Laughing at Ara Shirinyan's 'Your Country Is Great'

By Eric Rettberg

Ara Shirinyan. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.
Ara Shirinyan. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Eric Rettberg told me a few months ago about his interest in Ara Shirinyan, and I asked him if he would write briefly about it for this commentary. He agreed, and here is what he has to say. Eric is currently Edgar F. Shannon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Virginia.

The procedure Ara Shirinyan used to write Your Country is Great (2008), in which he went through an alphabetical list of countries, Googled “[country] is great,” and wrote poems from the results, ensures that the book repeats relentlessly. Seemingly empty declarations of greatness abound, from “aaww lol belgium is great =)” (29) to “Finland is great because / Finland is great” (103), and so too do reports of the great recreational activities available in the countries of the world. “The beaches are the bomb” in Costa Rica (70), just as Bulgaria is great “if you want young drunk fun in the sun” and “Cyprus is great for sun and beaches” (49, 78).

As she travels around Shirinyan’s Googled world, the reader will repeatedly encounter great food (“The ripe papaya in Belize / is great with crushed ice” [32]), great romantic possibilities (“The Dominican Republic is great alternative / to Colombia / for finding wife” [85]), great nature (“The faunistic diversity of Ethopia is great. / This is mainly due to the variation in climate,. topography / and vegetation” [99]), and above all, great enthusiasm: “My quality of life in Guernsey is great. / I am happy with my quality of life now. / Really quite happy with my quality of life” [122]). Amidst all the excitement, of course, the inquisitive traveling reader will also find great problems: “Cambodia is great place / and mines areeeee / mostly along the border” (51).

Kenneth Goldsmith observes in his blurb that such repetition “gives us an early glimpse at the deadening effects of globalization on language,” but the language of Your Country is Great does not feel deadened to me. No deadened language could make me laugh as much as Shirinyan’s poems do, and once I find out why Afghanistan is great, I’m compelled to turn the page to find out why Albania is great, and then why Algeria is great, and so on through the entire book. I read on to find the next slightly changed repetition, the next mundane observation, the next instance of outrageous cultural insensitivity, the next enthusiastic proclamation of greatness, and especially the next laugh.

Lest my laughter seem a perverse aberration, Marjorie Perloff confirms in her blurb that Your Country is Great is “hilarious and sardonic,” full of “much wit and aplomb,” and in a blog post, Anne Boyer, who is inclined to read the book as “a tragedy” to be read with “great heavy sadness,” grudgingly admits, “I suppose it might be funny, but mostly funny like someone falling.”[1]

If Your Country is Great provokes laughter, then, it also provokes guilt, the guilt of not quite knowing at whom or what we’re laughing when we laugh at these poems. On some level, we’re laughing at the writers who would be so stupid and banal as to post on the Internet such statements as “BERMUDA is GREAT. / Robbie Williams is so hot. / So is Johnny Depp / and Orlando Bloom” (34). On a broader, more academically suspicious level, we’re laughing at Goldsmith’s global “puddle of platitudes,” at the sad condition of language in modern life. Whether our laughter comes from a feeling of superiority or a feeling of suspicion, we draw a sharp line between us knowing laughers and the benighted objects of our laughter. We sophisticated readers of the avant-garde know more than them, or we’re morally superior to them, or we’re more capable of enjoying worthwhile culture than them. To borrow the memorable terminology of Goldsmith’s recent essay on “Being Dumb,” we, the “smart dumb,” laugh knowingly at the “dumb dumb.”[2]

The laughter Shirinyan’s book provokes, though, refuses such easy distinctions. At some point I stop judging the earnest delight of tourists, residents, and expatriates, and my laughter at them infectiously slips into laughter with them. My judgment of the Internet writer who can only say “Azerbaijan is great! I like it! / thanks for sharing :smile:” (20) fades as I realize that my knowledge of Azerbaijan goes no deeper than hers. My academic impulse to scrupulously deconstruct the problematic and exoticizing words of tourists falls flat as I encounter—and laugh at—Internet utterances that everybody knows nobody should ever say:

After being in a Kava Ceremony
to welcome me to the island,
a cannibal guy danced for us.

Fiji is great, (102)

Before Shirinyan played these outlandish lines for laughs, the person who originally wrote them did. Googling to find their source points to a photographic travelogue from 2003, in which the original author was already treating his cannibal observation as a joke, was already trafficking in language he knew to be offensive.[3] When Shirinyan redeploys these lines in his poetry, he might seem to shift the butt of the joke from the “cannibal guy” to the thoughtless tourist who would call him a cannibal guy, but the supposedly thoughtless tourist was already in on the joke, even before Shirinyan plagiarized his language. When I laugh at these lines, I don’t just laugh at their offensiveness but also make myself complicit in it, because it was this other man’s joke first.

That original cultural encounter and the mediated layers of reports through which I experience it reveal genuinely troubling mechanisms of tourism and globalization, but by presenting the lines as a potential object of my laughter, Shirinyan complicates the idea that I can tidily separate myself from them in order to cast my academic suspicion on them. Your Country is Great does not simply parade a series of halfwits before its readers for mockery; as often, Shirinyan asks his readers to join those halfwits, to feel the earnestness of their enthusiasm, to acknowledge that even when we know more about another place than they do, we still don’t know very much. The blank pages that accompany the names of countries that returned no Google results remind us that even in our hyper-digital, thoroughly searchable world, sophisticated readers, avant-garde poets, and even vaunted Google still experience the world incompletely.

When he makes his readers laugh, Shirinyan does not ask them to feel superior to the internet writers whose words comprise his book, but instead to identify with them, not to laugh knowingly at those who are ignorant and ridiculous in the face of a vast and complex world but to acknowledge that they are too.