“Jart. The shattering—that was what Avo’s parents used to call the genocide, and it made sense to him that another shattering was what it would take for the world to acknowledge it, too.”
In Chris McCormick’s superb debut novel, The Gimmicks, the showy personas of 1970s and 1980s professional wrestling serve as a metaphor for harmful depictions of immigrant assimilation in the United States. McCormick deftly explores the racism and xenophobia underlying the narrative in the ring without spending too much time in its gaudy acrobatics or technical maneuvers. Wrestling is patriotic spectacle—a means of reinforcing degrading and exotifying stereotypes—but also a convenient and profitable escape for its actors. The wrestlers must negotiate who they are inside and outside of the ropes, navigating where the performance begins and ends, if it ever ends at all.
For Avo, one of The Gimmicks’s central characters, a softhearted behemoth from Soviet Armenia, transforming into “The Brow Beater”—a reference to his signature unibrow—is mostly a matter of timing and circumstance. Life as a traveling wrestler is a means of escaping fatal retribution. After Avo betrays the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), who plot to assassinate an Armenian Genocide denialist planted on faculty at a major university in California, he needs money and transportation to flee. Tipping off the mendacious wunderkind professor is more than enough to cost Avo his life if he sticks around. Permitting a washed-up trainer, Terry “Angel Hair” Krill, to turn him into the Brow Beater gives Avo a fast excuse to skip town, even if at a price to his pride and sense of identity. In his doubts over ASALA’s violent and militant tactics, Avo instead chooses to regularly perform an exploitive staged display of brutality. He negotiates spreading an American propaganda narrative to avoid literal blood on his hands. His routine of fictive violence complicates his relationship to his ethnic identity and understanding of home, but as the miles add up Avo loses track of what place constitutes his home at all.
Wrestling, whether honest or staged, is about physical competition, but—to borrow an idea from Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous—the language is often administered for more intellectual means. We grapple with ideas, verbally spar, wrestle over our emotions and feelings. Sometimes called the original sport, wrestling is an ancient pastime, one that pivoted toward theater in recent decades in part to protect the health of those at the center of the ring. Choreography reduces risk of injury while still giving the fans what they want. In commercial literary representations of American racial and ethnic minorities, this concept of staged performance perhaps looks all too familiar. At times, playing into the xenophobic or reductive narrative is safer than unscripted combat, especially when surrounded by a largely white audience. This is to say, non-white characters in contemporary American literature often fall into the trap of gimmicks as a means of success and survival, not only in terms of fictional plot, but also to find a home for publication.
In the arts, narratives centered on marginalization, intergenerational suffering, and racist violence remain marketable and profitable. The wrestler’s gimmick and the artist’s persona aren’t so different in a country that refuses to see beyond racist, xenophobic, and sexist myths and archetypes. In the New York Times, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes,
…marginalized writers who tell stories about marginalized populations do not get a pass. Take immigrant literature. During the xenophobic Trump years, when immigrants and refugees were demonized, simply standing up for immigrants became a politically worthwhile cause. But so much of immigrant literature, despite bringing attention to the racial, cultural and economic difficulties that immigrants face, also ultimately affirms an American dream that is sometimes lofty and aspirational, and at other times a mask for the structural inequities of a settler colonial state. Most Americans have never heard of settler colonialism, much less used it to describe their country. That’s because Americans prefer to call settler colonialism the American dream.
I can’t say whether or not The Gimmicks would get a clean pass from Nguyen, but McCormick does make it clear Avo is incessantly aware he is performing for spectators that will never understand him. Avo’s choice in profession is not a lofty aspiration, it’s a practicality.
To back up a step, Avo initially joins ASALA on behest of his cousin, Ruben, who serves in the organization’s upper leadership. Ruben and Avo, who are as close as brothers, grow up together in Kirovakan, Armenia, after Avo’s parents die in a factory fire. As a teenager, Ruben is calculated, an expert backgammon player who learns under Tigran, a master of the game. Wedging between the cousins is Mina, a superior pupil who Tigran favors as his protégé and also plays the role of Avo’s love interest. Generalizing to avoid spoilers, Ruben’s failure to accept coming second in Tigran’s eyes causes major and enduring consequences that close the novel’s first act. Soon after, Ruben, being infatuated with Armenia’s violent history, is drawn to ASALA at a young age and quickly radicalized. Avo follows out of unflinching loyalty.
Together, the cousins physically embody and unravel a longstanding American literary trope. Ruben is small and bookish, almost puny, but ultimately turns out to be a ruthless killer high within the ranks of ASALA, while Avo is judged for his intimidating stature, even if he is a soft-natured poet at heart. This dichotomy in size and temperament is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, but McCormick executes these archetypical characterizations instead as an avenue to explore the many different sides of Armenian masculinity. Where this juxtaposition could fall flat, the author pushes to put these two at odds in such a way that neither of them feel like cookie-cutter characterizations. Avo is smarter than he ever lets on; Ruben more fearful and confused than he’ll admit. Both are cognizant they have a defined role to play. They commit to who they believe they’re supposed to be.
Like other diasporan Armenian literature, The Gimmicks maintains that memory and storytelling remain important avenues for sharing historical truths. Of Ruben and Avo, McCormick writes, “Like all Armenians, they knew the genocide backward and forward. They felt that their own lives were only tendrils climbing the gate of it. Each unearthed memory from a survivor was a new bar in that gate.” The core historical facts that are unfamiliar to most audiences—the didactic boilerplate information about the Armenian Genocide that Armenian American writers essentially must include to receive any understanding from a largely uninformed audience—is sprinkled throughout the novel when convenient, but never becomes the present action. In other words, McCormick never puts the horrors of the Genocide in scene. On its own, this is a decision that defies commercial expectations of how the Armenian American experience is largely represented in literature.
For this reason, The Gimmicks significantly varies from contemporary works by other Armenian American writers. Even though McCormick never flashes back to 1915, the cousins are still raised in the shadow of Armenian history. The Armenian Genocide casts an omnipresent shadow over Avo and Ruben. There are several excellent commercial American novels published in the twenty-first century that dedicate storyline to the Ottoman era and reveal the scope of the mass killings of Armenians, including but not limited to: Three Apples Fell from Heaven by Micheline Aharonian Marcom (2001), The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian (2010), The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (2012), and Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (2015). These novels—though employing distinctly different structures—are based in firsthand memory and multigenerational experience, often following global patterns of geographical displacement linked back to the initial trauma. The violent past is the primary source of narrative momentum. Immigration narratives—of course, not just those centered on Armenian characters—remain widely popular for American audiences, particularly stories that show the United States as a safety net of asylum. It becomes easier to look past quotidian American violence when it is set against massive wartime horrors taking place abroad. McCormick’s novel stands out in that the Genocide is neither a central plot point nor does he accept the burden of educating an ignorant audience on more than a century’s worth of geopolitical history and erasure.
In The Armenian Genocide in Literature: The Second Generation Responds, scholar Rubina Peroomian explains:
Indeed, the new generation of writers and poets of the Diaspora, the third or fourth generation in the line of descendants of the Genocide survivors, are creating art that is divergent from the polemics of history. They are searching for avenues outside of Armenian diasporan literary traditions to craft their responses to the suffering of their forefathers during the Genocide and to the injustice that still awaits recognition and compensation.
The Gimmicks exemplifies this evolution in literary tradition. Where McCormick excels is not only in reimagining the structure of a multigenerational family saga, but also in a range of complex characters who react differently to inherited trauma, historical erasure, and expectations for progress. Ruben believes assassinations and violence are a necessary route toward Turkish acknowledgment and reparations. Avo can’t commit to such extreme measures. Mina tries as much as possible to focus on her family and living in the present.
Minor characters also substantially contribute to the range of Armenian perspectives. In Los Angeles, when Avo is still part of the American chapter of ASALA, he learns to speak English from an Armenian tutor named Valantin. In the course of their conversations, Valantin, unaware of Avo’s affiliation, says of ASALA, “but these idiots are not real Armenians, in my opinion. Would you both agree? No real Armenian would kill another person, no matter what. It’s not Christian, it’s not in our blood. We’re a peaceful people.”
Such moments of skillful dialogue amplify Avo’s internal conflict, but more importantly they ironically use generalizations to refute stereotypes and expectations of ethnic homogeneity. The disparate perspectives of what qualifies as being a real Armenian reveal the absurdity of trying to monolithically define a global diaspora. McCormick forces his Armenian characters to face the racist and self-imposed fallacies that inform their decision-making.
On the road, when Avo has finally had enough of playing the ambiguous other, he tries to explain the double standard to his trainer, Terry Krill. Terry narrates:
The Brow Beater started listing all the gimmicks we’d come across in our time together. Pretty soon it became clear to me what he was saying. For white wrestlers, he could name all sorts of heroes and villains with distinct personalities and motivations and goals. But the Black wrestlers all had chains or grass skirts, and the Indians were noble savages and almost never portrayed by real Indians, and the Mexicans wore mariachi hats or masks, and the brown folks wore turbans and sheets and shoes with curled toes, and he listed all the hackneyed gimmicks of his own that even the smartest mark wouldn’t remember. The Shah, The Ra, The Beast from the Middle East. Killer fucking Kebob.
Killer fucking Kebob! Avo’s identity as a wrestler is limited to xenophobic Middle Eastern stereotypes. More importantly, the personas Avo must embody to make money lack ethnic specificity. The implication is that Avo’s nationality is irrelevant to an American audience. It is understood in Avo’s many gimmicks that he is foreign and exotic, but there’s no reason to look further once he is marked as some vague and menacing character from somewhere else. In this way, Avo’s Armenian identity is erased. He vanishes into a convenient typecast role. Again, this is not unique to fiction written by diasporan Armenians.
Yet, ethnic ambiguity among the population of millions of Armenian Americans remains an onerous consequence of the Armenian Genocide today. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that displaced Armenians reacted in varying ways to intolerance in the United States and other countries. In the twentieth century, many Armenian immigrants fought socially and legally for assimilated whiteness. Others found peace in ethnic enclaves that allowed them to hold onto their culture and were (and in some cases remain) suspicious of outsiders, especially when it comes to marriage and having children. Over multiple generations, languages, cuisine, music, literature, and other cultural touchstones were widely lost. The well-founded concern many diasporan Armenians have about the survival of their culture can result in its own kind of xenophobia, racism, and intolerance, especially against queer, multiracial, and multiethnic Armenians.
At times, I feel very much like a fraud in Armenian American literary circles, in part because I am half Polish and in part because outside of my family’s cooking, I’ve never held much connection to the ethnic culture. I didn’t attend the church or Armenian school or learn the language. I can’t even pronounce my own first name with the same inflection used by many of my Armenian friends and colleagues. It’s difficult to know what aspects of my ethnicity to perform, to hold onto, to pass on when I have children, and to keep alive at all costs, because so much work has been done over more than one hundred years to eliminate my connection. This dilemma only becomes more complicated when Americans attempt to define a diverse diasporan population in general terms. It’s an oversimplification I even find myself falling into on occasion; for example, wondering how any Armenian Americans could vote for Donald Trump and hope for him to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide during his presidency, even while he advocates white supremacy and maintains a tendency toward other forms of genocidal rhetoric. Sometimes I have to remind myself that, sadly, even some of my Armenian relatives are red-hat Republicans.
Frequently subject to misreadings, Aram Ghoogasian’s article, “How Armenian-Americans Became ‘White’: A Brief History,” illuminates how these misconceptions have played out over decades. Ghoogasian explores the early twentieth-century legal precedent that excluded Armenians from being defined as Asiatics and thus allowing them naturalization in the United States. In the TL;DR era, that’s about as far as many readers get, ignoring the author’s thoughtful considerations of the social and legal aftermath. Ghoogasian concludes, “As whiteness itself is continually being defined and redefined by ever-shifting frontiers, so too is the racial position of the hundreds of thousands of Armenians living in contemporary America.” That switch can happen as fast as being asked where are you really from? or how to pronounce your name. Avo’s willingness to repeatedly play his lone assignment reveals the limited say he has in the matter. The math is simple. Avo has to adhere to a set of deleterious gimmicks to stay in the game.
While Mina is on a train where she happens to bump into ASALA revolutionary Monte Melkonian, she reflects, “Dwelling on history was a luxury reserved for people who didn’t have present demands… Armenians at home talked about the Genocide, but they didn’t live in it, and they certainly never plotted—beyond drunken what-ifs—to avenge it.” In this situation, unknowingly, Mina and Monte occupy polarized viewpoints. It’s unreasonable to expect a singular approach to historical recognition and current events—not to mention the unbearable weight of being dubbed a global conscience. On April 24, 2021, Joe Biden became the first sitting US president to make a statement formally acknowledging the events of the Ottoman era as genocide, concluding, “The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the Genocide that began one hundred and six years ago today.” I was surprised and grateful that the president recognized the intergenerational continuation of these events due to Turkey’s ongoing denial, disinformation, and erasure.
Even a relatively unknown writer like me has faced this denial firsthand. After publishing an earlier essay at The Rumpus about Turkey’s history of suppressing Armenian Genocide films, the department faculty at Florida State University—from where I recently was awarded my PhD—received a lengthy letter from a representative of the Federation of Turkish American Associations that branded me a liar and a racist, requested my expulsion from the university, and compared me to the Ku Klux Klan. A similarly malicious note was sent from the same source to hundreds of CNN employees after Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of “Parts Unknown” in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in 2018. Bourdain’s visit to the latter region resulted in his being blacklisted from the Turkic Republic of Azerbaijan. There are dangerous consequences in documenting a violently suppressed history. For the record, my department faculty offered kindness and support, but the experience troubled me so much that months later during a campus visit at another university for a tenure-track position I felt compelled to ask how they imagined their administration would respond in a similar situation. This kind of thought process is not uncommon among my peers. Many of the Armenian writers and journalists I know joke about being on a blacklist. Writing about the Armenian Genocide in any published capacity means taking on an inherent risk of contestation, accusations of spreading falsehoods, death threats, and other harmful repercussions. Whether writing fiction, creative nonfiction, or journalism, it can also mean being pigeonholed into following a specific narrative pattern. The death marches, the lakes full of rotting corpses, the unfathomable number of bodies, the displacement, the new life found in Connecticut or California or Michigan, the triumph of survival on American soil, has proved to be a commercially successful formula, laid out on the page front and center again and again and again.
Early in The Gimmicks, Ruben reflects on one of the stories he heard from Genocide survivors: “the Turks torched Armenian villages to the ground. For the survivors, there was enough time only to save some of what was being destroyed, and some chose to save historical records rather than the children being burned alive inside. Life could begin again, went the thinking, but the history, once lost, would be lost forever.” It’s a fucked-up parable, a logic I can’t fully wrap my head around, but one that speaks to the profound trauma of real-time erasure. The Ottoman government enacted comprehensive systems of denial as the Genocide occurred and have expanded revisionist history for more than a century.
I frequently imagine the range of diasporan Armenian stories that could fully emerge without the weight of this constant context. What would it mean to not commit a third of the word count to echoing the same statistics and historical events? How much trauma can the writer be spared by not having to spend chapters in the horrific details of rape and torture and mass murder? I believe McCormick’s novel is the first hint at that evolution, of conveying the bloody history without dwelling in it, respecting the past and moving forward, of undressing the gimmicks and laying them bare in hopes of moving beyond them. Peroomian argues, “Literary representations of the Armenian Genocide will continue to shape the understanding of this unresolved injustice for generations to come.” I have no doubt that is true, but shouldn’t it be as important for those representations to speak to the multitude of present injustices, and to show the beautiful complexities of Armenians scattered across the globe today?
The Gimmicks ends on a joke: “Nothing phony about me, said the real one. Nothing real about me, said the fake.” What’s clear is that neither Ruben nor Avo are fully certain where their true character ends and their performance begins. They imagine that there are right and wrong ways to be Armenian. Ruben prioritizes the authentication of his heritage over the wellbeing of himself and those who he loves; Avo wears his heart on his sleeve but can never make total sense of who he wants to be and who others tell him to be. For both, the consequences of this identity confusion and lack of closure from their country’s tragic past alters the trajectories of their entire lives. To say the past is in the past ignores the abundant ways it controls their lived experience. What could it mean for them to be free from the burden of representation? What would it mean for them to live in the light of recognition?
Rumpus original logo art by Mina M. Jafari.
We Are More is an inclusive space for SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) and SWANA diaspora writers to tell our stories, our way. Curated by Michelle Zamanian, this new column seeks to disrupt the media’s negative and stereotypical narratives by creating a consistent platform to be heard, outside of and beyond the waxing and waning interest of the news cycle. We’ll publish creative nonfiction, graphic essays, fiction, poetry, and interviews by SWANA writers on a wide variety of subject matter. All prose submissions should be between 1500-5000 words. Poetry submissions should include 4-8 poems for consideration (up to 12 pages). Please inquire for interview guidelines. Submissions should be sent to [email protected] with author’s name and title/genre of work in the subject line.