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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Garin K. Hovannisian, a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A writer living in Los Angeles and Yerevan, Armenia, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of the new investigative memoir, Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream (HarperCollins), just released on September 21.
FP: Garin K. Hovannisian, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about your new book.
Let’s begin with what inspired you to write it.
Hovannisian: I don’t think I was so much inspired as I was haunted — possessed, in a way, by this dark and complex and deeply dramatic story of my family, which contains within it the complete history of Armenia, from the Genocide of 1915 to the present day. For me, writing Family of Shadows was an act not of inspiration but of liberation.
FP: Share with us what the book is about.
Hovannisian: Family of Shadows is an American Dream story with one magnificent twist. Of course it begins as a classic immigrant story: My great-grandfather Kaspar watches the murder of his family and the destruction of his Armenian homeland in 1915. He escapes to the great San Joaquin Valley of California, where he cultivates a small farm and begins investing in real estate. He realizes the Dream, and this is where most immigrant stories end.
But it is only here that our story actually begins, because my grandfather Richard is not happy on the farm. He loathes the endless labor and he is haunted by the figure of his father — a man who almost never speaks about his past, but through whom the past screams out in the middle of many nights. And so Richard resolves to find the source of his father’s nightmares. He leaves the farm for Berkeley and Beirut and ultimately for UCLA, where he pioneers the field of Armenian Studies in the United States and becomes a world authority on genocide.
And now our narrative takes a twist truly unprecedented, because my father Raffi, who goes to public schools, plays football, makes the student council, and graduates from the finest universities of law and diplomacy in the United States, is himself a man born out of context. Like his father before him, he rebels. He cheats destiny. He jumps over his own shadow. In 1989, as a democracy movement is gaining momentum in Soviet Armenia, my father quits his law firm in Los Angeles and moves with me and my mother to the homeland. When Armenia eventually declares its independence in 1991, my father — an American citizen — is appointed the republic’s first minister of foreign affairs.
Maybe you’ll say my father gave up the American Dream. He’d probably tell you that the American Dream isn’t about achieving liberty, but about sharing liberty, returning liberty to native lands.
FP: Address the Shadows for us.
Hovannisian: In college I heard a line from Pindar, the ancient Greek poet: “What is a man? What is he not? Man is what a shadow would dream to be.” This book is about shadows who dream to be men. It is about individuals — Kaspar, the survivor; Richard; the pioneer scholar; Raffi the repatriate and foreign minister — who have defied the great forces of history.
FP: Tell us the facts about the Genocide.
Hovannisian: The 20th century is the century of genocides, and those who have studied them in comparison — the scholar Israel Charny, for example — will tell you that each genocide depends on the precedent of the one before it. The most famous of these is, of course, the Holocaust, but it is not the first. The modern formula of national extermination was actually invented in 1915, when the Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire realized the systematic deportation and slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians.
“Go, kill without mercy,” Hitler told his top commanders a few days before the start of World War II. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
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