Everyone I know who has met Nancy Agabian asks me two things: one, is her deadpan manner for real; and two, where can they get a copy of her books.
Sometime about Nancy draws you immediately in. Her “stop and go” manner of talking is immediately intriguing and contributes to her mystique that I can only described as an unconsummated marriage of Woody Allen and Sarah Silverman.
I first met the Massachusetts-born Nancy years ago at an Armenian Gay & Lesbian Association of NY meeting. She was shy and reserved and seemed to prefer that her writing do all the talking.
Her first book Princess Freak combined fact and fiction to sketch her life as a bisexual Armenian American. It is a funny, quirky and fascinating book filled with stories that were not being told elsewhere. Her writing feels authentic and very contemporary.
I caught up with here online to ask her a few questions about writing.
Hrag Vartanian: Why are you a writer?
Nancy Agabian: I’m a writer because I like the way it makes me interact with the world. There’s a process of revision that allows me to feel like I can fix my mistakes, something that we can’t always do in our lives. I like the solitude and the way it gives me time to be quiet to consider things. I like that it challenges me to become more exposed to experiences, art, other books. There’s also this really great component that allows you to serve others, mostly to voice something that needs to be voiced, by a community in need or on more universal terms.
Am I being too abstract? Writing gives me the ability to be more specific. At first, I was a painter, in college. But when I moved far from my home, from Boston to Los Angeles as a 22 year old, I started writing in order to express all that I hadn’t been able to express before, mostly about a sort of pain that felt cultural and hereditary, involving rage and shame, and all the messages that felt threatening to me about being a girl. So for a long time, it was a means to catharsis and healing. And it still can be that. But I prefer to use it now to think about the world.
I was in Armenia and had so much to write about because so many new ideas and observations about the place were bumping into my cultural knowledge as an Armenian and I had to make sense of it all. And to me, the exciting thing about writing, is when you feel like you’re connecting these ideas to a sort of zeitgeist, when you know other people are questioning and thinking about similar things, and you’re working through a common problem with readers. That’s how I felt when I was writing my blog.
Back in March, I gave a talk at the “Speaking Beyond Living Room Walls” where I discussed how much Me as her again had been rejected by the mainstream presses, which made me wonder if it was because they saw it having so little audience. It seems to me there’s so much racism in the publishing industry, that minority writers, when they do get published by a large house, often take on a voice of speaking to a dominant culture, rather than to multiple cultures. I started writing in a multicultural context, and I really liked that audience very much, because it forced me to think of the commonalities I share with other people of coIor, other LGBT folks, other second generation ethnic Americans. So when I wrote the book, I tried to think of multiple audiences, not just whites, not just Armenians. Writing to multicultural audiences feels more liberating and less polarizing and more true to me.
I was so surprised, a few years after Princess Freak came out, to get emails from people all over the world who had read it, mostly young Armenian women. It was such a small run, only 500 books, so it’s hard to believe where it has ended up. Some of the poems in Princess Freak have been translated into Armenian for the journals Bnagir and Inkagir. When I was in Armenia, it happened a few times when I was being introduced to people that they knew me by my poems. (Only in Armenia can you be known for writing a poem.) One artist, Tigran Khachatrian, even told me, “By the way, I put your poem in my video and never asked your permission.” I thought that was pretty funny. It turned out that he had used a voice over of the Armenian translation, but he used English subtitles that had been translated from the Armenian translation, so it was a little bizarre to see my poem re-translated back to me.
When I was writing Princess Freak, I had little ties to the Armenian community, and the last audience I imagined was Armenian–I was sure they wanted nothing to do with me. So to be read in Armenia is quite a journey for me.
HV: How is writing about Armenia different from writing about America? If you needed to describe your relationship to each using emotions how would you label them?
NA: Writing about Armenia is more of an exploration, since so much of it is still mysterious to me, whereas when I write about America, I’m trying to define what it means to be a certain individual or from a specific community. The emotions I have when writing about Armenia feel more heightened–befuddlement, curiosity, anger, insecurity. When writing about America, more settled–camaraderie, competence, anger (again). But the anger for each is different. For Armenia it’s more personal and tender, difficult to express, more raw. With America, it’s also personal, but more righteous.
Being Armenian and American is a recipe for anger, because you are expected to operate in polar opposite ways–to be individual and independent but also to be completely devoted to your family and culture. There aren’t a lot of means to express these competing pressures or to feel completely understood, and that kind of tension can build toward resentment and anger. Many people who meet me after only knowing my written work can’t believe I am so mild mannered and quiet because my writing can be angry and cutting. (But people who really know me have seen that harder side.) Emotions like anger, cynicism, resentment are easier for me to express in writing, and I can use my writing to deal with them.
HV: Identity is an important part of your writing. When someone asks you who you are how do you define yourself?
NA: When someone asks who I am, it’s easiest for me to reply that I’m a writer. Armenian-American, feminist, bisexual: these are harder for me to name so that’s probably why I continue to write about them. I rather not label my sexual identity, or even talk about it at all, but because there’s so much angst about sex, because a morality gets pinned onto sexual behavior and orientation, which effects the way people treat each other and the way the government legislates the rights of queer people, I can’t help be vocal about it.
After all the time I have spent writing on identity, I still feel that I am in process. I know who I am, essentially, but growing older, getting past forty, brings on new experiences and views. Even meeting new people can be identity-changing. So nothing is ossified. This kind of identity shape-shifting is true for everyone, but not everyone feels necessary to name who they are in writing as a way to break silences. It’s ironic that I feel obligated as a writer to remind people that our identities are indefinite and changeable, as a way to remind ourselves of our freedom, and yet when I write about my own identity, it gets printed in black and white, in permanence.
In the afterword of Me as her again I say, “But I suppose the difference between who I am now, and the her that I was then, is that instead of seeing myself as a completely unliberated daughter needing to be liberated, I now think of myself as someone trying to balance my individuality and my need for collective identity.” It’s not exactly something I would say at a cocktail party, but it does express how I felt after writing the book.
For fans of her writing, I also highly recommend listening to Nancy’s podcast interview on Hye Eli.
Copies of Me as her again are available on Amazon here.