Stories to Heal
An anthropologist, artist, and writer, our Network member Dana Walrath shares her journey from Yemen to Armenia to the US and back
April 2, 2021 | by Creative Armenia
How do you tell the story of the Armenian Genocide in a way that heals? How do you address caring for a close person with Alzheimer’s in a way that empowers? Dana Walrath, the author of the award-winning verse novel Like Water on Stone about the Armenian Genocide, creator of the striking and uncomfortable The Book of Genocides, and creator of the graphic novel Aliceheimer’s, might know the answer. She works with the rejuvenating power of storytelling to address some of the world’s most perplexing tragedies. Spend some time with her insightful reflections on privilege, the Artsakh war, and an exciting graphic novel-in-the-making, Between Alice and the Eagle, that Dana shared in this exclusive interview.
CA: You have a background in medical anthropology. In what ways has your scientific background affected your storytelling?
DW: Anthropology gave me the language to describe what it was like to grow up between Armenian and American cultures, struggling to figure out where I fit. Such identity questions are critical for storytelling, for knowing one’s characters.
My anthropological training also let me make sense of living and working in Brazil, Yemen, and Egypt as a child and young adult. In Yemen for example, I learned about American and white privilege arriving there straight out of American 10th grade when I was hired to teach 6th and 7th science and math in that country’s first experiment in bilingual co-education.
My American schooling, albeit brief, had made me highly educated in that context. My white privilege became clear to me when I — unlike my mother and younger sister who have more typical Armenian coloring — could walk the streets alone respectfully dressed and be taken for a courteous foreigner. They were taken for insolent locals and accordingly were harassed for breaking social convention.
Understanding the greater social contexts which characters navigate is essential for storytelling. A writer doesn't need a Ph.D. to understand this but for me, anthropology helped. It legitimated what I knew in my bones but for which I had no words. Above all, it empowered me to write stories.
Medical anthropology gave me the way to understanding the healing power of the story. Healing isn't the same as curing a disease. Healing is a matter of sharing stories, of being seen and heard. This means a person can heal even if they are sick or hurt or dying. This is really important for us, Armenians, especially now with the Azeri attacks on Artsakh. Here we are in the midst of genocide again. How can we heal? We heal when we find unity with others who have also experienced genocide. Indigenous peoples everywhere have experienced genocide. What can we learn about healing from them? What can we learn from black Americans who have endured genocide through enslavement and the ongoing systemic racism it perpetuates? We all heal when we work together toward change and peace. We heal when we restore the humanity of others, even of perpetrators, so that our truth can be seen and heard without destroying ourselves with a frenzy of anger and violence.
I know I am lucky that I can tackle trauma through creative work. But I believe that when each of us finds peace within our own souls, which involves feeling deep pain, we will be better equipped to see the humanity of others. I tell stories in order to heal myself and to give the possibility of healing to others.
CA: All your works are very imaginative and depict traumatic experiences in creative ways - whether you use a zoology book to address the trauma of the genocide in The Book of Genocides or pages from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a dress for your mother’s character to address her struggle with dementia in Aliceheimer’s. How do you come up with those powerful metaphors?
DW: I was making art long before I became a writer, but I always read like a fiend so it felt natural to turn the books themselves into imagery and metaphor.
Books contain multiple complex meanings that have made their way into our subconscious minds. We all know the magic and humor and laughter within, Alice in Wonderland. We also know the disorientation of Wonderland with its shrinking and growing, the anxiety of the Mad Hatter, and we fear the capricious dangerous Queen. Using bits of that book in Aliceheimer’s, let me conjure up the complete complexity of Wonderland and put it to work as part of rewriting the dominant dementia story.
For The Book of Genocides, a piece that explores nine of the genocides of the past five hundred years, I used a zoology text to explore a very specific facet of genocide: dehumanization, the taking away of personhood. This cognitive shift allows us to treat one another in inhumane, despicable ways. We will not kill another human unless they are the enemy or somehow lesser.
Perpetrators of genocide cast their targets as sub-human: as vermin, snakes, predators, slaves. The zoology text gave me a readymade surface to draw into that had already embodied dehumanization. It also captured the objectifying, hierarchical, classificatory stance of science and how it is so often employed to manipulate and dominate nature. The latest iteration of this piece redacts words from pages of the zoology text to further amplify layers of dehumanization, the hate rhetoric, and the history of each genocide. The resulting images and redacted text are quite bracing but I believe that this ugliness exists in our subconscious mind and that surfacing it, making it visible and audible strips it of its power. I made this work to situate the Armenian genocide within a broader social context and in solidarity with other peoples who have experienced the dehumanization of genocide. Solidarity charts the path to healing.
CA: When writing your award-winning book Like Water on Stone about the Armenian Genocide, you lived in Armenia as a Fulbright Scholar. How was your experience of living in Armenia different from your expectations?
DW: On my way home from Yemen, during Soviet jamanagin, my family and I visited Armenia to meet the many cousins we had never seen before. This visit was highly supervised by InTourist, the Soviet surveillance branch for travelers. So, the first differences from my expectations were the freedom and the opening up of the country, the creation of world-class art museums such as the Parajanov and Cafesjian Museums, and the revitalization of facets of Armenian culture that had been suppressed during Soviet times.
I arrived in late August and on my second or third night, I got totally hooked on folk dancing at the Cascade steps with the Karin Ensemble. I went on to take weekly classes with Karin member, Anna Berberyan and several of the dances I learned that year made their way into Like Water on Stone.
I walked all over the city and somehow was particularly obsessed with walking to Tsitsernakaberd’s library for research purposes. When April 24th came and I learned of this city-wide ritual, I gained an unexpected understanding of my obsession. I walked to Tsisternakaberd three times in that 24-hour period.
The most beautiful upending of my expectations came from feeling totally at home and accepted as an Armenian. I did not grow up speaking Armenian and I am sheg, fairer than many in the diaspora. But when I was alone on the streets of Yerevan, I fit in. People would ask me for directions and despite my grammatical errors, I could answer!
The one sad upending of expectations was seeing that the gorgeous covered food market on Mashtots Street had been architecturally butchered. It was there, decades before, with sunbeams streaming through its arched windows that I first tasted the perfection of Armenian apricots.
CA: You have previously mentioned that you visited Artsakh. As an artist and advocate for justice, how did the news of the war affect you, and has it sparked in you a creative response to it?
DW: News of the Azeri attacks prompted both a creative and a political response. Though I grew up in and around New York City, Vermont is now my home and as a small state we have quite a bit of access to our Senators and our lone member of the House, so my political response involved a series of meetings with their staff. Together with other Vermont Armenians I encouraged sanctions, explained the history, and connected Artsakh to exactly what was happening here in the United States both in terms of indigenous rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.
I could bring in things that I had seen with my own eyes such as major Azeri-built roads paved deliberately through ancient Armenian cemeteries and the Stepanakert airport that stands empty due to Azeri fly zone policy. I could speak of the magnificence of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral of Shushi before it was bombed as well as of the minarets that still stand in that same city in honor of its multi-ethnic past along the ancient Silk Road. I could relay stories of old people I had worked with in Yerevan who were refugees from Baku, or who had fled Nakhichevan in the 1950s or 60s.
I took apart the phrase “international recognition” and tied it back to deep history instead of current power structures and oil interests. I brought in my creative work. I also spoke at rallies and colleges and even to teachers and librarians in Texas thanks to the miracle of Zoom. And then I went back to work ever more furiously on The Book of Genocides as this project, which is both an art installation and a book manuscript, traces out genocide as a process. It shows vividly how denial of genocide leads to future violence. My hope is that this project will contribute to breaking the cycle of genocide.
One final creative response involved donating an edition of these images, made the year I was a Fulbright scholar, and thus prohibited from visiting Artsakh on account of US State Department rules to the Armenian Art Digital Art Fair. You can see Artsakh in each of the collage drawings created from a Soviet-era atlas, and Matenadaran illuminated manuscripts. I am currently working on expanding this initiative.
CA: There is no one way to go about creating an artwork – some get inspired by a line, some by an image, and some by a life experience. What’s your ingredient of inspiration? What draws you to a new creative project?
DW: A writing mentor along the way once told me that if you are a woman writer that whatever you write will be considered autobiographical.
In an odd way, this let me write very loosely from life experience filling in all that I longed for and in the process to heal. With Like Water on Stone, for example, I had one sentence about how my grandmother had survived the genocide: After her parents were killed, she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night from Palu to Aleppo. I knew they were a family of millers and that a pot made it with them all the way to New York. These bare-bones developed into the full story with everything else created from imagination grounded by research.
For me, the key ingredient of inspiration is ultimately subconscious. At some point in the process of writing Like Water on Stone, an omniscient narrator in the form of an eagle bubbled up. I think my subconscious mind generated Ardziv not just to protect the young ones while they traveled and to protect readers, but also to protect me as I wrote. With the subconscious mind, it is a matter of trusting the process of writing and creating. This is especially accessible with visual art. Working with my hands connects me deeply to my subconscious and lets the thinking part of my mind step back. Sometimes new images even come to me during dreams.
CA: You are currently working on a new graphic novel – Between Alice and the Eagle – a continuation of your graphic novel Aliceheimer’s. Tell us more about the book.
DW: This sequel, written entirely in comics form, will combine personal memoir with an anthropological exploration of the experience of living with and dying from dementia across the globe. As with Aliceheimer’s, it will show the possibility of light, laughter, and healing that can come to all of us through this terminal disease and in the process will reduce the fear and stigma surrounding dementia and restore the humanity of people living with it. My mother experienced a beautiful peaceful death in November of 2017 and I am sure that our Armenian ancestors were guiding us through this somehow. This book will share that story.
Direct experience with dementia in Armenia, Japan, and Ireland will add to what I know from our family’s journey in the US. Particularly relevant to this COVID-19 era, Between Alice and the Eagle will explore global labor flows of essential workers and how this impacts the experience of dementia. In Armenia, older people are often left to fend for themselves as unemployment forces their children to head to Moscow and elsewhere for work. Likewise, wealthy nations like the US, Ireland and Japan, depend upon essential workers, often from the global south along with a local low-income predominantly minority and female workforce. This book will honor these essential workers and open the door for a nuanced discussion on the quality of life, on death and dying, on social justice, and equity.
As I work on the sequel, Aliceheimer’s is also becoming an opera. When composer Erik Nielsen approached me about this possibility I had to say yes. True to her Armenian soul, Alice loved opera! It is envisioned as a single singer opera with silent carers accompanying Alice on stage. Armenian history keeps surfacing in the libretto, perhaps a subconscious reference to the many conversations I had in Yerevan in which I explained her dementia to another older person.
Their response was always, “Was she a genocide survivor?” as though only this trauma could explain such profound memory loss. For Alice, dementia was a time of re-membering, of putting her soul back together. Dementia allowed her to surface all of her fears, her guilt, and her trauma and to heal from them. She recounted so much from her childhood that I had never known before because she was so intent on her children succeeding in America. This processing, this healing, this re-membering, along with the help of the ancestors are integral to both the book and the opera.