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TUMO x h-pem | The future of Armenian literature through the eyes of the young writers at TUMO

October 07, 2019

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By Theresa Lin

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TUMO x h-pem | The future of Armenian literature through the eyes of the young writers at TUMO

Many lament the lack of enthusiasm about literature. In response, TUMO creative writing workshop leader Theresa Lin brings a fresh and sympathetic perspective to the current state of Armenian literature by detailing how Armenians can make the leap from preservation to innovation. The examples she mentions and the connections she draws are so striking and lucid that she just might have figured out exactly what we needto think outside the box...

The need to preserve Armenian literature is evident and pressing. UNESCO has listed Western Armenian as an endangered language since 2010 and the country’s population has steadily plateaued to around 3 million people over the last decade, comprising only a small fraction of the Armenian diaspora worldwide.

Many Armenian schools have addressed this concern by exclusively assigning the country’s classical writers from the 5th to early 20th centuries. There is a strong responsibility placed on young readers to recall the past intimately and to keep the country’s history and culture in public consciousness, for posterity.

However, the inadvertent effect of revisiting this narrow canon is the continued celebration of a few established male authors. There is the illusion of limited space in the library of Armenian literature to welcome any more writers. Additionally, the compulsion to look back suggests that the height of Armenian literature was achieved in the past and belongs fixedly there. Literature curriculums pay little consideration to new narratives from within Armenia or abroad. There is trepidation concerning how, or if, these stories may work in conjunction with the country’s rich existing literary tradition. Thus, there is no opportunity for these new works to reimagine history or entertain exciting new realities.

“These masterpieces are very interesting to read and we learn many life lessons from them,” says Hayk Sargsyan, a student at TUMO Creative Center for Technologies. Fondly, he recalls how he learned Armenian literature dating back to 400 AD with the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots. However, studying Armenian writers of the distant past has come at the cost of “missing the Armenian writings of our days. We do not read post-modern writing in school.”

This summer, TUMO introduced creative writing seminars and workshops that focused on diverse, sometimes experimental, paradigms of storytelling. The intention was not to abandon the Armenian literary tradition, but to consider meaningful ways that students could contribute to it and expand its breadth of voices.

TUMO offers a wide selection of after-school classes at no cost to its over-14,000 students worldwide. Its four locations across the country have extended to another site in Paris, France, and soon, will open its doors to students in the United States, Lebanon, and Russia. TUMO typically specializes in classes focused on the intersection of design and technology, such as graphic design, animation, and programming for personalized sites. Through creative writing, students were able to venture into a different form of expression and representation than they have been traditionally accustomed.

As part of their writing exercises, students observed their communities more closely, listening to the morning sounds of their neighborhood streets, recording the stories of vendors at the market selling lavash and berries. At times, they wrote six-word stories in the vein of Ali Smith (“In the end, everything simply began”) and A.S. Byatt (“They awaited sunrise. It never came.”), or short stories modeled after Jamaica Kincaid or Sandra Cisneros.

At the end of their seminars, students read their original writing in the park with their friends and family. Slowly, students began to consider how they were intimately connected to their communities. Not only did they identify themselves as writers, they also emerged as careful observers and archivists of their hometowns.

“I hadn’t thought of writing before,” says fellow TUMO student Nane Harutyunyan, “so I hadn’t considered myself a writer.” In school, she says, students practice writing strictly through essays that function more as short factual responses or foreign language exercises. “We may sometimes write research papers as well. But, in general, we don’t write frequently, one or two pieces a month.” As a result, writing in school has become a matter of anticipating the expectations of teachers.

In many ways, practicing creative writing has provided a host of new language and techniques for students. “My classmates do not know what a conflict in a story is, how to solve that conflict, or how to grab a reader’s attention,” says Sargsyan. “I do not write essays in school even if the teacher says that my marks will decrease… My marks are much lower than my classmates’, who are all writing essays repeating simple information. But I do not care.”

After walking through Gum Market with her classmates, recording the scents and tastes of various foods, and getting acquainted with poets she hadn’t known before, Harutyunyan says, writing “has managed to become a part of me, of my way of discovering myself.” During the seminar, she once rewrote a story from the perspective of another character. She was struck by the ability of writing to alter people’s perception and supposed objective accounts. Since the class, she now writes every day. Some days, the writing is lighter than others. Harutyunyan will sometimes jot down ideas or revise a draft she already started. Regardless, she says, the habit of writing has been most welcome.

Other students developed a growing sense of what they wish to accomplish through their body of work. TUMO student Ellen Petrosyan wants to uncover “untold stories, revealing the truth which is not being talked about.” Through her writing, she imagines raising questions about topics surrounding the Armenian Genocide that have to date been consistently avoided. “I have been writing since I remember myself,” says Petrosyan, “but I never really considered myself a writer prior to the classes. Now, I do consider myself a writer, because the classes haven’t just given me knowledge, but also the strength to believe that I am exactly who I want to be.”

The writer, students have learned, is consistently asking questions and pursuing curiosities. In short, “the writer is working every second,” says Sargsyan. “Even If I am walking from school to home I think about my surroundings in a special way” so he may incorporate those details in a later story. “A writer is a writer 23 hours a day because they spend that 1 hour just typing things they thought of during the 23 hours.” His hope for young Armenian writers, however, is not that these details lead to a retelling of reality as it is. He hopes that they “try something new, something out of reality, something weird but interesting”; for it is this post-modern space, he believes, that will inspire alternative and progressive ways of thinking.

It is clear that no matter the form or content that students engage, the future of Armenian literature depends foremost on their identification as writers, themselves. Only after students develop a passion for storytelling as an art, will they consider the importance of continuing the centuries of literary tradition that preceded them.

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