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Taleen Voskuni on growing up not quite Armenian enough and not quite American enough

Taleen Voskuni on growing up not quite Armenian enough and not quite American enough

I was ten years old in swim camp being told by a friend that she’d rather call me by my middle name, Jenny, than my first name, Taleen. “It’s just cuter,” she said. In that moment I was so thankful for my white American middle name, that it was available to me when needed. Taleen was an easy name, I had always thought, it’s not like some Armenian names, Astghik or Dshkhuhi. And yet at doctor’s offices or extracurriculars, adults in charge could never seem to get it right on their first try. My friend’s comment was the final straw: when I was old enough I would change my name. Jenny 4 lyfe (this is how kids spelled in the ‘90s).

Meanwhile, at my Armenian school (which I attended from pre-K until 8th grade), my American last name stuck out like a sore thumb. I’m half-Armenian, marked forever without an “ian” last name, which nearly all Armenians have. But it didn’t end at my name, I also had trouble with the language.

My dad spoke only English and my mother worked a fast-paced job where everyone spoke English, so slowly over time my mother spoke more and more English to us as her default language (which I do not fault her for in the slightest), so my Armenian was never as natively strong as it was in some of my peers. The Armenian alphabet, so easy yet difficult with its thirty-eight characters, could still trip me up. I would be so embarrassed at myself when I was asked to read Armenian aloud in class since I was a near-perfect student in every subject, and yet an unknown Armenian compound word could bring me to my knees. I could never fully converse with my grandfather in Armenian the way I knew he wanted me to. I remember one time in response to a question I said, “ayo”, meaning “yes”, and he chastised me in Armenian. “You always say ‘ayo’ to every answer. You should switch it up, you can use ‘anshoushd’ sometimes too”. I still do that.

It took decades for me to realize it’s perfectly all right to not be 100% of anything, that many people, even the most Armenian, still might not feel like they fit in. There’s no specific Armenian legitimacy stamp. And of course, I realized how special it is to have any part of this Armenianness. That going to Armenian school, learning about the culture, speaking, reading, and writing (however badly) was all a good thing, not some hindrance to better fitting into American culture. That being both Armenian and American is who I am, that I have a unique outlook on life because of the duality of my ethnic identity.

Without it—and indeed, without my evolving feelings about my identity—I could have never been able to write my debut novel, Sorry, Bro, in which a woman falls back in love with her Armenianness (and a witchy Armenian woman). I replayed my own identity journey through the protagonist, as she grapples against her father’s expectations to fit into white American culture and fully embraces who she is.

Similar to my protagonist, it took me time, but now I know who I am. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Sorry, Bro – Taleen Voskuni’s #ownvoices debut rom com – is published by Pan on 2 February 2023

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