Capturing the Armenian Experience: Novelist, Poet Nancy Kricorian


Nancy Kricorian

By Gabriella Gage

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — For poet and novelist Nancy Kricorian, writing has always been an integral part of her life. “I started writing poems as soon as I began writing sentences in the first grade. By the time I was in the third grade, my poems were hanging on the classroom bulletin board, which at the time felt to me like being a published poet,” said Kricorian.

Growing up in Watertown’s burgeoning Armenian community, Kricorian served as the Watertown High School literary magazine editor. While she would later explore the history and heritage of her Armenian family, like some of the characters in her novel, there were times when her own relationship with her Armenian identity was complicated, even strained.

“I desperately wanted to be American, particularly in middle school when I witnessed the very rough treatment meted out to ‘off the boat’ Armenian kids from Beirut. A few times I was called a ‘camel driver’ and ‘Armo rugbeater,’ which I found painful. When I was in high school, I desperately wanted out of East Watertown, but once I was had left, I became almost nostalgic for the community I had grown up in.”

Kricorian would come to realize that her heritage and its history were just as integral to her life as the pen and paper. “In my writing, my imagination pulls me inexorably back to the Armenian community,” said Kricorian.

Kricorian continued to write poetry and studied comparative literature at Dartmouth College. She was awarded a Dartmouth Senior Fellowship in poetry for her manuscript, Asking Everything, or Off Balance in Red Tutu. As an MFA student at Columbia University, she began publishing her poems in literary journals.

After the death of her grandmother, Kricorian transitioned to longer prose, shifting her focus from poetry to fiction, with her grandmother’s life serving as the inspiration for a series of short stories. These stories eventually evolved into her first novel, Zabelle — a fictionalized account of her grandmother’s experiences as a Genocide survivor and young immigrant to the US. In the novel, protagonist Zabelle Chahasbanian faces the challenges of an arranged marriage, assimilation and discovering a new life in Watertown, Mass. — far away from her ancestral home.

In her second novel, Dreams of Bread and Fire, Kricorian continued her own exploration of the post-Genocide Diaspora experience by tackling the issues that face women of her own generation who grew up in the shadow of the atrocities of the Genocide. The book’s protagonist witnesses the affects it had on the older generations and goes on her own journey of discovery of these tragic events.

With each novel, Kricorian has explored a new aspect of Armenian identity and the relationship between history and memory, as well as revisited themes from previous her works. “I grew up in the Armenian community Watertown, and since I left to make my way in the broader world, the history of the Armenian people, particularly the post-Genocide Diaspora experience, has fascinated me,” said Kricorian.

Kricorian’s latest book, All the Light There Was, is a coming-of-age story of an Armenian family living in Paris during the Nazi Occupation and is centered around a teenage girl, Maral. “All the Light There Was required a vast amount of research, much more than I had done for the first two books, which were more closely based on family history. I loved the research, especially interviewing Armenians in their 70s, 80s and 90s who had lived in Paris during the war,” Kricorian explained.

As Kricorian conducted historical research, she said she “started wondering what it must have been like for Genocide survivors who had made their way to France and had rebuilt their lives and communities to see the Nazis marching into Paris. I didn’t want to write a novel about extreme heroics, but rather hoped to write about an ordinary Armenian family’s experience.”

Kricorian says she will continue to explore these themes in future works. “The book I am currently researching, which will be an Armenian family in Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon, that lives five years of the Civil War before immigrating to the States. It will also be told from a woman’s point of view.”

Kricorian has received several awards for both her poetry and critically-acclaimed novels, including the Anahid Literary Award from Columbia University.

In addition to her creative explorations of identity, Kricorian has taken on the role of activist and social justice advocate. For 10 years, Kricorian has served on the national staff of CODEPINK, the women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement. Kricorian, explaining her initial involvement, said, “I joined in March 2003 weeks before the launch of the Iraq War, which we hoped to avert. I was the campaign manger for Listen Hillary (an effort to push Senator and then Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton into more progressive stands on war and national security.”

“My commitment to dignity, equality and justice for all people inspires the grassroots political work that I do. It is my hope that it suffuses my writing as well. My goal in both is to amplify the voices of women and to promote the humane in the human,” said Kricorian.

Kricorian currently resides in New York City with her husband, James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features. Together they have two children and two dogs. In her spare time, Kricorian enjoys baking, knitting, traveling and bird-watching.

But even during “spare time,” a writer can find inspiration. “I’m currently taking an Audubon Society bird-watching class that meets in Central Park. This is partly out of interest and partly as research for my new novel in which birds will be a central theme,” said Kricorian.