Book Review | Trashland

Trashland
By Denis Donikian
Translated by Christopher Atamian
Nauset Press, 2023

In Trashland, we first meet Gam as he watches over a funeral. We find out that the funeral is for his mother, whom he had not seen nor spoken to in years. While away from his family, he has been working at a trash dump in Armenia. 

Throughout the book, we get to meet different people that Gam directly or indirectly interacts with. We see their common struggle to survive, their innermost thoughts and their political commentary. 

Relatable and heartbreaking, Trashland exposes the dichotomy of experiences in Armenia, from those trying to escape poverty to greedy politicians. Through the lens of an Armenian in the diaspora, we are presented with political and cultural commentary, inviting the reader to reflect on the post-Soviet Armenian experience.

Capturing us from the first words of the book “Der voghormia” to common phrases and curse words, Donikian’s usage of Armenian words and phrases at the right place and time transported me into the world of Armenians. The strategic choice of these words helps the reader place themselves in the shoes of its characters and to understand their experiences.

Translated from French to English by Christopher Atamian, the book still has some words that are not translated, particularly an exchange between two characters, Lala and Mauricette, in which Lala shares that she knows some vocabulary in French for private parts. She says that she knows a woman’s private parts as “veurgé, pé-nisse, couillé, mont dé Vénussé, glitéris, betite leuvré, grand leuvré” as well as a man’s “As-peurgé, manhir, sucrre d’orrgé, fluté de pan-pan, tourloutyutyu, baobabé, membré virril, zizi, zigounetté…” As a fluent French speaker who learned it as an adult, I recognized some of these words but found the choice of not translating these words to English strategic on the part of the translator – perhaps because sex, sexual private parts or anything related to sexuality are all taboo topics in Armenian culture.

One of Donikian’s strengths is unveiling Gam’s internal dialogue. In one scene, as Gam wakes up in the morning, he says to himself, “Hey you slacker, how long are you going to sleep?” Throughout the book, we hear this internal dialogue, which allows us to truly see Gam and relate to his struggles.

Donikian also exposes a common experience that we see with Armenians – discussion of politics to dissect current circumstances. At one point in the book, the elders are caught criticizing politicians during Gam’s mother’s funeral. They exchange bold statements about poverty and criticism of corrupt politicians. One of the elders comments, “So, they stole a bit of iron or copper from abandoned factories to sell it. What’s the harm in that? They have to feed their families, don’t they? They didn’t steal to buy themselves a Hummer or jet plane or to go gambling in a casino. It was to feed their families. I call that moral theft, while our elected looters continue to grab the bread from our mouths with complete impunity.” We also hear about a widow, Artemis, whose husband never visited a doctor despite having a severe cough, because “he has his household to provide for.” 

As an Armenian woman, I found it interesting that Donikian criticizes the way women are talked about and treated. In one chapter, we see a group of women protesting as an elderly man walks by and calls them “latchar feminists,” followed by a chapter where these same women are conversing about what to buy and cook for their husbands. I also enjoyed the cultural commentary through the stories of its many other characters, notably that of Zara, a journalist who exposes the corruption of the “rich and powerful.”

I recommend Trashland for its creative dialogue and political and cultural commentary.

Susanna Semerdzhyan

Susanna Semerdzhyan

Susanna Semerdzhyan is an Armenian-American writer based in Los Angeles. She is also an ESL Instructor. She has a B.A. in Linguistics and M.A. in TESOL. She speaks English, Armenian and French. Drawing on her experience of being an Armenian-American, a descendent of Armenian Genocide survivors, a child of immigrants and a first-generation college graduate, her poetry is about identity and touches on themes of multiculturalism, multilingualism, empowerment, authenticity, discovery, confidence, community and belonging. You can find her writing in her newsletter, “You’re a Masterpiece" and on Instagram @suzyspoet.

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