Micheline Aharonian Marcom is the author of seven novels, including a trilogy of books about the Armenian genocide and its aftermath in the 20th century. She has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and the US Artists’ Foundation. Her first novel, Three Apples Fell From Heaven, was a New York Times Notable Book and Runner-Up for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. Her second novel, The Daydreaming Boy, won the PEN/USA Award for Fiction. Marcom is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Kendall Dawson. Of the process, she said, “I am so appreciative for the time Marcom took to discuss her novel, The New American. Marcom’s writing style evokes emotion and imagery that is every bit heartening as it can be cruel; documenting the trials of migration and the power of family - whether chosen or by blood. This story may be fiction but encapsulates the truth of millions of immigrants destined to make the United States their home.” In this interview, Michelin Marcom talks about the power of remembrance, the history of migration, and looks back on some favorite authors.
Superstition Review: You have had an expansive writing career, publishing your first novel in 2001. Almost 20 years later, how has your writing process evolved?
Micheline Marcom: I began my first book when doing my MFA in Creative Writing in 1997 while also working full-time as the Assistant Director of an education program—balancing grad school, writing, and work. Because it was my first novel, I had no idea what I was doing, or even how to do it, and relied on two things: wise guidance from teachers about the process of making books, how they take their time, how a pattern emerges in time, and, willy nilly, my own intuition. My son was born nine months before that novel, Three Apples Fell From Heaven, was published: so for years after that I balanced being a mother, and since he was two, also being a professor of Creative Writing. The biggest change besides the continual balancing one has to do as a writer with work and family obligations is that I now understand when writing a novel to trust that the mind makes patterns, and I follow my intuition without reservation.
SR: As the founder and creative director of the New American Story project, how did you get into the fierce advocacy of immigrants and refugees?
MM: I’m the daughter of an immigrant from Beirut, Lebanon and I was cared for until I was nine by Salvadoran women who had emigrated to Los Angeles fleeing the war the war in El Salvador when my mom was at work. Those two things, and of course the larger environment of Los Angeles in the 80s—a wide mix of people from all over the world—are likely some of the reasons I had migration on my mind from early on, that and the fact that my maternal grandparents survived the Armenian genocide in 1915 in Turkey and migrated to Beirut as refugees. When I was growing up, I always thought I’d eventually work with immigrants, and planned to study law and become an immigration attorney—which of course I didn’t do. After college and after living in Spain studying for two years, I returned to the U.S. and taught English as a Second Language and Spanish at a public high school for several years, and then for five years worked in the education program I mentioned where more than half of my students were immigrants or children of immigrants. Those were how I spent my twenties. Flash forward many years later to when I had written several novels and was teaching Creative Writing at Mills College in Oakland, California and I took several graduate students to teach a creative writing workshop for newcomers at a local inner-city high school I had once worked with. Most of the students in that class were recent arrivals from Central America and for multiple reasons—some related to literacy and formal education and others to the trauma they had undergone—could not write their stories in a classroom setting. As I began to speak to them one-on-one, however, they opened up. In many ways, the New American Story Project was born out of that writing workshop’s failure. The students’ stories haunted me and I felt duty-bound to share them. I realized digital expression was the way to do so: it was more immediate, visceral, easier to share, and adaptive to an unfolding humanitarian crisis which the adolescents from that high school were witness to.
SR: Not much fiction focuses on adults in their early twenties, let alone college students. As someone who checks both those boxes, I appreciated this point of view. What was your process toward creating these resilient, yet impulsive characters?
MM: From the outset of the book I knew Emilio, the main character, would be a DREAMer and a college student—and that he would act as the reader’s guide through the world he encounters upon being deported and journeying north on the migrant trail to return home. In many ways the book is a coming-of-age story, and I think part of the reason those stories remain so evocative is precisely because it is often during that time in life when one leaves childhood and one’s family behind and enters society, it is a time of growth and change and discovery, a critical juncture in life when one becomes more conscious of the wider world beyond the circle of the familiar.
SR: The dialogue style throughout the novel is seemingly uncommon in traditional literature. For example, there are no quotations to separate speakers. How did you come to decide on that style? What was the desired effect for you?
MM: I have almost never used the American convention of double quotation marks to indicate dialogue. I’ve never liked them, not how they look on the page, nor the ways we as readers are so accustomed to the style of realism that we forget that it is, in fact, a style, one among many.
SR: Besides a few interjections, the novel is primarily in English. However, in the ending, we come to see full conversations in Spanish. Why did you choose to use Spanish dialogue in the novel, and only toward the very end?
MM: The conceit of the book until we encounter the Spanish at end is that all the characters in Guatemala and Mexico are speaking the same language, Spanish, as they would be naturally, and it is only when the characters cross the border and encounter the American character, John Freedman, that English comes into play. Because the book is written in English, however, it meant that Spanish then needed to be used at end: the language that Emilio and Matilde are speaking to one another throughout the book. And I suppose this also calls attention to the fact that the book is a language-made artifact that works symbolically in the imagination.
SR: Emilio and his comrades encounter much misery in this novel: familial separation, incessant assault, and starvation, to name a few. How do you tackle writing about trauma?
MM: Since my first novel, which took as its subject the Armenian genocide, I have written several books set during historical periods and place, and in this case an actual one, in which humans face difficult circumstances, in many cases having little to do with their own creation. That said, I write about trauma and violence in the same manner I take up any subject: I do my very best to understand everything I can about it, I try never to sentimentalize or misrepresent characters or situations, and ‘tell the truth truly’ as Emerson said, no matter how challenging that may be.
SR: I was captivated by your vivid descriptions and ability to bring your readers into the scene with you, especially when the group trekked the scalding hot Mexican desert. How do you get in the mindset to create such powerful scenes?
MM: I do lot of research; I ‘mine’ books for details I need to inhabit a scene, a moment, a character, and then I let my imagination do its work!
SR: In your interview with Big Other you mention how bits of Armenian heritage find a place in your novels. Why is it important for you to consistently infuse that personal touch into your fiction?
MM: Writing novels is always personal, I wouldn’t spend years writing a book if I weren’t obsessed with a book’s subject. Part of my obsession as a writer, I’ve come to realize, has been to write a little bit of my family and my ancestors, and the larger story of the Armenian genocide and consequent diaspora, into works of imaginative literature. While I don’t think literature changes history, perhaps it doesn’t even change any one’s mind, it can endure, and in this sense is a kind of balm, at least for me: knowing that what was lost for Armenians, say, might have a retelling and reliving inside a book and inside a reader’s imagination across space and time. There’s a writer I greatly admire, Danilo Kiš, from the former Yugoslavia, whose Jewish father was killed during the Second World War in a concentration camp. In an interview Kiš gave he said, “I believe that literature must correct History… Literature corrects the indifference of historical data by replacing History’s lack of specificity with a specific individual.” For myself, this capacity of literature, if not in some measure its duty, has been a guiding force in many of my novels. Kiš puts it another way in his masterpiece, A Tomb For Boris Davidovich, about the show trials, purges, and violence of 1930s Stalinist Russia: how literature is a kind of cenotaph for the missing and defeated, the silenced dead of history who have had no proper burial, whose names and existence have been elided or erased, but who might have a reckoning, a preservation, in letters. Only literature and storytelling consider the individual in this manner.
SR: This novel is inspired by real people you’ve interviewed about their experience fleeing Central America. Can you talk about any difficulty you had in remaining true to the stories you were retelling while writing about a culture outside of your own?
MM: I think any serious writer, and by “serious” I mean a writer for whom writing books is a vocation, understands that her integrity while making a book is paramount. Each writer must of course determine for herself where her integrity lies, how she knows if she is being truthful, diligent, honorable in her work and to the characters whose lives she undertakes to tell. I began writing books, as I mentioned, by writing about the Armenian genocide, and while this was not always easy, I understood very early on that it was a serious undertaking, one that required my utmost effort and skill and all the talent I had, and that my duty was to tell the truth fully, with all of its complexity, and even contradictions, because literature is not written to please an audience, as far as I’m concerned, but to honor the dead, and the living. I have set out in every book I’ve undertaken—no matter if it is about Armenians, Turks and Kurds in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, or the Ixil in Guatemala in the 80s during the Scorched Earth Campaign, or a Portuguese immigrant in California falling in love with an American man, or Honduran and Salvadoran migrants who travel north in search of safety and a better life—to do so as well as I can, with all the intellect, heart and hard work I am capable of.
SR: The term “American” has been co-opted by the US and has no clear definition. To be American is different for everyone, and our competing definitions of the term are now at the center of altercations regarding the future of this country. In such a divisive moment in time, what hopes do you have for readers in understanding the vast similarities that tether us together?
MM: It’s true what you say, the term “American” is a strange and complicated one, with a complex and quite frankly, strange, history: the term coming to us from the name of the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who a German cartographer mistook in 1507 as the “discoverer” of South America and for whom he named it on the first map to depict the continent as a separate land mass from Asia. In the subsequent three decades, other mapmakers applied the term to both the North and South continents and in this way it became fixed. The history of the discovery, or conquest, by European powers of the Americas is filled with stories like this one: of strange encounters, tall tales that take on reality (we still today use the word “Indian” after all), and chance. From this we might also remember that we are all a collection of stories, some of which began as outright fictions, but this does not necessarily lessen their potency. Stories are powerful, as Shahrazad understood in the 1001 Nights: they can save your life, they can save the kingdom, they can in time bring a corrupt and venal king around to seeing the error of his violent ways, they can entertain, they are what make us human, what contribute to the great web of our connectivity and our continuity, and they can also divide, cause disputes, foment prejudice and ignorance: of ourselves and of others. As to the future of our country, and of human society worldwide, I concur with the young Polish poet, Tadeusz Borowski, who wrote one of the greatest works of literature on the realities of war and the effects of force and violence on the psyche after his experiences during World War II. He said, “I think about these things and smile condescendingly when people speak to me of morality, of law, of tradition, of obligation…Or when they discard all tenderness and sentiment and, shaking their fists, proclaim this the age of toughness. I smile and I think that one human being must always be discovering another—through love. And that this is the most important thing on earth, and the most lasting.”