Friday, 13 February 2009

Book review: "Me as her again" by Nancy Agabian

Me as Her Again: An utterly queer memoir
Reviewed by Shushan Avagyan

* The Armenian Reporter

I met Nancy Agabian for the first time in April 2001, after I read her book Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque, 2000), which greatly impressed me for its audacity. Her small, bold book, which fused poetry, creative nonfiction, and texts from performance art, was controversial for Armenian society because it explored the polymorphous and elusive nature of identity and dared to openly speak about sexuality - something that rarely surfaced in a literary tradition that was overwhelmingly dominated by male and heterosexual discourses.

Released in October, Agabian's new book, Me as Her Again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter, was eagerly awaited by her fans in America, Europe, and Armenia. It is a memoir about identity and family history that Agabian worked on for over six years. It is also, perhaps in the vein of David Sedaris, a brazen examination of queerness - a deviation from the expected, the norm, and the conventional - through a discovery of a queer self, the hilarious attempt to deny it through self-banishment, and, finally, the recognition and acceptance of that "odd" self. [...]

Agabian's prose is playful, as it shifts from extremely serious to almost farcical. One of the strongest aspects of this book is the author's ability to take something as outrageous as, for example, being confronted by someone in the audience who has completely missed your art, and narrate it in such a way that is at once comical and ironic. Here is a classic Agabian, wearing a costume of thin white cotton pajamas, facing a packed house of Armenians in the tiny back room of a café in Pasadena: "They were close enough to hear my heart beating. Attempting to manufacture an emotional distance, I looked into the back row and announced in a stage voice, ‘This performance is called The Crochet Penis.' A woman in her late 40s, sitting to my right, our knees almost touching, said with an accent, ‘Ugh, why they have to call it that?' to no one in particular." Later in the performance the woman stands up and demonstratively leaves the room.

A few days later the same woman disrupts another performance titled WANT at the Glendale Public Library: "It was not serious poetry, it was more of a low-class comedy act... I am a literature professor!" she yells. "I know what I am talking about. I could have told you in private, but I wanted everyone to hear my opinion." As Agabian confesses, the woman's reaction is her "worst nightmare come true." Ironically, this outbreak is followed by an earnest discussion about taboos and the audience engages in an insightful conversation about silences surrounding sexuality in Armenian society. This all-too-familiar scene implicitly alludes to similar occasions when lectures or panels about the Armenian Genocide are disrupted by deniers in the audience and demonstrates the importance of a supportive community.

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