Special for the Armenian Weekly
Irredeemable loss, violence, and atrocities; how to write about these subjects in a novel for young people?
Most stories, written for young adults, even those with a fairly violent and emotive plot, end on a feel-good high. Which is as it should be, except that for hundreds of thousands of Armenian teenagers during the closing years of the Ottoman Empire and into the 20th century, there could be no immediate feel-good result. Even those who escaped the trials, cruelties, and loss had to wait years to rebuild their lives, often at the mercy of strangers, and miles and miles away from their homeland.
It came to me that I had not read or heard of a novel written expressly to engage young Armenians in the tragic history of their people. There are plenty of love stories and semi-biographies about people who managed to survive the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Most of these stories are just about that: the genocide of 1915. None seem to address the events leading up to it, the social and day-to-day implications of what went before.
Of course, there are many—no, countless—worthy and serious tomes and articles about the subject, and this year especially it has been difficult to pass a day without seeing something written about the Armenian Genocide. Most Armenian children are perfectly aware of what happened in 1915. How could they not be? In any Armenian household, they must daily see and hear about the latest protest against Turkey’s denial of this terrible deed 100 years ago. Yet, how many actually now know what life was like before 1915 for Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire? How many are able to make the connection in feelings and actions between them and a child of similar age 100 or 120 years ago? They see the war in Syria raging on in real time on their television sets; they play violent games on their phones. Do they see the parallels?
There is a hunger among 15-year-olds and older children for adventure stories. Stories of hardship and survival—stories where they can imagine themselves as the protagonist, who at the end of an artificially harrowing period emerges unscathed to be crowned in laurels and showered with gold. For some young Armenians, there seems to be a shying away from the subject of who they are as Armenians and the question of why they live so far from their ancestral lands.
Growing up in the 60s, it was ever hard for me to explain what I was and why I did not have a country of my own. It still is. Of course, it is doubly hard now, as my problem is that I feel very much a Western Armenian and not just an Armenian.
This is the subject that I most wanted to address. Growing up in the 60s, it was ever hard for me to explain what I was and why I did not have a country of my own. It still is. Of course, it is doubly hard now, as my problem is that I feel very much a Western Armenian and not just an Armenian. Happy as I am that there is now a country called the Republic of Armenia, I cannot help but feel that I am very much part of a dying breed. Western Armenians are fast disappearing within the folds of what the diaspora means. They are being engulfed by the new influx from the Eastern, Republic of Armenia. Western Armenians, already much diluted and subsumed in their host nations’ cultures, are losing their very Armenian-ness, their Western Armenian language, their very names. A Western Armenian can visit the republic, even go and live there, but he will not be an Eastern Armenian. All this is very difficult to explain to anyone who asks the question, “Where do you come from?”
My story goes a little way to explain this question, not only geographically, but historically and linguistically. For, why do we use so many Turkish and foreign words when speaking Western Armenian? How were Armenians treated in the Ottoman Empire, where they were living in their own Ancestral Homelands but as subjects of another people? Why did so many of them leave, even before their mistreatment had become unbearable?
For many years, I had felt that I wanted to write about this—perhaps as a biography of one of my ancestors. I tried this one and that, but they never really provided me with the voice I needed to get what I wanted to say across. As I read and read around the subject of their lives, and asked and interviewed as many members of my family who were still able to remember, more and more of their stories began to emerge. Their various quirks now making sense. We have all seen the pictures of poor and ragged children, starving mothers and other starvelings in the periodicals of Western newspapers of 1915. We don’t see many pictures of happy and well-to-do families, decently clothed and properly nourished. Why did my family have certain objects in our house? Why did we eat different food from other Armenians? Why wouldn’t my grandmother speak Armenian when she could perfectly well understand it? Why did she read the Bible in Turkish written in Armenian script? Why were some of my great aunts so fearful to hear a knock at the door? Why did they all live in rooms darkened by heavy curtains? Why were some of them Protestant and some Armenian Apostolic? Why did some of their friends have tattoos on their fingers and hands, sometimes on their chins and necks? Why did some of the women for ever seem to be knitting and crocheting clothes for the daughters who might one day return? Why did the husband of one of my great aunts spend all his time sitting fully dressed to go out—including coat and hat—staring out of a window at the wall beyond? Who were the people, men with great luxuriant moustaches, women with abundant long hair, children in smart school clothes, in the photographs in ornate frames in my grandmothers’ bedrooms?
Why did [my grandmother] read the Bible in Turkish written in Armenian script? Why were some of my great aunts so fearful to hear a knock at the door? Why did they all live in rooms darkened by heavy curtains? … Why did some of their friends have tattoos on their fingers and hands, sometimes on their chins and necks? Why did some of the women for ever seem to be knitting and crocheting clothes for the daughters who might one day return? … Who were the people, men with great luxuriant moustaches, women with abundant long hair, children in smart school clothes, in the photographs in ornate frames in my grandmothers’ bedrooms?
One day when I had added yet more notes to the ones I already had, I heard my niece rhapsodise about an adventure book she was reading. Oh how the heroine protagonist’s trials had captured her. She was almost in tears as she described the adventures of the girl who had to undergo certain trials and witness the unnecessary deaths of some of her friends. She had to survive and she did so cleverly. I thought, why should my niece be so captivated by this story? What if she read something that could have happened in real life to one of her ancestors?
That is when the boy’s voice came to me and I realized that the stories of my grandfathers and their siblings were every bit as exciting as the work of fiction. The only difference, of course, is that their stories cannot end on a feel-good note at the end of each chapter or volume. So I set off to write an adventure novel about the 1915 genocide. But first I had to address the causes, and therefore I had to address the period of history preceding it, so I wrote instead about the massacres of 1896.
The voice of the boy came quite easily, as I gave him some of the interests which had bound me to my uncle: nature, anthropology, the love and care of animals, the company of older people as well as one’s contemporaries, the companionship of animals, reading everything possible about old things, the National Geographic Magazine, American Scientist, the Daily Telegraph History of the First World War, the novels of Jules Verne and Dumas, Dickens, Shakespeare, Armenian fables, and the Daredevils of Sassoon.
I realized that here I had a way of telling our story, the story of our nation—complicated though it is—and the story of my family. I wanted to make it as informative as possible without making it into a text book dirge. I also wanted to convey that without knowledge of our own history, we are nothing—just more beings on the face of the earth. Politeness, caring for others, and being kind to animals are fundamentals of our existence too. I hope that I have succeeded in conveying all this. I hope to write two more books: one dealing with the 1915 genocide, the other with the defeat of Turkey in World War I and what that meant for Western Armenians.
R.P. Sevadjian is the author of In the Shadow of the Sultan, a historical coming of age novel set during the Hamidian Massacres of 1896. It is available from amazon.co.uk.