“What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extraordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more trains exist,” writes Georges Perec in his 1973 essay "Approaches to What?" “...as if life reveals itself only by way of the spectacular.”
In September 2020, Azerbaijan attacked the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, an unrecognized region in the South Caucasus. During the ensuing 44-day war, the extraordinary—rocket strikes on residential buildings and a maternity ward, white phosphorus bombs on primeval forests, videos of villagers being beheaded—became ordinary. As Siranush Sargsyan told me after a ceasefire was signed, “It was strange not to hear sirens and bombardments. War is bad but it is worse when you get used to it.”
For decades, the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh have been fighting for the right to exist peacefully on the level Perec calls the "infra-ordinary": to enjoy “seemingly trivial daily acts.” But, as Viken Berberian writes in The Nation, “in order to be capable of paying attention to the footnotes of the everyday, people need to have a certain level of quiet and security.” Today, over a year after the ceasefire was signed, Azerbaijan continues to launch deadly attacks on Nagorno Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia, leaving civilians living in uncertainty and fear.
The Oxford Network for Armenian Genocide Research, led by Dr. Suzan Meryem Rosita Kalayci, and the International Armenian Literary Alliance invited writers to “embrace the granular beauty of the ordinary” for its essay competition ‘Question Your Teaspoons’. We asked, “What seemingly trivial, daily acts do you perform that show your humanity?”
Judge Raffi Wartanian reflected on the winning submissions, “From meditations on walking to drinking coffee to riding ferries and beyond, each essayist wrote adeptly-realized renderings of ‘seemingly, trivial daily acts’ that represented lenses into every writer’s humanity. To look through those lenses was, for me as a reader, a humbling honor that reinforced how showing up and doing the work edifies us all as readers, writers, and stakeholders. In the face of silence, we spoke. In the face of disease and destruction, we constructed meaning from the incomprehensible. And in a world that might make us mute, meek, and passive, we each emerged victorious for making a crucial choice: to write.”
In these essays, one writer expresses an aching for home by sending his mother photographs of roses. Another speaks for the first time of two gifts his boyfriend left him—AIDS and Hepatitis C—and how he now delights in being able to drink a cup of coffee in the morning. Another recalls sharing the one delicacy she has—jam sent from her war-torn homeland—with her neighbor, though they must line up for hours for even basic necessities. Looking into another writer’s daily life allows us to see each other not as enemies separated by borders, but as people more alike than different. Viken Berberian wrote, “Peace is possible only when both sides acknowledge the other’s right to the everyday.” I hope you enjoy these intimate reflections that illuminate our cultures and homelands, from Malaysia to the United States to Lebanon.