Today I have a very special guest, Michael Barakiva. I met him through a mutual friend Daniel Shebses whose work I featured not long ago. Michael has a fascinating background that surely sets him apart. An Armenian/Israeli theater director and writer who lives in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan with his husband, Rafael, Michael is a sarcastic and eloquent voice in GLBT fiction. He was born in Haifa, Israel and grew up in the suburbs of Central New Jersey, which were much scarier. He attended Vassar College, where he double majored in Drama and English, after which he attended the Juilliard School's Drama Division as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Directing. He has been living in New York City since. Today he discusses his young adult gay romance One Man Guy exploring the issues of sexual and ethnic identity.
MJN: Congratulations on your novel, first of all. It's hip on so many levels. Not only is it a gay love story, it's also a cross-ethnic gay love story, with a grim historical undertone (the Amernian holocaust). Armenians are not a particularly vocal group in this country. I applaud your agent and your publisher for tackling something off the beaten path. It's wonderful that so many reviewers recommend it as middle-school reading material. GLBT is integrating into school curriculum.
MB: Thanks, Marina. My editor and I talked a lot about how to keep the book on the middle-school reading level because it was important for me that it found its way into young readers' hands. Some times that meant pulling back from vocabulary, but I was really happy with how we were able to keep the material honest, especially about the LGBTQ and Armenian themes.
MJN: I find that Americans (those born in this country) resent immigrants who do not live up to the standards dictated by various ethnic stereotypes. By acting "normal" you deprive Americans of entertainment. I was 13 when I came to the US from Belarus. My classmates at Cloonan Middle School were disappointed to see that I did not ride a tank, waving a Kalashnikov and I did not have a vodka-drinking pet bear. They were kind of bummed that I did not embody the Cold War fantasy. Would you agree with that observation to some extent?
MB: Well, I think I find that to be true across the world, not just in this country. In my travels abroad, I feel like I have disappointed many an internationals but not owning a gun, because apparently, as an American, that's their stereotype of us (and give then horrid state of gun control in this country, I guess I'm not surprised). But still, the idea is clearly that every American owns a piece and keeps it on his or her body.
I actually feel most American when I'm abroad. Here, in this country, I feel quite other: an Israeli/Armenian who was born in Haifa and spent the first six years of his live there. But when I'm abroad, I think it's disingenuous to introduce myself as anything other than American. And given that I've lost my Hebrew and only have a smattering of German and Spanish, basically being a monoglot abroad makes me feel more American than anything else does.
MJN: Armenians were among the first ethnic groups to embrace Christianity in its Orthodox form. The presence of rather vocal Muslim neighbors makes their sense of religious identity even stronger. I am always wary of something as personal as spirituality becoming a national emblem. I strongly believe in separating ethnic identity from religion - although, in many cases the two go hand in hand. For instance, I flip when someone assumes I am Russian Orthodox. I choose to practice mainstream Protestantism, which in this country is associated with the Anglo-Saxon stock.
MB: This is a fascinating point, Marina, especially because on my other half I'm Israeli, so people assume that I'm Jewish all the time. In those people's defense, of course, I have a deeply self-deprecating sense of humor, I live in New York, and I worked for Wendy Wasserstein for five years, so I guess it's not the most brazen assumption. But since my mother is Armenian and Judaism is passed through the maternal line, I'm not Jewish at all. My mother converted to Lutheran when we came to this country, and I did two years of confirmation class before declaring myself agnostic at age 16.
But I love your imagination of what the world would be like if we could separate the double helix of ethnic identity from religion, especially because the two have been intertwined for so long. Culture brings us together, so much more than religion, which unfortunately drives people apart.
MJN: You graduated from Julliard and now direct theatrical productions in New York. Many aspiring actors, writers and directors think of it as the ultimate Mecca. How do you break the news to all those community theater veterans from small towns in CT, NJ and NY that Manhattan is already swarming with home-grown talent?
MB: Well, the truth is that New York is not the city it used to be. Just this morning, I was volunteering at a rooftop garden at a church in Hell's Kitchen, with a bunch of other die-hard Hells Kitchen-ites. We tried to count the amount of businesses still running since I moved to New York in 1997, and couldn't get to ten. That's pretty depressing, isn't it? Much of One Man Guy is a love letter to New York, and I think that much of Two Man Guy will be a criticism of what the city has become - the proliferation of banks and pharmacies, the obliteration of small businesses. The middle and bohemian class has been consumed by the hikes in real estate, and the city's heart is being ripped out and eaten by big business. I'm not even sure why tourists still come (with the exception of theater, of course), when the city feels like so much of a museum version of itself.
MJN: What is your next literary and theatrical move? What do you do to keep yourself occupied between artistic gigs?
MB: Well, I've been working on another book with two friends, Suzanne Agins and Rosemary Andress, entitled The Aether Wild, a post-apocalyptic/science fiction/fantasy epic type thing. We've been writing it for around four years, and we're finally getting to the point that we think we'll be able to send the first draft to my agent. This gives me enormous joy.
I'm also trying to write Two Man Guy, and I think I'm finally starting to make some good headway on that, but it's been tough.
In terms of theater, I've written a play, The Nature of Things, about Lucretius writing the Ancient Roman poem, De Rerum Natura. I've also written the book to a musical with Michael Hicks, who wrote the lyrics and music, entitled Don't Listen To The Lyrics.
I also run a theater company, The Upstart Creatures, who present meals and plays together. You can check us out at www.upstartcreatures.com.
For the first time, I'm also starting a scene study class with some wonderful actors. The first class is tomorrow!
And in the fall, I'll start rehearsals for an off-Broadway play.
It's taken years to learn how to keep myself occupied between rehearsal structures and still, as I'm sure you can imagine the money is miserable and one day I dream about making enough that I'm not constantly worrying about it. But the discipline to wake up and have nothing to do for the month and create a schedule for yourself was a long time coming. And still, the battle to fight the sirens of facebook and boardgames online wages on. But more and more, I'm trying to give myself permission to create the work that I believe in and the work I want to be creating.