Chris Bohjalian to Speak at Columbia University

For years, the stories were told in hushed voices. The tragic true-life tales would escape the lips of the survivors in the privacy of their homes as they revealed their struggles to family members, not only to ease the burdens of their harrowing pasts, but to make sure one of the most mournful chapters in the history of their people would never be forgotten.

Chris Bohjalian (Photo by Tom Vartanedian)
Chris Bohjalian (Photo by Tom Vartanedian)

For too long, it had been a story only for Armenians. With the emergence of a new generation of writers, however, came a new approach. They believed that the stories previously told in secrecy should now be told to the world. The latest of these is New York Times best-selling author Chris Bohjalian’s critically acclaimed novel The Sandcastle Girls. On Thursday evening, April 18, Bohjalian will lead a book discussion at Columbia University, in an event hosted by the Armenian Center at Columbia.

A love story that takes place during the Armenian Genocide between an Armenian engineer and an American nurse, The Sandcastle Girls follows a genocide survivor’s granddaughter as she tries to uncover her family’s history and the sorrows of the Armenian massacres that she learns about along the way.

Bohjalian, who is the author of 16 books, has received high praise and accolades from literary critics and readers since his first novel was published 25 years ago. His novel, Midwives, was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, and Winfrey also selected The Sandcastle Girls as her Book of the Week last summer. Literary praise for Bohjalian’s writing and for the accurate historical portrayal of the Armenian Genocide in The Sandcastle Girls has been covered by such major news outlets as USA Today, Washington Post, and the Boston Globe.

Although the lamentable premise of The Sandcastle Girls is familiar to Armenians, it has been a moment of pride to have such a book published, as they continue to seek justice and worldwide acceptance for the atrocities committed against their ancestors.

“I have been overwhelmed by the support for this novel by the Armenian community around the world. I am deeply and profoundly grateful,” said Bohjalian, whose Armenian grandparents on his father’s side were survivors of the Armenian Genocide. “Whenever I’ve spoken to audiences that are predominantly Armenian, I have left moved beyond words,” he said.

The reaction from non-Armenians towards The Sandcastle Girls has been equally positive. “Consistently non-Armenians have asked me the same sort of question: Why did no one teach me this? Why does no one know this story? They are appalled and, sometimes, aghast,” said Bohjalian. “This is a part of our story that too few people know, and we all hope this novel will help open people’s eyes to a cataclysmic injustice.”

Mark Momjian, the chair of the Armenian Center, expressed the significance of Bohjalian’s appearance on campus. “The enormous power of Chris Bohjalian’s literary art has been recognized worldwide, and his masterful novel, The Sandcastle Girls, is of particular interest to the area’s Armenian-American community, who in just two years will be commemorating the centennial of the Armenian Genocide,” said Momjian. “I know the center’s friends and supporters are eager to hear this distinguished writer, whose originality and brilliance have touched so many hearts.”

Dr. Nicole Vartanian, the vice chair of the Armenian Center, said the Armenian Center is excited to be hosting Bohjalian upon the paperback release of The Sandcastle Girls. “His passionate portrayal of love and loss set amidst the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide has rightly earned him widespread praise from all corners of the literary community,” she said. “It seems particularly fitting that our event will take place at Teachers College, given the rich and robust educational content which forms the foundation of Chris’ novels. The Sandcastle Girls is an especially poignant example of this, as the story has educated masses of Chris’ loyal readers who learned the horrific events of the genocide through the quality of his research and the power of his prose.”

“My sense is that this may be the most important book I ever write,” said Bohjalian, who first attempted to write about the Armenian Genocide 15 years ago. “I hope with all my heart that this time I have gotten it right.”

The book discussion of The Sandcastle Girls will take place on Thurs., April 18, at 7 p.m. in the Cowin Conference Center (147 Horace Mann Hall) at Columbia University Teachers College, 525 W. 120th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. A question-and-answer session, reception, and a book signing will take place after the presentation.

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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 babayant@gmail.com

3 Comments

  1. Dear Taleen

    Thank you for such an informative article. I’d just like to point out that it’s a misconception to think that the stories of the Armenian Genocide were only told amongst the Armenians. During the First World War and its aftermath, Americans were very familiar with what was going on. In fact, the stories of a number of Armenian survivors of the Genocide were widely publicised. They include Aurora Mardiganian and others such as Azadouhi (Zade) and Arshalouys. In fact, at one point in the 1920s, it was stated that almost every school aged child in America had somehow contributed towards the collections of the Near East Relief organisation. What Chris Bohjalian is doing is simply “reclaiming” a forgotten part of American social history. We need to remind Americans of this fact.

  2. Long time reader and fan of Mr. Bohjalian, he pulled off writing a novel with the Armenian Genocide theme perfectly. A risk, executed masterfully.

    Excellent article and words by Mr. Bohjalian, the audience is in for a treat on April 18 as he is an impressive speaker. We are lucky to have such a prominent and talented writer among us, thank you Chris.

  3. I have just finished reading ‘The Sandcastle Girls’ and I absolutely loved the book. It was a great read.
    However, there was a sentence in the novel that left me in shock. I kept reading it over and over again just to make sure I had read it correctly. I definetly had, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I truly wonder if anybody else who had read the novel realised the enormous mistake that Mr Bohjalian had made. Namely, the sentence that I still can’t get out of my head goes like this: ”There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Serbs and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?” Now how on earth is it possible that the writer put the word ‘Serbs’ alongside all the other mentioned nationalities in that particular sentence? Did he not do his homework? Did he not hear of the Bosnian genocide? Genocide was NOT done to the Serbs. They were the ones doing the genocide to the Bosnian people in the civil war that occurred in the first half of the nineties in former Yugoslavia. It was the Serbs who systematically killed, slaughtered, bombed, burned and starved the poor BOSNIANS. They wanted to annihilate the whole nation just because they were muslim. It was the Serbs who invented the ‘rape camps’ in modern war fare, where hundreds and perhaps thousands of Bosnian women were raped and then kept alive through pregnancy so as that they could give birth to little Serbs. They wanted the next generation of Serbs coming out of Bosnian wombs. How sick is that?
    Do you get my point?!?!
    What a huge mistake Mr Bohjalian has made. I hope he reads this, though I doubt it. I would love to hear his comment on this sentence. I think he owes the Bosnian people an apology. A big one too.
    In the end, I would like to point out that I am not Bosnian nor do I have any Bosnian family connections, however I’m very well aquainted with the whole former Yugoslav war for I live in these parts and have lived through the war, and not being Bosnian but feeling so offended by what the writer has written, just goes to show what a colossal error he has made.

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