Returning Blows with Writer and Performance Artist Nancy Agabian

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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.”

Author information


Christopher Atamian

Christopher Atamian is a noted writer and creative producer of Italian–Armenian background and the grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors. He is an alumnus of Harvard University, Columbia Business School and USC FIlm School, a former Fulbright Scholar. Apart from creative endeavors and professional activities as a senior executive in leading media companies and consultancies (ABC, Ogilvy & Mather, J.P. Morgan), Atamian has concentrated on community activism. He is the former President and a current board member of AGLA New York and in 2004 founded Nor Alik, a non-profit cultural organization responsible for producing the First Armenian International Film Festival. Atamian also co-produced the OBIE Award-winning play Trouble in Paradise in 2006, directed by Elyse Singer, as well as several music videos and short films. Atamian was selected for the 2009 Venice Biennale on the basis of his video Sarafian’s Desire and received a 2015 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He continues to contribute critical pieces to leading publications such as The New York Times Book Review and The Huffington Post, Scenes Media and The Weekly Standard, while working on other creative endeavors in film and theater.

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