Youth Explore Identity and Culture at ArtLinks 2017

Youth Explore Identity and Culture at ArtLinks 2017

The 2017 Hamazkayin ArtLinks youth forum took place in California June 29 – July 2.  Around 30 participants and 10 organizers congregated in the scenic campgrounds of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), in Wrightwood, outside Los Angeles. The four-day program featured an inspiring lineup of workshop leaders:  Chris Bohjalian (literature), Ara Dabanjian (music), Nanore Barsoumian (difficult conversations), Vahe Berberian (culture and identity), and Taleen Mardirossian (Armenian folk dance). The workshops were moderated by ArtLinks Program Director Khatchig Mouradian.

Following an evening of meet and greet, Mouradian formally welcomed the participants on Friday morning, and thanked the Hamazkayin regional executive boards for their hard work organizing the retreat. He said that in his view, today’s youth are not indifferent, but that they are different. “We often hear people say the future belongs to the youth. I disagree. The present does,” he said. Mouradian also spoke about the importance and mission of ArtLinks, and the role of the youth in cultivating culture.

Mouradian is the Nikit and Eleanora Ordjanian Visiting Professor at Columbia University. Since 2014, Mouradian has taught courses on imperialism, mass violence, human rights, concentration camps, urban space and conflict in the Middle East, and collective memory in the History and Sociology departments at Rutgers University, California State University – Fresno, and Worcester State University.

Hamazkayin ArtLinks is the first North American-Armenian youth forum to link a range of renowned artists with young Armenians interested in their cultural heritage. The ArtLinks workshop environment promotes a dialogue between Armenian youth and internationally recognized figures, with backgrounds in creative literature, music, theater, cinema, journalism, and the social media. During the four-day retreat, workshop leaders interact with participants aged 21 to 35, to transmit their expertise.

Writing and Storytelling

Following Mouradian’s remarks, bestselling author Chris Bohjalian led an engaging workshop on writing. Bohjalian spoke about the challenges he encountered on his journey becoming one of the most celebrated Armenian American authors. He urged participants to invest time in what they love to do. Bohjalian said that early on in his career, he decided to write novels he enjoys reading. He also shared some tips. He said watching movie trailers—such as the ones for the movies “Birdman,” “Jaws,” and “Cake”—often inspire him, as they’re effective in transporting the viewer to an emotional place. He also talked about his books The Guest Room and The Sleepwalker. For the latter, he said he watched trailers with themes on sacrifice. He also spoke about the importance of writing every day. He said, “The goal each day that I’m writing is to write 1,000 words…. The point is to get something down on paper I can work with.” Quoting Jodi Picoult, he added, “You can edit a bad page, you can’t edit a blank page.”

Continuing sharing writing tips, Bohjalian talked about techniques that Ernest Hemingway championed. He said he begins each day by rewriting the last 200 words that he wrote the day before. Doing so reacquaints him, he said. Rewriting also offers him the opportunity to edit the text, and improve it. Bohjalian said that he often dedicates his afternoons to researching, interviewing experts, and biking. He also stressed the importance of having a trusted friend who is honest with the text to read his work and assess the authenticity. For him, his wife Victoria and friend Khatchig Mouradian serve that role.

Bohjalian went on to talk about his books, which he said fall into two categories: contemporary literature and historical fiction. All his books share two threads 1) the emotion of dread and 2) the emotion of regret.

Bohjalian then opened the floor for discussion. He posed a series of questions to the participants about the choices an author must make (topic, where to start, and point of view).  He prompted the participants to discuss the strengths and limitations of using a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person narrator, and the advantages and disadvantages of writing in the past or present tense—the present tense is inherently urgent, he said.

Then the workshop participants were asked to write an opening for a story. The topic was: A motorcade of three black SUVs leaves the Turkish Embassy in DC. The Turkish ambassador is in one of them. Protesters are protesting peacefully. Suddenly all goes to hell. Write an opening.

Bohjalian noted that an effective writing would have conflict and human transformation. “We want our characters different at the end of the book than when we first met them,” he said.

Participants then shared the stories they wrote, and discussed their choices.

Bohjalian is the author of 19 books, most of which were New York Times bestsellers.  His work has been translated into over 30 languages and three times become movies. His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon. His novel, Midwives, was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Complexities in Identities

Following lunch, Nanore Barsoumian, a graduate student in conflict resolution, led a robust discussion on the role of identity in how individuals view themselves, engage with others, and the stories they choose to tell. She said that as humans we have a need to categorize others and to simplify. Barsoumian asked participants what “identity” meant to them. This led to a discussion on how identities evolve and are constructed.

Barsoumian said we all have different identity markers that may be based on our gender, ethnicity, interests, relationships, experiences, religion, sexual orientation, and birthplace, among others. She said that in conflicts sometimes one part of our identity comes to the foreground, particularly when it is threatened.

Then she led an hour-long activity on identity. She instructed participants to take five minutes and write down seven markers of their identities, “The most important elements that make you who you are,” she said. She then instructed them to cross off two of the pieces, and then two more. Participants then took turns discussing their choices. This led to a lively discussion on the Armenian identity, and what that means to different participants. Participants agreed that perhaps one could not strictly define what it meant being an Armenian. In this context, different realities in the wider Armenian community were discussed, such as the case of Islamized Armenians.

Barsoumian noted that sometimes identities can feel limiting, and sometimes they serve to marginalize or silence certain stories and experiences. She said it is important to give voice to the different stories and experiences. She then showed a short clip of a Ted Talk given by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story.” Barsoumian stressed Adichie’s assertion that the danger of telling ourselves a single story is that we start to believe it. She said there is power in story-telling, in defining one’s identity, and that there are different ways of being Armenian, woman, activist, etc. Barsoumian then gave an assignment to the participants, asking them to submit a photograph and a text that tells their story, or explores an aspect of their identity.

Barsoumian is a graduate student in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB). She was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. Prior to that, she served as assistant editor from 2010 to 2014. She has reported from Armenia, Artsakh, Javakhk, and Turkey. Barsoumian holds a graduate certificate in Conflict Resolution, and a BA in English and Political Science from UMB. She serves on the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society’s U.S. Eastern Region Executive Board.

Following the workshops, participants spent time swimming in the camp pool. This was followed by dinner, and a bonfire where participants and organizers socialized, made s’mores, shared stories, and celebrated the birthday of Manoug Joukhajian, one of the key organizers of the program.

Performing Identity

Saturday morning started with a “fool” (fava bean) breakfast, which was followed by the workshop led by artist and comedian Vahe Berberian. Berberian spoke about how Armenians collectively suffer from amnesia after 1915, which only allows for flashbacks to things before 1915, such as Krikor Lousavorich (Gregory the Illuminator).

Berberian stressed that for him being an Armenian was not a depressing reality, but something that he felt gave him an “edge” and empowered him.

He then spoke about the concept of identity, and focused on the similarity between the French words “etre” (to be) and “paretre” (to appear). He said being is performing; “You are who you pretend to be,” he said. Berberian remembered how a friend told him that he felt he was performing being an Armenian. Vahe’s response was, “You are performing being everything.”

Berberian also talked about the importance of acting on one’s thoughts. He gave an example of noticing a piece of trash on the road and thinking that “someone should clean that up.” “The moment you think that, it should be you,” he said.

Soon, participants engaged in a lively discussion. The topics covered a wide range of topics, including assimilation, identity, group identity versus individual identity, guilt, post-genocide mentality, and Armenian language and education,

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Berberian has been living in the United States for 40 years. With his five one-man shows Berberian has established himself as the leading Armenian monologist. His material is funny, witty and rich with observations on the Armenian condition. Berberian is the author of numerous plays, including “Pink Elephant” and “Gyank,” two novels which have been published in three different languages, and over a dozen movie scripts. He is also a prolific painter and has had numerous exhibitions all over the United States and abroad.

Armenian Music

Following a break for lunch, musician Ara Dabandjian led a workshop on Armenian music. He first spoke about his band, Element Band, and why and how it was formed. He said he had noticed a void and a big gap between younger members of the Armenian community and Armenian music, where Armenian music was seen as “uncool.”

It soon became Dabandjian’s mission to “arrange it and rearrange it to make it palatable to Armenian and non-Armenian ears.” He said, “How do we make it cool so that an Armenian person is proud to play Armenian music?” Dabandjian spoke about Gloria Estefan, and said that Mexican music was not popular or “cool” until her.

He said it may be controversial for him to say, but although Komitas is considered to be “pure” Armenian music, it is in fact Westernized Armenian music.  He said we would have to dig deeper in order to go back to what “our true identity is, what our true music is.” He also said that one of the biggest challenges is to figure out how to serve up Armenian music to non-Armenians.

Dabandjian then opened the floor to discussion. He spoke about his own reaction to hearing Turkish music, and asked the participants for their impressions. He asked whether their reaction would be different if Turkey were to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

The discussion leaned towards how participants envisioned Armenian music evolving, various challenges facing Armenian musicians, and what constitutes “Armenian music.”

Best known for founding the popular, Los Angeles based, folk ensemble Element Band, Dabandjian’s compositions and musical arrangements have garnered multiple awards. Dabandjian’s compositions deliver unique expression of folk-fusion by incorporating deft instrumentation, lush vocal harmonies, and rich multi-ethnic musical styles that have landed him at prominent stages around the globe. His compositions are credited in several theatrical productions, including Tim Robbins’ “Actors’ Gang,” Academy Award winner Alex Dinelaris’s “Red Dog Howls,” Dr. J. Michael Hagopian’s “The River Ran Red,” and multiple scores for motion pictures and documentaries.

Following the workshops, participants enjoyed some free time. Some chose to practice yoga, led by fellow participant and certified yoga instructor Maral Varjabedyan, who also led early morning yoga sessions. Others took the time to socialize or go hiking. Soon it was time for dinner, which was followed by music, dance, and merriment.

Moving Mountains with Dance, and Final Goodbyes

The following morning, Mouradian gave the closing remarks, thanking the participants and organizers for their engagement. This was followed by representatives of the Hamazkayin regional executives of the East and West coasts, as well as Canada, thanking Mouradian and the workshop leaders with symbolic gifts of recently published books.

Next, Taleen Mardirossian led the program’s final workshop, which was on Armenian folk dance. She first spoke about what the Sassountsi dances meant to her and how dear they were to her. She said that following the genocide, not much was passed to her that had survived the genocide. She did not inherit letters or objects—nothing concrete except the dances. Mardirossian spoke about the role of dance in reaffirming bonds between Armenians, even strangers.

Mardirossian then instructed the participants to assume their positions, and she led them step-by-step in learning the Msho Khr. She said the purpose of the dance was to move mountains. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the participants danced with increasing enthusiasm, shaking their shoulders and stomping the ground.

Mardirossian is an attorney from Los Angeles, currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. A descendant of Sassoun, the land of those whose dances exude the kind of passion that could move mountains, she is a proud inheritor of “yarkhushta” and “msho khr.”

Following the dancing, the program came to an end, and participants said their goodbyes.

Read participant Mikael Matossian’s in-depth report, featuring participant impressions, here.

The inaugural Hamazkayin ArtLinks program was held in the Catskills, N.Y., in 2015. In 2016, the program traveled to Quebec, Canada. The enthusiastic participation of Armenian youth in the first two ArtLinks events led the Regional Executives of Hamazkayin USA East, USA West, and Canada to sponsor and organize Hamazkayin ArtLinks 2017.

Hamazkayin ArtLinks 2018 is set to take place in Philadelphia (details forthcoming).

For more information or questions, please write to

Read about ArtLinks 2015 here, and ArtLinks 2016 here.

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