Book Review

The late Naira Kuzmich’s In Everything I See Your Hand is a startling and provocative debut story collection chronicling the lives of Armenian-Americans in Los Angeles, whose stories defy categorization as they subvert our commonly held notions of what it means to seek a “better life” in America. Kuzmich’s characters navigate loss, generational differences, family expectations, and personal disappointments without following the redemption narratives that are common in American-immigrant fiction. These wives, husbands, daughters, and grandparents appear to be just as lost and confused as they are when we first meet them in Kuzmich’s stories. If they do experience epiphanic moments about the lives they’ve led and the losses they’ve sustained, these moments do not always provide the emotional release that they seek.

Perhaps the elusiveness of closure in Kuzmich’s stories can be traced to her approach to characterization. Her characters do not lend themselves to easy interpretation, denying us the satisfaction of achieving a full understanding of their inner lives. Likewise, their own attempts to understand the people they love, and the choices their loved ones make, lead them down a path of self-reckoning that does not yield easy answers. In the story “Azniv Panosyan, In Contrast,” a bereaved widower contemplates the life he shared with a wife who has recently died by suicide. As he seeks answers by rewatching the home videos he took of their brief and seemingly happy marriage, he is led deeper into a contemplation of the life he chose to provide for his wife in America. To unlock the secrets lingering beneath her quiet unhappiness, he too must wrestle with his personal disappointments:

In Los Angeles, I worked for an Armenian jeweler in Downtown that paid me three dollars an hour, and I was grateful. No, it was this. This, precisely. I took everything that was given to me. I swallowed it down. Was this her revenge? Did she think as she stuffed her mouth with all those pills, sweet husband, let’s see you accept this?

Even this moment of clarity leads him to a dead end, as the question he hears from his dead wife’s mouth can only be imagined, leading him to confront, yet again, the actuality of her silence. Azniv’s unending silence awakens more questions that lead our protagonist down a never-ending spiral that yields no answers. We as readers are likewise left in the dark, forced to contemplate the enigma of Azniv’s life as it replays itself in home videos, impermeable to our attempts at interpretation.

The story “Miles to Exit” similarly follows a circular path towards meaning as it gives us a glimpse into the life of Sarkis, an elderly Armenian man, whose concern for his maladjusted American-born grandchild mirrors his own anxieties about the life he has chosen for himself in America. While attempting to lead his wayward grandchild down the straight and narrow path by giving the teenager his first driving lessons, it is Sarkis who is made to confront his own lack of purpose and direction in his adopted country. Kuzmich allows the smallest of details of Sarkis’s life to speak for his journey towards a tentative acceptance of his own disappointments and losses, which allows him to find some peace in a country that has never truly felt like home. What enables him to embark on this journey back to his past, and back to his moorings, is his eventual willingness to set aside his pursuit of the American dream, with all its admonitions towards freeing oneself from the heartaches and disappointments of the past. Uncomfortable as the story might make us feel, “Miles to Exit” also reveals the joys we can experience when we choose to free ourselves from cultural narratives that may provide temporary comfort while stifling the expression of our true selves.

The presence of grief in a person’s life is a constant in Kuzmich’s stories, becoming the central impetus of many of her characters’ life choices. While her characters attempt to outrun the shadows that grief casts on their lives, Kuzmich repeatedly shows, through deft turns of phrase that reveal the paradoxical truths of a situation, that grief may also be the one thing that makes them whole. This can be a painful truth to accept, as Zara of “Woman Amid Ruins” realizes on her wedding night:

I have you, she says, and wants to mean it. Hours before at the church, for their vows, they had touched foreheads, like they still do in Armenia. But she had thought it would be different here. Perhaps to kiss him there in the church, that would’ve blessed them, would’ve changed the taste stuck in her throat. Grief lives on the tongue, Armineh had told her before Zara walked out of the apartment they shared in Yerevan, dragging her suitcase behind her. So just swallow. Close your eyes and just swallow.

Zara keeps her grief close, refusing to give herself away as her new husband reaches for the comforts her body can give him. Unlike Sarkis, she does not let her guard down, picking up on her husband’s indifference to her quiet sadness that makes her complicated, yet complete. Kuzmich’s stories are populated with characters who closely guard their truths after sustaining heavy emotional losses, and there are moments in this collection in which we are led to think that it is the only means of self-preservation available to them after everything else they value has been taken away. Take, for instance, when Liyanna of “Eulogy for Rosa Garsevanian” accounts for her other, more private losses while pondering over her husband’s infidelities:

But now all Liyanna does is turn her head back and look. There’s her country behind the mountain, her mother waving her tired hand, the neighbor’s son who wanted her so much he’d touch her knees while she lay sleeping in the grapevines; there are grandmothers dusting dirt roads in mourning dresses, men sipping coffee from dainty cups, leaning against the walls of homes they have built themselves.

She knows nothing has changed in her meaningless city, only her, but that is more than enough, it is everything. She wants to tell her husband this, that her country is full of people and places he has taken from her. But he wouldn’t understand.

What Kuzmich’s characters yearn for is more complex and far-reaching than what the American Dream, with its false and simplifying promises, can satisfy. Perhaps what makes Kuzmich’s stories so startling and original is the author’s refusal to meet our expectations, as her Armenian-American characters long for more than what our preconceived notions of closure or happiness can give them. As she makes clear in the story “Transculturation, Or: An Address to My American Lover,” she and other Armenian-Americans do not exist merely to satisfy another’s wants, for they are human beings whose hopes and passions lie beyond a curious spectator’s selfish desires:

My history is my own. You see, when we hold hands, when you dig your fingers into my palms, I worry you are trying to dig my past back up. I worry that you want to claim some of my land for yourself. Not to discover a place for us to live on, a common ground, a lover’s nation, but because you’re searching for treasure…I will not be another place you’ve simply been, a body you’ve crossed and conquered, a country you can call your own…You will not mine me.

About the Reviewer

Monica Macansantos is a former James A. Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, and her work has appeared in Colorado Review, The Hopkins Review, Bennington Review, Literary Hub, and Electric Literature, among other places. She is the author of the forthcoming collection of essays, Returning to My Father’s Kitchen (Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Books, 2025) and the story collection, Love and Other Rituals (Grattan Street Press, 2022). Her honors include fellowships from Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the I-Park Foundation, Storyknife Writers Retreat, and Monson Arts.