In his first novel, The Gimmicks, Chris McCormick (M.F.A. '14) begins with a pilgrimage. Two kids, Avo and Ruben—distant cousins, but brothers of the heart—muddy their boots as they travel over a hilly pasture in Soviet Armenia in 1973, to listen to an old man tell a story. It’s a story they’ve both heard before, but witnessing its retelling is of the utmost urgency. Nearly 60 years after the 1915 Armenian genocide, the boys arrive to listen to the old man before his stories die with him. From the first chapter of a novel that lives in the aftermath of loss, history takes on the value of a jewel. What happens to stories when their tellers are no longer with us?

McCormick’s book is heavy, but it also ripples with the joys of a detective story, a love triangle, and a generous dose of slapstick humor in the outsized but intimate universe of 1980s professional wrestling. “If I was going to write about the Armenian story,” McCormick says, “I needed to pair it with something I was similarly obsessed with but was tonally different. I grew up watching pro wrestling and was obsessed with it. Men performing men!”

During his post-MFA Zell Fellowship, McCormick thought to pair the world of professional wrestling with characters living in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. “I saw the parallels: questions of justice, coupled with accusations of people faking their pain.”

For McCormick, the pain of the Armenian genocide is intensified by the threat of its erasure by people who question its veracity and its existence, which forces each generation to hold its stories even tighter so they won’t vanish. “Old people know the truth and tell the stories. Young people feel a desire for vengeance. In much of the writing about the Armenian genocide there’s interest in depicting the violence of the genocide itself, which suffers under the weight of having to prove something, of the burden of explanation,” McCormick says. “This doesn’t work as literature, or as art.”

Instead, The Gimmicks wonders what justice and pain look like for survivors, and for their children and their grandchildren.

You Are the Answer

Growing up in Southern California, the son of an Armenian mother, McCormick worried about his right to tell a story he had only heard and not lived. Out in the world, he had an Anglo-sounding name, and he looked “like a white kid.” At home his life was filled with Armenian language, culture, and food. “At the root of this book, I’m trying to understand my origins, my identity,” he says. “What is Armenian identity, and am I a real Armenian?”

These questions first brought McCormick back to the diasporic Armenian community in Southern California to listen to the stories of his uncle and other elders, trying to better understand how he fits into the history and how to hold the responsibility of telling it. The questions also took him to Armenia, a place he had heard about but never experienced firsthand. McCormick realized that wherever he went, he often found himself gauging how well he had listened to his mother’s stories about the country. “It ended up not being so much about me, or the book, but about my mother,” McCormick says. “Learning who she was before, when she had no idea she would ever move to America.”  

With so many difficult questions to answer, McCormick turned to his writing for answers. It was difficult work, he says, sorting through the layers of identity, but he ultimately decided that it wasn’t a question of being allowed to tell the stories he heard and those he lived through—it was a question of being responsible for telling them. “You are the answer to your own question,” he says.

In The Gimmicks, McCormick retells a story passed down from survivors of the genocide: During death marches, some Armenians chose to save history books above all else. He explains that the rationale is one of optimism and perseverance, that humanity will persevere but history requires saving. Writing the novel and about the truths shaping his own life, he says, is his way of contributing to that effort.

As for his next novel, McCormick says, “All I know now is that it’s about music.”