Rahul Varma on STATE OF DENIAL

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State of Denial: In memories of grandmothers who lived to tell

State of Denial is about Sahana, a Turkish Muslim woman in her nineties, who has devoted her life to assisting Armenian survivors of genocide, and about Odette, a twenty something Rwanda-born Canadian filmmaker, who travels to Turkey to investigate stories of genocide.

In 1988, while I was directing a play called Equal Wages, an agitprop about the age-old problem of lower wages for women compared to men – an Armenian actress Nadia Agopyan asked me, “so when are we going to do a play about Armenian genocide?” I must confess that I knew little about it even though I thought I was well aware of world events. The Armenian genocide was not taught in schools and the media did not talk about it. Nadia’s words stayed with me. She challenged my ignorance, as well as reminded me what the Diaspora remembers of their past and how their past shapes their present and future in Canada.

Six years ago, I got involved in Prof Steven High’s remarkable research called Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by Genocide, War and Other Human Rights Violations. This research project had over 50 community partners and 7 working groups such as Cambodian, Holocaust, Rwandan, Oral History and Performance etc. There was no Armenian working group. Teesri became part of the Oral History and Performance working group headed by Ted Little who is also the Associate Artistic Director of Teesri as well as the editor of the company’s theatre quarterly alt.theatre – Canada’s only journal dedicated to cultural diversity and the stage. As a part of the Oral History and Performance working group Teesri organized a public event called Untold Histories in 2008. Artists from South Asia, Iran, Armenia, the African continent and from the First Nations presented their stories through spoken words, dance, music and films. The seeds of State of Denial were being sowed as I heard the stories and testimonies of survivors and exiles.

But to write a play based on these testimonies or stories, I had to take into account several issues: (a) is the story new and untold, (b) what does it mean to the subject of the story and the storyteller and (c) what does it mean for society?

It was in one of my conversations with an Armenian scholar and friend Hourig Attarian that I was made aware of Fethiya Çetin’s recently published memoire in which her grandmother revealed an untold truth – a truth that changed everything Çetin knew about her grandmother. That revelation didn’t only tell Çetin how her grandmother survived genocide but who she actually was and who she eventually became in order to live. Why did this grandmother keep silent for such a long time? What did breaking this silence mean to her personally and publically? Listening to Hourig I froze. She asked me, “What happened?” I said, “I just got an idea for the play.”

I titled the play Unusual Battleground, which later became State of Denial. Now it was time for me to tell my friend Nadia Agopyan that I hadn’t forgotten her question to me.

Now the question was if it will be this grandmother’s story or a story inspired by her? I knew her story must be told but, by telling her story, what message would I be giving to many others whose stories are not told? Are they not also important? What if there are those amongst us who fear telling their stories in order to protect their privacy and families left behind. I also had to think about who has an appetite to hear these difficult stories and testimonies? Finally, I had to figure out how the story could be best told: documentary, autobiography, fiction, plot-driven, reenactment, or in some other form?

I shy away from biographical, “personal,” and documentary plays, not because I want to undermine their values but because I prefer to go beyond biography and the personal. My goal as a playwright is not to present mere reality but to reveal a truth and instigate further inquiry. That is why my earlier plays such as Bhopal and Truth and Treason, although based on true historical events, were plot- driven fictional plays. Taking the same approach, State of Denial, although inspired by a grandmother’s story, is not a biographical docudrama. It is a fictionalized multi/intercultural play about a global historical event expressed locally. State of Denial explores the truth behind historical events, in this case genocide and war, in which female bodies were used as the battleground for sexual abuse and gendered violence. It became a play about hidden identity, silence, survival and the need to counter denial. It became a play about a recurring yet relatively unaddressed theme.

I am a playwright of color and I am uncomfortable with the dominant culture’s understanding of cultures other than their own. The dominant culture resists recognizing that the 20th century was marked by mass migration of people from the countries they were born in, to some other country where they live now. And now that people have moved here, the social challenge of the 21st century is to do things in ways that will allow everyone to get along with each other. You walk down the streets of Montreal and you cannot ignore the cultural diversity in every walk of life. Yet, the artistic richness of diversity is unmistakably absent from our stages. Quebec’s perception is that multiculturalism is a way for ethnics to sustain their traditions, orthodoxy and reminisce about the past. To a small extent that may be true, (don’t the Anglo-French cultures do the same?) – after all, multiculturalism is a way to tell stories of cultural minorities that have not been told.

For me, multi and interculturalism are inseparable and constitute the aesthetic basis of modern playwriting. This fact is reflected in the State of Denial, which extrapolates events of the Armenian genocide of 1915, (which is still contested by some) with the Rwandan genocide of 1994-95. It is the potential of multiculturalism that a global issue is told as a local story because it is told through the experiences and memories of the Diaspora now living in Canada. State of Denial is not a documentary but an imagined play consisting of multiple personal stories woven into one and told through characters that come from different continents. I read many books and biographies of survivors from Armenia, Rwanda, South Asia and the Balkans, and I spoke to their descendents now residing in Canada.

The challenges of going beyond the personal are many. How do we challenge a personal story without offending the person whose story it is? How do I contrast a personal story of a survivor with that of her oppressor who is not approached to speak? What do we do when the cultural sensitivity of a story would not permit any discussion of class, gender, nationality and other determinants? It is therefore, that I have opted for an imagined plot rather than a biography. I have gone beyond the personal but the personal and political are inseparable. In State of Denial, I have tried to tell not one but a composite of personal stories in the hope that it will connect the audiences to larger causes, new questions, and appropriate social action...

Writing a play about genocide, war-rape, sexual humiliation, and ethnic cleansing, I must admit that I can’t comprehend what possesses men to unleash such horrific crimes, and I am more bewildered when I see that the world knows about it and does little. All I can say is that in the face of such shameless denial, awareness is our only hope. As one of the survivor said, “When I was in the camp, I just wished I would die. But I kept thinking of all those who didn’t survive to speak afterwards. I lived to tell the story.

– Rahul Varma

March 2012

Rahul's bio on the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia.

Anam Siddiqee