Taleen Mardirossian sits on the beaten-in black couch in the Writing Office next to me. Having had the privilege of having her in my nonfiction workshop last spring, I have read pieces of her writing about her travels, femininity, girlhood, and both Armenian and American cultures. She has a unique warmth— both on the page and in person. Genuine, brilliant, and startlingly present, her dark hair tumbles down her shoulders, while she sits crossed legged, dressed in dark denim and boots. I have never seen her dressed in anything else. Her smile and her deep brown eyes signal that she is open and ready to tackle whatever inane questions I blurt out— seeing as this was an impromptu idea. A column about women? Women writers? Who knows. I’m the Columns Editor and I can do what I want. Thankfully, she’s game. She’s always game and ready to take on anything with a smile on her face.
Ultimately, I want to know how she identifies. A writer? An artist? A writer and an artist? And how does her personal identity correlate or cause her to reject such titles? This is an entirely selfish project because I feel illegitimate in everything I do— so I want to be inspired by the women around me. And those women are women who write.
I want to start with your background. Where you’re from, how you identify, your life story. That’s such a big question to start with: “Who are you?”
We both laugh
I’m an excellent interviewer.
Okay, so I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My parents are both Armenian but they were born in the Middle East and my mother grew up in France, so our home was always full of languages and a mix of cultures but I identify as Armenian-American, lately more American. I come from a large Armenian family so my upbringing was very much Armenian but living in New York City has definitely helped me connect more with the American part of my identity.
So LA until you moved here. LA and New York are such completely different worlds.
They’re generally very different cities. But for me, culturally, it’s another level of different. Because there [LA] everyone is around all the time, and here, I have nobody.
Did you feel lonely here? Or was it a welcome change—
It was a completely different lifestyle. I missed being home with my parents and brothers and cousins and friends but I did also enjoy the alone time because I never had it. Writing is an isolating experience, and not in a bad way. I’ve been forced to spend time with myself. I’ve never had that before. And I’ve been learning a lot about myself. I find it hard to be lonely in New York City. I walk out of my building and there are people everywhere, at any given hour. And I have some really incredible people in my life.
In terms of process, what do you primarily write?
I write about displacement, languages, silence, break ups… There’s a painting at the Met that I’m mesmerized by. I’ve written about that. I write a lot about women– the ones that came before me, ones I’ve met while traveling. I write about the stories that I’ve come across that I’m afraid are going to get lost. I think I’ve placed a priority on those stories.
But then there are the pieces I write for myself— I try to write about why I’m writing about certain things. Like for workshop, we can write anything. So when I finish a submission, I ask myself, why did I write about this? And what part of this story did I leave out? And why did I leave it out? By self-interrogation, I try to figure out how my mind works— to understand myself.
So would you say that you write to discover yourself?
I’m the same way, which is why I ask. I don’t know how I feel about anything until I write it.
Lis [Harris] once told me something like, “If you don’t want to get over something, then keep talking about it. But if you want to get over it, then write about it.” I think she’s right.
Do you identify as a writer, and if so, what was your process of identifying as a writer?
I think I’m using writing as my tool to get past my silence or at least allow silence to be my choice. So Rebecca Solnit— I read her books all summer— There’s a section about silence in her book, “The Mother of All Questions.” Her method of deconstructing silence within her own text allowed me to use the same method to deconstruct my own silence. I come from a culture that rewards silence, especially in women. I’m very aware of this so when I read her work about silence, I was like okay: why do I keep silent, what do I keep silent about. And it’s become a habit ever since.
That’s a bomb-ass answer. So, you discovered that you are a writer through working through your silence.
It’s easier for me to write words than to speak them. I like talking, I talk a lot, but rarely about things that are personal.
Well you can be silent while writing, too.
I love that. The act of writing is often done in silence but it has the potential to disrupt that silence. I guess the same could be said about reading. It’s done in silence but every page is an opportunity to disrupt what we think we know or believe.
When I write, I feel like I black out. And sometimes I wonder if that’s the sign of a writer— it’s how you channel your energy and what you do in the silence.
This is embarrassing. I’m not sure I want to say this. But the first time I felt like a real writer was a few months ago. I was working on an essay and I really had to pee and usually that’s my excuse to take a break. But because I was so into what I was writing, I kept putting it off until I really had to go. And eventually, I couldn’t hold it anymore so I had to take my laptop with me— I was sitting on the toilet and typing for a really long time. I had a moment there where I thought maybe I am a real writer.
You went to law school. How did you already do a graduate degree and then decide to also do an MFA?
Writing was always my passion. If you ask my mother she’ll tell you that my third grade teacher, Mrs. Jackson, pulled her aside one day and told her “Your daughter’s going to be a writer”, because every writing assignment I had I would keep writing and writing and writing. I recently found an essay I wrote in her class. I had written about what it feels like to be someone’s shoe. And I couldn’t stop thinking about why I’d even think to write that. But– law school– I don’t think I ever thought about going to law school. It was just something I knew I would do. Perhaps because I thought I’d make a good lawyer or perhaps I did it for my parents. But even in law school classes, I was writing stories, praying I wouldn’t get called on.
Did you practice?
No, not really. I worked at the District Attorney’s office throughout most of law school. And then, after I passed the Bar Exam, I worked in the entertainment industry until I realized it was writing I wanted to pursue. And then, I came here.
It’s also never bad to have a law degree.
Not bad at all and I think it’s a great source of relief for parents struggling with kids who want to be artists. My parents have been really supportive but part of them must think I’m impulsive. But they have some sense of security in thinking, well if she wakes up tomorrow and wants to be an attorney, she can!
You did everything in the way you were “supposed to”—
Until I didn’t.
But you’re still doing it— you’re still pursuing a prestigious degree while pursuing your dreams. I’m not worried about you, is what I’m trying to say. Not trying to belittle your choices— but you made the right choice.
Going back to LA my grandmother always tells me, “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to work (because I’m a woman). You could’ve been enjoying your life. What are you going to do when you finish this time? More school?” I always tease her and tell her med school is next on my list. I try to tell her that writing is what I want to be doing, that this is the happiest I’ve ever been. But I don’t think she believes me. So that’s hard. I’ve changed immensely here, but then I go back to a world that hasn’t changed— and that’s really hard.
Does it make you question yourself?
No. It makes me question other people. It’s surprising how little some people evolve over their lifetime.
So what is your process. Do you have a concrete one? I’m always impressed with concrete processes because I do not.
When I started at Columbia, I felt like I was doing everything wrong. I didn’t know if I was reading and writing the way I was supposed to and I felt like I needed concrete answers… How often do I write? Where should I write? What should I write? I went to all of my professors’ office hours, looking for answers on process— hoping that one of them would give me clear directions. It took me over a year to be okay with the fact that I don’t have one and maybe I never will.
I binge write, a lot. I go on really long walks. I always have a journal with me where I jot down words and names and places and random thoughts. I have a dozen google docs open simultaneously. Some have a sentence, or three paragraphs, or just a title— where it’s something I want to write but I don’t know exactly what I’m writing or what it will be, but it’s there. And initially I was told not to do that because it’s very confusing— having so many things happening at the same time— but it works for me.
I think that is so key— especially the people who say they get up at four and write every morning.
I don’t trust anyone who says that.
That is very validating to hear because I’m the same way. But I also feel like every panel or every writer wants to be prescriptive because they found something that works, but what works for one person may not necessarily work for another person. Do you write every day?
No, but I read every day.
That totally counts.
I think so too. Another thing I’ve realized is that writing is not just writing. It’s reading and walking and seeing friends and sitting on the train — although that could quickly become problematic because then you think everything you’re doing is writing, and at a certain point you actually have to write.
This party is totally writing!
See, that’s the beauty of non-fiction.
I think so too.
Is nonfiction your primary form? Or do you also write fiction, poetry, collage… paint.
I’ve recently been trying my hand at fiction and I’ve found it to be so liberating. It’s nice not having any constraints.
I have a question because I have a problem seeing my own legitimacy, so I want to know what you think. Do you view yourself as just a writer? Or do you view yourself as both a writer and an artist?
What do you mean?
Well, like, I’m a performer.
I don’t think I see myself as either, yet.
If you had to label yourself, how would you.
I never tell people I’m a writer. That must sound absurd considering I’m studying creative writing. But when do you get to call yourself a writer? Is it when you publish your first piece? Your first book? When you can make a living by only writing? Or is a writer anyone who writes in a journal everyday? Who’s a writer? I don’t know.
As an exercise, I asked our male colleague, ******* if he was a writer– he looked at me like I was bonkers. He immediately said yes without any thought because to him it is not even a question.
Of course he did.
Okay, but going back to the original question, how do you identify? Do you see yourself as an artist.
I don’t think I consider myself an artist.
But you consider yourself a writer— on the condition that someone deems you worthy.
When people ask me what I do, I say “I write.” I’m confident in saying I write, that’s the thing I do. But do I call myself a writer? No.
That is so interesting grammatically. You’re able to claim it as a verb but not a noun. And there’s something really nice about that: because it’s a verb there’s an action to it, whereas when you claim it as a noun it is stationary and stable.
Maybe that’s what it is. I love that. For some reason they’re two different things to me.
But maybe you don’t have to be a writer to write.
Then what am I? What’s the thing you say [to people]?
But maybe it isn’t about the elevator pitch. It doesn’t have to be an easy one sentence or one word qualification. I am saying this because I want it to be true about myself also. But I think it’s beautiful that you identify by what you do— with the verb, the action, of what you do.
Well, I didn’t know that until now. So thank you for interviewing me.
My pleasure. Would you say that having a community of writers, or people who write, is validating?
Yes. Yeah. And, again, back to silence, you’re forced to submit your work. Whereas in any other situation I would generally not share certain things, but I have to here because I have to be producing work. And then what happens is I have a group of six or seven or eight people who read almost everything I write. I’ll never forget– during winter break I emailed my workshop a personal essay, and when I got back to campus the next week, one of my classmates just came over and hugged me, really tight. I never had to talk to her about the issues I was grappling with because she already knew. She had read my piece. There’s a rare kind of intimacy that comes with being a part of this kind of community.
So would you say that this community has helped you grow as a person?
Yes and I’ve only been able to do that because it’s an exchange. Everyone here is doing it. Because we have to. It’s why we’re here. And that makes it easier.
The ways that being in different locations allows us to create or access different versions of ourselves is so interesting. Like, what is the more authentic version?
This is my auth— actually, I don’t know. Well. This is my authentic version— or at least the more open version because I can’t be this version in Los Angeles— is that the question? Am I on the right track?
I’m just riffing now, so yes, you are. I feel that way too. I dress differently, I speak differently, I do my make up differently when I am home. When I come back from California I cannot stop saying “like”, I have vocal fry. It’s hard for people to place where I’m from— I get NorCal sometimes— but I very much have worked hard to erase that person who existed in LA. So when I go back I have to contort myself in weird ways— and it’s only pressure I put on myself.
I get that. In some ways, I feel like I have to revert back to an earlier version of myself in Los Angeles. The women in my family are proud of me but I would never do something like smoke a cigarette in front of them because that’s not ladylike. It’s like they want me to be progressive without losing traditional expectations. It just doesn’t work that way.
That’s such a weird tension. It’s so specific to gender performance, where they want you to succeed and have the labels and degrees— but then when you actually start “acting like a man” that’s too much.
I have something to say about that. I think in many cultures and certainly in many families, the standard for women is so low– get married and have babies. If I did that, I would have succeeded. Whereas for boys, they’re expected to take over the family business, to make money, to buy a bigger house, a nicer car, to provide for their parents… Sometimes I feel like my success in having a higher education, in writing, is actually my failure because I didn’t do the only two things expected of me.
I’ve been thinking about DNA replication, and how certain genetic codes get mutated. It’s like you got most of the genetic code, but you are the mutation.
Yes! When I reached the point where I was deciding how and when I wanted to live, that’s when I started failing, in terms of cultural expectations— whoever’s expectations those are.
When do you think that happened?
I think it was a gradual thing— going to law school, working in criminal law, calling off an engagement, traveling alone, moving to New York City. It’s taken a while but I’m living for myself now.
I am still stuck on the verb versus the noun… I hope you never identify as a writer.
Maybe I won’t. If I had something published in a magazine tomorrow, I don’t think I would consider myself a writer because then I have to write a book. And if I write a book, well maybe I need to write two books. Or maybe I need to commit to a lifetime of writing books. Maybe it’s my own way of constantly pushing myself— to not call myself the only thing I want to be.