Literature of Exile: The Armenian Genocide

One of the tragedies of the Armenian genocide is that there are still those who deny it happened. Beginning in 1914, the Ottoman authorities in Anatolia deported and killed over a million and a half ethnic Armenians. Although Turkey continues to deny it, the genocide against the Armenians is now generally recognized worldwide. Twenty-nine countries and forty-nine U.S. states have adopted resolutions acknowledging the Armenian Genocide as a historical event, and Pope Francis has described it as the “First genocide of the 20th century”.

Definitions of “genocide” differ, but most human rights experts include the attempted elimination of a culture, and the forcible transfer of children from one group to another. Although there are numerous memoirs and historical novels which recount the deportations and killings, what is interesting from the point of view of this blog post is the experience of survivors, and how they managed to go on with their lives. In many cases, it was not until decades later that they began to speak to their children and grandchildren about the traumas they suffered.

In the past decade there have been several memoirs and historical novels written or edited by descendants . One remarkable example is Karnig Panian’s Goodbye Antoura, a Memoir of the Armenian Genocide. Originally published in Armenian in 1992, Panian’s daughters Chaghik Apelian and Houry Boyamian decided to have it translated into English to bring it to a wider audience. This new translation by Simon Beugekian appeared in 2015 in commemoration of the centennial of the genocide.

Panian does not dwell on the killings, but on his abusive experiences with other Armenian children in a Turkish orphanage. After losing his parents at age 5, surviving a refugee camp, and a harrowing forced march, he was subjected to “Turkification” which involved stripping the children of their Armenian names, forcing them to speak Turkish, and to give up Christianity for Islam. Panian poignantly illustrates the importance of religious symbols in preserving cultural identity:

Another thing that lifted our spirits was the set of statues of saints located high on the roofs of the buildings; they seemed to be constantly blessing us. The orphanage had been Turkified, but this place had been a religious school for decades, and even the Turks could not erase every trace of its past. We felt like those statues had successfully fought off any attempts by the Turks to change their identities, and thus, every time we went out to the courtyard, our eyes were drawn to them.

Karnig Panian and family

One morning, we heard a terrible noise, and we saw that the Turks were finally destroying the statues. The saints had lost their battle against the orphanage administration.

The boys immediately begin collecting pieces of the broken statues, (“One of them looked exactly like my grandfather”) and searching for the one remaining statue rumored to be in the chapel , which they are forbidden from entering. Sneaking in one night…

We all sat solemnly around the fallen statue. There was a silent, holy conversation going on between it and us. We weren’t even quite sure who the statue was supposed to depict. But we knew it was another link to our pasts, another key to our memories.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom

Another descendant, Micheline Aharonian Marcom has written a series of novels inspired by her grandparents’ experiences during the genocide. Her first novel, Three Apples Fell From Heaven deals directly with the atrocities, but her second, The Daydreaming Boy explores what happens afterwards. Her protagonist Vache leads a sophisticated, cosmopolitan life in Beirut in the 1960s, yet the weight of his experiences as an Armenian survivor never leave him, and have corroded his soul. He remembers participating in brutal teasing and violence against a fellow Armenian orphan, and how the boy’s passivity enraged him:

I have said weakness, but perhaps it was his strange fortitude, because no matter the beatings and no matter the tauntings, Vostanig remained unchanged. The stranger: he was all of us, the damned exiled race in its puny and starved and pathetic scabbed body. How we longed to kill him.

In beating this fellow victim, Vache and the other boys attempt to obliterate their own shame, to destroy the manifestation of their loss.

Vache is outwardly successful, but even as a mature 40 year old he desperately misses his long dead parents, and struggles to connect emotionally with his wife. As he faces a crisis point, he realizes he will never be free of the past:

It is said by some that the dead are ever returning to us in an unending cycle of vengeance and despair. I press into my mind as if to find them there. It is green then blue then rains. And they do come back to me, each one in his time.

For more on the authors and other writings about the Armenian Genocide:

Diasporan Armenian Literature Entering the Second Century of Continuing Effects of the Genocide

Review of Goodbye, Antoura in Armenian Weekly

Stanford University Press blog on Goodbye Antoura

Micheline Aharonian Marcom‘s website

All War Is Deception: Structure and Time in The Daydreaming Boy

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

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