Interview with Nora Nadjarian
September 14, 2017 at 5:00 p.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Nora Nadjarian (NN)
AP: Nora Nadjarian, a writer, a poet, a professional, a woman, an activist, so many identities in just one person, which one do you think represents you or maybe defines you the most?
NN: I think what defines me the most is my poetry and generally my writing, but my poetry because I started off as a poet and then became a short story writer, even though some people tell me that my short stories are like poems anyway, because they are so short and very poetic, so I think it’s through my writing that I like to touch people, to express myself, to show people who I am. Parts of me come out in my writing and then those parts come out and emerge into the world and then it is up to the reader to work out who I really am. So it’s like a little jigsaw puzzle that I play, because I give out parts of myself to the world and then I get feedback and the feedback really encourages me to keep writing.
AP: Maybe by finding parts of you, the reader also finds parts of himself or herself.
NN: Of course, identification is very important when you are reaching out to an audience and I’ve met a lot of people who have told me ‘I can really identify with that’, ‘I can really understand that’, ‘that’s like me’, ‘what you wrote really touched me’ and so on. I think if you manage to touch the reader, in effect what you’ve done is you’ve shown a part of yourself that is also a part of him or her.
AP: Finding our shared humanity, that is important. What inspires you?
NN: My inspiration can come from anything. It can be a piece of conversation, it can be a scene that I witnessed in the street, or it can be a picture, an image. Some of my earlier work was actually inspired by paintings, famous paintings, such as those by Klimt, Van Gogh and Picasso.
AP: I love Klimt’s art.
NN: I’ll read you one of my very first poems. This is in my first poetry book that came out, it was about “Der Kuss”, The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. This is a tiny poem, listen to this “What if it wasn’t a kiss but a stab in the mouth.” This is the poem I wrote about “Der Kuss”
AP: Interesting… When did you realise that you have this talent or inner need to express what lies inside of you?
NN: I think it was a bit of both. You have to have talent otherwise you just write for your own pleasure or satisfaction, but it’s also a need to reach out to people and those two elements combine when you have read enough and written enough to realise, ok what I’m doing it’s ok and in fact I was encouraged by a friend. When I was at school, I was always writing essays or poems and my teachers were always telling me, this is really good, you’re going to become a famous writer one day. Even my English teacher told me this once, she said “you are going to end up writing very good detective stories”, because in those days, I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie stories, but then I didn’t end up writing detective stories, I ended up writing poetry and then subsequently short stories. But when did I first realise it? I think I’ve always had the gift, but then it’s not enough just to have the gift, you have to start showing it and sharing it with people. You place a kind of value on your work and sometimes maybe you shouldn’t, but you feel as if yes, I have achieved something because people have read my work and they’ve commented on it and they’ve shown that they liked it. It started to become more serious when I won a prize at the Scottish International Poetry competition. I won that, I was one of the winners and then I thought to myself, wow I’ve achieved something which a lot of people can’t, because I actually write in English too. Being a Cypriot writing in English and competing against so many people who write in English is not an easy task, so I kind of felt, yeah this is it, I’ve done this and I’m going to keep doing it because it seems that there’s something there and it made me happy. So that’s how it started, but as I said, a lot of people have encouraged me in the past, my friends and teachers for example. The encouragement is very important when you are creating something.
AP: So from an early age. Were you influenced by your family as well?
NN: No, my father always liked to read, he always had books on the bookshelves and we were always encouraged to read. But nobody in my family was a writer, nobody actually wrote. This typewriter (she is showing it) belonged to my dad, because he used to type his business letters and things like that on this typewriter and it’s the first typewriter that I used to type one of my first poems, which I showed to one of my teachers back in the 80’s and the teacher said “wow you really have talent”. In fact, that teacher got in touch with me recently because he had read one of my books, he’s English, and he read one of my books and he said “I really want to see you again” and he is back in Cyprus now and so I’ve arranged to go and see him and his wife and he reminded me of that poem about drawing a line freehand. I remember it, I was always a bit of a rebel, rebel in terms of my writing. It’s kind of funny to say that, but I was always trying to fight against rules and strictness and boxes; I was always trying to push the boundaries with my writing.
AP: Which boundaries are you pushing at the moment through your writing?
NN: This is a good question… for a long time, I was pushing the boundaries of Cyprus, I was very inspired by the Cyprus problem. Like in the period between 2003 and 2005, at that time, I was really inspired by the Cyprus problem, the opening of the checkpoints, Ledra Street for example. A lot of my early poems and other work were inspired by that, like a short story named Ledra Street that became very well known in Cyprus, everybody associates me with that short story in Cyprus and even abroad. I started moving away from that subject because it became a little bit stale for me, because as you know, there is a lot of talk, talk, talk and no real action and I am opposed to just talk. I’m a person who likes to see something tangible happening after the talk. Generally throughout life, I always want an outcome and a result. So I look at what happened, we are going to talk about it, and then? I’ve always been a bit blunt like that and you can see it in my writing, it’s very minimalistic. I’m not someone who likes to use flowery language, a lot of talk, a lot of words, a lot of descriptions; I just get to the point. In my later years, I was more inspired by the plight of women who don’t often have a voice. Soon, my new book is coming out, in fact it’s out now, but it’s not on the general market yet, it’s on Amazon, a new book of short stories called “Selfie”. It’s a book of short stories, mostly with female characters, female heroines, who in some way or another are fighting against a male-dominated world, a man who wronged them, a husband. All of these women find a voice in my stories. Some of those stories are based on women that I’ve met. By the way, a lot of people think that what I write is autobiographical because I use the first person, but it’s not the case, I take elements of different people that I’ve met and put them together in story form. Most of the story will be fiction, imaginary, but in the back of my mind, I will have that woman that I met on the plane, who was next to me and she may have said just one sentence and that sentence triggered a whole… but she will never know it was her. I remember distinctly, I was on a plane to Brussels many years ago and next to me was an older woman, we started having a conversation and during the conversation, she was telling me about her husband who had been abusive and she used the following sentence, I knew what she wanted to say, but she said it in this way, “I wanted to fly away from him”. What she meant was that she wanted to get away, to escape, but the way she said it always stayed in my mind. She wanted to fly away from him. What does that tell you about that woman? She was trapped. So that’s what I mean, I give these women voices, because I know that there are a lot of women around the world, not only in Cyprus, who are suffering, who maybe are having problems, unwanted pregnancies, this, that and the other, and I just put all of these things together. I gave it the title “Selfie” because one of the stories is called that, and I like that word because it plays on two meanings: the selfie you take on the phone and the act of looking into your inner self.
AP: As a woman, have you faced any challenges or obstacles in your life just because of the fact that you’re a woman?
NN: Obstacles no, I find that living in Cyprus is not easy as a woman. You’re not really given as much liberty as you would experience if you were living abroad I think, because we’re always concerned about what people will say, what people will think. How can I put it, I don’t feel as free in Cyprus as elsewhere. I travel to other countries, I travel a lot. When you see how other people in other countries live, you realise that we live in a very small island and it’s really kind of limiting.
AP: You mentioned certain norms or standards that are expected from someone living in Cyprus. You have to live in a certain way, act and talk in a certain way. Would you say that the majority of them apply to women?
NN: I think so yes. For example, the way you dress, the way you talk, your entire life in Cyprus is basically modelled on what a man thinks it should be like. A lot of women take extra care of their appearance in Cyprus because men insist on it. Abroad, you go out and see women looking completely natural and relaxed; here, everything is too regimented.
AP: Some would argue that it’s not men but women who impose that on themselves.
NN: Women also can be very petty in the way that they treat other women, there is a lot of jealousy. It’s a shame, because I think being a small island, people think we are friendly, hospitable, welcoming Mediterranean people and we are, but we are a bit restricting as well and we restrict ourselves in society. It goes both ways.
AP: Is it a symptom of patriarchy? Are all these reactions coming from a minority? Women are a minority and often in a minority, instead of bonding when the common enemy is not actually there to frighten everybody, we turn on each other and eat our own flesh. And also considering that you are also Armenian, you belong to another minority group. What kind of experiences has your Armenian identity produced?
NN: This is it exactly. I’m living in a minority, on a small island; you see how restrictive that can be. Having said that, most of my friends are Greek Cypriots and international friends. I mean, I’m not one of those people who won’t come out of their shell - and this is not the way to live really. Yes, I’m proud to be Armenian; I stick to my identity. I’ve written a lot about my Armenian identity too - but enclose and imprison myself in a little world and not to look outside, I would never make this terrible mistake. But going back to what you said about women as a minority, I was actually invited to be part of this 120 Powerful and Influential Women in Cyprus and I’ll read you what I wrote. “The participation of Cypriot women in public life and decision-making bodies was always and still is extremely limited. Cypriot women must start thinking outside of the box, experimenting and speaking up for themselves; to quote Anais Nin “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”. I think that’s important. And by courage, I don’t mean go out and fight with your hands and weapons, just be courageous and be yourself. That’s all you can be.
AP: You managed to achieve that in the sense that you’ve never enclosed yourself in that bubble of just being one thing; you’ve embraced all the other identities that you have. How do you feel others respond to that, do you think Cyprus is an inclusive society?
NN: Definitely, yes I’ve never had any issues with that. Definitely inclusive. I’m talking about myself; however, I have seen or heard that skin colour may have something to do with a lot of prejudices, skin colour and people from other countries, I mean not European, but people from Asian countries and so on. Still, there are a lot of misconceptions and prejudices and I think that it’s because we are a small island, far away from anything else; we think we are the centre of the universe, but we’re not unfortunately. We have not yet learned that we are not the centre of the universe and it’s a shame because Cyprus is really beautiful, it’s really a paradise island. I have friends who would die to come and live here, they tell me I’m lucky, it’s September and you can go to the beach, we’re wearing coats and this kind of thing. And it’s true, when you live somewhere you don’t appreciate it as much as when you’re not there. When I was a student in England, I used to miss Cyprus so much, because we have this close–knit community that you don’t find elsewhere. So you have to look at it both ways, we complain when we’re here that it’s too suffocating, it’s too restrictive, people don’t mind their own business and they are always interfering, but then you forget it when you’re abroad.
AP: In that sense, do you mean that taking a step back and being outside of the situation gives you a clearer picture of something. Do you think that maybe this would help us to overcome a major obstacle such as the Cyprus problem, which is something affecting our everyday lives. If we distance ourselves, maybe with time, people will be able to distance themselves emotionally and read history, see the facts the way they actually happened? And maybe that would bring an understanding and maybe forgiveness. Are we ready? It’s already been 45 years.
NN: This is a good and important question, and I think there is no real answer to your question. It’s very difficult to distance yourself from something that you’re emotionally attached to. We can’t forget, they can’t forget. We don’t forgive, they don’t forgive. It’s very complicated; the Cyprus problem is very complicated. It’s like asking me how I decided to write this story. Sometimes I write a story and I think it’s brilliant, I’m going to send it off and for sure it’s going to be published. Other times, I think I’m not sure about this, but I’m going to send it anyway. Quite often, the one that I’m not positive about gets published and the other one that I think is so good gets rejected. It’s very difficult as a writer to distance yourself. I’m using writing as an example because it’s very difficult to distance yourself from your own writing, that you’re emotionally attached to, you’ve spent hours, days weeks, creating it and the other person doesn’t know what you’ve been through, they are going to read it and say yes or no, or yes this is brilliant. It’s the same with solving a problem and when you’re solving a problem as huge as the Cyprus problem, because I do believe it’s huge, is it possible to distance yourself? Is it possible to distance ourselves, or can any Cypriot do that? Is it possible, I don’t know. People of the older generation who lived and worked together and have all these bonds, they can I believe and then as you go through the generations, what do they know and what do they care to be honest with you. They’ve never had that experience of cooperation, they’ve never known, they’ve never experienced that bond. I mean my mother’s generation, they used to have Turkish Cypriot neighbours and they were friends, they used to do things together. But now, when you expect an 18 year old to distance himself from something that he doesn’t really know, it’s very difficult and very complicated.
AP: My last question. Are you optimistic or hopeful about the future?
NN: I would have to say not really, because it’s taken 45 years, I was a little girl and now I’m a grown woman and nothing has happened. Are there any indications around me that say Cyprus is going to be reunited? Apart from poetry and words, no. I have to tell you that I have a lot of Turkish Cypriots friends who are poets, contacts who have really shown a lot of respect for my work and for me as a person, I truly respect that and for me, that’s my bond with the North. I believe that if there was some way that the whole island could be united through art, through words, through poetry, through things that have nothing to do with politics, but just as people, if we could be reunited, that would be a dream come true, but as long as it remains political, I’m not optimistic. In another sense, I am because as I said, we can reach others through other forms of communication, photography, theatre and I really hope that one day we will have a solution, but politically speaking, it’s going to be hard.
AP: Thank you very much.
NN: Thank you.
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