The intersection between poetry and activism has become even more prominent in recent years, as poets worldwide use their work to amplify marginalized voices and challenge oppressive systems. In the face of political turbulence and historical trauma, Armenian-American poet Sona Van has used her words and her voice to bring attention to the Armenian Genocide, the ongoing conflict in Artsakh, and the struggle for recognition and justice.
From Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” poets have used their words for centuries to start movements, speak truth to power, and comfort the suffering. In her poetry, Sona Van grapples with the complexities of identity, displacement, and violence while challenging dominant narratives and bearing witness to the atrocities of war. She has written seven books, one of the most recent of which is titled Libretto for the Desert, revolving around the brutality her family and others were subject to during the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
Sona’s journey to becoming a poet began when she was very young. Sona grew up in a family of scientists. Her father was a physics professor at a university in Armenia, but his second love had always been medicine. Sona also had an analytical mind, but she was uniquely gifted in language as a child. Seeing her talent and love for writing, her teachers encouraged her to pursue literature in higher education.
Her father cherished poetry, and he would read a poem before he left for work every day, sharing with her that it brought structure to the chaos of life. He believed that she had an emotional attachment to words; her thoughtfulness and caring approach to them convinced him that she would be a writer one day. However, in an effort to guide his daughter and prepare her for the real world, he suggested she ought to opt for a more practical career choice.
“He said, ‘In order for you to be free and to marry for love, you have to have your own profession, be self-supportive, so you don’t have to depend on some man to support you.’”
Sona’s father persuaded her to enroll in medical school because he believed she had a compassionate soul and would make an excellent doctor.
“From the very beginning, I already knew it wasn’t for me because I couldn’t watch any surgery from start to finish. I would just pass out as soon as the surgeon made the initial incision. I couldn’t take it. I can’t take somebody else’s pain and helplessness. Every exercise in medicine is like a stolen experience—because no one would ever allow a novice to practice on their family member while they were sound asleep. The thought of this helpless soul lying unconscious and subject to another’s will always bothered me.”
She frequently fainted to the point where no one wanted to stand next to her in class. “They knew they were going to have to hold me and take me out, so they’d have to miss seeing the surgery,” she laughs.
“So my father said, ‘It’s okay. You have a critical mind. You can become a scientist, even if you don’t want to work in practical medicine. You can still do a lot of things related to medicine because you have so much compassion for people.’”
After Sona finished medical school, she moved to the United States. She started her career in a watch factory before being hired by Kaiser Hospital as a lab technician and continued working on several research projects for years, including critical AIDS research during its’ infancy. Curious about the human mind and other forms of healing, Sona went on to get a master’s degree from the University of Santa Monica in spiritual and clinical psychology.
“It was interesting for me, but I ran into the same problem I did before. If I saw one person in a day, I wouldn’t be able to make it to the next person because I would become so emotionally overwhelmed that there would be no space left for another person’s problems. That’s when I came to the realization that I’m an eternal student and I couldn’t practice the things I learned. I am often asked whether my background in medicine or psychology helps me to be a better poet, and I reply that it is the exact opposite—since poetic thinking is the best method to enter another’s space of love and suffering.”
She did not, however, completely abandon her career in medicine. Sona went on to pass the California Medical Board state exam and, along with her late husband, Dr. Noobar Janoian, founded “All For Health, Health For All,” a community clinic to treat underserved populations, which now has 18 different locations.
“My husband and I wanted to create a place where it wouldn’t make a difference if a patient has or doesn’t have money or insurance because you can’t separate health from happiness,” she says. This was also the impetus behind the creation of Sonafe Adult Day Health Center. “We both believed that the golden years of life were as important to one’s legacy and dignity as their youth.”
Sona eventually would find her way back to her first love, where her empathy always had a home, which was writing.
“I am at my best and at the peak of my potential when I put pen to paper. That is when I feel most connected with both my inner and outer universe. My first book was entirely written on napkins and pieces of cardboard boxes; Eventually, I just collected these little pieces and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. My kids told me that when they see me looking at an object, they think I’m asking myself, ‘Is it possible to write on this or not?’ Soon, my entire kitchen countertop was covered in sheets of paper.”
Sona would eventually publish her first book, Crumbs, which unexpectedly became a huge success in Armenia—selling out from bookstores after only a few weeks. It also caught the attention of literary critics and movie director Vigen Chaldranian, who made a movie based on her poetry.
Sona Van describes the process of writing to be cathartic, although she has never considered herself a “professional writer.”
“I don’t know what it means to be a professional writer. I never sit down and say, ‘I have to write.’ The only time I sit down to write is when something inside me does not allow me to do anything else. Something unsettling inside me compels me to sit down and write in order to unburden myself so I can carry on living.”
It is a form of therapy for her, bringing new revelations that change how she lives and sees the world. She describes it as a blessing, even the discomfort she feels before sitting down. Hours will pass before she realizes she has been scribbling away at the page.
“I feel connected to the universe. It is just an unbelievable joy. I’m searching for something without knowing what I’m searching for, and I’m finding something I never thought existed. And I realize, how did I live without this knowledge for all this time? It’s not just a creative process; it’s a process of learning about being human, and about the universe.”
Sona also believes poetry is part of the social fabric that unites us as human beings.
“It is not by chance that the Bible begins with the words, ‘In the beginning, there was a word, and the word was God.’ It is for this exact reason I believe that the poet is God’s chosen one who took the words straight from God’s mouth, and therefore, poetry should serve as an alternative religion for all those who struggle to believe blindly in scripture or traditional religions; especially now, since religion has become the centerpiece in so many conflicts around the world.”
Poetry has played a profound role in her own spirituality.
“Poetry has saved my soul faster and much more often than any prayer. Armenians were the first nation to adopt Christianity; however, I have always been inclusive to all walks of faith and sincerely believe that all religions are simply different roads leading to the same place. Unfortunately, most governments today use religious ideology in order to keep hatred of others alive, which is used as fuel for their war machine.”
Sona Van believes that anyone can find hope, enlightenment, and communion with their higher selves through the power of words and poetry.
“I think that people today are bombarded with useless information that is flooding their brains without ever turning into knowledge or understanding. There is a large void, a sense of emptiness in so many people who are searching for true emotion and feeling of vitality. People have an insatiable desire for stimulation. Any single word in a good poem has this exact ability to shock, amaze, or bewilder without any sentimentality.”
The gift of a poet is being able to break through those barriers. “The poet is able to push words in a way that can blossom into a brand-new human experience, where thoughts and feelings become one, and the mind ascends to a higher level of consciousness,” she says.
“In today’s world, man has become more pragmatic and less intuitive. We have become more skeptical and cynical—unwilling to open or change our minds about anything. Poetry is the perfect tool to soften one’s petrified and critical mind, that is always ready to refuse anything new by using beauty and form to shift their attention, like a magician who distracts his audience’s attention in order to insert his truth into their newly opened minds. The poet’s truth unexpectedly becomes the reader’s truth, and just like the rabbit being pulled out of the magician’s hat, it becomes indisputable.”
She goes on to say that approaching people with a new ideology can lead to resistance, but people are more receptive when spoken through a poetic medium. Reading poetry necessitates a personal connection between the reader and the words since it invites the reader to find their own meaning. “The poet’s truth settles in the heart before it can be criticized with the mind,” she says.
“With all the wars, rampant violence, genocides, suffering and death, people’s hearts have become joyless, calloused, and desensitized. I am most afraid of getting used to suffering and savagery, and to the lack of beauty and joy, in other words—turning evil into something pedestrian. I believe we should fight to preserve beauty and joy with the same passion that we fight to protect our independence, lands, or human rights.”
“It is the most basic human right of all mothers to be buried by their child,” she says. “War deprives mothers of this fundamental right.”
“It is for this reason that I consider war to be the personal enemy of women, and it is incumbent on us women to finally put an end to all wars. I believe that ‘soft feminine power’ is the most underused and potent force to combat the very existence of war. I dream of a time when the words war and invasion become relics of our primitive past and be erased from humanity’s memory so that it creates a feeling of absurdity whenever uttered. Otherwise, the vicious cycle of wars and genocides will continue.”
Mothers also suffer a great loss due to the devastation of war.
“During war, we lose our most precious and beloved possession, our sons. Any mother is ready to die in their son’s place. War takes away this God-given right from us. When they talk about the rights of an unborn child, what about the born child? Why care for an embryo and not care for the 18-year-old at the prime of his life, full of energy and potential—a beautiful human being that is sent to die in a war machine for others to get richer? How are we, as a society, protecting the rights of a mother, or our sons? I cannot agree more with Albert Einstein, who said that war is the biggest shame of civilization.”
Sona believes that if war is not removed from the collective consciousness of humankind as something permittable in some conditions, these wars will continue forever. “It is important to take a firm stance that does not try to rationalize its necessity. Plainly, there is no justification for any killing!”
Sona Van’s book Libretto for the Desert explores the nexus between war, genocide, and the denial of basic human rights. Sona believes that memory is a double-edged sword that dwells upon the recognition of the crime and its punishment, whereas evil is continuously changing its form. “Memory keeps pulling us back, yet it cannot protect us from recurring evils,” she says.
“Today, the battle is not between good and evil but between three separate forces—good, evil, and the irrational mind. While it may be possible to convince evil to change, trying to change the irrational mind is an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, the irrational mind is prevalent amongst most of the ‘leaders’ of the world today.”
For this reason, she tries to reach as broad an audience as possible. Her books have been translated into 28 different languages to date and have inspired countless artists to reverberate her voice. Distinguished composers, vocal and visual artists, painters, sculptors, and filmmakers have used her work as inspiration for their own projects.
One such example is Vache Sharafian’s symphony based on her book Libretto for the Desert called “Requiem for the Living,” as well as his ballet based on Sona’s poem “Bride of the Desert,” where the heroine discovers a way to finally put an end to the endless cycle of suffering by throwing her bouquet of flowers in a way no one can catch it. The poem is based on her personal story about her aunt, who was raped by Turkish gendarmes on the day of her wedding. “Her veil was pulled off and ended up atop a chimney of a neighbor’s house,” she writes.
“The story I was told was that when the gendarme threw my aunt’s veil out of the window, it floated over the roofs and got stuck on one of the neighbors’ chimneys. The next day, the veil had vanished. To this day, I am waiting for that veil to reappear, as if it were following me all this time.”
“It hurts me to see that happiness today is viewed as a luxury and not as a basic human right, while violence always finds a way to justify its’ existence in our daily lives. I dream of a world that is upheld by a robust international court and justice system, which will—in short time—prosecute all the injustices being carried out throughout the world, regardless of whether it is by countries that are oil-rich or dirt-poor.”
“I am writing poetry because I am ashamed of the world that I am going to inherit to my children. I am hoping to change the human condition and to redefine the meaning of the word ‘hero.’ Everybody wants to become a hero; it’s implanted into the human psyche. Why don’t we redesign what it means to be heroic? Why don’t we say that saving (not taking) somebody’s life is heroic? Or planting grain is heroic because you’re feeding people; you’re helping them to survive. So many things can be called heroic, such as Charles Aznavour’s songs that touched the hearts of an entire world, or Raymond Damadian, who was the mind behind the first MRI, which—over the years—has saved millions of lives. Politicians can also be true heroes, if they defy political expedience in order to fight for what is right, such as Congressman Adam Schiff. If we change the idea of what is heroic and what is not, reality will also change.”
She believes that one of the beliefs perpetuating war is that it cannot be stopped.
“War is the most vicious cycle in the world. We have been persuaded that war is inevitable. Therefore, we must reevaluate all our convictions and preconceived notions that have brought us to this reality. Otherwise, we are doomed to passing it down to future generations. Like my personal hero, I will consider my life fulfilled only when I am able to stop any vicious cycle, such as war, hatred, or bigotry. Love is 2000 years old, but hatred is much older.”
“We are born with natural survival instincts, which are based on fear, but love is something that we learn,” she says.
“Everything man does is fueled by either love or hate. Poetry teaches us empathy and keeps us human in these dehumanizing times. A new language, one of poetry, should be established in order to precipitate a fundamental transformation of the human heart and conscience. Life should be a pursuit of communion and atonement. Earth is a common home for us all. The soul has only one destination, and it is joy. Faith and fear share the same vocabulary. Hope and despair share the same metaphors.”
This time of year is one of Sona’s most meaningful and painful since April 24th is the official day of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915 and took the lives of over 1.5 million Armenians. It was a brutal campaign carried out by the Ottoman Turks that first started with the indiscriminate and purposeful killings of Armenian intellectuals and continued with the systematic murder and displacement of all ethnic Armenians in the region.
Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were sent on “death marches” through the unforgiving deserts of Syria without food or water. Presently, only 3 million Armenians reside inside Armenia, while the broader diaspora of Armenians is approximately 7 million worldwide—most of whom are descendants of displaced, exiled, and orphaned Armenians.
The United States is home to the second largest population of Armenians (after Russia), due in large part to the diplomatic and humanitarian efforts of the U.S. over the past century, culminating with the official recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the U.S. Congress. While many countries worldwide have recognized the Armenian Genocide, the Armenian people are still waiting for official acknowledgment by Turkey. Sona says that, without that acknowledgment, it is hard for descendants to heal and for relations to normalize.
“I am from a family of survivors. I feel like some of us are still stuck in that desert, waiting, and holding those corpses in our hands to prove that they are dead. I’m holding onto my dead until they recognize and admit that they killed them, and then I can bury them and cry over them. For years, we have been holding onto our dead, and we are the only witnesses.”
In her poem “Fezzed Thorns,” Sona writes, “As April draws near/my dreams filled with screams of fugitive girls/and the clatter of bones in the desert sand/fezzed thorns/thousands of severed tongues/secretly praying under the sand.”
“Unfortunately, I am still unable to speak about the Genocide as a historical atrocity, as can the Jews about the Holocaust, because, unlike Germany—Turkey is unwilling to acknowledge what their ancestors perpetrated over a century ago. Moreover, Turkey continues to support the ongoing genocidal ethnic cleansing that is being carried out by Azerbaijan at this very moment.”
This is one issue that Sona Van is very passionate about. She is actively spreading awareness of the ongoing crisis in Artsakh. Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, is a region located in the South Caucasus. The conflict in Artsakh dates to the early 20th century when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union annexed Artsakh to Azerbaijan, even though most of the population was Armenian.
In 1988, the Armenian population of Artsakh voted to separate from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The conflict escalated into a full-scale war until a ceasefire was reached in 1994, with Nagorno-Karabakh remaining under the control of Armenian forces.
Tensions heated up yet again in April 2016 when Azerbaijan claimed to have killed and wounded more than 100 Armenian soldiers. Intermittent fighting and violence over the region, with Azerbaijan being the aggressor, has continued without significant territorial changes, and the region has remained de-facto independent.
In September 2020, the conflict in Artsakh reignited when Azerbaijan—with the help of Turkey and terrorist mercenaries—launched a full-scale military offensive to retake the region. The conflict lasted for 44 days, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of tens of thousands more.
For almost four months, there has been a blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Artsakh to the outside world and Armenia, barring them from access to necessary goods and supplies, such as food and medicine.
Armenians view Artsakh as an integral part of their national identity and cultural heritage and see the conflict as a continuation of a long history of persecution and oppression. The Armenian population of Artsakh has faced discrimination, violence, and displacement at the hands of Azerbaijani authorities for decades.
“The Armenian Genocide of 1915 took place before the advent of television and social media and during a time of unprecedented turmoil, which was the first World War. This distraction allowed the Ottoman Turks to enact their diabolical plans of extermination of all Armenians but for one, which they would preserve in the museum of natural history.”
“Today, their plans are being redeployed, but this time, in front of the eyes of the entire world. We must not allow any oppressive force anywhere in the world to achieve its goals; otherwise, other nations will follow suit—which is evident today as Ukraine fights for its survival against an oppressive regime. It brings me some hope to see, for the first time in human history, an almost unanimous condemnation of Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation.”
“It makes me optimistic about the possibility of Armenia getting the same kind of support from the international while Azerbaijan, with the help of Turkey and intentional Russian indifference, is slowly swallowing our sovereign lands.”
Sona says that because of the dependence on oil from Azerbaijan, the international community is not putting enough pressure on the country to stop the blockade. “Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country that holds significant energy resources and has strategic importance in the region,” she says, “Many countries, especially those with energy interests, hesitate to take actions that could harm their economic and political ties with Azerbaijan.”
“Armenia is trying to build a democracy in the region, and the totalitarian regime of Azerbaijan and semi-totalitarian Turkey have gotten together to fight this small democratic nation, and it is a slow-paced genocide. They closed the border, the corridor which is the only way to get anything from Armenia, putting them in complete isolation. So, the Armenians are just suffering; but how long can they survive in this situation? These people have no means for food or medication. They have lost their jobs. They cannot even get lifesaving surgeries because of the situation.”
She says that we need a system to react to situations like this that is more effective than the United Nations.
“I would love if the entire world—the population of decent people—would band together and not allow these things to happen, to have an awareness of what is going on in the world. Because Armenia is a small nation, but we have given so much to the world. Notable Armenians. But the world also must have a kind of obligation to stand behind a small nation that cannot protect itself among these oppressive Titans.”
Ordinary people can still help by writing to their senators, spreading awareness, and asking for meaningful resolutions. Sona also stressed the importance of finding practical solutions. “Not everything should be balanced by oil,” she says.
Sona Van also believes that our critical thinking skills are starting to erode because of technology and that our most precious commodity is our attention; it is being taken from us without our permission or any compensation.
“We are becoming more informed but less happy. Our minds and souls are starving for meaning and purpose,” she says, “Instead, they are being fed by fake news, materialistic values, and conspiracy theories. People have become addicted to instant gratification and transient stimulation. Rather than searching for love and meaning, we have become desperate to get the most ‘likes’ and ‘shares.”
“Today, poetry is more important and relevant than ever. With our ever-shrinking attention spans and our depleting reservoirs of joy and beauty, poetry is primed to have its’ own Renaissance. I believe that the evolution of man depends on spiritual and emotional enlightenment. Otherwise, our existence will one day be erased by weapons of war; virtual reality and artificial intelligence will replace our spiritual reality and emotional intelligence. Our spiritual evolution must parallel our technological advances; otherwise, humans will evolve into robots and will be swallowed up by the chasm that has been created between the two.”
Until then, Sona continues to do her part as both poet and activist. “A poet’s duty is not to draw conclusions but rather to preserve the interactive edge between mankind and the unknown. Poetry allows our conscience to wander about, just like someone contemplating life while stopped at a red light. Poetry activates the uncertainty of the mind and brings about a pleasant state of confusion.”
We are now entering a new digital era which Sona refers to as “The Galactic Era” in her poems.
“The Galactic Era, / where everything changes – including the story of God / the word is no longer first – but rather, the number is/in the beginning, there was a number, and the number is God / I click on a random number / and end up in my native hell of war / I approach / bite like an apple / the cheek of a soldier / my mouth filled with ashes from his remains.”
This painful scene is interrupted by the poet’s unending faithfulness toward love, and she writes:
“No matter how much they make fun of my songs / I will continue kneeling before love / between ecstasy and sorrow / I use my index finger to write on the foggy window / three things that changed the world / wine / trains / and longings / hoping that they will remain in God’s ledger / attention, the doors are closing / next station / eternity.”
Sona Van has received numerous prestigious awards for her literary work, including gold medals from the Ministry of Culture in Armenia and the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora, the highest Presidential Honor—the “Movses Khorenatsi Medal,” and the Homer’s Medal in Poetry from the European Union. She is also the co-founder and editor of the literary magazine “Narcis” in Armenia since 2006. Her latest book, Libretto for the Desert, has been acclaimed as one of the most significant modern works on the subject of the Armenian Genocide and has been applauded by readers, literary critics, and human rights activists. It is now being adapted into a play.
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to NYC to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at email@example.com.