The Stories We Tell: Deported / a dream play by Joyce Van Dyke

26 Mar

We are the stories we tell. Using this title for an anthology of short stories by women writers, Wendy Martin explained in 1990 that she hoped the collection would give voice to the complexity of the female experience.  These narratives, she wrote, attest “to what has been silenced, repressed, and excluded in women’s lives.”  The stories insisted “on the importance of remembering our personal and collective pasts, [drawing] on memories, folk stories, legends, and dreams.”

Joyce Van Dyke. Photo from Deported /a dream play website

Joyce Van Dyke’s “Deported/a dream play” brings to mind Martin’s long out-of-print collection. Van Dyke tells a story often ignored, unknown, or repressed–the story of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1915. It is also her family’s story.

As every reviewer has noted, the play must be understood within the context of history. Briefly noted: In the early years of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire repeatedly massacred its Armenian citizens, culminating in 1915 with a genocide that included the mass murder of Armenian men and a forced death march of Armenian women and children. From the play’s website:

“Armenian men were rounded up and killed. The women and children were “deported,” a death march through the desert which few survived. In the summer of 1915, Varter Nazarian and Elmas Sarajian (called “Victoria” in the play) were among those deported with their children from the city of Mezireh in what is now Turkey.   Elmas had three children.  Varter had six, with another born to her on the deportation route.  The two women lost all their children on the deportation.  They eventually reached Aleppo where they remained until 1920.  In 1920 they boarded a ship together, bound for the United States.  In America each woman remarried and had another child.”

Though the play tackles a difficult subject, it is neither grim nor depressing.  “Deported” is, in fact, a story of finding the words to speak the unspeakable. There is both humor and pathos in the journey to these words.

Much as the narrative in Martin’s collection, Van Dyke’s “Deported” uses the telling of the story as an “emancipatory strategy,” both for her characters and her audience. Once freed from the cage of memory, we can all dream and hope for a future free of the hatred and fear that infuses Armenian-Turkish relations nearly a century after the genocide. Thus liberated, the survivors and their children can at last embrace their past as a part of their future. Exquisite, in both the beautiful and the painful senses of the word, “Deported” holds its own among the best of the American repertory theater that I have been privileged to witness. The acting is powerful and the staging elicits the perfect balance of memory and dream state.

From the perspective of her life in Rhode Island in 1938, California in 1978, and a microtopian future sometime around 2045, Victoria  struggles with her memories and eventually finds the words to tell her story. Varter’s ghost, and the memories of other Armenians and few Turks, facilitate Victoria’s journey to a place from which the words can finally flow.

The play opens in 1938. Victoria sits in her attic rehearsing a play and sewing a quilt. The arrival of her husband; a discussion of what their Jewish neighbors have lost in a devastating hurricane; and a radio announcement of Hitler’s progress in Europe trigger Victoria’s memories. She talks to Varter’s ghost of the children she lost–a starving baby put down behind a rock, a three-year old kidnapped at the same moment, his hand dropped “because it takes two hands to put a baby down.”  We sense Varter’s similar grief, but will only come to know her story later. Victoria’s ghosts include dancing villagers who signal the dream or memory sequences; Turks invading the town; an impotent U.S. consul; and husbands marched off to their deaths. Finally, there is the Turkish woman who offers to save the baby and raise it as her own. A neighbor, caught between her friend and her Turkish people, this woman appears many times, a foil to the idea that every Turk turned a blind eye.

Each time Victoria’s mind is taken over by the past we see the story unfold just a bit more.  Varter is always there. Finally, Varter convinces Victoria that she must tell the story to Shoshana, in California in 1978. A beautiful girl, Varter was married at age 14. She quickly bore her beloved husband six children, with a seventh on the way the night he was taken from her. The two women march with their 10 children when the Turks send them away. Victoria arrives in Aleppo with only one child. Varter arrives, later, alone. Over and over, Victoria and Varter lament about the three-year old lost because “it takes two hands to put a baby down,” reminisce about the rose bushes in Varter’s parents’ yard (over the years, Victoria remembers 30 varieties, then 70), and Varter insists that Mr. Nazarian was wearing blue silk pajamas with gold piping the night he was taken away. Details are repeated, with ever-so-slight differences, the memory playing tricks on us as time passes.

The story is devastating. As Victoria weaves her dreams, we grow to understand why she has never told their stories to a living soul, not even her second husband or her American-born daughter. When she is ready to finally speak, she must tell Varter’s story, and even her second husband Larry’s story, in order to finally arrive at her own.  Telling other stories seems to help cut through her own scars to get at the words.

A women’s story, “Deported” recounts an oral history comprised of the memories and truths of an unbearable moment in time. This is a truth that for so long the world has not wanted to hear. Moreover, the play teaches us, it is a story that its survivors have not been able to tell for myriad reasons. Like the quilt that Victoria sews, and the lace that Varter weaves, the story is, however, handed down to each generation, embedded in the very stuff that creates their lives.

One reason for withholding the story is both cultural and linguistic. Varter is told at her wedding that a Christian wife should be “silent and obedient.”  Victoria’s American Armenian husband Harry tells her the same thing at least twice.  Later, Victoria explains to Shoshana, a Jewish researcher collecting Armenian oral histories, that there was no word for “she” or “her” in Armenia.  English had come as a revelation to her, she says. The survivors of the Armenian genocide were largely women.  These female survivors were not able in their own language to tell their stories because, as Victoria seems to explain, they literally didn’t have the language to do so. Moreover, as good wives, they remained “silent and obedient.” Like an atrophying muscle, the more Victoria didn’t tell the story, the more she couldn’t tell the story.

Like many women’s histories (Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of History  and Silva Malagrino’s film Burnt Oranges come to mind), this is an oral history that ultimately relies on memories suppressed for decades. It weaves a history that joins and effects three generations of women. By the time the stories are told, the truths are immutable, but some of the facts may have shifted. In the microtopian future, when Victoria meets Mr. Nazarian again, he wears pajamas with no gold piping. As he passes, she asks, “Excuse me, Mr. Nazarian, but where is the gold piping on your pyjamas?” “Gold piping?” he responds, “Never had it,” and walks away.

Does the missing gold piping mean that Victoria has misremembered, or mistold, Varter’s story? No. But it does remind us that memory can be unreliable. That truth may not always be equal to fact. That certain details may be irrelevant to the essence of the story. And, finally, the navy blue pyjamas remind us that history belongs to the narrator.

The women’s handiwork, reappearing throughout the play, underscores the importance of women’s roles in the telling of stories and keeping of history: Like oral history, handmade lace and quilts are meant to passed from one generation to the next. They symbolize a passing of traditions and values, keeping their maker alive long after she has passed.  Varter notes that she knots her lace by hand and that the knots can never be undone. This story, told or untold, will always be part of the fabric of Armenian life. Once told, it becomes our responsibility to safeguard it as well.

Varter insists that Victoria name the children she lost on the death march. She does. And, she names Larry’s wife and his two children. Finally, slowly, she is able to name her own lost children. She saves the children by naming them, by ensuring that their memory will continue and will catalyze healing.

It bears noting that Van Dyke acknowledges throughout the play that the Armenian genocide is but one such atrocity that marked the twentieth century. Her grandmother’s story might be the story of a Jewish grandmother in Eastern Europe in the 1940s or a Bosnian Serb in the 1990s. But, the Armenian genocideisthe one the world has yet to acknowledge and to “authorize.” Van Dyke’s characters author it for us and in so doing give to the story an authority that is moving and memorable.

“What is the word for beyond? Beyond forgiving? Beyond forgetting? Beyond imagining? There is no word.” –Victoria in Joyce Van Dyke’s “Deported / a dream play.”

“Deported / a dream play” plays through Sunday, April 1 at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre in Boston.

 *****

I will admit that I had never heard of this genocide until I married a man who had taught for three months at the American University of Armenia.  Since he first told me the story, we have both noticed that it remains unspoken. There are many reasons for this–political, cultural, economic–none of which I will go into here. I’ve included below several links, suggested by the theatre’s website, to information about the genocide

*****
Full disclosure: my cousin Mark is one of the extraordinary actors who bring this play to life. Bravo, cousin!

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