I conducted an email interview with David Kherdian, the editor of a new anthology of first-generation Armenian American literature entitled, Forgotten Bread (Available at Amazon), which is slated to appear in bookstores this fall–coincidentally, I contributed a short chapter on writer Peter Sourian.
We chatted about a project that many hope will revitalize a little known branch of Armenian and American literature, it is a body of work that has far too long been overlooked. As Kherdian reminds us in this interview, “…without our stories we are nothing.”
Why did you feel this book project was important?
I have something of the preservationist in me, and I didn’t want to have all (or nearly all) of these writers disappear without a trace. I’m also a born (or made) anthologist, (this is my 9th or 10th anthology), and a book maker as well. I mean I love to make books and ideas for making books come to me often. On a deeper level, I had wanted to refute the idea that those who followed Saroyan were followers of Saroyan (even though I was), with the belief among the general public that we were imitating him. What they couldn’t see, that was so clear to me, was that there is such a thing as an Armenian sensibility, and all of our work reflects this. It seemed extremely important to me to have this become known, so that we could squeeze out from under Saroyan’s burdensome influence.
How did you make your selections about which writers to include?
I had been carrying this idea around for going on 40 years, so I knew who all the writers were, and of course I knew the work of each one of them. There will also be a Notable Writers of the First Generation selection in the Appendix.
How did your opinion of Armenian American literature change during the course of this book?
There was only one new realization, and it was a Big One: I found that by assembling this anthology the creation of Armenian-American literature was born. You can say it was always there, but it was not known to be there and now it is something real. I will be interested to see what comes of this.
What was the biggest surprise for you, any unknown figures that proved to be more seminal than you first thought?
My estimation of each writers worth is the same now as it was before I began. Like I said, I had it all in my head and I knew it would be an important work long before I began, but not nearly as important as I see that it is now, and that is because I didn’t realize, until I put it all together, just how dynamic a book it would be.
There was one surprise, however, when I discovered that three writers I hadn’t considered before had, upon coming to America, made the decision to write in English instead of Armenian: Leon Serabian Herald, Emmanuel Varandyan, and Leon Surmelian. In my mind this qualified them as Armenian-American writers. These three lead off the book and add an exotic flavor that would not have been there otherwise. It is also amazing how timely their work is: Surmelian encounters Mexicans in one story and is taken for one and suffers discrimination; and then in his other story he befriends an Arab Muslim, and we see how–and with irony–their differences are resolved through their common humanity. The Varandyan story is set in the war torn Iraq of his day, with echoes that can be found in our own time.
Who do you think is the audience for the book?
- First, the people in the book, because none of them know the work of their contemporaries in the way they should.
- the second generation, who are nearly as clueless of our work as we are of theirs.
- Armenian-Americans who read, whoever they may be.
- Armenians in the homeland.
- American writers.
- some fraction of the rest of the world, small perhaps but real.
Any regrets? Are there stories you wish you could include?
No regrets because the selections are ample–the book runs to nearly 500 pages.
What do you think is the greatest contribution of Armenian American literature to America’s national literature? International literature?
All art enhances the general body that acts as the source of their stability, which in turn is the means for its continuance. Within this continuum it is necessary that each people have their own art that is crucial to their stability, for our stories contain us and reveal us and inform us and nurture us, filling us with the real pride that comes from having lived and endured, not only with our lives intact, but with our stories told. For without our stories we are nothing.
Your book zooms in on the first generation of Armenian American fiction. Any thoughts about the writers that followed…the second (or third) generation?
It is of course very different: For one thing we grew up in the shadow of the Genocide, which had a huge impact on all of us. Your generation is somewhat affected, but of course differently, just as you are different as Americans. Then too, a writer often mirrors his own time, and so our concerns will have been different, also our struggles, our troubles, and our needs. One thing I wanted to do with my book, by having the second generation writers do profiles on the first generation writers in the book, was to create a tradition, which of course did not exist before now. I would like to move forward with this idea by doing an anthology of the writers of the second generation, which would be a completely different book from Forgotten Bread. And full of surprises.
How is their writing different?
It has a different urgency. When I put the anthology together we will discover together just what that is.