Category Archives: literary

Some Writers Just Don’t Fit In

elifshafak.jpgMariane Pearl, wife of assassinated WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl, has written a story for Glamour magazine on novelist Elif Shafak, who is a lightning rod of controversy in Turkey. Pearl writes:

At the relatively young age of 36, Elif has written six novels. “I give a voice to the underbelly of society,” she says. Her first book, Pinhan—The Sufi, tells the story of a hermaphrodite mystic. Her most recent novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, published in 2006, was a best-seller…[and she is on] the hit list of writers targeted by far-right groups. Its offense? Tackling Turkey’s unspeakable World War I-era massacre of a million of its Armenian residents. Turkey does not officially acknowledge the slaughter, which is often called the first genocide of the twentieth century. Yet one of Elif’s characters, speaking on behalf of a young Armenian American, boldly says: “I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives in the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide….”

Elif just wanted to “build a bridge between Turks and Armenians,” she says, but for the latter to forgive, the former must stop denying.(source)

In other fringe literary news, the Guardian reported this week that newly declassified files demonstrate that the British government feared that George Orwell was subversive because of his fashion-sense (hipster beware!):

A Sergeant Ewing of Special Branch, monitoring Orwell’s attempt to recruit Indians to work for the BBC’s India service in January 1942, noted: “This man has advanced communist views … He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.” (source)


The Birth of Armenian American Literature

kherdian-final.jpgI 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.

fgb.jpgThere 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?

  1. First, the people in the book, because none of them know the work of their contemporaries in the way they should.
  2. the second generation, who are nearly as clueless of our work as we are of theirs.
  3. Armenian-Americans who read, whoever they may be.
  4. Armenians in the homeland.
  5. American writers.
  6. Americans.
  7. 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.

Federico Garcia Lorca, 1929-1931

“Self-portrait in New York”

Back away from that period!

The Guardian’s David Crystal has a great blog post about punctuation and how some people are just too anal when it comes to their commas and periods :

…if punctuation was something which everyone completely agreed about[…]then it would be easy to identify errors. There are indeed many areas of language where such agreement exists…The problem with punctuation is that most of its features do not present such a clear-cut state of affairs. Alternative usages exist, and there are many exceptions to the rules.

His post is in response to the highly popular Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, who gave us “permission to love punctuation”–I can’t be the only one that wants to hit her for being obnoxious, can I?

It is absurd to think that things should simply be ONE WAY! I’ll let Crystal finish her off:

I don’t like an approach which blames people for their handicap, even in jest. I think such energy would be better spent trying to improve an education system which has left huge holes in their literacy. Such a situation requires sympathetic intervention, not balaclava’d condemnation. That is why I am zero tolerant about Trussian zero tolerance.


As I discovered today at work, some people are far too touchy when it comes to language issues. I thought I was going to be lynched when I expressed sympathy for Merriam-Webster’s addition of “ginormous” to the lexiconit’s not a ginormous deal, right?

Frankly, I’m a little scared to tell people what I really think about hyphens, n-dashes and m-dashes.

Trekking Central Asia

ganja_levitation2.jpgOccasionally I fumble upon a blog that I quickly become addicted to…well, my latest fix is Joshua Kocera’s blog “Istanbul-Beijing,” which does a beautiful job of documenting his travels from…wait for it…Istanbul to Beijing.

I first found Josh when he was wandering Georgia, poised to enter Armenia. His take on Armenia–which I’ve been to three times–pointed out stuff people never seem to notice and proved to me his perspective was fresh and new.

Nowadays, Josh (a veteran blogger from Iraqi Kurdistan–and a journalist with articles in The Nation & Jane’s Defence Weekly) is touring Azerbaijan and each post is getting better and better:

…I went to the service at a Wahabbi/Salafist mosque, and found people exceedingly welcoming. I had never attended an actual Friday service before, much less a Wahabbi one, and they let me sit in front as long as I faced forward, toward Mecca…The sermon was in Azeri so I didn’t understand a bit. But the imam was genial and conversational and made people laugh several times. After the sermon I asked my ad hoc translator what it was about. “He told us how to be good Muslims, and what not to do,” he said. “Like what?” I asked. “Like not to be suicide bombers,” he replied. I found people there very concerned about making it clear that they were not terrorists. “Did he really specifically mention suicide bombers?” I asked. “No, but we understand that he means it,” was the reply. Then I interviewed the imam who was very friendly (except that he didn’t like gays, Armenians or women who wear pants). (source)

No wonder Josh is a bit bored in Azeri-land, no chess players, drag queens, business women in power suits, sounds pretty dull to me.

Though, is it just me or isn’t it a little scary that Wahabbism (or Wahhabism) is flourishing in Azerbaijan? For those that don’t know, that’s the virulent strain of fundamental Islam that shies away from images, pop music or practically anything western…hmmm…another Muslim-dominated republic stumbling to insanity…

I suggest checking out Josh’s travelogue, it’s chocked full of great tidbits about Azerbaijan:

…and, of course, Armenia:

jk2.jpgIf you want to know what he looks like, I tracked a pic of him at Mediabistro (I love the internet!) and posted it above…good luck Josh, I’m staying tuned.

War Poetry

iraqiindesert2.jpgNicholas D. Kristof’s column in the New York Times on Monday really touched me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Last month, he invited his readers to send poems for his second Iraq Poetry Contest and published some of the most moving two days ago. One, by a fourth grade student in the South Bronx, Raphael Sosa, is chilling:

I feel sad.
my friends are angry;
I’m scared.

how did my father die?
who killed him?

my father has died.
the tv tells me we won
but my father died.

my father is dead.

April’s Cruelty

The tireless Simon M. at Blogian asks T.S. Eliot’s interesting question, Is April truly the cruelest month? (link)

Over at Haigazian University in Beirut, the Dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, “noted that the month of April witnesses two sad spots in the collective memory of our local community; one is the Armenian Genocide during the First World War, and the other is the start of the Lebanese civil war back in 1975.” (source)

excerpt from THE WASTE LAND by T. S. Eliot

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
(complete poem)