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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.