Writer on the Storm
Meet Aram Mrjoian, a writer, editor, educator, and our 2022 Fellow.
May 6, 2022 | by Creative Armenia
Writing. Giving up. Writing again. Aram Mrjoian’s journey to becoming a writer has been paved through the darkness. It took him many rejections, plenty of self-doubt, and a couple of carefully placed light switches to see a glimpse of hope on that strenuous path. And eventually find himself on a brighter road, emerging as the editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, educator at the Pacific Lutheran University, and soon-to-be-published editor of We Are All Armenian: Voices from the Diaspora.
He generously shared all the twists and turns he had to maneuver to find himself where he is now and speculated on the challenges he will have yet to overcome in his interview with us. Read this candid and inspiring conversation to learn more about our 2022 Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow, his creative journey, intricate relationship with the Armenian identity, and the many exciting projects he is currently working on.
Creative Armenia: Tell us a little about how you began your journey of becoming a writer.
Aram Mrjoian: I didn’t begin working on my prose seriously until college, after switching my major from business to English, but long before that I loved reading and writing. My parents get all the credit here because they read to me all the time when I was a kid and bought me all the books I wanted. I was lucky enough to grow up with books readily accessible. For a long time, I mostly considered myself an avid reader who wrote sometimes, and for most of my early twenties, I mostly wrote about books and literary culture, thinking that I didn’t really stand a chance as a creative writer.
During that period, I was writing some fiction and creative nonfiction but faced a ton of rejection and self-doubt. I got turned down from a ton of MFA programs and editorial positions. Eventually, I moved to Chicago and had a string of decent jobs in marketing, so I had truthfully sort of put the idea of writing out of my head until I heard Northwestern University offered a part-time MFA I could attend while working full time, which made it affordable. I didn’t get in the first time I applied, but they had quarterly rolling admissions, and an academic advisor called me and encouraged me to apply again. I went through that whole process a second time: another rejection, the same call with the advisor, but decided to give it one more try. By that time, I was 26 years old, relatively stable in my career, and figured whatever happened happened. I got in. From the first workshop, it was kind of like flipping a light switch on. The vast majority of my creative and career growth has taken place in the six years since then.
CA: Tell us about your creative inspirations and what you have learned from them?
AM: Similar to my writing journey, my creative inspiration has evolved significantly over time. The truth is my high school and undergraduate education involved reading countless canonized books by dead white men. I had this really toxic, masculine literary perspective. These were books I adored at the time and did learn something from, but in my early twenties I started writing for Book Riot, a publication dedicated to diverse books and readers, and that was integral to me becoming a more inclusive reader, writer, and, eventually, editor. I learned to see the possibilities in literature rather than adhere to violent and marginalizing literary traditions.
From there, I kind of find creative inspiration everywhere, but I think a big part of that has been continuing to be involved in the literary community in as many ways as I can be. I get inspiration from my students, from the writers whose work I edit, from writing reviews and criticism, and from the mentors and peers who have believed in my writing.
CA: Many of the fiction and nonfiction projects you are currently working on focus on the exploration of Armenian identity. What drew you to these stories? What unexpected discoveries have you made along the way?
AM: For a long time, I did not feel I had a right to explore Armenian identity in my fiction or creative nonfiction. I was worried that doing so would pigeonhole my identity as a writer, that it would upset my family or that I was exploiting some kind of cultural currency, especially since I consider myself very privileged. Some of this changed after sitting with Peter Balakian’s books for a decade (I read Black Dog of Fate as a teenager), but I think eventually too many experiences had compounded in my life for me to avoid writing about it any longer.
Once I opened up to the possibility of writing about Armenian identity, it quickly became what I would consider one of the main tributaries of my creativity. I write about a lot of different subjects, but Armenian identity was another light switch moment, and in writing about it I found a whole new community of Armenian writers and other artists. I’d say it’s one of my creative filters now, another way I can look at the world and try to bring meaning to my work.
In general, my biggest discovery as a writer is how little I know and how much information is out there. This was one of the most rewarding and unexpected parts of exploring Armenian identity. There are so many Armenian writers and artists and scholars out there doing way better work than me. I’m still finding them and learning from them all the time.
CA: You are currently the editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books and your critiques and writings regularly appear in renowned publications such as Barrelhouse, The Millions, The Rumpus, and many more. When you are in your editor’s shoes, how do you recognize a good piece of writing?
AM: For me, good writing doesn’t necessarily follow specific rules, and I tend to be drawn to work that actively tries to break rules, but mostly I want to have a strong sense that the writer is both passionate and meticulous about their work. In my editor’s shoes, I ask a lot of questions, and my expectation is usually that the writer has thoughtful answers. It’s not that I expect them to know everything, after all so much of writing is intuitive and part of my job as an editor is to provide ideas and guidance, but there’s nothing more deflating for me than when a writer feels indifferent about their work.
I don’t necessarily mean I want to get into heated debates over comma placement, but in the vast majority of cases, especially when I’m reading hundreds of pieces submitted with hopes for publication, it’s easy to tell when a writer hasn’t spent enough time on something to really hone it to meet their vision. The most common phrase I hear from editorial colleagues in meetings when they want to turn something down is some version of “this doesn’t feel ready yet.”
CA: What project of yours are you most proud of? What makes it special for you?
AM: During my Ph.D., I worked really hard on my creative dissertation, a novel about an Armenian American family living in southeast Michigan. I closely studied several excellent novels by Armenian American writers as I revised. I learned more than I can express from them. My novel, however, is a project I’m very proud of because I did a lot of thinking about commercial expectations around diasporan Armenian narratives and worked very hard to go beyond some of the conventions that I worried were explicitly or tacitly enforced on some of the writers whose work I greatly admire.
For example, I find it reductive how often Armenian American writers across genres are essentially asked to teach their audience about the Armenian Genocide, as well as that fictional works are expected to spend a significant amount of words and plot in the present action of that era. If that’s the writer’s goal that’s one thing. I love good historical fiction. But I’ve had a lot of agents and editors recommend I put more of my novel in the deep past, despite me expressing that I don’t want to write fifty pages of death marches and murder. I have also sometimes been advised to develop a stronger connection between the past and present, but that’s not really how it works in real life. Many of us are piecing together forgotten or erased family histories. I think it’s important to have the option to write about Armenian characters today without needing an arc of historical conflict and assimilation to make it interesting.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
AM: Right now, I’m still early in my career as an academic and editor, which requires a lot of job movement in a competitive market. My broad hope is to find a position with long-term stability that will allow me to develop a more consistent writing routine, even if the job itself might not be what I imagined.
I write a lot, but currently on a very scattered and perhaps erratic schedule. In my mind, the most important and challenging part of the long-term vision is to keep writing, regardless of whether or not it directly or indirectly contributes to my income. I think the most difficult part of being an artist is creative sustainability, so I’ve been trying to remind myself to be patient and that success doesn’t have to look a specific way or result in a particular outcome.
Basically, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that my work can be of value to me even if it stops getting published and I end up working a day job that has nothing to do with writing. The moments I’ve been most creative over the past two years are the times when I wasn’t worried about turning the work into a line on my CV. That’s not always the answer people want to hear, but I think being flexible and adaptable are the reasons I’ve made it this far.
CA: What do you plan on doing as a Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow?
AM: I feel extremely lucky to have received the Creative Armenia-AGBU fellowship, as I know so many brilliant and accomplished artists apply each year. I applied with a lot of current and future projects in mind, though mostly what I want to focus on this year is creative nonfiction around the subject matter of ethnic identity and performance. For example, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about a couple of lines from the first episode of season three of Atlanta in relation to Eric Bogosian’s role in Uncut Gems. I’ve written about The Promise before but noticed a lot of new things about it after viewing it again and discussing it with a group of my literature students. I wrote a seminar paper in grad school exploring many of Kim Kardashian’s public actions through the lens of Black Feminist Thought that I would like to return to, rewrite, and expand. I’ve become increasingly interested in narrative patterns across literature, television, and film, so the fellowship is giving me time and space to collect some of those writings and hopefully turn them into something more cohesive.
I’m using the fellowship to amplify a couple of editorial projects as well. I just finished the copy-editing phase on an anthology titled We Are All Armenian: Voices from the Diaspora that is going to be published by the University of Texas Press in spring 2023, so the fellowship provides superb resources for publicity and promotion. I also just started a volunteer position as an associate fiction editor at Guernica, a well-respected magazine focused on arts and politics. One of the initiatives I want to spearhead there is publishing emerging Armenian writers, particularly those who are exploring contemporary narratives.