Nancy Agabian’s work occupies a unique place in our contemporary cultural landscape. Known for being a gifted essayist, performance artist and a respected creative writing teacher, Agabian straddles many identities. Within the Armenian world she follows in the footsteps of Arlen Voski Avakian and George Stamboulian, pioneers in LGBTQ writing and theory. Her touching memoir Princess Freak, about growing up queer in suburban Massachusetts, broke important ground. Recent works such as Me as her Again and The Fear of Big and Small Nations (a 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially-Engaged Fiction) continue her almost sociological look at both the queer and Armenian communities.
At a solo performance of Family Returning Blows–a piece about domestic violence–at the Roslin Gallery in Glendale, Agabian combined personal narratives, news reports, Facebook images and Armenian idioms to explore the power dynamics between genders and within the world order. The performance wove back and forth between New York City and Yerevan, between the private and the public, between male and female.
Recalling her trip to Armenia where she met her erstwhile ex-husband, Agabian constructs and deconstructs a story of failed love set against the backdrop of a female neighbor who faces repeated violence at the hands of her husband. Or does she? All they have to go on are the screams emanating from next door and the staggering statistics of domestic abuse in Armenia that come to light as Agabian researches the topic. In the process she examines the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between how people negotiate the public/private dichotomy in Armenian and American societies.
Her style is at once understated but forceful: a poetics of meekness, perhaps, that fools the viewer into a temporary lull—as both Agabian and her message turn out to be equally powerful.
Apart from her time in Armenia, Agabian also touched on violence within her nuclear Armenian family where she grew up in Walpole, Massachusetts. During the performance, she read from a scroll attached to what looked like a miner’s hat or an Orthodox Rabbi’s kolpic. As Agabian slowly enunciatied her text, she pulled the manuscript forward reading from it as the performance moved back and forth between the present and a video she had made and presented in Armenia on the same topic(s) ten years ago. One interesting observation lay in the fact that her husband found it normal to pick her up and touch her indiscriminately, something that would be considered inappropriate in America. At the end of her piece, she calmly noted that while ten years ago there were no female or queer female performance artists in Armenia, today they do exist.
And as she stated in the Q & A afterward progress has been made there both in terms of women’s rights and human rights in general. It was good news from a place not always replete in it. And when asked why she had used the scroll technique, Agabian replied deadpan: “I didn’t want to have to memorize any lines.”