The PEN Ten with Carol Edgarian
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Natalie Diaz speaks with author, editor, and publisher Carol Edgarian, whose novels include the New York Times bestseller Three Stages of Amazement and the international bestseller Rise the Euphrates, winner of the ANC Freedom Prize. She is co-founder and editor of Narrative.
I first met Carol Edgarian through Narrative Magazine. She has been a generous and kind supporter of my work, and most importantly to me, she has urged and challenged me to write larger, vaster, into corners that move beyond genre, corners that privilege not art per se but life and how we are all trying so hard to live it good, to live it the best that we can. It is because of her beckoning that I have had the fuel to begin shaping and learning what the “essay” means and looks like to me. Her writing about the Armenian Genocide is a place where I can see and understand the pains and survivings of my own peoples and families. I am grateful for her writing, for her camaraderie, for the gentle ways she invites me and so many other emerging writers into this sometimes unkind world of writing. She is someone I count as a friend, a warrior, and a light along the dark curves of the road.
Where is your favorite place to write?
At home. I begin my day early, when it’s still dark and the rest of the house is asleep. I settle at the kitchen table with my laptop and coffee, with the dog beside me. I get my kids off to school, walk the dog, then she and I head upstairs to my office and close the door. I love my office: there are books everywhere, a wall-sized bulletin board with photos and ideas for the novel I’m working on, two desks—one for writing and one for Narrative—the separation of church and state. I’ve got framed pictures on the wall from my kids and dear friends, an old chair I found on the curb and recovered, and a bay window that faces the street. We live in the heart of the city, across from a fire station, and all day long the urgency, the howling sirens and traffic, keep my blood pumping and the dog on alert. As I’m writing this, I’m looking just above the screen, at the framed black and white portrait of an Armenian priest that’s traveled with me since childhood, having had the place of honor in my parents’ dining room. The priest is sitting on a bench in a stone church, reading with priestly seriousness The Great Book. I like to think he’s sending some good juju my way. During the Loma Prieta earthquake, the photo was the one thing that jumped off the wall, the glass shattering into a million pieces. That old priest is chipped, repaired, never wavering.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Why does it stand out for you?
Twenty years ago, Random House published my first novel Rise the Euphrates. It tells the story of three generations of Armenian Americans, the grandmother having survived the Armenian Genocide as a small child. Being half-Armenian, I grew up knowing about the genocide; it was never a question of did it or did it not happen. I knew survivors; I wrote the book to tell the tale, yes, but also to discover for myself through fiction the ways in which trauma gets passed down through successive generations. I knew that the Turks denied the genocide, but my publisher and I were unprepared for the reaction by readers on both sides—those who’d waited so long for the world to hear their story, for just recognition; and those who even today—100 years after the fact—are more determined than ever to suppress historic truth.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
The writer’s job is to make connections from the chaos. To tell the story, this must follow that. Love, politics, history. The why and why-not of things. These are my obsessions. We live in a time of hyper-stimulation, uber-complexity, heart-numbing speed—the human vessel wasn’t built to metabolize so much, so fast. The question then becomes, How can art cut through? How to channel the collective rage? Underneath that rage is fear; underneath the fear is the very real desire for connection—for meaning, truth, love. The writer’s task is to plumb the depths.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To shock, remind, entertain, illuminate. Above all, to give to the reader with both hands. Good writing is an act of generosity.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I guess you could say that today our job is to work against the collective numbness. To act as the opposing force. Where there’s shadow, bring a lantern.
The body is political, especially for women and people of color. Sound and language begin as energy in the body. How do you inhabit or understand your body when you read and/or write?
Voice, as we know it, comes from the body, not the head. I’ve practiced yoga for many years and every day my body is in a different place. I try to come to the mat with what they call “a beginner’s mind.” Writing is the same, in the daily practice that’s required. The mix of humility, curiosity, boldness, is also required. You have to be tender yet strong. You have to believe that what you’re doing is essential, but often that means you coax it from the side, as if it doesn’t really count, as if you’re investigating, or just playing. It’s a most serious kind of play.
In this culture we women are very tough on ourselves and on each other. The body politic is one of “Not good enough.” When I was younger I was always thinking I wasn’t good enough and now I look back and mourn all that wasted worry. Now it’s important to me to mother fiercely and well, to love mightily, to write as if it’s the last day, and to bring new writers forward through our work at Narrative.
We all have a language and system of images that are our own, that were built into our lexicons from the fragments and musics of places and people we come from. What is a word or image that haunts your writing or that you find yourself revisiting, and what does it mean to you, what or where of your life is it made of?
Grace—in the ecumenical sense. I’m always asking in a given scene or situation, Where is grace? It’s so rarely attained—in life or in fiction. One person offers it, another refuses it, yet another reaches for it and fails. When someone actually finds grace, it’s that rare moment of perfect equilibrium that cannot last, that’s already vanishing into the next moment, the next crisis.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
No, and for that I’m both lucky and grateful.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Recently I spoke at the Armenian Genocide Centennial proceedings here in San Francisco and had the good fortune to hear Dr. Erik-Jan Zurcher, a leading expert on the Ottoman Empire. Zurcher has no horse in the race regarding the Armenians. He’s an academic. Yet through a lifetime of studying the facts, his work makes the case for what everyone now understands was the first modern genocide of the twentieth century. I’d give Zurcher’s book to the Turks and say, Look here. Let’s start by calling it by its proper name.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
To observe is to be open to the possibilities, to be curious. Surveillance has a gotcha at the end.
Guest editor Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community. She is the author of the poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec. Her honors and awards include the Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Native Arts Council Foundation Fellowship, a USArtists Ford Fellowship, and a Princeton Hodder fellowship. Diaz splits her time between Princeton and Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she works to document and revitalize the Mojave language. For the PEN Ten, she’ll be interviewing writers whose work is a war-cry and who are also fierce supporters and champions of women writers and writers of color.