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On the occasion of the release of "3rd sex" by Tekgyozyan, Hyestart interviewed his literary agent

Interview with literary agent Arevik Ashkharoyan (ARI literary and talent agency) conducted in late September 2021 by Alexis Krikorian, director of Hyestart's translation scholarship.

Q. Dear Arevik, can you tell us a little about the book "Troisième sexe" by Jean-Chat Tekgyozyan, which was released by Belleville Editions (Paris) on 8 October 2021? What is this book about ?

R. Beyond the intriguing title of the book, which made quite a scandal in Armenia, the book is about women, actresses. Real women, whom most of the readers over 40 would easily recognize. But for others, the story is as impressive as it is for us. You don’t have to know them to understand the difficulties of being a woman in different eras. And the difficulty of being an actress, too. That is why one of the characters names herself a « third sex », someone who doesn’t belong to any existing sex and doesn’t feel like one. Someone who has to be a woman and mother at home, has to work hard like a man at work and play roles on the stage. That’s the main idea of the novel for me.

Q. When the book was published in Yerevan, it caused a mini-scandal. I remember in particular an article in the newspaper Herabarak where a link was made with the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. While the debate was raging about whether or not Armenia should ratify the Convention, the journalist, who had not even read the book, assumed that the book was advocating for the Convention, right?

R. About the scandal – the worst thing in it is that people would criticize and draw a conclusion without actually having read the book. When we sold the right for Fleeting City to a Turkish publisher, and when the book was published we, me and the author, thought that there would be scandal, because the book is quite openly presenting the LGBT issues in Armenia, apart from other important topics that it covers. We thought people would say that presenting this book to the Turkish readers was the most unrelevant thing in 2015, when it was out. But, nothing of it happened, and you know why ? Because those who could criticize did not bother to read the book, or did not care to read the news about its release in Turkey.

As for The Third Sex, yes, someone took a photo of the poster in the window of a bookstore and thought it was a book supporting the Convention. There was a lot of conversation about it, and ugly language involved, but eventually the book stayed in that particular bookstore, because its founder read the book after the scandal and recognized his own generation in it. Nevertheless there were bookstores which didn’t sell it because of its title.

Q. You were a member of the Armenian jury for the European Union Prize for Literature, which awarded its prize to Aram Pachyan this year for his novel "P/F". A previous book by Aram Pachyan, "Au revoir, Piaf" was published in 2020 by Editions Parenthèses (Marseille). Are there common points between these authors (Jean-Chat and Aram)? Can we speak of a new literary generation? Would you say that they constitute a new wave of Armenian literature? If so, what would distinguish it from a previous generation such as that of Vahram Martirosyan (born in 1959 in Gyumri)?

R. We call this generation of writer "Generation Independence". These are the writers who were kids or teens during independence, but they started writing around 2000-2010. The specific feature of this generation is the style and voice. They chose topics previously banned, such as LGBT, critical or different views on army or nationalism and they are written as either experimental pieces, or postmodern flow of conscious style. This generation has been very brave and made a huge impact on the literary scene of Armenia in 2010-2020. I think the reason was that they were not influenced by their predecessors and they wanted to create something of their own. Right now there is a new generation of writers and they are very different and I think that they are very much influenced by the writers of "Generation Independence". But this is of course my personal impression and opinion. I work with that generation, because I am also from that generation and feel that their literature can speak to the world, as opposed to the one coming before and some of what is coming after it.

Q. What is the state of reading in Armenia? I remember that in 2010, when I was doing a fact-finding mission for the International Publishers Association, there were only 5 or 6 bookstores in Yerevan. Today there seems to be a lot more. There are also online developments with initiatives such as Vlume. Is this just an impression or are there really more bookstores and therefore more readers than ten years ago?

R. I think there are more readers now, or at least more book buyers. Sometimes it is not the same thing. But I do hope that more buyers means that the book will get to the readers, eventually. If buying a book becomes a trend then someone will eventually take the book and read it, even if not the buyers themselves. Yes, more bookstores, more publishers, new genres, such as non-fiction which is very much in trend for the past three years. I think the situation was actually getting better before COVID-19 and the disastrous war in autumn 2020. And I do hope that we will be getting better at some point, too.

Q. How would you say that translation has evolved in recent years in Armenia? Are there more translations? This seems to be the case from foreign languages into Armenian (I am thinking here of houses like Zangak or Antares). Is it also the case in the opposite direction? Would you say that the imbalance that existed 10 years ago has increased, stabilized or decreased? In addition to private initiatives such as those of Hyestart, I believe that the State has set up a system of support for the translation of Armenian literature into foreign languages. Is this system still in place? If so, do you know how many books it concerns each year?

R. I became a literary agent in 2011, just before Yerevan was going to become UNESCO Book Capital (2012). It was the right time to start presenting Armenian literature to the world industry. It went slowly, but then it started working. With the joint efforts of publishers, writers and myself, we urged the Ministry of Culture to start the Translation Support Program for foreign publishers who are willing to publish Armenian authors. I believe that around 40 books were supported by that program within the past 5 years. Well, this had to be developed further – invitation program for publishers, residencies for translators and participation in as many book fairs as possible. But it seems like culture and specifically literature is not a priority in the country’s plans.

Q. Have the successive governments put in place an effective support policy? Dare we say a book policy?

R. Oh, no, definitely not! We never had a policy in the first place, and one hasn’t been developed recently either. I don’t believe it will work unless the industry gets together, re-establishes its associations. Only with these institutions can we urge the government to pay more attention, to put down a policy and support schemes – the one the industry needs, and not the ones they think that it needs.

Q. PEN was re-created in Armenia under your impulse and that of Armen Ohanyan, in good understanding with the former president, Anna Hakobyan. A few years ago I participated in a constitutive meeting in Yerevan, as well as in an exploratory meeting with the director of PEN International, Carles Toner. Is there a Translation and Language Rights Committee within Armenian PEN?

R. PEN Center Armenia started functioning for the past year, I think. The problem was that the President of PEN was trying to get some initial funding to give a kick to the Center, but no governmental organization was supportive. For the past years it has worked with international organizations to support its existence, such as Eurasia foundation and Human Rights House, a part of which it has become and is now located in their offices. Yes, the committee for translation and language rights was established this year, as well as women writers and peace committees. Much time is needed to figure out the priorities, to apply for funding and to start implementing actions and projects. Especially the current situation for the past two years didn’t give a chance for things to work out.

Q. Finally, and that’s a very broad question, what do you think should be done to support literary creation in Armenia and to encourage the translation of quality literary production from Armenian into other languages? Could creative writing be an option?

R. I think that everyone should work together for one goal. Publishers, the State, writers, translators, bookstores… Infrastructures need to be established such as a translators' association, a publishers' association and non-profit organizations have to work toward creating programs of creative writing or translation workshops. Yes, a lot of work is to be done. But most importantly we have to understand and see one common goal and go towards it.

Thank you, Arevik Ashkharoyan.
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