Begin by orienting yourself to the genocide that most closely aligns with your cultural identity. In this case, let’s say Armenia. Learn your family history. Ask relatives for their passed down stories and recollections, the artifacts buried in basement storage closets and notes scrawled across the margins of moldy bibles. Soak up every obscure detail of your family tree. Create a geography of displacement. Fill in the blanks with facts derived from academic texts. Research is key. Upon introduction, do not correct people when they add an ethnic cadence to your first name, and smile politely when they don’t bother to attempt your last. In school, when teachers take roll call, shout here before they even make a go at it. This will happen several times a day. Identify telemarketers by their mispronunciation. Tell them Mr. Joian no longer lives here. Whether at the grocery store or another shopping outlet, make a point of reading the tag on every item you buy to confirm it is not a product of Turkey. This is especially important when purchasing apricots, bathroom linens, and Haribo gummy bears. At cafes, never order Turkish coffee, regardless of the roast’s country of origin. Learn to cook garlic-heavy ethnic food. Fill your kitchen with fresh lavash and fragrant rice pilaf. Season your lamb with abandon. Make baklava from scratch, even though you lack the delicate touch to work with phyllo dough. Add lahmajoon and torshi to your short stories. When the girl you date briefly after college refers to you as caramel-colored, do not remind her you’re both Polish. Never give her the opportunity to compare your pasty thighs to your much tanner face. Let imaginations run wild at your ethnic ambiguity. Make strangers guess a few times. Once, they’ve pinned you down, remind them often that your ancestors suffered and survived. Write the stories of your distant relatives as if you have ownership of them. Use the word disembowel to describe the death of your pregnant great aunt. Fill your writing with bloodstained bayonets and torrid deserts and death marches. Include words like atrocity and annihilation as much as possible. Steal Peter Balakian’s ideas about the transmission of trauma. Provide personal context to your transgenerational grief. Show them you’re still pissed off. Tell them too. Write about it again and again until it becomes your niche, the ethnic signature of your artistic vision. At readings, tell your audience the notorious Hitler quote, the one that goes, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Inform your listeners Turkey still jails journalists to this day. When all is said and done, you’ll feel no closer to figuring out who you are. You will still feel separated from the past. You will think yourself a coward, a pretender, a boy using his funny name as a crutch. But remember, you are a product of survival. You are the living proof. How you live is up to you. Isn’t it?
Aram Mrjoian is a contributor at Book Riot and the Chicago Review of Books. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Joyland, Colorado Review, Gigantic Sequins, Tahoma Literary Review, The Masters Review, and many other publications. He is currently working toward his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University, where he is the Assistant Managing Editor at TriQuarterly. Find his work at arammrjoian.com