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Literature-­Based Image-­and-­Text Forms This page intentionally left blank 19 Peter Najarian’s Illustrated Memoirs ​ “‘The Terror of Our History’ and a Love That May Redeem It” Peter Najarian creates illustrated memoirs—autobiographical narratives in book format that incorporate drawings, paintings, and photographs. Words and images are arranged as an assemblage, with images serving to evoke memories, visualize musings, generate moods, or reference art history. “The past,” William Faulkner claimed famously, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” Personal and collective experiences, especially the trauma of genocide, haunt the present moment. In the form of memories, the past may erupt into the present, insinuate itself into consciousness, and destabilize seemingly constant subjectivities. Although artists and writers of all eras grapple with the inescapable burden of inheriting a violent past, those from the late twentieth century seek it out—as if facing it, outing it, naming it, representing it can redeem the painful legacy of their fathers and mothers. Peter Najarian examines in image and text the nature of memory and history and insists on an intense engagement with the wrongs of the past as part of a process of self-­ formulation. Like most of the other writers and artists discussed in this book, Najarian thematizes the collision of personal history with world history. Through the process of showing and telling in a variety of visual-­ verbal modes, he represents his family’s legacy of violence in an effort to testify to it and redeem it. Najarian’s illustrated memoirs are the least experimental hybrid autobiography discussed here, but unlike conventional autobiographies, in which images, if included at all, are designed to illustrate or support the text, in Najarian’s memoirs the drawings, paintings, and photographs are in a complex dialogic relation with the text. Sometimes the images serve as commentary on, sometimes as counterpoint to, the text and its imagery; and sometimes the images function as part of a visual-­ verbal field, generating a mood more than a specific point. Overall, Najarian ’s image-­ texts create a resonant network of memory, experience, and imagination. With his unique interartistic sensibility, Najarian filters the story of his Armenian American family and community through Western art Literature-Based Image-and-Text Forms 20 and literature. Engaging a long history of literary and artistic aesthetics, Najarian thematizes his process of looking. At times, Najarian’s looking is acquisitive or penetrating—a version of the classic male gaze that consumes, rapes, or dominates that which is observed. At other times, Najarian becomes the expansive Whitmanesque eye/I that absorbs everything he sees into a transcendental unity. In constituting his personal and collective history, Najarian relies on a process of refiguration and assemblage ; he reimagines the people in his life filtered through canonical Western art, and he brings together heterogeneous connections between his text and images. Peter Najarian was first a writer and later became a visual artist. As both a textual and a visual storyteller, he interrelates image and text to tell his story. In all his writing and artwork, Najarian tells and retells one complex , multilayered tale: the tragic loss of his family during the Armenian Genocide, his mother’s incredible escape and new life as an immigrant in the United States, his profound sense of alienation and deep longing to return to an Armenian homeland that no longer exists, and his all-­ consuming desire to capture the fleeting moments of life and the elusive essence of beauty, often symbolized for him as Woman or Art. A tragic futility permeates these interrelated narratives: the perfect woman is never found; the past is never clear; the line or color or shape in art or language is never adequately sublime; and the return home is never possible . Everything is fleeting; only death is inevitable. Even so, Najarian returns, again and again, to his search for woman, beauty, art, and home, looking to art and literature for models and documenting his journey in text and image. Najarian’s obsession with this hero’s journey meshes perfectly with what James Olney described as “the very emblem of our time”: “an agonized search for self, through the mutually reflexive acts of memory and narrative, accompanied by the haunting fear that it is impossible from the beginning but also impossible to give over” (xiv–­ xv). Furthermore, inspired, in part, by Armenian American painter Ar­ shile Gorky (1904–48), Najarian suggests that it is only through litera­ ture and art that he can maintain a link, however tenuous...


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