A Review of Forgotten Bread: First-Generation Armenian American Writers
David Kherdian’s anthology Forgotten Bread is a valuable contribution to our heritage. For one thing, it establishes a canon of first-generation Armenian-American writers and offers them in a handsome and accessible volume, allowing us to appreciate their achievement and value. Kherdian has selected well, providing generous samplings of these poets and fiction writers that reveals their welcome diversity as well as their similarities.
For another thing, Kherdian enhanced the volume hugely by his selection of talented next-generation writers who offered appreciations of their predecessors. This was a courtesy that, with some exceptions, the first generation could not perform for those who came before, separated as they were, in most cases, by language. The Armenian literary tradition of modern times, established by such writers as Abovyan, Zohrab, Tumanyan and others, were largely unavailable and certainly underappreciated. So were the immigrant writers, like Hagop Asadourian and Souren Manuelian, and others of the Nor Kir movement who continued to write in Armenian in the 1930s and 40s. But for the work of dedicated translators like Diana Der Hovanessian, they would, at best, be known only as names by most Armenian Americans.
Kherdian sees the First Generation writers as seeking to hold on to a national identity after the massacres, struggling for “dignity, identity, and meaning.” Thus, his anthology is “a record of our gift to ourselves and an offering to our two nations.” This is clearly true of the writings of Leon Serabian Herald, Emmanuel P. Vanandyan, Leon Surmelian, and A. L. Bezzerides (all born abroad), who identify directly with their Armenian heritage.
It is also true of many writers of the next generation, very conscious of emerging from a tradition. Helen Philibosian writes, “My mind is American,/ they say,/ but I say,/ perhaps half.” Diana Der-Hovanessian observes, “When your father dies, say the Armenians/your sun shifts forever./And you walk in his light.” David Kherdian addresses this issue in the form of a question: “What do we gain from our parents/that was never ours/but in being theirs was ours?” Peter Najarian’s Daughters of Memory is a well-imagined and extended effort to recreate the thoughts of women who survived the massacres and reflect on their memories even while living in a very different present. Peter’s Sourian’s deeply moving story “Death of an Art Dealer” beautifully evokes the preciousness of things of memory. Marjorie Housepian’s evocation of Armenian-American family life in her novel A Houseful of Love is joyous, humorous, and touching, as is the story offered in the anthology “How Levon Dai Was Surrendered to the Edemuses.”
Sometimes the very different present leads the author back to her Armenian roots. Arlene Avakian’s feminist activism on behalf of present-day American women leads her to record the experiences of her grandmother. Negotiating with other cultures leads her to connect with her own, almost against her will: “I know this maintenance of traditions/and have raged against it most of life,” she says, but when she cooks an Armenian meal for friends and reads the recipe titles, “I hear my grandmother’s voice say the words I now barely understand./I mouth the words and my heart pounds.”
Certainly the American-born generation acknowledged their links to their Armenian heritage, but it was second hand, as experienced through their parents. The main content of that heritage tended to be the abnormal experience of suffering: of being ripped violently from one’s home, of the deaths of parents and siblings, of misery, and exile. A typical first-generation protagonist is a young person negotiating his or her place in the “new” world in the context of their Armenian relatives. While experience of the parental generation was of pain, nostalgia and yearning, the younger generation, living in a world of expanding opportunities, also felt the thrill of wider horizons and new possibilities. As Harold Bond summarizes it, “Out of Marash and/Musa Dagh, Aintab/ and Ourfa, it is/ the same story of the bloodbath” that leads the survivors to “picket/the UN building/ in memory of the/massacres,” while “in/Fresno, the dark-haired/ youngbloods bury their/ guns. They are eying/their fathers’ daughters./ Two by two they have/disappeared into the vineyards.” They are planting new roots, making new generations.
So it is, I think, that the motives of those born in the US—Saroyan and after—were more individual and personal. They aimed to succeed in the language of the land that was new and strange to their parents, but unequivocally home to them. The story that brought Saroyan to instant fame—The Man on the Flying Trapeze, published here—has no Armenian roots at all. Because the young man who starves to death at the story’s end might have been of any nationality or race, the story touched a wide audience very deeply. William Saroyan is, after all, part of American literary history. He is available to most Armenian Armenians (if that is not too odd a phrase) only in translation. Thus the paradox: Armenian talent dispersed and mingled with the wider stream of America and the world (not to mention the other places where Armenians settled and prospered as creative artists).
Had the collection only contained the writings of those mentioned above (and others, like Harry Barba, whose ferocious energy is on good display in these pages), it would have been welcome. But the volume is raised far above that by the high quality of the introductions to each first-generation author by an author of the next generation. The pieces are uniformly appreciative, but also authoritative and balanced in their assessments. They deserve mention and appreciation here: Nancy Agabian, Mark Arax, Christopher Atamian, David Stephen Calonne, Gregory Djanikian, Mona Ghuneim, Gary Goshgarian, Aris Janigian, Nancy Kricorian, Arthur Nersesian, Aram Saroyan, Alan Semerdjian, Hrag Varjabedian, Hrag Vartanian, and Patricia Saffarian Ward. Here, if you will, we find the makings of another canon, to be extended to another generation. Even at a distance in time and generation, they may recreate the world of their grandparents in their own spaces, as the second-generation poet Peter Balakian has done, recalling himself as an eight year old, lying on an oriental rug, “sleeping in the sweetness of vegetable dyes—/the pongy soil of my grandparents’ world.” Kherdian’s anthology creates the bridge that will connect many generations.
David Kherdian’s Forgotten Bread: First-Generation Armenian American Writers (Heyday Books, Berkeley, 2007) is available at Heyday Books and other online booksellers.