An Armenian's Experiences with Armenian

An interview with Jesse Arlen from the University of California, Los Angeles.

This podcast by Shushan Karapetian features Jesse Arlen and his experiences as a broadly defined heritage language learner. 


Karapetian, Shushan. (Producer). (2019, August 6). An Armenian's experiences with Armenian [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

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[Shushan] Hello, this is Shushan Karpetian from the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. Welcome to our new podcast series entirely dedicated to heritage language research, education, pedagogy, and lived experience. My guest today is Jesse Arlen, who is a graduate student in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department here at UCLA studying in the Armenian Studies program and focusing on medieval Armenian Literature. Jesse, welcome.

[Jesse] Thank you so much for inviting me.

[Shushan] So, I wanted to talk to you about your experience as a heritage language learner and we'll talk about what category you belong in because we have broadly defined heritage learners and narrowly defined, and then also your experience with Armenian. And I think what makes your case so unique is one: you were a broadly definition heritage language learner who started learning Armenian as an adult, and then you continued to actually creating and producing literature in Armenian. But before we get to all of that, [laughing] maybe let's do a bit of linguistic autobiography.

[Jesse] Sure.

[Shushan] So, where were you born, what languages were you exposed to as a child, was there any kind of a cultural milieu, and then at what point did you actually began formal study of Armenian?

[Jesse] Okay, sure. I'll try to be brief as best I can with that [laughing] because there are quite a few languages. But yeah, so I grew up in San Louis Obispo in, you'd say, an Armenian family. My dad's side is Armenian, my mom's side is not Armenian-American . My dad is American-Armenian. He actually knew Spanish and Portuguese for...

[Shushan] Oh, okay.

[Jesse] ... some reasons, and also Ancient Greek and Hebrew he'd studied. And so, from my dad there was this sense of, like, one can know more languages and it's not unusual. He would talk about how, like, when he was living in Brazil he'd dream in Portuguese and things like that, and that was always something until the age of fourteen - never having even studied any other language - I always kind of marveled about in a way.

[Shushan] So, I guess multilingualism was normalized in your family...

[Jesse] In a way.

[Shushan] ...that wasn't some exotic thing that's unattainable.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] Yeah. So, (inaudible) having nothing to do with Armenian.

[Shushan] Right. [laughing]

[Jesse] So, when I learned French in high school, it really struck me. I mean, it was more just the sense of the way reality and my perception of it kind of altered as I realized that kind of the classic thing of intro linguistics, like, language mediates reality. And if the language changes, reality changes maybe - or at least your perception of it, your experience of it.

[Shushan] Or your window into the world...

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] ... changes, right.

[Jesse] And so, I got almost addicted to those kind of, like, insights you get into when something's described differently, you understand it differently. So, then as I... I wanted to study literature and language - those are kind of two things when I came for college - and when I transferred to UCLA as a third-year transfer, I was declared a linguistics major and I knew I had the opportunity to study Armenian and so I chose to do that, and then that's kind of where...

[Shushan] So, how old were you at this point?

[Jesse] ... Armenian fit in. 21...

[Shushan] 21.

[Jesse] ...just turned 21.

[Shushan] And in terms of any type of exposure you may have had as a child or as an adolescent, none?

[Jesse] Pretty much none. I mean, there were a couple words that were kind of joke words in the family like, you know, [էշագլուխ, ոռ - donkey's head, ass]things like that... the couple little words we knew. But not even... like if you had asked me when I was 21 on that first day of class, "How do you say hello...

[Shushan] wouldn't have known.

[Jesse] ... in Armenian," I wouldn't have known.

[Shushan] So, there was no linguistic experience growing up. What about cultural exposure?

[Jesse] So, cultural was very big. It definitely defined from a young age my understanding of myself and the world, how I got here, where I fit in because the... [pause]. My dad's a great storyteller just in any category, you know, of things. But the stories that he pasted down of how, you know, his grandparents came to the U.S. escaping the catastrophes was extremely formative and it was something that, just like my Armenian identity I guess, as being a little bit different, you know, from the friends I had or the people I grew up with because I didn't really have Armenian friends. And so, I've said this before but all growing up I thought, like, "Oh, it's because I'm Armenian that I'm a little different." And then when I came to UCLA and met, you know, "real Armenians," [laughing] air quotes...

[Shushan] Right. [laughing]

[Jesse] ... I was like "Oh I'm not, it must be something else," you know, because I feel less similar to them.

[Shushan] "It's me!" [laughing]

[Jesse] Yeah! [laughing]

[Shushan] One quick question: Is your dad proficient in Armenian?

[Jesse] No, no. I mean, he can little bits and say little bits but he couldn't, you know, sit and have a kind of have a conversation like this.

[Shushan] Ah, I see. So your dad himself is a heritage speaker of Armenian, correct?

[Jesse] The little he knows.

[Shushan] The little he knows. Okay so, so basically Jesse would be defined as a broadly defined heritage language learner, which is someone who has kind of a familial or cultural or ancestral connection to the language but not necessarily linguistic proficiency. This would be in opposition...

[Jesse] Definitely.

[Shushan] ... to narrowly defined heritage learners, who grow up being exposed to the language and have some kind of proficiency. Okay so, now talk me through walking into your first day of class. And before we get there, I do want to highlight at this point that Armenian has two modern standards - we have Modern Eastern and Modern Western Armenian - and Jesse, you studied and are a learner and speaker of which one?

[Jesse] Modern Western.

[Shushan] And here, I think it would be important to note for any listeners who may not be familiar with the situation of pluricentric Armenian - that modern Western American is a diasporic language, so there is no country that promotes, teaches, functions in Western American, right? Although the constitution of the current Republic of Armenia states that Armenian is its official language. Eastern Armenian is the de facto functioning language. That's a whole other podcast. [laughing]

[Jesse] Yeah. [laughing]

[Shushan] Okay, but for our purposes now... Jesse, talk to me a little bit about your experience studying Western Armenian here at UCLA.

[Jesse] Yeah, so I think even connecting with the issue of heritage... just the decision to choose Western Armenian, how did it come about. So, my brother had looked into a little more the differences between, like, Eastern and Western and this and that. When I saw it on the schedule I was like, "What is this?" you know, "I don't know this."

[Shushan] Right, oh interesting. [laughing]

[Jesse] And so he told me... he was wanting to learn Eastern because he was dating a girl that knew Eastern...

[Shushan] Ah, who was a speaker!

[Jesse] ... and we were going to take the classes together, yeah. And so he was kind of trying to push that one by saying, you know, "Eastern is the language of the country" and it, you know, "is more popular and has this and that." And, you know, Western's the one, like, that our family spoke, you know. And I was like, "Well, that's the one I want," because for me it was the family connection and understanding... getting a closer, you know, connection to, like, my roots and where I came from and understanding that.

[Shushan] And this is always so important when we're dealing with heritage language learners, even someone broadly defined who may not have had the exposure to the linguistics. There is that desire...

[Jesse] ...the motivation.

[Shushan] ... or motivation to connect...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ...and even within the same language...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... to connect to the one that your ancestors spoke.

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] Right, okay.

[Jesse] So, then when I took the classes... [pause]. So, obviously I had wanted... so, I'd wanted to learn Armenian for a couple years. I was so excited when I got there and even just your expectations can influence your acquisition, you know, so I was, like, bewitched by even just the sound of it because I couldn't remember ever hearing it before even. And in that first year class, as you know how the classes are, there's some people who, like, they can already speak fine.

[Shushan] So, the class isn't identified as a class for heritage language learners, correct?

[Jesse] No, no.

[Shushan] So, it's a mixed class.

[Jesse] It's a mixed class but probably in my class, my experience was the majority in the first year were heritage language...

[Shushan] ...narrowly defined heritage language...

[Jesse] ...narrowly defined heritage, correct.

[Shushan] So they had some proficiency. They came in knowing something.

[Jesse] Yeah, and the rest were dating an Armenian! [laughing]

[Shushan] What I call, "Armenian for romantic purposes." [laughing]

[Jesse] Yeah. [laughing]

[Shushan] Right! [laughing]. So these are non-Armenians...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... who are studying Western Armenian...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... because... [pause]. Okay. And then there was you.

[Jesse] Uh huh. That was the tip, you know.

[Shushan] Okay, okay.

[Jesse] There might have been some exceptions. So, anyway I... [pause]. What shaped the class for me more than anything, I have to say, was the teacher. He, from day one, you know, or class one, he really pushed, like, creating in the language. And, like, I remember at the end of our first unit we had learned, probably, 40 words or something because we were just learning the alphabet in the first quarter, and with those 40 he told us, "Write a poem." And peoples' heads were, like, exploding in the class because they didn't know what to do with that. But for me it was, like, a little more straightforward because I was like, "Well these are they only ones I know, just put them together in an interesting way...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... and it's a poem," you know. And then I should mention too, like, I came in with... in a different category of my life I'd say from, like, the Armenian side of things. But I was... the main things I liked doing was reading and writing. I wrote, you know, creatively in English and I was a very avid reader... still am. And so, in the beginning, him kind of pushing, you know, writing, I responded to really well. And then the second year classes - the intermediate level classes - was just kind of taking that even further with kind of more creative writing and I could talk about, you know, maybe that... the way he did it if it's relevant. But also, probably even more importantly for me, was pushing these, like, 19th and 20th century Armenian writers which I also actually was exposed to in one of Peter Cowe's classes - modern Armenian poetry class - and those two things combined... it really, like, brought my two worlds together because I saw there's these Armenian writers... they're doing similar things of these, you know, English or French ones that I really like, but in this language that I have this, you know, special connection to or belonging to. And putting those two layers on top of each other was just ... it meant so much to me, you know.

[Shushan] So, studying the language also provided an outlet for you to discover Armenian literature. So, as an avid reader and writer, literature was a big part of your world...

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] ...and now you have this additional...

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] Okay. Something I wanted to ask: By the time you walked in and started studying Western Armenian, had you studied other languages?

[Jesse] Okay so... I had, yeah.

[Shushan] You mentioned French in high school.

[Jesse] Really, up to that point it was only French.

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] But I was also enrolled when I was in the Armenian class in a biblical Hebrew class - ancient Hebrew.

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] Something that I want us to talk about which I think is so important which makes you kind of an anomaly for me, at least, and maybe for others is that you have this amazing freedom with Armenian. You have this ability to, you know, play with it, to create in it, to produce, to squish it...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ...right, step on it, stretch it. And I think something that I've noticed in my own research in my own teaching with heritage language learners is that sometimes Armenian can be very limiting for them because they've grown up with what I call, "the baggage..."

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... of being identified as an ethnic Armenian, of being labeled as "not good enough" both linguistically and ethnically. So, because their Armenian language skills aren't good enough, they are not good enough in terms of claiming the Armenian identity. And so, any time they're asked to do something with Armenian, it's kind of entrapped in a box, right? This is the visual I've used before - that you only use Armenian for Armenian things, you only speak Armenian in Armenian locations, you only use Armenian for the elderly or for the past, right? Armenian isn't something... isn't a tool they view as something that's practical, that's instrumental and that's fun, that's creative. Armenian is looking back, not looking toward the present or looking... [pause]. And so, when we ask them to create or to write in Armenian, we get these very bland productions and you can tell. It's almost like they have their arms tied, right? There's this pressure of performing that almost stunts them.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] And I think in my experience with you and your work, you don't have those limitations.

[Jesse] The fetters.

[Shushan] You don't, yeah. So, how come you don't have the baggage? Is it because of your upbringing? You didn't grow up in a particularly Armenian community? Is it just your own personality, because you were one who's fascinated with literature? What do you think? I don't know if you have the answer...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... but I'm curious.

[Jesse] Yeah, just as you talk about it, like, three different things came to mind, each of which must play a part and maybe there's even other factors. So, one is upbringing - or the lack of it - in the language. [laughing]. So, you've written about and we've talked about how the kind of pressure towards the language and what you talked about just now, you know, can fetter people and restrict them. That was not there at all. There was no pressure involved with the language. It was totally coming from my free choice and my own motivation and desire to learn. And, you know, my parents didn't... [pause]. I mean they thought it was interesting and great, like, "Oh, how great," you know, but they didn't really care whether I did it one way or another.

[Shushan] Or they didn't say, like, "Oh good for you son..."

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shusham] "... now you're being the good Armenian son we were hoping for."

[Jesse] No, nothing like that, yeah. It was just, like, if you, you know... [pause]. If I'd learned another language, "Oh, how cool," you know. Sure, there was a special extra thing a little bit but not much and certainly no pressure to be good in the language. [laughing] They didn't know what that even meant, you know.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] The second thing, yeah - personality is a big thing because, you know as you know, it's so much. You have to be very free and not worry about your dignity so much when you're learning a new language...

[Shushan] Absolutely.

[Jesse] ... or trying to get better in one, because it's such a cliché but it's so true, like, mistakes are part of the process and if you're not willing to look silly, or experiment, or try new things or, you know, try on the new clothes of the language, then you're not going to progress.

[Shushan] But, you know, you just said the word dignity...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ...and I've realized that what happens with these narrowly defined heritage language learners is that they come with this formed identity, right? They've been labeled "Armenian" all their lives and knowing the language is one of those giant pillars that grants them access to this identity.

[Jesse] Right.

[Shushan] So, it's almost like they can't afford to lose that dignity, right? And so, that must be so tough.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] Whereas with you, there were no labels and, as you mentioned...

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] were so intrinsically motivated. There was no extrinsic...

[Jesse] No.

[Shushan] ... extrinstic motivation from your parents, from your community...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ...from anyone.

[Jesse] Yeah. The third thing, to get back to that, and this was maybe the most important of all, was having the models in the language. And that, again, goes to the teacher Hagop Kouloujian. The things we read were pushing boundaries, they were Armenians living in the diaspora... [pause]. Like, the most impressionable ones were the first generation of the French-Armenian writers [Զարեհ Որբունի, Նիկողես Սարաֆեան - Zareh Vorpouni, Nigoghos Sarafian]. The way they were kind of reconciling, like, their experience in the West with their Armenian past and, like, negotiating those two things together, breaking the categories of, you know, what was "possible" or "right" to do in Armenian literature, angering the old generation, you know, [Յակոբ Օշական - Hagop Oshagan], and writing their experience into the language in a new way that had never been done because Armenians hadn't lived in that context before. So, that was super inspiring to me as someone kind of coming from outside and a little inside at the same time was... [pause]. I saw that, like, I have a very unique experience and I can write it in this language and bring something new to it. That was, like, an exciting thing, you know. And, again, the teachers. Like, if you don't have someone behind you saying, "Yes," like...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... "do that," you know...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... like pushing it, then it could fizzle out and go nowhere.

[Shushan] So, there's this potential that could never be released...

[Jesse] Exactly, never be realized.

[Shushan] So, in terms of instructional practice, I guess what I'm taking away from this is no matter who walks into your class, what proficiency, what category... to inspire and push them to create in the language instead of... [pause]. I guess we always talk about preserving heritage languages and here, I think it's important to problematize that because when we're preserving, what are we doing? We're admitting that it's no longer a living thing. Also, preserving requires a lot of regurgitating.

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] But each language user, language speaker, is unique.

[Jess] Yeah.

[Shushan] So that... and kind of from the beginning, I think that's what stands out with Professor Kouloujian's instructional practice, right? This isn't an intermediated or an advanced level thing that you get to after you've mastered the rules.

[Jesse] No.

[Shushan] This is from day one. You're creating and pushing the boundaries of the language itself.

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] And this focus on writing...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... creatively...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... right? Because a lot of times in heritage language instruction we talk about heritage themes and, you know, the things that attract students is usually talking about themselves, their families. But I don't hear a lot or read a lot in the literature about creative writing in the heritage language which, for you, was such a new outlet, right...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... such an interesting outlet for your creative element so, I think that's a good take away for anyone that's listening in terms of instructional practices.

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] Okay, I have a few questions about what you write.

[Jesse] Okay.

[Shushan] So, first of all what do you write in terms of genre, in terms of style? Where can one access your products?

[Jesse] Okay so, when I started writing creatively in Armenian, it was a little more prose, maybe, than poetry but poetry was there too. When I first started, like, publishing my writing it was poetry, I think, because my English writing started out that way too. Poems are shorter [laughing]...

[Shushan] Right. [laughing]

[Jesse] ... and it's less daunting, you know. So, as I was still, you know, mastering the language and still am, it's less intimidating to write a shorter piece. But in English and in Armenian, I view myself more as a prose writer...

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] ... and kind of at the intersection of, maybe, personal experience writing and almost like a creative essay style and short story or, you know, fiction let's say. I do have some things published in a couple different online and print journals. One is Pakin, which is based in Beirut. The other is [22:33 Ինքնագիր - Inknagir] which is based in Armenian, and there's a couple other smaller ones.

[Shushan] Okay. I read one of your short stories recently and there's a line in there I took out, and I want to read it to you and then we can translate it together for our audience...

[Jesse] Okay.

[Shushan] ... and then I want to ask you a question. So the line goes, "[ինչպէ՞ս գրեմ վտանգուած լեզուով մը թվայնացած աշխարհի մէջ - how do I write in an endangered language in a digital world]," and that was my Eastern Armenian...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... pronunciation of that. Why don't you translate or if you want to read it actually, too.

[Jesse] Sure. I wish you'd picked an easier line, not to translate but...

[Shushan] Yeah.

[Jesse] brings up a lot of issues.

[Shushan] I know, I know. So let's get to it first in the next podcast. [laughing]

[Jesse] Yeah. [laughing] [ ինչպէ՞ս գրեմ վտանգուած լեզուով մը թվայնացած աշխարհի մէջ - how do I write in an endangered language in a digital world]. So, "How to write" or "how should I write with an endangered language" or "in and endangered language the digital world."

[Shushan] And maybe at this point it's worth mentioning that in 2010, Western Armenian was officially categorized as an endangered language by UNESCO, right? So, there's obviously a reference to that.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] So, I'm sure for a lot of people there's the question of, "Why choose to write?"

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] And not only in your heritage language - which is Western Armenian - when you could write in English...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... which is the language of the globe at this point, right, in terms of access to readers, access to accolades...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... access to exposure. I mean as a writer, I'm sure those are things one seeks. So, the first question is: Why chose not to write in English or any of the other languages you are proficient in? So, why choose Western Armenian? And then, particularly because it's an endangered language, is there... [pause]. How would you answer that?

[Jesse] Yeah. So, there's a few different elements, again. One is... [pause] So, I talked before about the special meaning that this, like, literature has that I was reading because it had my, like, deeply personal kind of roots and family connection, place in the world, all those things that go back to my earliest memories combined with the kind of love... the, like, love and response to beauty that I found in literature, so it was bringing those two things together. When you have writerly inclinations, the reading... writing is sometimes like a response to the reading, like you've been fed by these writers and you want to give back out...

[Shushan] You want to nourish.

[Jesse] Hopefully not throw up out! [laughing] But to yeah...

[Shushan] Yeah. [laughing]

[Jesse] ... you also prepare food, if you will...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... for other readers.

[Shushan] That's such a great way to put it.

[Jesse] Yeah. And so, yes I wrote in English and that was, again, a similar motivation was, like, response in a way to the reading and wanting to create myself. But honestly, this comes down to a pragmatic thing and it's ironic based on how you phrase the question but I find more success when I write in Armenian and success is also motivating. Being published is motivating, you know. Like, I'd sent a lot of things in English, some had been published. The piece I most wanted to get published, like, it got rejected so many times, you know. And also, the market in English is so big. It's like...

[Shushan] It's so saturated.

[Jesse] It's so saturated too, yeah. It's like you think of all the people, you know, who come to Hollywood to become actors and they end up doing something they don't want to do.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] Whereas in Armenian what I have discovered was very quickly once I started publishing, I had a few editors come to me saying, "Send us the next thing you write." So, there's a desire there that's motivating for you as a writer because you know you have people who what to publish your stuff and you know you have readers.

[Shushan] But what a good message to youth who may not know this and, I guess, a discovery by you, right? I'm sure you weren't expecting this.

[Jesse] Oh, not at all. Yeah, when I was first writing in Armenian, like publishing it, I didn't... it wasn't in the equation.

[Shushan] Right, right. Did I interrupt you?

[Jesse] No, yeah.

[Shushan] Who are your readers, do you think?

[Jesse] So, there's who they are and who I wish they were also...

[Shushan] ... they were, okay yes.

[Jesse] So who they are...

[Shushan] Yes.

[Jesse] ...I'd say is mostly... [pause] So, of course there's the people you know just like for any writer but then I'd say, probably, my biggest readers are probably in Armenia because that journal I've been published in and that I have this new piece coming out in has, probably, the widest circulation and it's mostly among Armenians in Armenia. And I think to them, I'm very interesting to read because of the newness, like, it's kind of a novelty almost... this Armenian living in the diaspora and writing about things that have little to do with what we'd call, like, traditional Armenian life or community. It's more in the world of the other or whatever. And then who I... [pause] I want those readers, of course, but also I really want, like, Armenians in the diaspora - like whether its U.S. or France or wherever - who are in a situation like the heritage one or to see... [pause] I want it to be a model like the French-Armenian writers I read was a model and inspiration to me, so that they can see you can do new things and you can write yourself into this language and into this literature and community and if you don't do it, no one's going to...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... especially with Western Armenian, where there a country, there isn't this center where, "Oh, there's people producing new things and that's okay. They're going to do it. You just learn to read it or learn to imitate it...

[Shushan] Or consume it, right.

[Jesse] or consume it, yeah. If we don't create it, and we meaning, you know, the youth of the diaspora, no one's going to.

[Shushan] Wow. You've said so many things that I want to come back to, but this one really stood out. At some point a few minutes ago you said, "I'm still mastering the language."

[Jesse] Right.

[Shushan] And I think this is important because for so many heritage language learners and speakers, there's this notion that they have to reach a state of complete mastery...

[Jesse] Right.

[Shushan] ... of complete acquisition of the language before they can do x, y, and z, before they can be labeled as a "good enough Armenian," before they can write in Armenian, much less write for a public audience, not secretly for themselves.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] And how unusual and refreshing to hear someone who is already a published author to say, "I'm still mastering the language." And then when you think about it and I know we've talk about this before too: No one masters any language, including their own native language. Those of us who are very proficient in one language or multiple languages and we are writing literary products or academic products... we're consulting dictionaries, we're consulting editors, we're helping each other.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] So, this notion of completely mastering a language, knowing the language, I think, again, creates this extra sense of pressure...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... that may stunt certain groups' performance or potential...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... to create. So, again, I think that must be so refreshing and kind of such a breathe of relief for someone to hear that...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... someone who may have dreamt of writing in Armenian...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... but thought that that's not possible, "I don't know enough. I'll never know enough,"

[Jesse] Yeah. Yeah, and so much of, like anything, with language it's psychological.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] It's your mentality

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] So, if we compare it to another language like English, you can imagine someone who's reading you know, James Joyce or some, you know, 19th-century Victorian writer, writing in this English that... it's certainly not native to them, you know. It's more elevated, the vocabulary is different, even the style of writing is different. And they could give up and say, "I'll never do this. I'll never be able to know it in this way to be able to write that book." It's like, "Well Joyce wrote that book."

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] "Your contribution is something else," you know. So, just like they tell writers, "Write what you know," do in the language what only you can do....

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... you know. And if you don't, it could be a loss for the language and the community...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... because, like, each person that comes at it from their vantage point and tries to do what they and only they can is what contributes and advances it, not people imitating one someone else has already done or what people maybe can do better. So, you have to look at your situation, your upbringing, your talents, your interests, and work with that, you know. And maybe the interests having nothing to do with writing.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] Maybe it's creating in a different realm - dance, or food, or fashion, or...

[Shushan] Right. And this reminded me of... [pause]. I remember reading an autobiography of [Պարույր Սեւակ - Paruyr Sevak] whose a 20th century Armenian writer who was born and raised in Armenia, who I remember reading an excerpt of when he went into Armenian Studies and there's a quote where he said, "I realized that I didn't know Armenian. Again, this is a native speaker and he said, "I spent at least the first two or three years of graduate school just learning Armenian." And I remember an episode of him wrapping his head really tightly and just sitting and consulting, you know, ancient literature, medieval literature. So...

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] ...again, a native speaker still...

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] ... needs to master...

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] ... the language, much less. That was one thing I wanted to talk about. And one other note that you made of writing about the universal experience instead of writing in Armenian about traditional Armenian topics. I think, again, this is such an important message for our youth who feel like Armenian only belongs to the Armenian realm...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... instead of you can experience the world in Armenian. You can experience universal things.

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] And, again, I think that's such a... what you do, it's so significant in that sense and the way you presented. And how interesting that your readers in Armenian - as you define it - the attraction to your work is precisely because you write about these universal, personal experiences, not necessarily Armenian experiences.

[Jesse] Yeah, yeah. And I think, yeah. That, again, it just connects to what can inspire people, you know. And so, people want something that speaks to their, like, whole person, you know, not just a cliché or the thing they expect to hear, you know which I think for, like, heritage learners or members of the community, like, it can be very exciting because it's like a bridge of the two worlds.

[Shushan] So, I'm noticing we're over our...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... our time limit, so I wanted to ask one final question: Is there anything you wished I had asked, or anything you kind of wanted to mention but didn't get a chance to at this point.

[Jesse] I need to prepare for this. [laughing]

[Shushan] Well, that's a perfect lead into what I was going to say, which is: We are going to have two more podcasts with Jesse so you can...

[Jesse] ... rack my brain. [laughing]

[Shushan] .... rack your brain before we get there. But... so, we're... [pause]. Jesse also teaches Armenian at a Sunday school, so we're also going to talk about the struggles and successes of teaching young heritage language learners. Also, Jesse participated in a very, very unique summer camp... summer village... summer experience called [Զարմանազան - Zarmanazan], whose mission is to experience... to provide an immersion experience for diaspora kids while simultaneously training teachers of Western Armenian. So, this is our first podcast with Jesse Arlen but stay tuned for two more - one focused on his teaching experience and one focused on his experience at this very unique summer camp. So, Jesse thank you so much.

[Jesse] Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to...

[Shushan] Likewise.

[Jesse] ... yeah.

[Shushan] Likewise.

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Published: Monday, August 5, 2019