Photograph: © Steve Young Photography
WRITING FOR HOPE
By Naneh V H
Naneh lives in Warwickshire, England with her husband and daughter. She aspires to share the unique, over-looked and nearly-forgotten stories of people caught up in the historic collapse of the Soviet empire, who had suffered a trauma living in a totalitarian state and couldn’t adapt to the new political and economic realities. Naneh writes essays on loss and grief, on parenthood and social change and her latest inspiration, while she writes her memoir, is Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ You can connect with Naneh on Twitter @Naneh_V_H
English is my second foreign language. My mother tongue is Armenian. Born and raised in Soviet Armenia, I grew up also fluent in Russian, the lingua franca of the Soviet empire.
During my school years, throughout the 1980s, I loved reading and wrote short poems and essays in Armenian and Russian. Nothing like Arax, however. She, my articulate classmate, was a phenomenal writer in my eyes. Once, in her primary school composition, she likened clouds to white horses in the sky! Hearing it read out loud to the class as an example, by our teacher, I clearly remember feeling envious and wishing I had written that.
My writing skills were honed in the field of journalism, in independent Armenia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, while studying Arabic at university, I needed to earn money for my tuition fees, so an arts correspondent’s vacancy in a paper sounded like the ticket: I got to interview prominent cultural figures and learn a lot. Then came TV and radio, where for five years afterwards, almost daily, I prepared and presented youth, travel and music shows, working with text and language, in Armenian and Russian, and loving it.
But it was a convoluted and agonising road to being at home in English.
I emigrated to the UK as a twenty-something year-old and worked in Central London, in culturally-diverse offices full of smart people. All throughout, I had one goal in mind: to tell the stories of people that I grew up watching and loving and whom I’d left behind. I wasn’t sure how I’d do that but I was always aware of this: I was heavily influenced by the cataclysms that preceded the break-up of the Soviet Union and the agonisingly difficult early days of independence, for us post-Communist societies generally, as well as for my family specifically.
What is note-worthy is that none of the assets I’d developed spurred me on to write, but a tragedy did. Neither my voracious reading in English, nor my UK postgraduate degree, nor my exciting social and professional life convinced me that I had something to say.
What made me sit down and string sentences together was the catastrophic loss of my son, the devastating, sudden cardiac death of my healthy and happy four-year-old. Writing some months after, was a sorting exercise for me: a way to give meaning to his life and make sense of his death. Neither are final, of course, but the process uncovered so much material that it became a way of accessing my attitude to life as a whole, and not to grief alone.
I believe that artists, including writers, in the main, have an internal conflict to solve. Sharing your pain about it is a courageous act, but also a rewarding one, for it bonds people by revealing our common humanity.
So, in looking for hope in my darkest hours, I came full circle to arts and culture, and to language as a way of understanding. These days, as well as working part-time as a community centre manager, where I write press releases and promotional articles, I do freelance creative writing.
I interview immigrants like myself, or interesting artists, such as the conductor of Stratford’s Orchestra of the Swan. I write blog contributions in English and Armenian, like the ones for Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and www.Arevelk.am news site.
My experience of pitching - so far not so successful - to the UK national newspapers and magazines, is that you need to know HOW to approach them, how to sell your story. Where does one learn this sort of savvy?
As a developing toastmaster, I love writing public speeches. I’ve spoken at Ignite Liverpool and at Nursery World Awards for the national charity Home-Start. My work is about identity, belonging, culture and loss.
I eagerly send my non-fiction pieces to as many competitions as I can, having been long-listed for one and having had several encouraging reviews. Following my mentor’s advice, I’ve joined a couple of my local writing groups and read a piece on Stratford’s community radio. Next is reading at an Open Mic night: I love live events and hope I won’t be heckled! As a latecomer to the English-speaking literary world, I am enthused by the number of opportunities there are for new starters.
I get inspiration from other writers, from art, theatre, the media and other forms of human creativity. Then there is observing the world around me and reflecting on my experiences, as well as juxtaposing them with those of others around.
I view writing as a tool for living; it saves my sanity and keeps me rooted. Hence, for those reasons, it is, at times, obsessive and self-serving. However, ultimately, I view it as a professional project, and a long-term one at that.
My goal for 2018 is to finish my collection of largely autobiographical essays, in which I finally tell the stories of those I grew up watching and loving. I haven’t left them behind, after all.
Some years ago I started writing a short story. The inspiration came from my memories of first seeing my grandmother-in-law’s art studio. The story evolved as I wrote, with the studio based on reality but the characters all from my imagination. I was pleased with my effort but spent some time tweaking it. I read it out to my writing group and received very positive feedback. My tutor encouraged me to submit it to a competition.
I daydream about that ‘typical’ writing day often. Up early, four hours of serious prose, lunch, an afternoon nap, back for the editing … In reality, like most writers, my writing has to be fitted in around my money-earning job. There are days when I feel inspired (although on re-reading it’s often more like mania), and I write for hours at a stretch. But most of the time I need a bit of bullying. I belong to a group of writers who meet fortnightly to critique each others’ work.
Metal, smooth beneath fingertips. The turn of a handle, the squeak of a faucet. A stream of water flowing to life. Cold, slow to heat up, slower still to be hot. Quick to cool. A brief window. Narrower than the one on the wall, shut tight against the Colorado winter. Slipping out of a maroon sweater. Zipping out of stiff jeans. Bare feet on tile. Overgrown toenails. Pale body in motion, stirring the moonlight, mindful of windows. Neck to the left. Tongue to shoulder.