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The Critical Corner - 07/15/2003

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Armenian News Network / Groong
July 15, 2003

by Shushan Avagyan

Selected Works: Shushanik Kurghinian (1876-1927)

It was in my sixth grade Armenian literature class that I first read
this intriguing poet, who caught my attention because we shared the
same name, and also because women writers rarely appeared in my
textbooks.  Last year I spent many hours leafing through her family
album at the Museum of Art and Literature in Yerevan, browsing through
her diligently handwritten notebooks and trying to decipher the
sophisticated calligraphy. She, who romanticized:

	Lined up in the sky, the cranes
	come and go in files.
	Where shall I look for a homeland in spring,
	weep and mourn which heartache?

also wrote:

	There are no chains to fold my soul
	or cease the heavenly flames within this heart,
	my dreams   inexhaustible fires of the kinetic
	and nobody can subdue my song.

I knew then, that I had discovered one of the unique littérateurs
of the Armenian feminist arena. In that perspective, I would like to
discuss selected works by Shushanik Kurghinian, and explore her
complex survival that has remained underappreciated for many decades.

Shushanik Popoljiants was born on August 18, 1876, in Alexandrapol
(now Gyumri), in the Erevan province of Eastern Armenia. Her father,
Harout, a poor craftsman, supported the family by working many hours
at a shoe-repair workshop. At seven, Shushanik received elementary
education at the local abbey but stayed there only for a year, after
which she was transferred to the Arghutian Seminary. In the summers
she worked in different places, weaving and making clay pottery, to
help support the family. "She was very assertive among other girls -
they listened to her. We got acquainted at the [Seminary], I had just
arrived from Europe and she was close to graduation. She told me she
wrote... Promised to read, but never kept her promise," recorded
Avedik Isahakian in his book of memoirs.

In 1893 Shushanik became a member of the Armenian Social-Democratic
Hnchakian Party. That same year in fall she joined a group of eighteen
women, who attempted to participate in the 1894 freedom struggles in
Western Armenia. At that time Armenia was separated into Western and
Eastern provinces, which were governed by the Turkish and Russian
authorities. At this age, the dauntless young woman contemplated ways
to liberate Armenians from the Turkish and Czarist oppressors and to
secure an independent homeland. In 1895 she entered the Russian
Progymnasium in Alexandrapol, preparing to leave for Moscow to
continue her education. Circumstances changed and to appease her
parents, who greatly valued family traditions, at twenty-one she
married Arshak Kurghinian, a local tradesman. Her writings are sparse
from this period, and they can be generally characterized as lyrical,
but they do generate a blatant quality that soon would become her
so-called trademark.

In 1903, along with her husband and two children, Shavarsh and
Arshakanush (Arsham, her youngest, was born later in 1910), Shushanik
left for Moscow but ended up in Rostov. Experiencing utmost hardship
and destitution, Kurghinian immersed herself in the revolutionary
milieu and dedicated herself to writing.  In her poem "Sold" of 1907
she writes:

	One day they sold her for a good price 
	a wife for the rich agha, when father,
	a drunken brute, arrived home 
	her virgin heart turned to distress  no sleep or


	Then she followed her future man
	holding on to his giant paw silent, mute,
	pale, and puzzlement on a handsome face
	when she saw the tables.

	In her own will comes the bride?
	Asked the pastor with a cunning smile
	and as if hearing the answer  recalled 
	the groom bestowing him a bribe.

Isahakian remembers, "The last time I saw her in 1907 -- in Rostov.
She left the impression of an enigma: a true sibyl, a sorceress, an
oracle -- slender, tall, strong, with phosphorescent eyes - completely
isolated from a family setting." Here she had met a young Russian
couple, Fedor and Maria, who took Kurghinian into their circle of
laborer-proletarians.  Life in Rostov was harsh; often left on her
own, as Arshak traveled for business, the young woman was exposed to
the turbulent world of the underground proletariat. In the letters to
her husband and also Isahakian she often mentioned about the political
currents occurring in Russia -- clearly she was very involved. "Dear
Avedik," she wrote, "I am sending you two compositions and my [newly
published] book - please be content with these for now. I am extremely
busy, but soon will send you some OTHER works, conceived from all the
tumult occurring within me."  That year was a turning point in the
writer's life and from here on her tone shifted from the soft lyrical
to direct and demanding. Here is a sample of her writing of that
time-period in a vociferous poem titled "I Want To Live."

	I want to live, but not a lavish life wedged
	in obscurity, unconcern, simple-mindedness,
	nor an outright hostage of beauty aids
	as a frail creature, delicate and feeble -
	but equal to you, oh men,
	auspicious, as you are - powerful and headstrong,
	fit against calamities, and ingenious
	with bodies full of fervor.


	I want to act, next to you, in equality
	as my peoples loyal chapter;
	let me suffer over and again, night or day 
	roaming from one place to another, 
	struggling for those ideals of sovereignty 
	And let this heft torment me in my exile 
	only to gain the purpose of my life. 


	I want to fight, first  as your rival,
	standing against you with an old vengeance,
	that absurdly and without mercy you 
	turned me into a vassal through love and force
	Then after clearing these issues of my sex 
	I want to fight against the agonies of life 
	courageously like you, holding your hand,
	together  facing this struggle of being or not

Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, Kurghinian managed to publish her
first small compilation of poetry under the title "Chimes at Dawn"
(1907). The poet had submitted a second manuscript, but it was
rejected by the Czarist censorship, mainly because of its
sociopolitical content -- a taboo at the time. "Chimes at Dawn" was
the only book that got published during her lifetime.

Kurghinian's second book, "Best Works," arrived many years later,
after Armenia had become a soviet republic -- it was compiled by her
own daughter and published in Yerevan in 1939. Her third collection of
selected best works was published in 1947, followed by the fourth book
of "Poems" in 1971. A very significant addition to this collection was
the pioneer edition of her previously unpublished works, titled
"Literary Heritage: Poetry, Prose, Plays, Letters," selected and
edited by J. Mirzabekian and published by the Yerevan National Academy
of Sciences in 1981. The latter also contains important correspondence
with Armenian literary figures such as Hovhannes Toumanian, Avedik
Isahakian, Vrtanes Papazian, Ghazaros Aghayan and others, offering a
kaleidoscopic outlook of the poet's legacy.

Although Kurghinian tried her hand in prose and plays, the Armenian
reader knows her best as a poet who occasionally used Arpenik as a
pseudonym. Her plays were not as potent as her verse, but from
performer H.  Zarifian's letters, addressed to her in 1914, it is
evident that there have been attempts to stage one of her pieces. "A
few days ago in Tbilisi Mr. B.  Ishkhanian handed me your new play
"Maro" [also titled "Scorched Hearts"] and we would like to add it to
our repertoire. You have probably read from the papers that I am
leading a troupe to perform in Armenian communities in Turkey, Egypt
and Iran. We are strictly looking for independent plays. Please let me
know if you are interested," wrote Zarifian.

Preserved at the Museum of Art and Literature, her oeuvre in entirety
consists of fifty-nine hand-written notebooks - an incredible source
of second-wave feminist writings. Amongst her contemporaries,
Kurghinian admired particularly two great Russian thinkers -- Maxim
Gorky and Anton Chekhov, whose populist ideology has had an obvious
influence on her literary evolution. In 1916 she wrote in a journal,
"Everyday I am opposed to Nietzsche's philosophy.  There can be no
life in a desert, one can not exist apart from the people."

As a young intellectual, Kurghinian developed a distinct voice in
addressing issues on class discrimination and women's rights. Her
language is simple, but very effective for the time, considering how
little formal education she had. She is concerned with the status quo
of women and the exploitative economic forces that suppress them in a
supremacist society. In several poems ("Seamstress," "Sold," "I Pity
You," "Are You Still Sleeping?" etc) and literary articles she sends a
powerful message to her sisters of burden, giving them hope and urging
them to break away from the chains of patriarchal traditions. By doing
so, Kurghinian does not attribute women to objects of beauty or
motherhood, but presents them as the battered, voiceless sex -- sold
and appropriated into marriages. In the following excerpt from "Let Us
Join, Too," written in 1907, she appeals:

	Come, dear Sister, let us join, too -
	lets partake in the great holy battle,
	enough of our enslaved existence with
	thoughts covered by haze - dumbstruck with misery.

	Let the[m] lucky men not be
	so vain, for dashing forward -
	without us, trust me, Sister,
	they won't reach their purpose - will fall apart!

	Let's go, dear Sister, fearless, hand in hand -
	sacrificing all for a righteous trial,
	everyone is equal - the warrior so worthy -
	for the sacred spark of a liberating life.

Kurghinians foremost priorities remained the political activity and
writing, which took a great deal of time away from her husband and
children. She never ceased being a loving mother and wife, but she
knew that her calling was somewhere else outside the family. Shushanik
and Arshak's relationship was founded on egalitarian grounds and they
strongly supported each other in every aspect. Tragically, she lost
him in 1917, after which she became very desolate and wrote less. Later
in her life, she became much attached to her daughter and grandchildren;
proof to that are the numerous archived letters. In a poem titled
"Gift For My Daughter" she writes:

	In the grooves of your obsidian eyes
	that emanate a newborn life, unknowing sorrow,
	does my heart breathe in relief 
	for infinite dreams of the days to come.

In 1921, after long journeys in Russia, Kurghinian finally returned to
a newly established Soviet Armenia. She actively took part in
rebuilding the country, and whole-heartedly believed in Russia as the
powerful ally for her star-crossed homeland. The poor living
conditions and a weakened health hampered Kurghinian's activities, as
she spent months at different hospitals for the treatment of her
Graves' disease. In 1927 she lost her battle to the illness.

First censored by Czarist editors and then by Marxist ideologists, who
presented her solely as the proletarian singer, Kurghinian's voice is
trapped in a narrow niche -- leaving hundreds of valuable works
unrevealed. In this context, she received some recognition as a
propagandist of social injustice in the canon of Armenian literature,
not as a feminist.  Only recently several of her works were translated
into English, beautifully rendered by Diana Der Hovanessian.
Nevertheless, Shushanik Kurghinian's poetry and literary existence
remain unknown to many.


Ghazarian, Hovhannes. Shushanik Kurghinian. Yerevan: National Academy
of Sciences, 1955.

Isahakian, Avedik. Compilation of Works. 5th ed.  Yerevan: Sovetakan
Grogh, 1977.

Kurghinian, Shushanik. Literary Heritage: Poetry, Prose, Plays,
Letters. Ed. J. Mirzabekian. Yerevan: National Academy of Sciences,

Kurghinian, Shushanik. Poems. Ed. J. Mirzabekian.  Yerevan: Hayastan
Publishing, 1971.

Shushan Avagyan is a recipient of the Center for Book Culture
fellowship at the Illinois State University, and is working on her
master's degree in English Literature. Original poems have appeared in
the Mochila Review, Segue of Miami University-Middletown and the
California Quarterly.

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