The Storyteller and His Chords
Our Network member Raffi Wartanian's fictional and real stories, and the ones in-between
September 16, 2019 | by Creative Armenia
Writer, musician, and Network member Raffi Wartanian talks about his literary career, his music, and volunteer activities at prisons and refugee resettlements.
CA: You are a writer and musician. Tell us how the writer’s perspective influences your music and vice versa.
RW: We need words to make sense of our minds. We need music to make sense of our souls. Both are equally complex, the timeless objects of human fascination and wonder. When I write, I think about the rhythm of a sentence, the sound of the words, the progression of phrases accumulating into ideas and a greater whole. When creating music, I think about the phrasing of a melody, the punctuation provided by a chord, or the way a single note can, like the perfect word, pack a punch.
The deeper I dive into writing and music, the more I see common ground. This isn’t an unusual observation. Great creators like Hector Berlioz and Sayat Nova harnessed the power of both written and aural communication to convey a story. Some stories want to be told in writing. Other narratives live outside the limits of language. And yet, the moment I try to describe music, something is lost in translation; I can use words to describe the feeling produced by the music, or use technical jargon to describe the qualities of sound, but still, the music itself cannot be captured with words. I find liberating the challenge of using language to articulate sound because I know I have arrived at the place where words end, and the wordless begins.
CA: You hold an MFA in creative and nonfiction writing from Columbia University. Can you talk about about your writings? Do creative and non-fiction styles ever merge and how do you keep the thin line in-between?
RW: Writing is an attempt to understand the baffling, beautiful, and bountiful gift of life. It helps me make sense of the world around me. The people, politics, and persuasions of our time inspire me to interrogate further, question assumptions, connect dots, and articulate tensions. For some time, I tried identifying as one kind of a storyteller in one sort of genre. I struggled under the weight of this self-imposed limit. Ultimately, I surrendered to giving stories room to exist, and to find my role as something of a listener and transcriber. I try to tell a story as it wants to be told, rather than believe I must impose a form upon the narrative. If a story wants to be told through dialogue, I’ll try to write a play. Visual-driven narratives would lean towards writing for the screen. Interrogating the psychological and emotional depths of something would benefit from prose. And stories that cannot be told with words belong to all of us and the respective crafts we use to express ourselves, whether that means composing, cooking, dancing, or chopping wood. I believe what we do is not as important as how we do it. The greatest stories converse with the human experience in innovative, thought-provoking ways.
The difference between fiction and nonfiction writing provides important considerations. On the surface, we can consider them distinct. Fiction we consider as invented, and nonfiction as based in fact. Yet the closer we look, and the wider our reading becomes, the more we see the neat lines of classification we use -- created, I believe, by our economy more so than the art -- begin to blur. In The Years, for example, French author Annie Ernaux blends fiction and autobiography (a.k.a. “autofiction”) to paint a devastating portrait of the hyperconsumerist reality that has overtaken the west, if not the world. Fiction draws from reality; consider how The Matrix or a show like Years and Years or Black Mirror use the facts of our present digital age to turn the clock forward and imagine where we are headed. George Orwell did the same with his iconic 1984. Likewise, nonfiction draws from elements of the imagination we associate with fiction; we relish seeing nonfiction authors speculate, extrapolate, and interrogate in ways that use reality as a springboard into the rich, infinite realms of possibility. Like anything great, I have learned and try to practice the principle that style is as important, if not more so, than genre. Elements of style we all know: word choice, phrasing, sentence variety, structure, dialogue, and so on. It’s a long, exciting list, something worth putting up against the periodic table of elements.
CA: You are also a teacher. And, interestingly enough, you teach in prisons. We want to know more.
RW: Most summers growing up, my family visited relatives in Beirut. There, I saw a country recovering from fifteen years of civil war. Pock-marked buildings, limbless beggars, and countless war stories provided yawning contrast to our family’s relatively straightforward life outside the city of Baltimore. Only later would I learn about the issues of racism, violence, and marginalization plaguing American cities like my hometown; but as a child, I could only gather hints and pieces. It would take time for me to notice the bigger picture.
These visits to Lebanon showed me from an early age the disparities into which people are born. I was fortunate to attend a Jesuit high school where serving others represented a pedagogical pillar. The summer before senior year, I spent two weeks with classmates in the eastern shore of Maryland helping youth with developmental disabilities. During the academic year, we served people who were homeless and sick. I found these projects to be some of the most fulfilling of my life. Connecting with new people in novel environments expanded my awareness of life outside my comfort zone, and helped me realize how fortunate I was. In college, I sought ways to continue. This led to cycling across the US twice to raise funds for cancer research and hospice care, and spring break service trips in Jamaica and Costa Rica.
Teaching in prisons was a natural extension of the aforementioned progression. When I studied writing in New York, I knew I wanted to volunteer. Writing can be very solitary, and self- absorbing. I did not want to lose touch with the world around me, and the enriching lessons of service. Our department runs a volunteer teaching program, and they accepted my application to teach at Rikers Island. I worked with amazing co-teachers, and the students there were full of creativity, a hunger to learn, and gratitude for the opportunity to break the stifling routine of life in a jail. Hearing the students tell their stories exposed me to the injustices of America’s prison industrial complex. Many sat in jail for minor drug offenses, and for being unable to afford bail. Most of our students were people of color from the same neighborhoods whose greatest crime was an inability to pay bail. I also saw the incredibly challenging job corrections officers have on the inside, managing a tense and difficult environment. As well, the city’s Department of Corrections put up one hurdle after the next that seemed like an attempt to disincentivize volunteers from entering the jails. Brief scans of headlines suggested that Rikers Island also represented a political bargaining chip between city and state officials bickering over budgets and local power. The consequence of these dynamics was the stifling of life for our students, people society tends to write off as criminals.
CA: As a Creative Armenia Network member, you recently received Spark Grant for a music project. Can you give us some insight into the project?
RW: I’m preparing an album of ten original compositions on fingerstyle guitar, oud, and mandolin with upright bass and percussion accompaniment. These compositions are the product of years of loving labor. Through fits and starts, every note, chord, progression, and the rest was the result of a careful process of consideration. Essentially, this album is an attempt to articulate the space between the two major pillars of my musical identity: Appalachia and Anatolia. We recently finished recording in Los Angeles, and now have some more textural percussion to incorporate before mixing and mastering.
CA: You are also a social activist and have worked in refugee resettlements. Can you tell more about that experience? Did it change you as a storyteller?
RW: Working in a refugee resettlement center in my hometown of Baltimore taught me a lot about the city where I was born, and my Armenian roots. Each year, our center settled about 1,000 refugees and asylees predominantly from Iraq, Iran, Burma, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of my colleagues were themselves former refugees who had fled the political violence engulfing their respective countries. In Baltimore, we picked up newly arrived families at the airport, found apartments, identified jobs, registered for temporary benefits, enrolled kids in school, scheduled health appointments, and facilitated language classes. I ran a shop that distributed free clothing and home amenities, and also our volunteer and internship program. To do this right, I had to learn more about my colleagues, the people we served, and those around the city and state who we hoped to engage. Every day I encountered families who had endured things similar to what my own grandparents and great-grandparents experienced during the Armenian Genocide. This helped me understand that what happened to the Armenians belongs to a wider human story of survival and resilience. It also helped me comprehend the incredible upheaval my own parents experienced as immigrants who, due to the civil war, could not return to their home of Lebanon. The refugees and asylees we served helped me appreciate how privileged I have been to be born in a place of relative peace and rule-of-law. They also taught me the meaning of perseverance, dignity, and hope.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
RW: To keep telling stories -- through words, sounds, and civic engagement -- that reflect my passion for social justice, creativity, and innovative institutions.