Instructions on Building a Home: A personal essay

An Armenian diasporan reflects on intergenerational trauma

Lillian Avedian/Staff

I have been ripped out of nothing and tossed into a new world.

The smooth arch of my eyebrow, the bump of my nose, the earthy tones of my skin proclaim a wealthy heritage of people crossing rivers and oceans to reach America. Their beauty is mapped onto my body — yet if this is true, then so is their hollowness. There is a gap right here in the center of my chest, and I have taught myself how to survive without what usually exists there.

In 1915 the Ottoman Empire undertook a policy of systematic, mass extermination directed at its Armenian population. 1.5 million people perished. Survivors dispersed across the globe, establishing communities throughout Europe and the Americas. The Armenian diaspora, as I witness it today, was born.  

Facts and dates and numbers pour into the gap, yet they can never fill it. The event still looms on the other side of the embankment, yet I cannot make out its outlines or fill them in. How can I comprehend that which resists comprehension? How can I approach that which cannot be named?

I have been dispossessed of the memories that haunt me. Memories scattered in shards across the desert plain, pricking my fingers as I pick them up. I piece them together, yet they form no coherent whole.

Every year, on April 24, the Armenian community gathers for marches and demonstrations. Shouts for justice and reparations and truth reverberate throughout global media for a day, and after twenty-four hours all returns to the deafening silence of denial. This anger which I have been instructed to feel since birth, however, fails to capture the event. It still looms over there, and we stand over here, embroiled in a lifeless political battle, shouting to no one, reckoning with nothing.

If I come from nothingness, then how can I know where I am going? If I have no history, then how do I write a future?

I am enrolled in two different classes on the topic of genocide this semester. I desperately search for an explanation, a formula, a documented history in which I can identify myself and map out a future. Facts, dates, numbers, anger, denial and politics fail. Yet here is an answer that I can cling to, since when I place it on my tongue it melts and I feel that it is mine: art.

I will use language, the only tool I possess, to grapple with the catastrophe on my own terms.

This is my poem, dedicated to my community:

We build a new home together, where your pain is mine (we will not name the pain).

We pick up the pieces together, searching for those that have not been shattered.                                                                                          

                                                                                                         The makings of a rooftop!

In the mornings we listen to Komitas, as we scatter pomegranates across the floor and crush them beneath our feet.

                                                                                               The makings of a new land!

In the afternoons we prepare nazook (yet do not dare bring it to our tongues, for fear the sweetness will undo us). We break the nazook into pieces and watch the flakes float through the air.

                                                 Drive out the desert dust, inhale the sugar and bitter walnut.

In the evenings we lie together in the grass and feel one another’s emptiness.

                                                                                                                One body, one solitude.

We search for them among the stars and remind ourselves that we are alive. Look at how beautiful the moon is tonight!  

I pinch the flesh of my palm and whisper, I am here, I am here, I am here. I am, I am, I am.

I take your hand as we stand up, wipe the dirt off of our jeans and walk toward the future. The home lives on, and its construction is our saving grace.

This is our promise: we will continue to build and create and walk forward, yet we will never put a name to the pain. On this matter, we will stay silent until the end of the years.

And thus, poetry in hand, I begin to craft my own meaning and mourn and heal. I paint and recite and leap across the nothingness, and give it form and texture and color. I write my own history, and look ahead to a new dawn.

Contact Lillian Avedian at [email protected].