An Interview with Michael Bobelian

Author Michael Bobelian’s first book, Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice, focusing on the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, was recently published by Simon & Schuster.

Bobelian sat down with Taleen Babayan at the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center in New York to discuss Children of Armenia, which explores how the Armenian Genocide entered and quickly faded from public consciousness. Among the questions Bobelian raises are: Why did the United States government cease support for genocide recognition? And why did Armenian Americans initially permit this shift in U.S. foreign policy?

Bobelian launched his book tour on Sept. 1 in La Jolla, Calif. He will present his book at the Zohrab Center on Thurs., Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.

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Taleen Babayan: I read in the prologue about your first encounters with genocide survivors and the genocide memorial service at St. Vartan Cathedral in 1985. But what inspired you or interested you to write this book?
Michael Bobelian: There was no specific moment that inspired me to write my book. By the time I was in my late 20’s, I began to really wonder why we have these events and these commemorations, and why we still need to have them. There is a lot of energy and money spent on Armenian commemorations and on genocide-related activities, and I really began to question how that started, and what the purpose of it is. And when I asked these questions, I realized no one had the answers.

TB: What makes your book different from other genocide books, or accounts of genocide?
MB: Most of my book focuses on the aftermath of the genocide. That is an era no one has written about, neither in historical or journalistic circles, so it made it very challenging because I had no books to rely upon to act as a guidepost. But it also made it fascinating because no one had written about it. I got to see original material and look at it in a way no one has before. I covered comprehensively the legislative battles, the Yanikian trial and its impact, and the 1965 demonstrations that began the modern Armenian campaign for justice.
I look at that era from the mid-1920’s to 1965, when the genocide disappeared from the world’s consciousness. Armenians look at the quote of Hitler, and they look at that as a symbol of the costs of impunity in regards to punishing the perpetrators of the genocide. But it can be looked at in another way: How this event, which was so well-known, and inspired this huge international aid movement, disappeared from the world’s consciousness so quickly. By the mid 1960’s, outside of the Armenian world, it became the ‘forgotten genocide.’ How did the Armenians allow it to happen? There was a long era of public silence during which Armenians allowed the genocide to disappear from the public’s consciousness. These are issues no one has written about before, so that’s what makes this book different from others.

TB: Where did you conduct your research? What books helped you with your research?
MB: A lot of the earlier chapters had been covered by historians, so I looked at books by Vahakn Dadrian, Richard Hovanissian, Taner Akcam, and other historians who have covered the genocide era. But most of those books really come to an end by the mid to late 1920’s. Much of my research was mostly primary research since I had no books to rely upon. Some of the things I read were lots of Armenian American papers. I interviewed many Armenian advocates, both from this era and leading advocates from the 1960’s and 1970’s. I also did a lot of research at the National Archives, which allowed me to get an understanding of the United States’ position on the genocide issue, not just in the 1920’s or during President Woodrow Wilson’s era, but all the way through the present day. I also did a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests, again from the U.S. government, and retrieved files not available in the archives, so they needed to go through a security clearance. The last place I looked was the presidential libraries, which had a great deal of information about legislative efforts in dealing with Armenian Genocide resolutions that have been proposed in Congress since the 1970’s.

TB: Did you encounter any roadblocks?
MB: Sometimes it requires perseverance and luck. In researching Yanikian’s trial, which took place in Santa Barbara in 1973, I called up the California courts and they didn’t have a trial transcript. I started looking for his defense lawyers but they had passed away, so I hit a brick wall. But I did find the person who personally prosecuted his case, the head of the district attorney’s office, so I was able to get the transcripts from him.
While teaching at the American University of Armenia, I had some materials about Yanikian I was reading. The dean at the time of the law department, Bruce Janigian, said he had worked as a legal assistant on the defense team in 1973. It was sheer luck finding someone in Yerevan who had worked on this case 35 years earlier. I made a Freedom of Information Act request and the FBI sent me 2,000 pages on his life, crime, and what he was prosecuted for. They had interviewed hundreds of people, and there was a forensics report. I also found the jury forewoman, so I got an idea of what the jury was thinking and how their deliberations went. I found half a dozen people who knew Yanikian. So with all of that together, I was able to put together an insider’s account of what happened.

TB: Was this book difficult for you to write, since you are Armenian?
MB: The hardest part actually was in writing about the genocide itself. I spent three or four months reading personal accounts of survivors. When you read stories about parents choosing which child lives, which child dies, mothers taking their children’s lives out of mercy, you wonder about the predicament these people were in. Looking at my daughter, who was just a few months old at the time, it was hard to absorb. After that, I was able to maintain a detached outlook needed for research.
 
TB: Does your book have anything to do with Armenian political parties, as they are an integral part of lobbying for genocide recognition? How do you see them today compared to how they were in the past?
MB: I touch upon the political parties, especially in the early sections of the book where I feel like they had a much greater impact on Armenian history and world events. But mostly I try to write through individuals and not through the parties. For instance, I write about Simon Vratsian, the last prime minister of the first Armenian Republic that came to an end in 1920. He’s a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, so I try to write about him and not the party that he was a member of.

TB: What do you want readers to take from this book?
MB: For Armenian readers, I want them to learn about a history that we’re largely ignorant about. Young Armenians, born after the 1960’s, don’t really know how the recognition movement began and how this campaign for justice began. Before I started my research, I was ignorant about these things as well. We have inherited not only the scars of the genocide but a campaign for justice from previous generations. We deserve to know the origins and evolution of this campaign.
For non-Armenians, I want them to appreciate why this still matters. A lot of people I ran into while writing this book would ask me why Armenians still persist since it’s been almost a 100 years since the genocide took place. I want them to understand and appreciate that it still matters. Even today, these issues of denial and impunity resonate not only for Armenians but for genocides across the world. Finally, there are very few moments of social justice that have lasted this long and span the world.

***

Michael Bobelian, a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is a lawyer, journalist, and grandson of genocide survivors. His work has appeared in Forbes.com, American Lawyer, and Legal Affairs magazine, and has been featured on NPR’s Leonard Lopate Show. He resides in New York City with his wife and daughter.
For more information about
Children of Armenia, visit www.childrenarmenia.com.

October Book Tour Schedule:
Oct. 7, 7 p.m.—At the Books & Greetings bookstore in Northvale, N.J. (271 Livingston St.)
Oct. 8, 7 p.m.—At NAASR in Belmont, Mass. (395 Concord Ave.)
Oct. 15, 7 p.m.—At the Zohrab Center in New York (630 Second Ave.)
Oct. 18, 4 p.m.—At the Ararat-Eskijian Museum in Mission Hills, Calif. (15105 Mission Hills Road)
Oct. 27, 7 p.m.—At Chaucer’s bookstore in Santa Barbara, Calif. (3321 State St.)

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Taleen Babayan

Taleen Babayan earned her masters in journalism from Columbia University in 2008 and her bachelors degree in history and international relations from Tufts University in 2006. Her work has been published widely in both Armenian and non-Armenian media. She can be contacted at [email protected]

1 Comment

  1.  I had the opportunity to listento Mr.Bobelian at the NAASR sponsored event this past Thursday.
    The topic is fascinating and his approach is quite interesting. His comments were articulate and really engaged his audience(a packed room).I would also like to that the book is a “good read” and
    reviews a very important subject in the post-Genocide Armenian-American experience.

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