Writer on the Road
Olivia Katrandjian shares her literary journey from Birthright Armenia to Oxford
February 2, 2021 | by Creative Armenia
From travel blogging in Bangkok to writing an ambitious novel about the Second World War and pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Oxford, Olivia Katrandjian’s life has never been short on adventure. Now a 2021 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow, Olivia connected to us for this exclusive interview.
CA: Tell us a little about how you began your journey of becoming a writer.
OK: I’ve always loved to read and to tell stories. I began writing personal essays in college, working one-on-one with professors whose belief in my ability encouraged me to pursue writing as a career. Upon graduating, I worked as a travel writer based in Bangkok, covering Southeast Asia and China. Through Birthright Armenia and the Armenian Volunteer Corps, I moved to Yerevan, where I volunteered as a journalist for Civilitas (now CivilNet) and began freelancing for American media outlets. This was a formative experience that deepened my connection to the people of Armenia and Artsakh. I had to return home due to family circumstances, so I got a job as a reporter at ABC News, and then at Retro Report, making short documentary films for The New York Times.
CA: What is a single work of art or a person whose work influenced you the most? Why?
OK: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried had a profound effect on me when I first read it as a high school student. I was haunted by the raw, devastating stories and how horrific violence could be recounted in such rhythmic, musical prose. I’ve gone on to read almost all of O’Brien’s work, and really admire him as a storyteller.
CA: Currently you’re pursuing a Creative Writing graduate degree at the University of Oxford. What motivated you to apply? Do you think creative writing can and should be taught?
OK: When I decided to turn from journalism to fiction, I read craft books voraciously, and took classes and workshops both in person and online. When I felt like I’d taught myself everything I could on my own, I applied to graduate school. Although our residencies have been virtual so far due to the pandemic, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the other students and being part of the supportive, inspiring community of writers and teachers at Oxford. I’m reading more than I ever have, deepening my understanding of literary history, and growing as a storyteller across genres.
Writers certainly don’t need to attend graduate school, and many programs, especially in the United States, can be prohibitively expensive, leading to a less diverse student group. But creative writing programs can push a student to read and write in different genres, learn from other perspectives, broaden her literary community and form lasting bonds with other writers.
CA: You have tried yourself in multiple genres and fields, got published in The New York Times, BBC, ABC News, PBS, and many more publications. What are you looking forward to exploring next?
OK: I am looking forward to experimenting with short stories and narrative nonfiction. I’d also like to write climate fiction.
CA: Right now you’re working on publishing your first novel – The Ghost Soldier – which is based on a true story set during the Second World War. How did you come across it? Why was it important for you to tell that story?
OK: I first heard about the Ghost Army, the artistic deception unit my novel is based on, on the architecture and design podcast 99% Invisible. I was fascinated by this group of artists, architects, engineers, musicians and actors that deceived the Germans by using inflatable tanks, sound effects and fake radio transmissions to create the illusion of the American Army. Several Armenian-American immigrants were among the ranks of the Ghost Army. I used my grandfather, an architect, and his best friend, an engineer, as inspiration for the main characters.
In The Ghost Soldier, Sevan, the only remaining child of Armenian Genocide survivors, longs to escape his suffocating community in the Bronx and become an architect. His best friend Manoog convinces him to enlist in the army, and their artistic talents earn them a spot in the Ghost Army. In this top-secret unit, Sevan and Manoog are surrounded by others who share their passion for creativity. But while the men try to lighten their days with art, humor, and the occasional drag show, they can’t escape the truth: they are on a suicide mission. Trained only to lure the enemy through artistic illusions, the men can’t defend themselves if attacked. Complicating things are Sevan’s feelings for a woman who is not Armenian, and Manoog’s exploration of his homosexuality, which could land him in prison, or worse.
I wanted to explore, through this nonviolent unit and these Armenian-American soldiers, what it means to be a “real man” and an American. It was important to me to include a queer Armenian, a group historically stigmatized within our community. While researching this novel, I had trouble finding accounts of queer Armenians from the 1930’s and 40’s, and am thrilled about the existence today of the Queer Armenian Library, curated by J.P Der Boghossian, which is an incredible and necessary resource.
CA: Many writers have talked or written about the challenges of writing. What do you personally find most difficult about writing?
OK: Writing is a solitary endeavor. This is challenging not only because it can be lonely, but also because you often have no one to guide you. I’ve combatted this by forming critique groups, seeking mentors, and creating lasting bonds with other writers, especially female writers. I have benefitted immensely from their literary feedback and from thinking critically about their work, and from the support system that we’ve developed.
CA: You have recently founded the International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA), uniting talented Armenian writers. What literary issues would you like to address with this initiative?
OK: Literature is a vital element of a people and a culture⎯we are our stories. In the case of Armenians, the story takes on even greater importance. Throughout history, attacks on Armenians have been met largely with silence. Most recently, though we raised our voices to protest the violence perpetrated on the people of Artsakh, few listened.
As writers, we must support each other if we want to thrive not only as individuals, but as a literary community. As people, Armenians must support our writers if we want the world to listen to our stories. IALA will provide a platform through which Armenian writers can be heard. IALA will grow a global Armenian literary community, support established authors and promote their work, and help lift up a new generation of emerging writers through mentorship. Through readings, panel discussions and interviews, we will celebrate the diverse identities within our community, share Armenian literature with a wider audience and foster intercultural exchange.
CA: Do you have a creation that you are most proud of? What makes it special?
OK: Though I am proud of the years of work and perseverance it took to research, write and edit my novel, I am most proud of creating my daughter, Lusinè, who loves to read.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
OK: I hope to write novels, primarily, but part of the beauty of being a writer is that you can apply the principles of narrative to different mediums. I believe in the power of invoking change through storytelling, and I hope to do so across genres. I intend to continue to portray Armenian characters in their multiplicity of voices.
CA: What are your plans for your year as a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow?
OK: I plan to use the fellowship funding to travel to Armenia and Artsakh. I will interview women affected by the recent war and those contributing to the rebuilding process, and document their experiences. I’m excited to learn from new mentors, explore the work of the other fellows, and be inspired by cross-discipline exchange.