By Mary Terzian
I have always been eager to hear from my fans, wondering about their reaction to my writing. No matter how often I received assurances from my teachers, friends and colleagues that I am doing fine, there was always the shadow of a doubt that their compliments were targeted at keeping good relationships rather than upsetting the cart by critiquing my writing. I could very easily slip into an unusual phrase at any moment, since my mind is loaded with the syntax, words, adages, and reminiscences of words borrowed from other languages that I had to adopt at different stages in my life.
So, I was flattered when a friend of mine asked me to attend their next book-club meeting to discuss my first book. I had gone through similar experiences before, and since they had been positive I was looking forward to the event. This time the club members were all from the same background as mine so the criticisms might be sharp.
We were all Armenian but our ancestral caucus had disintegrated. Politics had pushed them out of their homeland. Few had survived the deportations. We had a crowd of their descendants in the group, with hyphenated ethnicities, like Egyptian-Armenian, Lebanese-Armenian, Persian-Armenian and Russian, Turkish, French, from across the globe. The younger ones were probably born and raised in the States, each member bringing her perspective of life, her Armenian dialect and her mentality into the mosaic of the phantom Armenian nation. Perhaps the book would be a unifier and easily digestible in English. I was looking forward to hearing their comments in whatever context they chose to deliver.
After the regular introductions we dived into our discussion.
“My heartfelt greetings to you!” I started. “I appreciate your interest in my book and have the pleasure to be here to listen to you. I am curious to find out whether you enjoyed reading the book, which part of the book affected you the most and the questions you may have. I will appreciate your comments.”
Someone in the crowd raised her hand. Soon others followed. Before I knew it, each one of the members present, twenty in all, had been smitten by one episode or another. I had “reached out and touched someone” in almost every chapter.
“It was very familiar,” one commented, “exactly what happened to me, growing up.”
Did she grow up in Egypt? No, she was from Lebanon. The same umbilical chord extended to a few generations.
“We were restricted,” answered another, “the boys had all the attention and mischief just as you have presented.”
“I agonized with you when you took your younger brother to school,” an attendee said, her eyes full of tears, “You were only ten, where were your parents?”
I had always felt the rigors of my life but this young generation, having spent more time in the United States than the older immigrant ones, the latter were more familiar with my dilemmas. Each member related about the chapter that had affected her most. The book had touched chords all across thirty-eight chapters. One lady had annotated her responses all over the book. I felt like a Big Mama, their spokeswoman, the trail blazer that had rejected tradition (bravo Mary! Why didn’t we do the same?), the shy but intrepid young woman throwing herself into fire and finding a rainbow. I was praised, rather than chided for quitting home. I sat there like a therapist who succeeds in finding the ailment that runs through the community.
In between signing books, trying to satisfy the readers’ curiosity, and reading an excerpt from my second book, about traveling with three dozens of chickens in a “commuter plane” to reach Bukavu, the Eden on Earth in Congo, the evening extended beyond stated limits. I was so inebriated with the overwhelming positive response to my book, that I could not wait to go home to start another one. It was one of the brightest moments in my life when I became convinced that yes, ESL or not, I had succeeded in my mission. Not only the book was a catharsis for all my unexpressed feelings, I had served a useful purpose, entertained some readers, offered a placebo to others who had suffered in silence, shared my “audacity” to quit home, even though it was a desperate attempt to live the life I envisioned, not the one destined for me. I had inspired confidence to others who are on the edge of meaningful decisions and soothed the grudges of those who had not ventured in life. Most of all, my main concern of rebelling against outdated traditions was not chided, but rather rewarded.
Yes, public opinion was favorable. I no longer worry about making mistakes here and there. Let those who have an axe to grind with me pick them up.