In the capital city of a former Soviet republic, under the chandelier-scattered light of a hotel chain’s lobby, I stun the bellhop by speaking his language. “You’re Armenian?” he asks, and he looks so much like my cousin’s teenage son back in Los Angeles—the same ancient and boyishly disproportionate eyes and nose—that I want to squish him in a hug. “I’m half,” I explain, the first of many such explanations I’ll offer, to the first of many such strangers with my family’s face.
By the time we arrive at my room on the 12th floor, the bellhop and I have agreed to an arrangement: during my stay in Yerevan over the next two weeks, he won’t speak a word to me in English. “Lav,” I say, meaning good, one of only about a hundred words I can speak with any confidence. I promise to tip once I exchange my dollars for Armenian dram, but Davit—“Like David,” he says, starting our language lessons at the toddler level—refuses.
Even the idea of a transaction occurring between us seems to offend him, as if he were not an employee of the hotel, but a helpful stranger offering a hand, or a long-lost friend recognized across a vast and crowded pavilion, or someone even dearer to me than that.
I was in Armenia to research a novel I’d already written, to see a place I’d imagined all my life. My book, The Gimmicks, is set in a fictionalized version of my mother’s Soviet Armenian hometown, where a family wrestles with the legacy of the Genocide after one of their own is recruited by extremists intent on bringing the Turkish government, however violently, to justice.
Only after I finished the book and sold it to a publishing house, in that suspended moment between signing the contract and finalizing the manuscript, when every possibility of love and anguish was as tangible as the forthcoming book itself, did I arrange to make the trip. When the plane began its final descent, somewhere between Paris and Yerevan, I felt suddenly ill. What if every detail I’d imagined was a false one, if every scene I depicted was wrong? Who did I think I was, anyway, inventing a place that didn’t need invention? As the plane descended, I spiraled. I would have to scrap the book, it was obvious, and start from scratch.
I calmed myself by thinking of my mother—I was being a baby, after all. In 1975, when she immigrated to the United States from then-Soviet Armenia at the age of nineteen, she had flown from the same airport I now approached. What had she imagined, standing at the gate with a suitcase in her grip? Certainly not a white husband from the American Midwest, not a pair of half-Armenian children, not one of them growing up to write books in a language she didn’t yet speak, to imagine his own version of her country, to arrive in the place she’d left behind—the very same spot—without her.
I’d been imagining Armenia for a long time, though I knew much of my early imagining had been muddled and wrong. I was four or five when I first heard my family members tell stories of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, and the gruesome facts of that event grew intertwined, in my mind, with the details of my mother’s otherworldly childhood. I pictured the violence taking place on the quiet streets of her hometown; I pictured her at my age, hiding from Turkish soldiers, though the genocide had occurred forty years before her birth.
Time and place grew confused in my imagination—maybe because the crimes, I was told, had never been punished. I found it difficult to grasp that the Armenia my mother called home was only a sliver of the Armenia it had once been, or that my mother was the granddaughter of the genocide’s victims, growing up in a country hundreds of miles away from the deportations and the murders.
In my imagination, my mother’s childhood converged with history into a swirling mess of achronological images called Armenia: massacres and forced marches; the rubble aftermath of the earthquake that killed my uncle’s sister; my grandfather’s illegal tailor shop; Soviet machinery and ancient shepherds; the shadowed plains beneath Mount Ararat; my mother and her childhood friend, who still sent kiss-stained letters back and forth across the world; my mother in the knee-deep snow; my mother, my age, climbing the apple trees that sprouted, somehow, from the silver smokestacks of a textile factory in the radiant dawn light.
After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro delivered a lecture that included a profound rumination on the link between fiction and memory. His parents had taken him from Japan to England when he was five, and by the time he began to write, he had yet to return. “My Japan was unique,” he says, “and at the same time terribly fragile, something not open to verification from outside that drove me on to work… What I was doing was getting down on paper that world’s special colors, mores, etiquette, its dignity, its shortcomings, everything I’d ever thought about the place, before they faded forever from my mind. It was my wish to rebuild my Japan in fiction, to make it safe, so that I could thereafter point to a book and say, Yes, there’s my Japan—inside there.”
Was this why I’d waited so long to travel to Armenia? Was this why I’d set my novel there in the first place? Only after getting down on paper the special colors of the world I’d been imagining—for the five years spent writing the novel, yes, but also for all the years of my life—was I ready to see the other Armenia, the real one. I hoped so, anyway.
My claim to the country was flimsy, after all, my remove from it even greater than Ishiguro’s from Japan. It was possible—likely, even—that my increasingly hazy imaginings would never seem as true to others as they felt to me. It was possible the real Armenia would bear no resemblance to my own, and in supplanting the place of my imagination would prove its falseness, unbearably, once and for all.
The first few days in Yerevan, I felt a certain dissonance, a disorienting kind of recognition. So much in the city—from the beautiful stonework on the grounds of the central square, which reminded me of the rugs I grew up playing on, to the familiar feasts of lavash and salted cheese and fresh tomatoes at cafes on Abovyan Street—revived my own memories of home, that place far from Armenia which I had no need to imagine, knowing it intimately. I began to speak with increasing confidence in Armenian. I felt I had come a long way in order to travel not very far at all.
One day early in my trip, over small cups of strong coffee at an outdoor cafe, I met with my mother’s cousin, Hatchik. Family lore has it that he tried and failed to convince my mother not to leave Armenia, more than four decades ago. Now he’d heard I was in the country, and he wanted to meet me. Hatchik is in his seventies, and on the day I met him a heatwave roiled across the continent. He would invite me to his apartment, he said, if not for the lack of air conditioning. Besides, when his wife died, she left a mess. I tried to offer my condolences, but my aunt—who’d traveled with me to help translate—was laughing. Hatchik’s wife had died forty years ago.
Hatchik asked about my other half, and I thought he meant Mairead, my fianceé, who had come to Armenia, but was off that day on her own adventure. But Hatchik meant blood—where did my father come from? “Irish,” I said. “Whiskey,” Hatchik said, and that was the end of his curiosity about the man my mother loves.
Hatchik was there to talk, and since I can’t speak Armenian nearly as well as I can understand it, I was glad for his stories. One of them went like this: Before his wife died, she and Hatchik would go to parties and come home with completely different kinds of information. She would ask him if he saw the crystal dish the hosts had purchased for the sweets, or the new stemware their drinks had been served in. But Hatchik had noticed none of that. “I came home talking about the short way two old friends had spoken to each other, belying a hidden tension,” he said, “or the way a wife had placed a hand gently on her husband’s arm when he reached for another glass of cognac.”
“You sound like a writer,” I said, and my aunt translated. Then we were talking about Saroyan—“Bravo,” Hatchik said, when I expressed my love for My Name Is Aram—and the injustice of Pushkin’s worldwide fame compared to Toumanyan’s relative unknown stature. “But who cares about fame?” Hatchik said. “A writer is interested only in his origins. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? A writer wants to know, at every level, where it is he comes from.”
His words were on my mind a few days later when I visited the Temple of Garni, a first-century pagan temple restored in 1975 by a process called anastylosis, a method of architectural restoration that uses as many of the original stones as possible. Where the Garni restorers had to use new materials, they chose blank stones that stood out next to the ancient ones, the difference between the materials stark. They wanted visitors to be able to discern between the original and the added. In this way, I could see exactly what had been salvaged, and what had been supplied.
When Hatchik said origins, he meant genealogy and geography; he meant blood. But as I compared the spongy touch of the ancient basalt to the smooth faces of the blank stones, I considered the combination of memory and imagination I was really there to investigate. A kind of inventive anastylosis, memory and imagination—only I wasn’t sure which was the original, and which the support.I felt I had come a long way in order to travel not very far at all.
The question followed me. A week into our trip, we left Yerevan for my mother’s hometown. The road to Kirovakan was a neatly combed part, one hundred kilometers long, in the russet valleys of summertime Armenia. Thin poplars lined the road on either side like pickets, and the distant hills remained fixed, the way objects in the distance stay true. The signs along the road had been updated: the Kirovakan of my mother’s time, and of my novel’s, has been replaced with Vanadzor. As we drew nearer, and as the elevation increased, the golden plains softened into lush and craggy vistas. A far-off, stone-walled village loomed in the hills, and Mairead—the only other person in the car who’d read my nascent book—nudged me to look. The village reminded her of one I’d written.
Was it pleasure I felt, or relief? Some aspect of my imagination had broken through to reality, and I felt a strange sense that I was returning to a place I had never been.
My aunt’s brother-in-law, Goryun, the brother of my uncle in Los Angeles, a painter I had grown up admiring, was behind the wheel. It was Goryun’s apartment we’d be staying at, and when I tried to thank him for the inconvenient trip—he’d driven the two hours to our hotel in Yerevan, only to turn around and bring us the two hours back—he waved my thanks away like a petty insult. He spoke no English, but his meaning was clear. Goryun was bald except for a dark, meticulously trimmed mustache, and the bridge of his nose was strong and angular. I thought the word “chiseled” just as my aunt explained what Goryun did for a living: masonry. “Those tiles in the central square in Yerevan,” my aunt said, “he did those.”
Halfway between Yerevan and my mother’s hometown, Goryun pulled the car over at a market called Gntuniq Bakery. For an hour in each direction, there was nothing but valley grasses and mountainous landscape, dotted every now and then by a village in the distance. We had seen people selling watermelons and corn along the side of the road, but Gntuniq Bakery was no small roadside affair. With its bright awnings and glistening rows of parked cars, it reminded me of the kind of park-and-browse enterprise I’d grown up visiting in desert towns between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Inside was the bakery itself: a mile-long display of pastries, breads, boregs, sweets, and traditional sandwiches. Beside and beyond the counter were shelves and shelves of market goods—beverages and spices and candies and the like. But the main attraction was up front, as soon as you walked in. If I hadn’t known what a tonir was before seeing the clay ovens—if I hadn’t written a character using one into my novel—I might’ve worried for the lives of the bakers. Two smooth grey mounds rose from the floor to the height of the baker’s navel, each with an opening at its peak just wide enough for that same baker to topple inside, which is exactly what several men were doing when we entered the store.
After rolling and loading dough onto a cushion held in one hand, each baker approached the tonir and swung headfirst into it, holding onto the lip of the oven with his free hand and balancing his upside-down body by splaying his legs in the air. What he was doing inside the oven—slapping flat dough onto the piping hot inner walls—was invisible from where I stood. All I could see was a pair of legs emerging from a smoking hole, as if from a crater in the ground. Forget Ishiguro and Saroyan—I thought of Dante.
But the bakers—the performers, I want to say, because I wasn’t the only one aiming my camera at them while they worked—didn’t seem damned. They dove and posed their legs in wild shapes, like skateboarders at the edge of the half-pipe. They winked at the audience as they sauntered between the table where they rolled the dough and the tonir, and back again.
As we drove into Vanadzor, the gray sky threatened a storm over the green hills; throughout my bleached childhood in the Mojave Desert, my mother often told me she grew up in a place so green and gray she was teased for smelling like the rain. I’d had one of my own characters teased with the same strange insult, and I’d given another a job at the now-abandoned factories that loomed above us. I pictured the man I’d invented walking the potholed road below my feet.
But where was the statue of Kirov in the city square, so central to my characters’ childhoods? Obliterated since independence, maybe? (I asked, but it had never existed). Where was the apartment complex—the tallest building in the city—on whose rooftop my characters confessed their secrets? No roof stood out from the others as a likely spot. And why had I taken my characters to the Black Sea on the Georgian coast instead of nearby Lake Sevan, that turquoise cleft in the Ararat plain?
The map said Vanadzor, but Goryun and the locals still called it Kirovakan. As far as I could tell, this refusal on the population’s part to update its lexicon had little to do with a rigor-mortis grip on Soviet loyalties, but rather with the city’s uncanny sense of being frozen in time. The cause of that sensation occurred on December 7, 1988, when a convergence between the Eurasian and Arabian tectonic plates brought Kirovakan to the ground and sent my cousins—Goryun’s nieces—to America. More than thirty years later, I could still see the damage to the city: empty lots where buildings had once come down, roads split like old leather upholstery. A population cut nearly in half, from 150,000 in 1979 to 82,000 in 2016.
Compared to sunny, bustling Yerevan, Kirovakan was overcast and strikingly still, silent and easily mistaken for bleak, but beautifully surrounded by the hiddenite green of forested hills. When we arrived at the apartment building where Goryun lived with his wife, Gyuli, we found a nondescript, Soviet-era complex, and I followed Goryun up an echoing stairwell carved out of the building itself, concrete and poorly lit, the steps fissured and fairly creased.
But when we arrived at the apartment—pristine hardwood floors covered in ornately colorful and handmade rugs, Ionian columns abutting a bay window, an oil painting of flowers bursting from a vase that I recognized as the work of Goryun’s brother, my uncle in Los Angeles—the whole of Kirovakan seemed to shift and brighten.
We took a walk through the city, stopping first at the storefront where my grandfather had owned and operated a private tailor shop. I cupped my hands and looked through the glass panes. The place was empty, but my aunt drew vivid pictures in my mind: the sewing machines lined along the center of the floor, the pin-cushioned dummies, and my grandfather’s office in the back where he would meet with Soviet officials, charming them—bribing, I inferred, but couldn’t confirm—in order to keep the business running.
My mother had told me about her father’s business, about how she and her sister would hide the equipment when an official came around snooping. But in my muddled imagining, I’d pictured the secrecy happening at their own home, not in some storefront on the main thoroughfare of the city. The reality turned my grandfather—whom I’d known only vaguely for the last years of his life, when he suffered from Alzheimer’s—into someone more brazen and influential than I’d imagined.The rhythm of this undertaking was impossible to plot out or predict, and how we danced to it was how we lived.
For twenty blocks or so, we traced the long walk my mother would take as a girl to her music school. The buildings themselves were less interesting to me than the story my aunt told of my mother’s strut: with her instrument—a heavy lap-harp called a qanun—wedged under her arm, she let her chin lead the way, putting on an un-girlish air of unapproachability and business. In my novel, I’d described a girl walking through Kirovakan with her instrument—a backgammon board, as it were—wedged just so under her arm, and I smiled at the coincidence of my mother appearing, however accidentally and obscurely, in my own imagination.
Finally, I was beginning to escape the cereal-box game of comparison I’d been playing. Far more interesting than what I’d got “right” and what I’d got “wrong” were the surprising harmonies I was starting to hear between the two worlds, these two Armenias in my mind. At my mother’s grade school, a small building with a lobby downstairs and classrooms above, I imagined my characters dragging their soaking boots out of the rain and up the steps, nearly running into my mother as a girl at the top of the stairwell. My aunt called me over to her. She had discovered a series of class photos from the 1960s hanging on the wall and pointed out the children and teachers she remembered, looking for my mother’s face.
Watching my aunt take photographs of the photographs, it occurred to me that I was not—and had never been—the only one comparing imagination to reality, memory to the present. We all do this, in one way or another, all the time. By writing a novel, I had made the process external, but it was a common task: to negotiate the imagined with the experienced, the remembered with the re-encountered, the original with the added-on. Constant but syncopated, the rhythm of this undertaking was impossible to plot out or predict, and how we danced to it was how we lived.
Back in Yerevan, I said goodbye to the bellboys, the cleaning crews, the bartenders, and the front desk clerks who rallied around Davit’s mission to help me learn the language. They asked about my stay, and I wanted to tell them what I’d seen: an uncle I’d never met throwing his arm around me like a son… a shot of mulberry vodka at a picnic table outside an 11th century monastery… the staircase on the other side of a blue gate where my grandfather used to sit with a dog and smoke… my aunt dancing with her sister-in-law, thirty years after the earthquake that made them housemates… a local woman on the streets of Kirovakan, curious about my looks and my limited language, following me for blocks and blocks…my book, imperfect but more than mine… my mother, who was not there, and everywhere.
But I’d said enough. On paper, I’d gone to fact-check my fiction, to verify the details in a story I was telling. In the end, though, just the opposite was true. I hadn’t gone to test the accuracy of my storytelling, but to measure how well I’d listened.
From “My Armenia: Imagining and Seeing.” by Chris McCormick, published in We Are All Armenian: Voices from the Diaspora, edited by Aram Mrjoian. Copyright © 2023. University of Texas Press. Published with permission of the author. All rights reserved.