Volume 68, Number 2 · Spring 2019

Naira, Fiercely: Remembering the Life and Work of Naira Kuzmich

Naira Kuzmich, whose essay “My Evil Grandmother Wakes” was part of Shenandoah’s relaunch in December, was an incredibly gifted writer and storyteller. Born in Armenia and raised in the Los Angeles enclave of Little Armenia, her work often explores complex familial histories—women’s relationships to one another, to religious and cultural traditions, and to the collision of cultural and personal priorities. It is honest, nuanced, passionate—her voice was completely her own and utterly necessary. Naira passed away in 2017, at the age of twenty-nine, from lung cancer. Her death was deeply felt by those who knew her, both in person and through her work. Her fiction and nonfiction appear widely in journals, so we thankfully still have access to some measure of her heart and intellect. And her words deserve a wider audience, the widest; we hope this retrospective will bring her voice to new readers. You’ll find links to her work online and notes from some of the editors who had the pleasure of working with her. But first, this beautiful remembrance from Josie Sigler Sibara, Naira’s mentor.

—Beth Staples

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I have no children of my own, but I imagine that upon giving birth a mother both recognizes her child as if they’ve always known each other and is shocked, too: the child is a mystery unfolding, belongs to herself as we all do. Naira was seventeen and in her first semester of college when she was randomly assigned to the rote and archaic composition course on topics in sociology for which I was, as I know now, lucky enough to be the teaching assistant. Naira revealed herself right away to be an exceptional student, the kind where you think: What am I going to do with her?

But it wasn’t until the final assignment, in which students presented essays on a subject of their choice, that I truly understood what I’d been given. When Naira began reading her piece about her mother’s hands, my breath caught in my throat, and I could feel the others holding theirs as well, stunned: we had been all along in the presence of someone whose power to evoke character and mood, whose ability to use language, was on the level of magic or miracle, a thing you believe only if you encounter it yourself.

I told Naira she had a gift. Perhaps she should take a creative writing course second semester. She was skeptical, did not quite believe me. I recommended a few novels that might help her along the way, let her take them home with her. A few weeks later, we met at a coffee shop near campus, and she asked if I would teach her to write the kind of stories she wanted to write. Although I wanted to do so, I said I wasn’t qualified. I wrote mostly poetry; she should have an experienced teacher who could truly honor her talent.

When I was done, Naira raised her palm and held it to the side as she replied—a gesture I would come to know well over the years and which meant: The rest of the world can believe what they will. But let us talk of what is real and cannot be compromised at the heart of this matter. She wanted me as her teacher. I had not known that finding the one to whom you are supposed to impart your wisdom, however frail or inadequate it might be, had a feeling associated with it: such recognition, such shock.

So began a decade of trying to learn enough about writing prose to stay ahead of Naira’s curve, no easy feat. Although she told me often how grateful she was, I don’t think she ever grasped the depth of my own gratitude: I knew she was teaching me as much if not more about writing than I was teaching her. She was hungry for knowledge, came to my office, and eventually, as we became friends, my home, with another question, another approach, another way to think about writing. Her stories grew more complex and nuanced, and she thought carefully about what she wanted to say and to whom. She was hard on herself, exacting, always believed she could have done better.

But it’s easy for me to talk of Naira the writer. You can find your own proof in her pages: she was brilliant and what she had to say was important and world-changing. It has indeed been one of my life’s greatest privileges to witness her growth as an artist. And I feel a chasm opened out into the years ahead that her stunning words would have filled. I regularly play her stories back, hoping they’ll echo there.

It is harder to write of Naira the person. For creative people, especially those who use the material of their lives in their work, the two are intertwined, so we sometimes forget that there is a self who hovers before the blank page, and she can never be written down. By herself or others. You know her only in flesh and blood and long hours spent talking, by how her hair flies in the wind when she’s standing on a cliff overlooking the sea in Ireland with the man she loves and is truly happy.

The blade to my heart is losing Naira, herself. Her thoughts, her dreams, the part of her that existed even outside the bounds of what we can know even about a fiercely-loved other, a concept that brings me great comfort now, as perhaps that part of a person we can never know persists most easily beyond death. Fiercely, she would say at the end of each of her letters. I love you fiercely. It was one of the last things she ever said to me. Had Naira taken up long-distance truck driving or lawyering halfway through the years we were given, I would have yet loved her as my friend, my sister, my child, one of my witnesses in this life.

Because she was my witness and her love was fierce, Naira made me want to become a person worthy of being in her presence. She understood how to love better than I did; she was my teacher in this regard. But this is not the after-the-fact realization of a grieving friend: Naira made sure everyone knew how important they were to her, how much each moment meant.

One night my partner and I were having dinner with Naira and Vedran in Chicago, and it started to snow. Naira, having grown up in Los Angeles, hadn’t seen much snow, although she had written of it in stories taking place in Armenia. She said, Let’s go! So the two of us left the restaurant and stood beneath a streetlamp and watched it swirling in that gold glow that also lit up her young face. She turned and embraced me then so sudden and tight I felt the shock, recognition: we were supposed to know each other. Thank you, she said. For everything. This is so beautiful.

When I read our correspondence from years ago or her final weeks, it strikes me that we were always having the conversations some have only when they know they will lose each other. Imagine that your words spoken to friends at the end of your life are only a reiteration of the love you have given generously throughout. Naira did this without even knowing it was incredible. And those of us who knew her, whether in person or through her writing, will spend the rest of our lives saying to her: Thank you. For everything. It was so beautiful.

—Josie Sigler Sibara

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On “My Dead Aunt Watches” (nonfiction), forthcoming from Black Warrior Review:

When I first came across Naira Kuzmich’s “My Dead Aunt Watches,” I read it straight through three times; each time more captivated by the harrowingly wistful language, more intrigued with the buoyant spirit carrying the narrative voice. Her essay reads like the exhale of a single breath, moving gently yet confidently through the tender, layered spaces of sorrows—present, past, and anticipated. Although her prose is heavily concerned with the body’s transience, it remains deeply embodied, hauntingly self-possessed. Naira’s work viscerally sucks you in, leaving you all too aware when you emerge of your own shared loss; the loss of the brilliant, wise woman behind the words.

—Nonfiction Editor Sarah Cheshire

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On “The Bargain-Shopper” (fiction), which appeared in the Adroit Journal in 2019:

I unfortunately never had the chance to meet or speak with Naira, but what a gift it has been to learn of Naira’s exceptional work. Her fiction lifts right off the page—and the piece I had the pleasure of publishing, “The Bargain-Shopper,” is no exception. Equal parts sincere and bold, Naira’s prose consistently surprises and delights. May we continue to give Naira’s words the time, breath, and life they deserve.

—Editor-in-Chief Peter LaBerge

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On “My Evil Grandmother Wakes” (nonfiction), which appeared in Shenandoah in 2018:

Every time I read this essay—and I have read it many, many times—I am surprised by Naira’s honesty, and by the complexity of her revelations. Naira wrote this when she was very sick with cancer, and her fear about the stress both she and her grandmother are putting on her mother as caretaker is palpable. But so is Naira’s strength. Even as her body falters, her mind—her intellect, her imagination, her compassion, her ability to notice and record, her willingness to assess complicated family dynamics—blooms. This short essay manages to meditate on writing, death, caretaking, dementia, duty, familial disconnection, shit, love—in a single breathless paragraph. I’m hard-pressed to think of a paragraph that offers as much profound grief, beauty, and candor as this one. Many sentences break my heart here, but the final image is so hopefully beautiful, I end the reading feeling amazed each time. Naira: a light turning on, always.

—Editor Beth Staples

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From “My Sister Paints” (nonfiction), which appeared in the Southern Review in 2018:

I blow on my fingers as she takes the old color from her toes, as she talks about regrets. She says, I wish before I got married I did more for Mom and Dad, that I did more for this house, that I took them on trips. She says, A woman can’t have it all, don’t they understand? I see my daughter a few hours a day; will she know who I am? She says, I don’t know why I’m crying and why I can’t stop. She says, Please let me wash your feet after your nails dry. It is a sunny day in California. The grape leaves above us are fairy-tale green, the shape of stars, and they cast their shadows on our colorless faces. Or maybe they, too, are too colorful. It’s hard to pick. Is it even a choice? To stay or to go? To fight or to die? I’m doing the best I can.

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From “Cadenza” (fiction), which appeared in Carve Magazine in 2018:

He told her to play on, play loudly, play wild and loud, play until string cut into skin, but her life was not like his life; it couldn’t end simply because music began, because music began to break the spell in the head that kept man standing upright, that kept his breathing measured, his mouth filling with words and only words.

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On “Garni-Geghard,” which appeared in Ecotone in 2017:

I was lucky to work with Naira on two essays for two different magazines (and alongside her, too, at Hayden’s Ferry Review when she worked as an international editor). We worked on edits together for “Garni-Geghard” after her diagnosis with lung cancer, and I was awed by her dedication to the work, the eloquence of her emails. Naira had a rare gift—the ability to understand complicated and conflicting human dynamics: in the characters she created, in her loved ones, in herself. She could render people on the page with acuity and compassion without sacrificing their complexity. In fact, by virtue of her incredible truthfulness, each character opens outward, exposed as something holy, something fierce. I always hope a piece of writing will expose a part of the world I haven’t seen before (literally, figuratively), will make me feel smarter and more conflicted and bigger-hearted than before. Naira’s work did that; her focus did not reduce the world, it expanded it. Each time I read her work, I want to read it again, immediately. I don’t want to miss anything.

—former Senior Editor Beth Staples

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On “Dances for Armenian Women,” which appeared in the Cincinnati Review in 2017:

Naira Kuzmich was the kind of writer every editor hopes to find. In a voice both lyrical and frank, she explored and challenged deeply evocative issues of culture, identity, and displacement, and revealed the beauty and pain of women caught between two cultures and, on a more personal level, the generational challenges within families as they navigate time and culture. How do we honor and treasure the past as we seek new identities in new lands and landscapes? Naira’s work was poignant, surprising, and fresh. We will never know the breadth and depth of what she might have written, but in the little time she had she has made her mark on the literary landscape.

—Literary Nonfiction Editor Kristen Iversen

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From “Hava Nagila” (nonfiction), which appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review in 2017:

Before I tell you about the strange night I danced to “Hava Nagila” in a bar in Berlin, I have to admit that I think about this night often, and I think about it on two different occasions. I think about it when I find myself at a loss for words, when I am confused about how to feel, what to do or say or think. A new horror on the news, and suddenly I picture myself dancing.

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From, “On Grief” (nonfiction), which appeared in the Massachusetts Review in 2016 along with this interview:

Allow me to speak to you about grief. On the eve of my grandfather’s death, my mother sat at the kitchen table, writing, because I could not. My poet daughter, she gutted. Where are your winning words? Grief lives on the tongue, yes, but I had swallowed mine long ago.

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On “The Kingsley Drive Chorus” (fiction), which appeared in Salamander in 2013 and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015:

“The Kingsley Drive Chorus” came to Salamander, as most of our contents do, through our online submissions manager, along with a flood of other stories and poems, at the beginning of our 2012 submission period. Looking back on the comments by readers and editors, it clearly stood out from the first read-through: “smart and deep,” one says, while the next says “the last line will shake any mother to the very core of her being.” We were thrilled to publish the story the following spring.

“The Kingsley Drive Chorus” is a story of the Armenian-American experience and the lengths mothers will go to for their sons. Using the first person plural, Naira Kuzmich tells the story of an entire community of women through the heartbreaking experiences of two mothers who are losing control over their growing sons. With rich cultural details, textured and complex characters, and devastating honesty, it pulls you in with its raw compassion until you, too, are a part of its chorus.

When it was republished in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, Naira Kuzmich gave a short explanation of the story in a “Writers on Their Work” addition. “This story was born out of love for the mothers of these boys”—the young, troubled Armenian men from her East Hollywood community—“women I had long admired and feared in equal measure. Because I was so young, there was much I was unwilling to ask these women and much they were unwilling to tell me. I was forced, then, to wonder. Now I still wonder, but also imagine. Now I write and try to empathize. Only now have I begun to understand.” What a gift this understanding was, and what a loss to feel its absence.

—Katie Sticca, Managing Editor, Salamander

In “The Kingsley Drive Chorus,” Naira Kuzmich used a first-person plural narration. Sometimes the collective voice is brilliant but sometimes it’s generalized and alienating. Naira’s skill and heart gave life to the observing and feeling “We” of her story. The devastating ending grabs the reader by the shoulders, asking, Now do you see who we are? Now do you understand what we’re saying? The loss of such a passionate writer at such a young age is disheartening. Who knows what she might have done if she’d been given more time?

—Laura Furman, Series Editor, The O. Henry Prize Stories

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From “Beginning Armenian” (fiction), which appeared in Arts & Letters in 2013:

Young women with breast cancer are treated aggressively. Doctors try to leave no chance for the human spirit to weaken, for it to play a part. They think that young patients aren’t as resilient, that they generally have not been tested. He recommended that I have my left breast removed. A mastectomy. The tumor clocked in at 1.96 centimeters, small enough to have a lumpectomy, a procedure that could’ve saved most of my breast tissue, but he didn’t want to risk it. Do you want to risk it, he asked. And what could I tell him—that a man had yet to touch that left breast with love, yet to stand quiet, in awe, of my body, at the foot of my bed? Of course not, I told him. Get rid of the whole thing.

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From “Eulogy for Rosa Garsevanian” (fiction), which appeared in Blackbird in 2012:

At her wedding, Liyanna had thrown a pomegranate onto the ground and watched it break into a thousand little pieces, as was the tradition in their gyugh. The seeds scattered and scuttled towards all the corners of her husband’s home—her home now, too, she had to accept—so that for weeks afterward, Liyanna would find them hidden underneath their bed, underneath the rugs, on the soles of her slippers. By the time the last seed was uncovered, she had learned that she was pregnant with Davit, and they had left the country shortly after. His child would grow up an American, Robert had said. Enough of their devastated little town and their backwards people. And back then, Liyanna had agreed with him about everything.

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From “In a Name” (nonfiction), which appeared in Guernica in 2012:

Like so many Middle Eastern and central Eurasian countries, Armenia appreciates the pomegranate. It is one of our formal symbols. I have always loved it. The hard shell, the bloody berries, how, when you cut it open just right, it resembles a starfish. Even the English word, pomegranate, seems so pretty on the page. I can write it over and over again.

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From “Exercise in Translation” (fiction) which appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly in 2012 along with this interview:

Mama sees life in bottom of coffee cup when I am just child. She says to me, Araxie, you have lonely heart. Girl like you will always be lonely. I am child, I don’t know what this mean, but I grow up. Everything grows, I will tell Carol. Belly, breasts, and I will touch breasts to show her. I will touch the way women touch. When I am old I find husband, and I am happy, not lonely, like mama says.

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On “Round Trip,” which appeared at The Rumpus in 2012:

I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Naira Kuzmich, and yet I feel like I know her intimately from reading her writing. In “Round Trip,” readers travel with Naira to the town of Plovdiv, in Bulgaria, where her grandfather may (or may not) have been born. With vivid, evocative language Naira describes what she sees and what see feels in the moment and then pushes further, considering what it means to belong to a place, to be from somewhere. Her spirit leaps off the page and fills the room—Naira’s words shine that brightly, seven years after this essay was published. We are deeply honored to have given a home to a small piece Naira’s literary legacy.

—Editor-in-Chief Marisa Siegel

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“On Fear and Writing” appeared in the Threepenny Review in 2012 and is available only in print.