I Ask You Ladies and Gentlemen is Leon Surmelian’s personal tale of deep sorrow and profound gratitude, of terrible loss and a lively embrace of life itself. The out-of-print book, first published in 1945, a bestseller in its time, was internationally acclaimed and translated into many languages.
The Armenian Institute, convinced of its relevance today, is bringing out a new edition for a new generation. With added photographs, a map, glossary and historical context, Surmelian’s memoir of his own experiences of surviving genocide and migrating to find shelter is a story that resonates strongly even today.
Growing up in multi-ethnic Trebizond (Trabzon), in what is now north-eastern Turkey, Surmelian enjoyed his extended Armenian family, his Greek neighbors and Turkish friends. In 1915, his childhood world shattered, his parents were deported and his siblings were divided and sent into hiding for safety.
The Armenian Genocide had begun, and he was soon on his own, his quest for survival forcing him on an adventurous and meandering journey from one fragile shelter to another. His idealistic vision of saving his people through agriculture took him on a scholarship to study in Kansas. There, on an isolated farm, he found an unexpected sense of belonging to this new, alien place, America. Amidst the harrowing losses, Surmelian eventually finds his way through his love of words and his poetry.
His zest for life is always present in his words, and there is much wry humor in his narrative capturing his determination to survive.
The devastation of a people and a culture, the struggles for survival of children as well as adults are far too familiar in our contemporary world. I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen is a witness to the sad news that little has changed, neither in the treatment of former neighbors as non-humans nor in the desperate courage and instinctive intelligence shown by the survivors searching for a new life. I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen is a book for today and a testimony to the humanity of survivors and the righteous who help them along the way.
Praise for I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen
There is an intimacy here, even though it is a memoir of displacement and mass murder. The big picture of a genocide – such a cold word for such unfathomable horror – is told from the vantage of a small boy, who remembers the smells and sounds of his hometown.
-Professor Ronald G. Suny, University of Michigan
Leon Surmelian wanted his bestselling and widely translated memoir to be known as “a universal story, the timeless legend of boyhood.” It is that, but it is also an astonishingly rich and nuanced portrait of an Armenian world lost to war and genocide. With fierce intelligence and beautiful prose, Surmelian tells his own tale of survival and renewal, and at the same time illuminates the tragic history of his people.
-Nancy Kricorian, author
Leon Surmelian’s I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen remains a vivid reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and the impact of genocide on a human soul. With a great command of detail, this masterful memoir recounts the horrors he witnessed as a child and the struggle to find a home. The lyricism and beauty of the prose enrich our understanding of the effects of diaspora on the Armenian people. This masterpiece deserves to be widely read. I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, please ensure this book never goes out of print again.
-Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York
Leon Surmelian (1905 – 1995) was born in Trebizond, the third of four children in a large extended Armenian family. He survived the Genocide, moving between cities and countries, finding his brother in 1918 in a school in Istanbul. From there he went on scholarship to Kansas State University where he took a degree in agriculture, later becoming the best-known Armenian-American writer after William Saroyan at that time.
His translations and re-tellings of stories include Apples of Immortality: Folktales of Armenia (1958); The Daredevils of Sassoun (1964) and in nonfiction, Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness. He died in California.
About the Armenian Institute
A UK registered charity, the Armenian Institute is an arts and culture charity dedicated to making Armenian culture and history a living experience through innovative programs, educational resources, workshops, lectures, exhibits and performances.