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A Review of Forgotten Bread: First-Generation Armenian American Writers

by | February 28th, 2012 | 14 comments
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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.

Comments

  1. Christopher Atamian says:

    Thank you for the review. David’s book deserves support–every Armenian should go out and buy two copies: one for themselves and one for a friend who may not know about the Armenian-American writers within its pages :)

  2. Thanks for the review and the recognition. But you might correct the spelling of my name.

  3. Harry, The reader(s) might not know that you were there from the earliest days, writing important criticism, book reviews, and essays on our writers in Ararat and other journals. This book is a celebration of your contribution as well, along with other surveyors of the scene, of which you were one of the leading players.

  4. martha ayres says:

    a wonderful, important book

  5. Arlene Avakian says:

    Very nice review of David Kherdian’s important book. I wonder what the author meant when he said we read Saroyan in translation.

  6. Harry Keyishian says:

    Arlene, sorry if I unclear: I meant that Armenians in Armenia read Saroyan in translation. As they do Twain and Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

    Thank you, David! Yes, we’ve both been through it, haven’t we? Thanks for continuing the good work.

    I’ll take the opportunity to regret leaving out the name of Michael J. Arlen in my review. He is definitely represented in the volume itself, and his sensitive positioning of cultures gives his work classic status.

    And I’ll take any opportunity offered to praise Jack Antreassian, the great founder, and Leo Hamalian, who carried things forward, and Aram Arkun, who brought the Armenian and English-speaking traditions closer.

  7. Michael Bobelian says:

    Great piece Harry for a deserving title.

    I have been exploring the possibility of organizing a group to develop an Armenian-American canon of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Essentially, to build on David’s efforts with a broader sweep.

  8. Harry Keyishian says:

    Great idea, Michael. Should have happened already! Maybe good for a Facebook page, at least to start? Just compiling a bibliography would be a lot of work, and a contribution.

  9. Aris Janigian says:

    Harry, it’s nice to see this seminal work finally getting it’s due in this magazine. Michael Bobelian is on to something, something that in the current climate is necessary if our the voices of our people are going to be heard. The old guard academics have disappeared for the most part and the one’s that appeared in their wake are advocates of one or another group of writers and writing (chicano, black, lesbian, jewish, etc). If you look at any English department these days, the faculty are carefully weighed to reflect all the relevant groups. The Armenians have no presence, and as long as we wait for someone outside of ourselves to give us that presence we will remain invisible. A project like Michael proposes, will go a long way toward forwarding the contribution we have made to American letters. Anyone who has spent time with Forgotten Bread, I think, will come to the the following conclusion: Armenian-Americans writers have a unique window onto the world. The days of training people to a single line of sight is over. If literature that matters matters at all these days, it matters in that it gives people an alternative way of seeing.

  10. Harry Keyishian says:

    Thanks, Aris. I agree–especially in an election year characterized by polarization–that it’s important to cultivate “alternative ways of seeing” and to open to new ideas. Whether the Armenian experience is “unique” is maybe less important that that it is deeply thought and felt (as revealed in David’s anthology) and that it supplements the perspectives of other cultures. As American mass culture is dominated by commercial interests plying fantasies, it’s important to seek and cherish the authentic, whereever we find it.

    As for David’s project, could this be crowd-sourced, like Wikipedia, by inviting the submission of bibliographic items? It might be a worthy project for Ararat to adopt and provide a web presence for.

  11. Harry Keyishian says:

    Sorry, when I said David’s project I meant the one that Michael Bobelian had mentioned earlier.

  12. Harry, if you go to Wikipedia and type in Armenian American literature, you get a short synopsis of Forgotten Bread, but that is all. This could be built on, but the lack of interest and support in our community for its artists is well known, and I don’t see that this will ever change. Wikipedia did post for a time the online interview I did with Hrag Vartanian when my book first came out. That interview, plus another, and two talks I gave on FB are collected in my latest book, Gatherings: Selected and Uncollected Writings, that is available thru Amazon.

  13. David Kherdian,

    “It is never lack of interest…”
    As you defined our cohorts…
    Don’t misjudge our souls…
    We have ten fingers in one hand…
    The time and work pulls us behind…!

    We are living us fugitive
    Running…from place to place
    Every now and then…
    Searching an eternal land to settle there
    Leaving our wings for others to fly with…!

    You mustn’t forget…
    You and me are born of genocided orphans…!

    The day will come, then everyone will read you book
    That day will be when we retire in a safe place
    When we are back to motherland
    No one can betray us any more…!
    There, we will read and forward you eternal e-mails…!

  14. Christopher Atamian says:

    Dear Sylva:

    I think that in this context you should give the Genocide and the orphan thing a rest and stop making excuses for our culture’s lack of support of education and culture. I know you do not intend it in this way–your poem is lovely on one level–but doing so is exploitative of our grandparents and of the horrors that they experienced.

    Let me tell you one thing that I think is happening in our culture, namely an inability to integrate new ideas or to reform antiquated cultural paradigms: I google searched, for example, and found no less than 4 Armenian churches currently being built–thousands exist already!– including one in the Ukraine for over $50 million that will be the largest in Europe…

    So we have billions of dollars to build churches, but no money to teach Armenian properly, to fund robust Armenology departments in our best universities, support our writers and artists, or open Armenian galleries and cultural centers? When I was an undergrad at Harvard, for example, there were rarely more than one of two course offered each year in Armenian studies but there were well over 50 or 60 courses for example in Jewish and Israeli/Yiddish culture (or related course in European Jewish thought etc…) –and these did not exist (except for Hebrew language) 50 years ago. So about this situation I have one thing to say: Amot!

    As for “everyone eventually reading Kherdian’s book,” i believe that it it sold some 500 copies: so my question to you is: in what lifetime? How many people now read Oshagan or Sarafian, for example? 250? 500?

    I fear that Unger Kherdian is not far off in his overall assessment.

    Christopher