Translator’s Note: In this first chapter of Book-Untitled, Shushan Avagyan lays the loose framework for the rest of her book: an imagined encounter between two early twentieth-century feminist writers, Zabel Yesayan and Shushanik Kurghinian, juxtaposed with a conversation between the author and a friend, and the author’s own meanderings on censorship, translation and literature. Woven in fragments, “Preface, or We As Two Separate Planets” (bearing the name of a Kurghinian poem), presents interspersed and unidentified voices that will be heard throughout the rest of the work. It introduces lines from letters written from prison by Zabel Yesayan to her daughter Sophie, and the conversation between Avagyan and her friend Lara who are contemporaneously searching for the writers’ lost legacies.
What are the lines that separate the narrative plots, present and past? Who is the speaker? How can we distinguish voices or why are they indistinguishable? Who has written, and who is writing? To whom do these words belong? What is historical, what is imagined? Is there a difference? What has been, and what is still being censored? These are some of the questions Avagyan prods in her first chapter of Book-Untitled.
In this excerpt, Avagyan refers to a number of Armenian writers, works, and legends, including Zabel Yesayan’s Barpa Khachik; the Armenian legend of Akhtamar, the source of “Tamar’s lamp”; Ringing of the Dawn, Kurghinian’s first and only published volume of poetry; chapter headings that echo Kurghinian’s poetry; and the Arlez of Semiramis, stemming from Zoroastrian and Armenian myth.
Preface, or We As Two Separate Planets
Dear Marina Tsvetaeva, wish you hadn’t hurried. Now I’m standing below your window repeating your words: when you love, you live without Hope.
The next time we met, she told me not to write her anymore.
Starting today, she said.
One day in springtime.
On March 22 of 1960, Sophie Yesayan writes, “My mother was in the city jail; I needed to see her. She caressed my two-year-old child and said to her, ‘You’ll be a pioneer,’ and you’ll say, ‘My grandmother was a counter-revolutionary.’ She asked for embroidery threads.”
I am not to write to you.
Lara and I are sitting at the café across from the museum on Abovyan Street.
Perhaps write a book (start from the end!)?
Though a counterrevolutionary, her ideas were philosophically very close to Kurghinian’s.
I promise not to wait for your call, my dear.
Just imagine if they’d met each other, says Lara.
Like You and Me.
“In the waiting room.”
Someone will remember the disappeared, and while remembering, will write verses dedicated to them. And yet another while reading those verses will re-member them.
The loss of one thing will help re-find another.
In his letter Arshak writes, “You’re torturing me. If you doubt me then take a good hard look at me.” It was May 24, 1895 when the cherry blossoms had already fallen from the trees.
I’m going to write to you in an Other language so that you won’t understand the underlying current of my feelings.
In early spring, when the snow melts…
Some of the final pages of Barpa Khachik are missing.
Or more precisely, the book was not finished.
“Spouses are actors who play different roles on the same stage simultaneously.”
We’ll reflect on this theme in the coming chapters.
Perhaps just like us they would have sat in a café, people-watching. One would have recounted her exiled life in Paris, and the other her life in Rostov-on-Don.
I’m dedicating this book to you.
My dear, it’s been a whole week since we’ve seen each other. Last Sunday when you came to visit me…
You’re the city in which I’m exiled.
Not all postcards bear such pleasant news.
Sophie writes, “I saw her twice in the summer of 1940. She said that she appealed to Beria, and now she’s waiting… hoping for the best.”
Tell me about your cocooned life, about how you were covered with silken threads, how you went to sleep. Tell me about how your body changed colors, about how you didn’t recognize yourself when you awoke, and how the rays of the sun newly welcomed your waking eyes.
Unpublished writing: “Easily possessed desire has no charm.”
All the promises, all the now-and-forever-and-evers, all of them are irrevocable.
On one of your sidewalks, my dear, I hid a sickly seed, a tiny black-eyed seedling. Let me water it so it doesn’t die.
She was writing by candlelight… erasing, and writing: “And so, departing from your side, as lightning I will fly, then fall to the black earth’s frigid arms, crushed by your heart.”
Deliberate estrangement in order to give new meaning to the familiar, everyday, habitual, mechanical existence, in order to distort memory.
Her first poem poured out of her with ease (like the salty waters of the Black Sea), (with the righteousness of a martyr) swooping down unashamed, unexpected and drunken like the seagulls.
I’ll enter my office, lock my doors,
and turn on (Tamar’s) lamp,
My hands will take this very same pen and I’ll write…
Two days is an eternity,
On the frozen petals of the iris
And I’ll write: two years is old age, resting on my shoulders like a wedding veil;
And I’ll write: two centuries is an ephemeral second, quivering on my lips from your kiss;
And when finally the ink of my pen will dry,
I will open my doors to the Ringing of the Dawn; I’ll step outside,
Holding the pages of your life to my chest.
If we could have recovered all the pages that had been torn out, burned and destroyed by the critics, the libraries would simply be overflowing.
(let me lick all your wounds);
I descend from the tribe of the Arlez, Semiramis’s immortal dogs,
A servant of the altar, daughter of insolence; I came
to give you new breath, your veins new blood;
You’ve become lifeless, bloodless, without shelter, abandoned and hardened
after the battle, your pride wounded…
Let me plant my roots in you, my city. I’ll sprout and grow with new branches, spread my roots deeper inside you.
“The warden turned down the third meeting.”
One day you’ll write, Lara. Just don’t put it off.
The most important part of a book is the footnotes, but many people ignore them. We must come up with a different method.
Fifty-nine handwritten notebooks.
All the poems that are included in these pages (with the exception of those highlighted in the footnotes) are being published for the first time.
Sophie writes, “And just like that I never saw my mother again.”
Maybe you don’t remember me. I was always sitting in the very back of the classroom, practically always silent.
What should I write about? How should the book attract you, seduce you so that you don’t put it down, and so that you can feel the hopelessness of my sleepless nights?
Only on two conditions, you said: not to write you and not to look for you.
Imagine that you are reading from four books in four different languages simultaneously.
Your hands, your strong arms, your slender, delicate fingers.
“Sometime between 1940-41 they transferred my mother from Yerevan to Leninakan,” Sophie writes. “My brother saw her in prison.”
Together, Lara and I went to the museum to see the manuscripts.
Sophie writes, “That was my brother’s last meeting with her.”
How do I trust you? How do I know? Perhaps this is also our last meeting.
Don’t assume, don’t wait, don’t
Marina’s light has faded and in the darkness, she is standing near the window, smoking her Gitanes cigarettes. The smoke rings are black and they envelope her body.
…they are collected in one generic notebook which contains about one hundred and twenty poems, both published and unpublished.
The notebook is dated: 1894–1908.
One day it’ll happen: with the clarity of a lake, my mind afresh and my fingers nimble, in my own words, one day I’ll write.
But now I can’t—you forbid it.
These words grew on your streets, numb from your frigidness and veiled in the shadows, hidden in the cracks of the cold-warped asphalt.
Sophie writes, “In 1939 she would often send us postcards,” embroidered with red thread.
One is preserved in the museum.
“From 1940–41, the postcards became fewer and farther between.”
A meeting which never took place.
Maybe she’d have talked about her childhood and how her father had decided to send her to a convent, and how one day because she was misbehaving they’d locked her up in the “rodent pit.”
It’s already late, but wait just a little bit longer.
Sophie writes, “Between 1941-42, the postcards stopped.” Then she adds, “I imagine she died sometime between those years.”
A book comprised of postcards from death row.
Sitting together in the café, they’ve completely forgotten that it’s getting cold and that their glasses have long been empty.
“According to official data, my mother has been sent from Yerevan to Baku,” writes Sophie.
“And then from Baku to Karakanda, but she hasn’t arrived. She’s been placed in the unknown category.”
In the lobby of the state university, busts of all the beloved figures are arranged. “But where is she?” asks Lara. “Why isn’t her bust there?”
Fifty-nine pages are missing from the book, and while reading you come across small asterisks denoting that some things from that section have been erased.
Sophie writes, “The Public Court withdrew her official date of death. The registry office dated it 1937.”
It’s today: men and women have gathered at the sacrificial altar.
I surrender my possessions to you all—all of me—
my only dowry and riddle;
take out my eyes, take them out with the branches of an apple tree,
place them on your silver sacrificial tray, let them dry;
henna-painted, break my fingers one-by-one
so that I won’t write anymore, won’t bleed from the wounds of a needle,
they weren’t created for embroidering;
cut off my breasts, hanging like two lovesick earrings,
they’re not giving milk, worthless! worthless!
full of lies and maggots,
villainous! oh! villainous!
remove my tongue so I won’t pray,
so that I won’t sing for you in the foreign words of the mythical Arlez;
this tongue, that for many lives, has been imprisoned between my teeth—
silenced from fear, silenced! silenced!
Sophie writes, “I would have wanted the ashes to be brought to our pantheon; she’d loved her fatherland, her compatriots; that would have been her final resting place, ‘At the foot of Ararat,’ as she’d liked to say.”
Cause of death: unknown.
Place of death: unknown.