Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

We Need Each Other: A Report on Water and Wine, a Performance in Armenia

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

We Need Each Other: A Report on Water and Wine, a Performance in Armenia

Article excerpt


While translating the text for my performance Water and Wine, my friend Shushan e-mailed to let me know that there was no word for drag in Armenian. It was not news to me that a concept linked to homosexuality would rarely be spoken about in Armenian culture, traditional as it is. But I still had trouble accepting that there wasn't enough occasion in Armenian consciousness to describe the practice of dressing as the opposite sex. I wrote back a crazed e-mail to Shushan, "What about those men who dressed in women's clothes in order to survive the genocide?" referring to the catastrophe that took the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. I knew that donning a costume to save your life technically wasn't drag, but I was anxiously looking for some affirmation that my performance would translate; I was to present it on September 14, 2005, at "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back," a feminist conference in Yerevan, Armenia.

I first became acquainted with Shushan Avagyan when she had e-mailed a few years before to let me know how much my book Princess Freak (a collection of poems and performance texts) meant to her, an Armenian lesbian. Shushan was from Armenia but had decided to study in the States; she is currently working toward her PhD in English literature and working as a translator at the Dalkey Archive Press at Illinois State University. It was her idea to translate some of my poems for Bnagir, a progressive literary journal in Armenia, which exists in print and online versions. That's how Anna Barseghian, an artist and director of Utopiana, an arts organization based in Geneva, discovered my work and invited me to perform in Yerevan.

I had never been to Armenia before. Though both my parents are ethnically Armenian, my family had never lived in the country now known as Armenia, which was a Soviet republic for seventy-one years and, before World War I, a part of the Russian empire. My grandparents and great-grandparents had lived further west, in the Anatolian provinces of what was then the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey. They were driven out, as many Armenians were, by the massacres that took place in 1895 and by the increasing violence that culminated in the genocide in 1915. Having researched my family's history in terms of these events and having recently completed a memoir about their impact on me, I decided I would read from it at the conference, since it focused on the stories of my feminist mother and genocide survivor grandmother.

I decided to shape my performance around issues of religion, which had been occupying me lately. I'd been searching for a spiritual practice, but as a feminist who had grown up in the Armenian Apostolic Church, I was turned off by its patriarchal elements. I'd seen only male priests my whole life, and I found it troubling that the church I was raised in and felt the most connected to, through blood, through birth, seemed so restrictive to women. In thinking of my Armenian audience, I cut out what I thought were Americanisms: references to Tic-Tacs and television shows. But I kept in a trip I made to church with a woman I was dating. Risky as it was, I felt it was important to be out, as bisexual, because it was another reason for my alienation with the Armenian religion. And then I wondered if the crux of the performance would translate at all; the church virtually did not exist in the former Soviet republic until 1991, the year Armenia achieved independence. But Shushan assured me the piece would have meaning. In an e-mail she wrote:

Yes, your piece is very relevant to the life in Armenia and also, it's very personal. Hayastantsis [Armenians living in Armenia] have preconceived notions about diasporans. You are unraveling some of the myths that float across the country. . . . Many Hayastantsis think that the diasporans have no roots and are therefore without a culture or a spirituality. Your piece raises many questions in regard to this. …

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