Lisbon was recently the site of two important events related to the literature of the Armenian diaspora.
The first was a panel that convened at the International Symposium of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the major professional association for scholars and teachers of language and literature, including comparative literature. This year’s theme was Remembering Voices Lost. According to the organizers, the conference, which took place between July 23 and 25 in the Portuguese capital, aimed to “recuperate the ‘lost voices’ of humanity: those that have been buried or forgotten and those that have been marginalized or othered on the grounds of their perceived foreignness.”
The panel, titled “Empire, Nation, Diaspora: A Look from the Armenian Experience,” examined the work of Hagop Oshagan and Vahé Oshagan, whose biological lives stretched over the entire twentieth century and whose output inscribed the limits of the imperial, national and diasporic projects. The panel explored the respective literary critical trajectories of the two writers, as well as the complex literary links between them. In his opening remarks, Karen Jallatyan (Armenian Studies Postdoctoral fellow at U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor), chair of the panel, stressed the singularity of the event. “This is the first time that an MLA panel is held on Hagop and Vahé Oshagan,” he said. “We are hoping that it will contribute to the advancement of Oshagan studies, which in turn will lead to new perspectives on Armenian-Turkish relations in the Ottoman Empire, the peculiarities and possibilities of Diaspora literature, and the themes of loss, survival and remembrance.”
The first panelist was Nanor Kebranian (Queen Mary, University of London) who began by noting the invisibility — prior even to the possibility of being remembered — to which Diaspora Armenian literature is condemned by academia since it falls outside the purview of post-colonial, post-Ottoman, Middle Eastern as well as Ethnic and Area Studies. Kebranian then offered a reading of Hagop Oshagan’s oeuvre as a refusal to conform to any exclusionary nationalist identity politics in rise particularly at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Following this, Karen Jallatyan offered a reading of Vahé Oshagan’s incomplete and unpublished historical novel Promontory, including the ways it rewrites Hagop Oshagan’s Remnants from the diasporic ground and thus offers a rare perspective of the Armenian transition from empire to nation to diaspora. Hagop Kouloujian (UCLA) gave the third presentation by attempting a comparative reading between Nigoghos Sarafian and Vahé Oshagan’s poetics, drawing attention to their deliberate openness towards non-binary diasporic becoming. Taline Voskeritchian (Boston University) made closing remarks by discussing the emergence of Vahé Oshagan’s diasporic literature in Armenian in the context of a statement he made in 1962 at the beginning of his literary career: “You must play poker on your grandfathers’ grave if you want to be a writer.” She drew attention to the complexities of literary risk-taking that characterizes what Vahé Oshagan has called a “diaspora sensibility.”
The panel was made possible through a travel grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
On July 26, and in conjunction with the MLA panel, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation hosted the screening of Hrayr Anmahouni Eulmessekian’s experimental documentary “Vahé Oshagan: Between Acts” at the Foundation’s headquarters in Lisbon. The film has been screened at the American University of Armenia, and the Mirzoyan Library in Yerevan; at UCLA and Abril Bookstore in Los Angeles; at Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris; and by the Montreal chapter of Hamazkayin Cultural Association.
The film brings together extracts from Oshagan’s poetry; Ohannes Salibian’s electronic sound-texts of Oshagan’s poems; analysis by Nichanian, Krikor Beledian, Krikor Shahinian and Oshagan himself; and biographical information about the Oshagans. The result is an arresting and informative film — an intense conversation between language, image, sound, commentary and biographical narrative. “Here, too, we have several significant qualities,” said Voskeritchian, who translated the film, including the poetic extracts. “The film is entirely in Western Armenian, about a modern Armenian writer who wrote in Armenian. This is rare in our diaspora culture. What is even more rare is that it is an experimental documentary — in image and sound — but its home, if you will, is the Western Armenian language.”
A Q and A with Anmahouni and Voskeritchian followed, moderated by Hagop Kouloujian.
Marc Nichanian, philosopher, writer, and translator, who has written extensively about Hagop and Vahé Oshagan, offered final remarks both on the MLA panel the day before and the screening of the film. Regarding the first, he noted, “This panel was the first of its kind devoted entirely to writers writing in Armenian, not to mention the fact that they are father and son. There is here the possibility of opening some elements of Armenian literature to an international context and beginning a conversation with the world.” Nichanian further noted that on the one hand the experience of dispersion marking the diasporic experience suggests the impossibility of transmission from one generation to another, from father to son. On the other hand, Nichanian suggested that with the Oshagans, we have a complex situation that inscribes the challenges of cultural transmission in the diaspora. Kebranian in a commentary drew attention to an inverse phenomenon of expecting excessive transmission from Armenians living in the Diaspora. Both Nichanian and Kebranian agreed that the Diaspora Armenian experience is marked by a difficulty of transgenerational cultural transmission.
“Vahé Oshagan: Between Acts” was originally commissioned in 1994 by Hamazkayin Cultural Association, Western Region, and up-resed and translated with English subtitles in 2016 with a generous grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.