledian himself is one of the most important contemporary writers in Western Armenian.
Taken together, these developments suggest the potential for new writing in Western Armenian, coupled with a robust study of Armenian language and literature in all its dialects and forms. After the publication of Western Armenian in the 21st Century, several roundtable discussions have taken place across the country to present the book and continue the conversation. One was held in New York, co-sponsored by the Zohrab Information Center. At the discussion in New York, one of the major topics was the platforms and media through which creative literacy in Western Armenian can be promoted. Several important platforms and trends are worth mentioning and supporting: the literary magazine Pakin, published in Beirut since 1962 until today, is a “platform where it could assemble writers of the Armenian diaspora.” It continues to publish literary reviews, criticism, and original works in Western Armenian—recent issues feature essays by Jennifer Manoukian and poetry by Jesse Arlen, another new speaker currently pursuing a PhD at UCLA. Inknagir is an online literary magazine, publishing in both dialects of Armenian and giving voice to new authors and literary trends. Granish is a site that publishes English translations of Armenian literature. In addition to these platforms, Instagram accounts like @aghvor_paner and @lsetsink demonstrate how new technologies might be mobilized to ensure the vitality of (Western) Armenian. As Vartan Matiossian insisted in the roundtable discussion on Western Armenian in the 21st Century in New York, we must refuse the defeatist mentality that acts as though Western Armenian has already been lost. In the new year and the new decade, we can support these currents of linguistic and literary renewal and revitalization of Armenian!
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