In Everything I See Your Hand
Review by Carrel Barber
University of New Orleans Press
Publication: June 2022
The Predestined Fiction of Naira Kuzmich
There is an Armenian belief known as jagadakir which translates literally to “the writing on the forehead” and it is the idea that one’s destiny is predetermined and therefore for the world to see. This superstition lives in the protagonists of Naira Kuzmich’s short story collection titled In Everything I See Your Hand. They are Armenian-Americans who struggle with dispossession, domesticity, and generational differences. They wonder about exile and the difference between leaving the motherland vs. leaving one’s mother while chasing grander things in far away places.
A better life in America, education at faraway universities, and even love in marriages to foreigners. These are people who struggle with the belief that the story of their lives have already been written and the only possible escape from that destiny is through death or departure. Kuzmich writes with power and precision that influences both her characters and her readers to see the beauty of this fleeting life’s pain and forces one to reckon that they must go on despite the hurt.
All ten of the stories in this beautiful, haunting collection take place in the “Little Armenia” neighborhood in East Hollywood, California. These are immigrants and the children of those immigrants who fled to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s. The stories are all influenced by Kuzmich’s own experiences and she uses this honesty to portray deep truths about Armenia, America, and what it means to be an Armenian-American.
Several stories live along the blended borders of the motherland and the new land of America. One in particular, “Woman Amid Ruins” leaves a deep impression on the reader. It tells the story of Zara, the lone child survivor of the 1988 Armenian earthquake in the town that was its epicenter, Spitak. While the story is literally taking place in the bedroom of Zara and her new husband, it bounces between time and place with fluidity. She is processing her trauma and her life and how her destiny has led her to America. Having been the lone child survivor in town left Zara with a feeling of both that she was special, and that she had somehow cheated her destiny. This leaves her searching for answers that led her across Armenia, in the arms of different men, and finally to America. Zara’s desire for answers for her self-fulfillment culminates in an interaction with a former lover of hers, a painter. Zara asks, “Can you paint my face,” because “what she wanted to see was her forehead, just to see what was written there, once and for all” (Kuzmich 35). This is a woman who lost her connection to her family and her ancestry and is yearning for cultural identity and assurance.
While some characters are searching for the culture and heritage, others are tired of the constant reminders of the tragedies that have followed their people. The Soviets. The earthquakes. The genocide. It never seems to end and the protagonist of the final story, “Transculturation, or: An Address to My American Lover”, is tired of it. While her lover is trying to learn as much about her culture as possible, from learning facts such as the number of people who died in the Spitak Earthquake (over 60,000) to how to say “I love you”. This desire that he has wears on the protagonist despite the good natured intention behind it. Ultimately though, she doesn’t appreciate it. She knows
“that there is nothing more to my people than tragedy. That this is what you see every time you look at me. That this is what is written clearly on my forehead. Don’t you dare go giving me another reminder, lover. I have enough.”(Kuzmich 176)
The deep truths that this story and it’s protagonist talk about range from cultural touchstones such as the duduk or famous Armenians. She treats everything as it is, most powerfully the blank page that represents her thoughts on the Genocide. The white space a gut punch that Armenians must feel whenever it becomes the topic of conversation. This protagonist and her forehead represent more than just her personal destiny, but rather the history of her people. While it is bold for an author to speak for an entire culture, Kuzmich brings us outsiders into the fold of the Armenian-American world in which she was raised.
Jagadakir plays a large role in this collection, as the word forehead is found 14 times across the ten stories. One story in which it is not mentioned, is perhaps the most eerie and predestined of the bunch. This story in the opener, titled “Beginning Armenian”, follows a young woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer in her twenties. Kuzmich herself was diagnosed with lung cancer in her twenties and lost her battle at 29. Heavy is the head that wears the crown bearing representation of their culture, and Kuzmich wore that crown above her destined forehead with pride and a sharp eye.
Kuzmich was searching for more meaning in her work and felt it is what counted above all else according to her mentor and friend Josie Sibara, who wrote the introduction to the collection. This meaning centered on the idea of continuing on the beautiful tragic journey that is life despite all of the roadblocks and signs telling you to give up. A lesson that we all need to be reminded of. Kuzmich made sure her characters never lost hope and through the page it is palpable that she never did either.
In Everything I See Your Hand is available now from University of New Orleans Press.
About the reviewer:
Carrel Barber is an MFA student at Florida State University where his focus is in fiction. His work has appeared in Big Bend Literary Magazine and Poetica. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and occasionally obedient dogs.