Liana Aghajanian is a Detroit-based journalist specializing in narrative storytelling and international reporting. Born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles, she came to the U.S. with her family as a refugee. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Newsweek and other publications. She is a winner of the Write A House residency, a program for writers in Detroit. Her project, "Dining in Diaspora," explores the intersection of forced migration, identity and cuisine, tracing the Armenian experience in America through food.
Over the past year or two, one reason I’ve become hooked on Twitter is because it gives me an opportunity to interact, joke, and engage with writers spread across the globe. This is how I first came in contact and fell in love with Liana Aghajanian’s work. Everything Liana publishes is meticulously researched, portrayed with utmost respect for the subject matter, and gorgeously written. I don’t think I know a writer who has as much hustle or works as hard to make a piece the best it can be. Over the phone, we talked about ethnic identity, moving to the Midwest, the issues with foodie culture, and journalism today.
This interview has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Aram Mrjoian: To begin, you’re a transplant to the Midwest, because you got this Write A House residency, which is really cool. I remember reading about it when it first began. Maybe that’s a good place to start. I know you’ve already written about it, but can you tell me a little bit about the experience of applying for this house in Detroit?
Liana Aghajanian: Well there are so many temporary residencies, but this program is unique in that it’s a permanent residency. There was an application process. I had heard of it the year before I applied, which was the inaugural year of the fellowship. I’ve always had an interest in coming to Detroit and learning about Detroit. A lot like L.A., where I grew up, Detroit is often misunderstood and maligned. It’s the kind of place you need to be in daily to understand the city and its complexity. I was a full-time freelance journalist, traveling between Los Angeles and other places I wanted to report from. Sometimes that was international. It was kind of a nomad existence in a way. I would spend maybe three months in L.A. and then three months in the U.K. or Germany or wherever my reporting would take me. I’d fund those trips with writing fellowships or reporting fellowships, so I really liked the idea of Write A House and applied thinking nothing would come of it.
When I was told I was a finalist, I decided that was good enough for me, to be worthy of being in this talented group of finalists from all disciplines of writing—fiction, poetry, etc. Later, I was actually in Mongolia for a reporting project on women and reproductive health in the capital, which is when I found out I’d won the house. It was so surreal. I ended up cutting my trip short to come to Detroit and accept the house.
A couple months after that, I moved in the dead of winter in February…
AM: Oh I’m so sorry.
LA: No it was okay! I had never been here. I’d never traveled here. I knew no one here. I moved without a lot of experience and didn’t really know anything other than what I’d read and explored. I didn’t have furniture. I just showed up with my suitcase and in some ways it was starting over. It was a place to keep coming back to that was my own. It’s been almost three years now.
AM: Do you think the Midwest has changed your perspective at all as a writer?
LA: Absolutely. If you’re from a place like California it’s very easy to get lost in that bubble without really understanding what the rest of the country is like. America isn’t fifty states; it’s more like fifty little countries. Being here has given me a chance to explore different perspectives, the history of the U.S., the history of immigration, and a place that is often talked about in the news in polarized ways. I’m so grateful I’ve had the opportunity to understand all of that, because I wouldn’t have if I’d stayed in California. Growing up, because my family came as refugees in the late 80s, the whole of my childhood was adjusting to this idea of what being an American is and I didn’t understand it fully until I came here and saw another side of the country.
AM: I can imagine. It’s wild how moving around, everything is so different from place to place. I certainly felt a big change moving from Chicago to Florida. You’ve covered such a wide range of subject matter in your writing and reporting, so one thing I’m curious about is what have been some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had as a journalist? Maybe a story you’re really proud of?
LA: It’s hard to say, but I can give you a couple examples. The one that led me to be here was the piece I reported that ended up being submitted into the application for Write A House. It was a piece for Los Angeles Magazine where I spent months reporting on this underground club that happened once a week for the LGBT community of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. They’d transform this regular club in L.A. every week so this network could gather and listen to the music of their heritage and be free in themselves. Sometimes those things, sexuality and cultural background, are taught to be separate, but this was a place for people to combine those two and exist in harmony. I spent a long time at the club and wrote a feature, which was a really rewarding experience because I got to talk to a lot of people from different places who ended up meeting there. It was just a safe space for people to meet and form friendships. That story really stuck with me.
The other was reporting in Mongolia. I was so far away, on the other side of the world, and it was different from anywhere else I’ve ever been. The subject matter was incredibly important to me. The piece was about how women’s reproductive health was being affected by pollution, specifically the burning of coal. These environmental issues were causing health problems like miscarriages and other complications for fetuses in utero. Meeting women, showing up at their door, being invited in, and having the privilege to listen to and be trusted with those stories, was a huge deal for me. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
AM: One way I came into your work was through your culinary writing, specifically Dining in Diaspora. An aspect I’ve always loved about your writing, which I think speaks to both the examples you just mentioned, is your ability to tie together things people don’t generally consider connected. So, climate change and reproductive health, or ethnic culture and sexuality. In this particular project, you examine a subject close to my heart, Armenian food and its connection to diasporic ethnic identity and displacement. Can you talk about how that project came to fruition and what it’s been like to explore that space?
LA: Thank you for saying that. If it wasn’t for the fact that I moved to Detroit, I don’t know that this project would’ve come about the way it did or at all. Growing up in Los Angeles, there’s a dense population of Armenians from everywhere in the world. When you grow up in that situation, you have very different ways of exploring your identity or you can avoid exploring your identity at all if you don’t want to. Of course, that applies to ethnic communities all over the world, but being in Detroit and meeting Armenians who are from the Midwest and have been here for generations straight from where their families were in what was then the Ottoman Empire, coming from a violent, traumatic situation, landing in the U.S., and then having descendants still here in this continuous way, I found that food was the one thing that really connected people to their ethnic heritage. I talked to people, many who don’t speak Armenian or are half Armenian or a quarter Armenian or maybe a grandparent was Armenian. A lot didn’t go to the Armenian church. Sometimes they weren’t particularly interested in the present-day country of Armenia, but the one thing that united everybody was the food. Everywhere I went, these culinary references came out and that kind of became the language in which people were expressing who they were. Food has always been important to me in my family’s story, so I made the connection that there are all these cycles of immigration for Armenians who come from different parts of the world and there are so many variables: language, sometimes religion, culture, we all have our own ways of being Armenian, but food is important to everybody. For a population who has gone through so much and lost so much, food has always been a way of maintaining who we are and regenerating who we are very easily, in the kitchen. This became a way to talk about larger, broader issues. I could discuss immigration, politics, history, and identity, to name a few, through food. It’s a universal language for everybody. A way for Armenians to understand who they and for non-Armenians to understand who we are. By spending enough time here with descendants of genocide survivors and realizing how much food meant to them.
AM: I totally agree with that. I see that in my own family a lot, especially with Armenian food. To stay on the theme of culinary writing, I wonder what you think about the way writing about food is viewed in the U.S. today. From my perspective, it’s interesting to see foods from different cultures being kind of exoticized or brought in as trends. There’s the general idea of hipster cuisine. What are your thoughts on how food culture spreads across different global spaces, particularly here in the U.S.?
LA: That’s a complex question that I don’t know that I’ve totally grappled with. It’s this kind of evolving thing, asking who gets to write or explore what about food and what does that mean? Let me see if I can sum up my thoughts. I can start off by saying there are many aspects of how food is explored that seem kind of elitist or divided by class. So you have these issues where a certain group of people have been eating a certain foods and not thinking about it, just making it for hundreds of years, and then someone comes in as an explorer and plucks that out and it becomes a thing where it’s gourmet or a “new” discovery or exoticized as you said. Based on my own research for my food projects, I can say that’s not anything new. I’ll see news clippings from the 20s that talk about Armenians this way. “Taste these new foreign dishes” or “Learn how to make this exotic whatever.” That’s always been around, but the reason there’s tension there is because proper respect isn’t given to the food or people who make it. These foods get stripped of context, and that’s the bigger issue for me. I’m not a cook and I’m not a writer that has always had a focus on food, but I’ve come into writing about food through journalism, so I’m always looking for that context. When you take food and remove it from the people who make it and the history it has and the different versions it’s gone through, it’s a disservice. You cannot talk about food without exploring everything else around it and all the baggage it has. Often, the stories of the people behind the food and their contributions to culinary culture are not elevated the way they should be.
Wow, I know I was saying earlier food is a universal language, but food is brutal too. There’s ownership issues and appropriation issues and questions of whose is better than the others, it’s a different kind of war as well. So that’s my big takeaway from a really messy issue.
AM: That’s a great answer and thank you for indulging a difficult question. You mentioned coming into food writing through journalism. Here at The Southeast Review we’re mostly a creative writing journal, but I’m interested in hearing about how you came into your career as a journalist and making a life as a working writer. On my side of things, say someone writing fiction or poetry, there’s not necessarily a strong, if any, journalism background. They’re different professional paths.
LA: I think the process is different for everyone. I’ve always been a freelance journalist and by that I mean I’ve never been on staff anywhere. That’s for two reasons. One, it was really difficult to find opportunities when I graduated. It was when the journalism industry was kind of collapsing, and you could argue it still is, but it was one of the first instances of lots of layoffs. The other issue was that there were certain things I wanted the freedom to write about, so I decided to pursue the freelance route. It feels like a blur in a lot of ways.
I made certain publication goals and went about completing them. I don’t know how else to explain it. It was a slog and I pushed through. There was lots of studying. Studying magazines. Studying newspapers. Studying the people at those higher gates of power who had the ability to say yes or no to an idea I had. I would email them out of the blue. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any connections. It was just a trial and error game. The more I did it, not only did I get more yeses, but also got way more comfortable with someone saying no to me. The biggest part of operating in the freelance space is being okay with someone saying no to you. As long as you’re okay hearing that and can move on, you’ll eventually make it.
Mostly, it was a matter of persistence. I also applied to opportunities that would offset costs. I would get an international reporting fellowship or fellowship based on being from California and was constantly looking for those opportunities. I also realized if I wanted to not only have the bylines I wanted, but also actually survive, I needed to diversify my writing. It’s hard for a lot of creative people to think about what they’re doing as a business, but that’s what it is. You’re running your own business. You have to approach it by dividing your time. You spend fifty percent of your time pursuing the creative ideas you want and get those bylines and get to be proud of that work. The other fifty percent is like shadow work in the background, where you copyedit or fact check or write marketing copy or work for an organization to help them with their content strategy. Once you realize you can do both, it’s less weight on you, because unfortunately those things pay more than the hard work you put into reporting pieces. In terms of writing and a career, it’s best to be someone who can diversify your skills and not rely on one thing. That can be anything from doing more writing or getting a part-time job or getting a full-time job and writing on the side until you build up a cushion. There are lots of ways to go about it. For me, since I was choosing places to go report that are cheaper than the U.S., that worked out as well, because it didn’t cost me as much to rent an apartment.
AM: As someone who has written lots and lots of marketing copy I totally get it.
LA: Yes! No one ever talks about it and I wish we would.
AM: We certainly should talk about it more, but I want to end on what I consider a heavy question. Given our current political climate, being a journalist today is no easy task, at least from my point of view. I imagine a lot of the issues you write about can be particularly divisive among readers, for lack of a better way to put it. There’s a lot of division in the way we read news and perceive stories, so what challenges or struggles are you seeing as a journalist today?
LA: I find it difficult to sometimes function on a daily basis, not just because of the work I’m doing, but because of the overwhelming amount of information there is to consume. That’s one end of it, total fatigue from the news. With that comes the fact that before I used to believe in the idea of news or journalism being able to change more or make someone think differently, and now I have less hope in that idea I guess. That’s kind of why this project I’m doing about food is my therapy in a way. It allowed me to step back and do the kind of work I want to do without restrictions. I get to produce pieces where the subjects I’m talking about or the places can be 3-D and complex, which has always been important to me. Sometimes it feels like people in the media are being viewed as one-dimensional people instead of full, three-dimensional people, so my project has been my personal way of dealing with that. It’s a tough question, one I think about all the time, but one I don’t know how to answer in a good way. It’s causing a lot of stress. I’ve stepped back a little to focus on my own projects, but I have colleagues and friends who are on staff and having to deal with everything 24-7. They get hate mail, are abused online. It’s really difficult stuff. It feels like the institution is under threat. I don’t know a way out of it and I know that sounds really bleak, but that’s because I’m still thinking about it from day to day.
AM: Maybe that’s a good way to leave it. We’ll just fade out on super bleak.
LA: But that sucks! I will say this, I have always seen journalism as a way for me to get to know the world. Journalism has allowed me to meet different people from different places and upbringings and political views. I thoroughly enjoy that. I’ve learned more about the world, but I feel like we’re in a place where we’ve decided we just don’t want to know more about the world or more about the people. We’re producing all this journalism and I don’t know what it’s doing. I think one solution to that is diversifying newsrooms. If that was a serious priority for publications, perhaps those perspectives might have contributed to things not being so bleak today.