An Interview with Micheline Aharonian Marcom

By Liz Blood

Liz Blood recently interviewed our next author, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, whose book,THE BRICK HOUSE, arrives 11/2/17. Pre-ordering goes through Friday. We'll be posting details of the launch party and other reading events soon.

Why did you choose to do an illuminated book? 

I began the book over ten years ago, so it’s hard to recall my exact initial impulses, but I do remember I was very interested in William Blake’s work and how he revived the illuminated manuscript, which traditionally was reserved for handmade religious texts. He developed the illuminated book as a means of fusing the visual and literary into a form which might awaken man from what he called the “sleep of reason.” It was, in this sense, an ideal vehicle for the revolution of the imagination. His work remains, as he intended it, politically subversive.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom

Micheline Aharonian Marcom

I also love Armenian illuminated manuscripts and their long tradition and was inspired by the many beautiful books I saw when I visited the Matenadaran Institute in Yerevan, which has the largest collection of Armenian manuscripts in the world. Unlike Blake, however, I’m not a visual artist or engraver, and so I commissioned artist and writer, Fowzia Karimi, to create ten original pieces for the book after sharing with her many examples of Armenian manuscripts and discussing Blake. The technique of illumination seeks to reveal the inner qualities from a text and not to “illustrate” it per se.

Tell me about the theme of environmental ruin in "The Brick House." I’m thinking specifically about the repeating image of the red coffee stirrer.

When I’m writing a book, everything that I’m interested in and curious about tends to make its way into it. During the early drafts of The Brick House, I traveled several times around remote wild areas of Southeast Alaska with a friend on his small skiff. I recall walking on a beach on a small island one day where, in what seemed a pristine area far from any large human settlement, all kinds of plastic trash had washed ashore. Much of it was not even from the U.S. This got me thinking about the origins of the trash and how, when I returned to my city and went to get my coffee each day, for example, I might use a small plastic stirrer for no more than a minute to mix the sugar into it and then afterward would toss the stirrer into a bin without any idea about where it might end up. We do know that over 9.1 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year. Fifty percent of that plastic is for items which are used once and thrown away, which makes no sense given that plastic takes hundreds of years to biodegrade. A plastic bag, for example, can take anywhere from 500 to 1000 years.

You write about sex in an explicit and unflinching way. What informs that choice? 

Nothing more than thinking that what is the most natural and potentially beautiful, intimate activity for humans on earth remains something to hide and shut away and/or use to shame people—in particular, women.

"Three Apples Fell From Heaven," your first novel, is being made into a film by Disruptive Narrative, a social justice storytelling production company. Do you think of yourself as a social justice writer? 

I am very much interested in and driven by certain stories, I guess you could say, which take up questions of justice and injustice. I remain obsessed with telling stories which to me seem to be elided, ignored, unseen. But these can take various forms and include myriad possibilities including the stories of my maternal grandparents who survived the Armenian genocide in 1915; or the Ixil in Guatemala whose government set out to destroy them; or how the oceans are filling with bags, buckets, and cigarette lighters and thereby killing so many sea animals; or how a child who was brought to the U.S. as baby and raised and educated in this country is not permitted to regularize his/her status (as so many immigrants in this country have done for hundreds of years: those folks who showed up at Ellis Island did not have visas) and lives with a constant fear of possible deportation.

Does your own writing focus find its way into your teaching in the creative program at Mills College? If so, how?

As my students know, I frequently teach literature courses around certain themes I am interested in, often for how it relates to a novel-in-progress. I’m currently working on a book about a double, so a few semesters ago I taught a literature course on doppelgangers, doubles, and monsters.

What are your other upcoming projects or works-in-progress?

I’ve been working on and off on that book, currently titled The Second Woman. And I am about to begin editing for publication my seventh novel, The New American, which is about a DREAMer who gets deported to Guatemala, a place he has no memory of, and makes his way back home across Mexico to Berkeley where he was raised and is a university student. 

Tell me a little about The New American Story Project and the stories of immigrants and refugees you're helping to tell.

The New American Story Project (NASP) came about after I finished a draft of the novel, “The New American,” and wanted to support immigrants telling stories in their own words about their lives, why they came here, how they got here. What I didn’t realize when I founded NASP, was how many child refugees were living within five miles of Mills. These were children who were part of the so-called “surge” on our border in 2014 when 68,000 kids from three countries in Central America—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—came to the U.S. fleeing terrible violence. This region, often referred to as the Northern Triangle, has become one of the deadliest places in the world outside of a warzone: gangs, organized crime, extortion, murder, and sexual violence are rampant. It is not safe to be a child there. The project has grown to become a digital oral history and public arts project which seeks to generate awareness and understanding of these kids and both the causes and current realities of the ongoing refugee crisis.

The Brick House

The Brick House is a place where people dream of love and loneliness, of the world's beauty, and of ongoing environmental degradation. In this short but moving work, travelers confront their lives in the strange, elemental language which dreams allow for, a strangeness mirrored in the accompanying illustrations by Fowzia Karimi. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and following in the tradition of Armenian illuminated manuscripts, The Brick House is a delight to the eye and mind. 

Micheline Aharonian Marcom was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and raised in Los Angeles.  She has published five novels, including a trilogy of books about the Armenian genocide and its aftermath in the twentieth century.  She has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, and the US Artists’ Foundation. 

Her first novel, Three Apples Fell From Heaven, was a New York Times Notable Book and Runner-Up for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. It was recently announced that Shekhar Kapur will direct Three Apples Fell From Heaven, a film based on her novel and adapted by Motorcycle Diaries writer José Rivera. This becomes the first film from a new social justice storytelling production company, Disruptive Narrative, which will launch at Cannes as part of Sunday’s Refugee Voices In Film day, presented by IEFTA, the UNHCR, and Marché du Film. The company is founded by leading human rights lawyer, Jen Robinson, of Doughty St Chambers, and Syrian-Armenian actress/writer/producer, Sona Tatoyan.

Her second novel, The Daydreaming Boy, won the PEN/USA Award for Fiction.  In 2008, Marcom taught in Beirut, Lebanon on a Fulbright Fellowship.  

Marcom is the Founder and Creative Director of The New American Story Project, which is a space for new Americans to tell their stories. NASP’s mission is to foster humane and substantive dialogue around the complexities of migration, US immigration and asylum laws, and human rights concerns of new immigrants. Their current project Welcome Children: Voices of the Central American Refugee Crisis focuses on unaccompanied Central American minors who journeyed thousands of miles to reach the U.S. The children tell their stories in their own words while legal, social science and policy experts provide perspective, up-to-date data, and detailed context. The hope is to foster greater understanding about the ongoing humanitarian crises in Central America.

Marcom lives in Northern California where she teaches Creative Writing at Mills College.  She is also on faculty at Goddard College in the MFA program in Creative Writing. You can follow her Words Collectio on Instagram @michelinemarcom.

Fowzia Karimi has a background in Visual Arts and Biology. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. In her work, she combines the written and visual arts to tell stories. She was a recipient of The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards – 2011. She lives in Texas.