Stepping on cultural toes.

Yerevan, Armenia

Snitched from Sherwood Smith’s referral link, I’m also going to link to Kari Sperring’s “Other people’s toes: a rant”and mark it for a must-read to anyone writing about “the Other”. Whether it be writing in a history or a place or a culture not your own, please read.

The topic’s been on my mind a lot this week. Mostly because on Sunday I unintentionally stepped on a lot of toes and it has caused me to sit down and think a lot of things over.

Some of you may know I’ve been working on writing down as much about the Armenian culture as I possibly can. I’m doing it for two reasons. (I didn’t know these reasons could conflict, but now I do.)  The first reason is because I need a memory tool to write my Armenian fantasy. I really, really  want to set a novel in contemporary and historical Armenia, and I want to do a good job on it.  The second reason is because, I figured, if I’m going to write this down for myself, I might as well share it with others–meaning those going to volunteer in Armenia in the future.  So I thought, why don’t I ask for help from others who have lived in Armenia and from my Armenian friends?

Well, this did not quite work out.  I had forgotten that my experience working with the lower and lower-middle class of Armenia would be different and contain very different views than the Internet-wielding, English-fluent moneyed class of Armenians.  They completely rejected a large portion of what I had written down and were even offended by the expressed views  I had recorded and the observations I’d noted.

One of them, an Armenian friend of mine, admitted that I had probably seen a lot of the darkness in Armenia, but she was disappointed I had not come to her to compare the views I had been getting and learn her side of the story.  I’m hoping to repent of this, and I’ve entered into a discussion with her about it.

Another Armenian acquaintance of mine was very upset that I would even attempt the project. In her view, I would never be able to capture the essence and complexity of Armenia, considering how little I saw, how short a time I was there (14 months), and how unvaried the type of people I met were.   In other words, an American trying to write about Armenia will always fail.

One more note came to my attention, and that is that in my search for the differences in our cultures, I must make sure not to “other”-ize them.  For the moment we think someone is not like us, that’s the moment when genocides begin to take shape.  I don’t wish to de-humanize anyone or make anyone seem somehow subpar or “unmodern”.  But I do want to celebrate our differences as well as our similarities.

All of these views have weight and value.  I think this article adds one more.  Armenia isn’t a playground. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to make sure I do this seriously.    I already am realizing that keeping notes for myself should and is a different project from preparing a cultural introduction for those who are about to plunge head-first into Armenian culture and the living experience.

I need balance in this.  I don’t want to forget what I saw and heard, nor should I dismiss the experiences of all those who taught me about the bleaker side to their culture.   But I can, will, must continue to learn more, to enrich my memories and experiences with the views and experiences of others.

After all, there’s so much to learn.


2 responses to “Stepping on cultural toes.

  • Rubina

    Hi Laura, My name is Rubina, I am Armenian from Iran living in Germany since 1989. I am 71 years young!!! Mother of two daughters and grandmother to 5 grandchildren. Searching the web for a history of Armenian witchs, I don’t know why your note popped up and so I read. This is quite an old note and I would like to know where you have got with your writing. I write poetry, my works have been published in many collective works, newspapers and weekly magazines in Armenia, Iran and U S A, I have published two tiny books at the moment I only write without publishing and have taken up painting, mainly the Armenian alphabet from petroglyph to modern times. If there is anything I could be helphful in your writing about Armenians etc, I would be glad to do so.

  • Rubina

    By the way, I forgot to mention that the video is not permitted to be seen in Germany!!!

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