Who tells your story?


“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control:
Who lives

Who dies
Who tells your story?”

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda


This line jumped out at me while I watched the musical Hamilton. (It’s insanely brilliant and should be mandatory viewing for everyone.) A recent wave in the publishing industry is hankering for “own voices,” stories written about protagonists who are part of marginalized groups written by members of those marginalized groups. Own voices stories capture the authenticity, diversity and sensitivity of its subjects and gives the writer a chance to fully represent themselves. 

Sharing your own experiences through main characters who resemble you and have the same problems and concerns you do can be incredibly cathartic. You’re giving your marginalized group power within the narrative, weaving tales that only you could, and drawing upon your unique experiences and perspectives. 

Representation matters. Marginalized groups include ethnic minorities, gender identity and sexual orientation, cultural background, and those with disabilities. Reading own voices stories builds empathy and entices readers into unfamiliar worlds and viewpoints overlooked or purposefully ignored in the past. 

Writers can correct prejudices and inaccuracies through their craft. Main characters can live, talk, love, suffer and succeed in distinct and authentic ways, challenging tired tropes and stereotypes. Fighting racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and prejudice are worthy goals both writers and their readers should strive for. Giving representation to the writer’s own background, especially in stories where those backgrounds are woefully underrepresented, is the driving force behind own voices stories. 

Like the song from Hamilton professes, you have no control who tells your story, but you should. 

You should tell your story. 

***

Raised in an Armenian-American household, I grew up understanding the Armenian Genocide during World War I was a watershed event, that it brutally claimed 1.5 million lives and scattered us in a global diaspora. 

My Armenian grandmother spoke to me in Armenian, fed me Armenian food and really pushed the cultural identity, as she did with my father. 

Being Armenian is more than ending your surname with an “ian” or “yan”. It’s more than a horrific genocide. It’s a membership into a marginalized and ignored ethnic group, a smattering of Middle Eastern and West Asian traditions, of flowery oriental rugs, heady spices, and early Christian religion. Brash anger mixed with stoic sorrow. 

And it was mine, whether I wanted it or not.

As a kid, I went to Armenian Sunday school, which supplied its own unique horrors. Imagine watching a video of Bert and Ernie, but instead of cartoony Muppet voices, they spoke Armenian and sounded gravelly and gruff, like a fifty-year-old chain-smoking bus driver. Cue the childhood trauma and twenty years of therapy. Only Armenians – as well-intentioned and clueless as they are – could fuck up Sesame Street

Growing up in the American suburbs in the early 1980s, diversity wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. 

In school I was the brown kid with the unpronounceable last name, the one the students taunted. The constant mispronunciation (intentionally or unintentionally) and misspellings of my last name minimized me and told me I was a nonperson. 

There was the time I was discussing Armenian cuisine and the dishes my grandmother made with another student, who didn’t believe such food existed and said I was “making those names up.” 

Or the multiple times people judged me for my appearance, thinking I was Indian, Arabic, Mexican or Greek, or using pejorative terms for many of those ethnicities. 

Or the time I told a teacher my name was Armenian she replied, “Oh, I know one of those.” 

One of those.

Like we’re an exotic dog breed.

Or the time a judge’s wife asked if I was “born here” even though my accent is straight up New Jersey. 

Or the time the director of a local arts organization kept joking about the Armenian genocide in front of me and was dismissive and flippant. 

No wonder why I had trouble navigating Armenian culture, why I disliked learning the history or language. Americans made me self-conscious about my ethnicity, discrediting it and discounting it wherever they could. My self-esteem mojo was wrecked and soon I had nothing but contempt and shame for Armenianess. Armeniness? Armeaniatality? We’ll get there.

Granted, Armenians did a shit job with PR and promoting themselves, which led to confusion and unfamiliarity with their identity. Years of being called “filthy Armenians” by Americans created a shrinking presence with Armenian representation. Armenians would rather keep a low profile and work in their family businesses rather than push for accurate portrayals in stories or films. That’s wrong for so many reasons.

In 1990 I interned at The Armenian Weekly, a Massachusetts-based English-language Armenian newspaper. I thought the experience would be a awesome and bring me closer to Armenian culture and possibly net me some contacts in the newspaper business.

While I liked my time there, I felt strangely out of place. The newspaper’s employees ostracized me because I wasn’t Armenian enough. 

I also wasn’t American enough.  

I wasn’t really anything.

***

Because I looked different, because my ethnic background wasn’t strictly European, because I had a bizarre last name, I was easily ignored. I became a silent nonentity, a stranger in my own skin.

This exclusion haunted me every day, a nagging inclination that maybe I didn’t belong, despite me being born in the United States. My American experience was abusive, lonely, and dismissive. Saddled with depression and an inferiority complex a mile wide, I drifted towards isolation and self-pity. Writing helped me synthesize my thoughts and clarify the anger bubbling inside. 

Popular culture, especially Hollywood’s portrayal of Armenian characters, confirmed my uneasiness with my ethnic background. Movies, TV and books didn’t depict Armenians, and when they rarely did, it was always a scumbag criminal or stereotypical buffoon. 

It’s something I call the Sleazebag-Idiot Paradigm of Armenian Representation in American Media. 

The paradigm is explained thusly: basically, Armenians are convenient villains, witless foils, or complete imbeciles and nothing else. The presence of a strong, realized Armenian lead character is unheard of in media. Pop culture portrays ethnic Armenians as foreign, ugly, greedy or dumb. That’s it.

Woody Allen’s 1972 comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask) included an Armenian shepherd who fell in love with one of his sheep. The 1990 comedy film Why Me? includes bumbling Armenian terrorists. The Shield, a crime drama that aired from 2002 to 2008, had a subplot involving the Armenian Mafia. American Horror Story’s Murder House featured Joe Escandarian, a boorish, misogynistic Armenian real estate developer. Armenian gangsters and terrorists are convenient antagonists in shows like UndercoverHawaii Five-0, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Popular comedies The Big Bang Theory and Family Guy used Armenians as cheap punchlines. I won’t delve into the Kardashian clan’s mind-numbing superficiality.

If you’re an Armenian-American kid, what message are you receiving from these depictions? That your people are worthless. That all the suffering your family endured is for nothing. That Armenians like you only aspire toward criminality and deceit.

It shouldn’t be this way.  

Why not have an Armenian hero, a protagonist with supernatural abilities who fights drug dealers? Why not show how an Armenian-American, questioning his father and uncle, stands on his own? Why can’t the protagonist of a supernatural fantasy – the one who stomps evil – be Armenian-American?

Troubled by these negative depictions, I wrote Accursed Son, novel that explores the Armenian cultural and ethnic identity in a mashup of urban fantasy, horror thriller and family saga. 

Accursed Son is about Armand Tarkanian, a mortician who converses with the dead. It also has zombies, cults, a creature from ancient Armenian mythology, and other super cool stuff. 

Armand grapples with his identity crisis. He condemns the homophobia and racism of his elders. He feels incomplete, because fate binds him to tradition instead of his own freedom. And he also joins a monster hunting motorcycle gang and rescues Fresno from a supernatural threat.

When Armand learns he has the power to communicate with the spirit world – a curse handed down through his mother’s side of the family – he uses it to learn more about the deceased and help them solve their murders. It’s like Ghost Whisperer with a side of kebabs.

Armand has the agency to change his life, the courage to love a woman he meets during his investigation, and the reason to reconcile with his family. He’s a compelling, vulnerable, and empathetic character who deserves to have his voice heard. 

Accursed Son became my final project for my Master of Arts in Writing. Researching and writing took two years, and it was received favorably by professors and students. It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written. I channeled many of the concerns and disharmonies I had about ethnic identity and what it meant to be an Armenian-American into the novel. The generational clashes depicted in Accursed Son were culled from ones I’ve actually experienced, and the nuances within the family structure are authentic according to my trepidatious upbringing. Armand’s relationship to power and his reaction deeply define his motivations. As he becomes more emboldened, he changes and re-examines his priorities.

By the end he’s not a milquetoast embalmer working in his uncle’s funeral home; he’s a kick-ass ghost channeler readers can root for.  

Tell your own stories, my scribes, my ink-stained, word-vomiting miscreants. If you don’t, someone unworthy will.

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