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Oregon Literary Fellowship Spotlight: Alena Nevarte Nahabedian

Throughout May and June, we’re highlighting each of the 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog. Applications for the 2015 Oregon Literary Fellowships are online now. Applications are due in our office by Friday, June 27, 2014. For more information about how to apply, contact Susan Denning at susan@literary-arts.org.

Alena Nahabedian of Portland is a 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipient in Literary Nonfiction.

Bio: My name is Alena Nahabedian and I am a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Having recently completed a satirical memoir, I am weary of my subject matter. I am a self-taught writer with no degree, or professional background, in the literary arts. I am happiest when I am sitting in the sun in a town square, armed with pen and notebook, scrutinizing the people around me. I love hard-shelled tacos, museums, and cats.


What are your sources of inspiration?

I am inspired by: vocabulary, language, history, museums, travel, my fellow humans, natural wonders, and good food and drink.

How would you describe your creative process?

My creative process is one of endless turmoil, self-doubt, and rewriting. When I am lucky enough to have regular, scheduled time to write I stick to a diligent regime. I wake up, make tea, sit at my desk and don’t leave until I’m done for the day. Sometimes the day will last 500 words, sometimes 10 hours. I have lunch sometime in between.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship? 

The most exciting part of receiving the fellowship was being able to take the time off of work necessary to complete my first novel. The second most exciting part about receiving it was the joy I experienced when I felt that someone, aside from myself, believed in me as a writer.

What are you currently working on? 

I have just completed my first novel. It is a satirical memoir called The Road To Ruin. I started looking for a professional editor for it today, as a matter of fact.

What advice do you have for future applicants? 

The only advice I have for future applicants is not to give up. There are moments when being a writer is great fun. Occasionally you will write something that makes you laugh so hard you’ll start crying. These moments are few and far between but worth the hours of torture that lead up to them.

Sample Work

Excerpted from “There Is No Y In Nahabedian”

….The next thing I knew I was standing in Gordon’s Cutlery picking out a butcher’s knife. I looked down at the sleek, honed blade of the Messermeister and reflected on my failed marriage and the words of an Irish Butcher.

I’ve always been knife freak. For my most recent birthday I received the most precious of gifts in the form of an antique, sterling silver butter knife. It has my name engraved on the handle, in cursive. It came to me after I mentioned to a friend that my happiest childhood memory was of slicing up dirt clods with a butter knife. It was a Zen-like meditation for me. I can’t describe the sound of slicing through a dirt clod with a butter knife. It is an indescribable sound that sounds like nothing other than what it is. I can tell you, for example, that as I am typing, my boyfriend is playing Flamenco guitar in the living room. The music sounds as if it coming from angels preening their wings. I can’t however, describe the sound of the minute serrations of the butter knife’s blade, first cutting through the hard outer shell of the dirt clod, and then slide-slicing through the softer interior. The sound of slicing dirt clods had a very calming effect on me. You can see, in one of the photos of me doing this, that nothing in the world would have made me more content at that moment in time.

The only thing I wanted more than a pet saber-toothed tiger when I was a kid was a set of Ginsu knives. I spent my free time cutting, whittling, slicing, dicing, carving, picking, plucking, tweezing, scraping, filing, screwing, unscrewing, opening and punching holes in anything I could with Swiss Army Knives. I was mesmerized that a single knife, the Ginsu could go through a tin can and a soft tomato with the same blade. My experience had taught me that serrated blades and smooth blades had entirely different purposes, until I saw the commercial. When I begged my parents to buy me a set they informed me they were crap. I didn’t believe them. I didn’t watch a whole lot of television growing up because I was too busy cutting up dirt clods or carving profanities into the furniture, but the Ginsu knife commercial had me transfixed. It is the penultimate advertisement equivalent of porn. To me, the Ginsu was everything, a young girl could want: fantastically, incredibly, stupendously, unbelievably more than anything a young girl could want. “Impossible,” they said, “You can’t cut a tomato after cutting through an aluminum can like that. It’s the trickery of television,” they said. “But wait, there’s more,” I begged. I told them about the peeler that turned radishes into roses, the unique, eagle-beaked contour of the paring knife, the precision filleting of the boning knife and the set of six, yes six, steak knives. “We have to act fast, it’s a limited time offer,” I urged, “and besides, they’re Japanese,” I whined. My father collected swords, he would understand, the Japanese are known for more than just the noodles, katanakaji being among of them.  “No,” he corrected me, “They are not Japanese they’re made in Ohio, forget it.” They might have denied me the Gisus but I was spoiled in many other ways, our home was richly bladed.

Judge’s Comments

By Amy Leach, nonfiction judge

“Alena Nevarte Nahabedian has fascinating stories to tell and a remarkable voice with which to tell them.  Her account of her family’s ventures in commissioning outrageously trashy art is madcap and mordantly funny, and she is equally trenchant when describing her own thwarted attempts at writing a memoir and keeping Yogic vows. There are confounding and complementary truths here: the truth of family history, the truth of self-questioning, of failure, and of weirdness–as Nahabedian describes one of the difficulties inherent to writing a memoir, “My problem is that the longer I’m here, the weirder things get.”


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