Book Review

“Everyone probably gets entangled in a terrible relationship at least once in their life—even people who don’t carry centuries of inherited trauma,” declares the protagonist in poet and performance artist Nancy Agabian’s The Fear of Large and Small Nations. In the novel, a bisexual Armenian American woman in her late thirties, Na, enters a relationship with a possibly bisexual Armenian man in his early twenties, Seyran. Is this love? Or is this a green card marriage wrought by guilt by a member of the more privileged diaspora? The novel explores the power dynamics of the relationship complicated by historical trauma that has rendered a certain existential malaise in its protagonist.

The novel operates as a fragmented story told in alternating third-person and first-person perspectives, divided primarily in four different sections. Here the form mirrors the content, as part of a trend in identity-based fiction that treats the fragmented self. Headings and the use of dates throughout the novel keep each section distinct, even with the varying perspectives. The third-person story follows Na, short for Natalee, but it is also an abridged version of the author’s first name, Nancy. One is tempted to read more Na’s in the novel: Na is reminiscent of the last syllables of the country in which the protagonist travels, Armenia; the book’s publisher, Nauset Press, I’m sure by happy coincidence, is yet another; and, I must add, this review is written by another Armenian American Na.

Yet, the impetus for this name arrives in a musing two-thirds through the novel, wherein Na explains that, despite the cultural ways in which gender divides dominate in Armenia, linguistically, the ungendered Armenian pronoun “na” refers to both men and women. In name and deed, Na incarnates an openness to gender deconstruction to combat her descriptions of a starkly gendered Armenia. With her feminist eye, Agabian’s protagonist makes space for queer Armenians—both affirming their existence and shedding light on the violence against them. It is no surprise that the novel was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

The first person perspectives unfold in three sections: a journal taking place in New York in 2009 considering the deterioration of Na’s and Seyran’s marriage, an online blog following Na’s Fulbright in Armenia in 2006–2007 and initial stages of her relationship with Seyran, and a section in italics called “meta-writing.” The use of italics distinguishes the latter from the other sections and also reinforces the journal-like intimacy of this first person perspective. The meta-writing functions as an analysis to the relationship story unfolding in the third-person perspective. The thoughtfulness and analysis of the meta-writing do not, however, belie the compelling narrative structure of the work. The alternating timelines offer the reader a glimpse of the future of the relationship between Na and Seyran, imparting a sense of urgency to the text, even as Agabian’s prose pulls you along with its vibrancy and life. Agabian infuses her prose with her poet’s sensibility. Sentences follow a lyrical, bouncing pattern, even as she anchors the narrative in a concrete framework of space and time.

The world depicted in the novel is not only postmodern in its structure, but post-Soviet Armenia and post-9/11 United States. The specificity of this bildungsroman makes it so that the coming of age of the protagonist (even if she’s in her late 30s) mirrors that of the world around her: the US grappling with its sense of self after September 11, 2001, as well as Armenia negotiating democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. The novel captures a particular moment in history at the same time that it does so for the protagonist’s life. This collapsing of selfhood and statehood is one of the points that Agabian traces throughout the novel. The hope is that, by understanding Armenia, the author can understand herself, although the protagonist poses this wish in other words in the opening of the novel: “how I might help to bring change to this place, but also how I might be changed in the process.” This dual, yet intertwined desire is evident before the novel begins with the two opening quotes, one from Jamaica Kincaid (a contemplation of human existence) and the other by Zabel Yessayan (a search for understanding for one’s homeland).

For those who do not speak Armenian, there is a glossary at the beginning of the text for the occasional use of Armenian in the novel, even as the novel as a whole does not cater itself to such an audience. Instead, Agabian invites the reader to use the internet to search for any unknown words. In the same way that Na is swept up in a search for understanding, the readers too can do the work themselves. As a result, the novel illustrates an exemplary way of offering access to a culture that might not be the reader’s own, without having to “other” itself.

Agabian’s novel offers a glittering vision of both Armenians and Armenian Americans in their plurality. Na sums it best as she muses about her Armenian identity: “I like the idea of bending the common perception of what’s Armenian, to stretch and shape it, to make more room for others to be themselves. Can I bend it if I don’t understand what Armenian is? Can I bend it with Seyran? Can I be bent?” The novel invites pressing discussions on identity and identity construction, particularly for members of diasporic communities. Even as it treats delicate themes of abuse and violence, the novel offers a hopeful, optimistic ode to embracing one’s multiple selves.

About the Reviewer

Nanar Khamo is a writer and academic in Los Angeles, CA.