A new investigative memoir explores a century of murder, memory, and the Armenian-American Dream.
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?"
FP: How come the annihilation of the Armenians is not discussed in our media and higher culture?
Hovannisian: The two most dangerous things, explosive in combination: apathy and denial.
But at least the first is to be expected. The Armenian Genocide is by now almost a hundred years old. And that's just about the statute of limitations on memory -- unless, of course, memory is guarded and cherished and championed from the dust.
The second reason is more sinister. To this day, the Turkish government denies the reality of the Armenian Genocide, and its allies in the American government -- under the influence of cowardice and politics -- remain shamefully silent on the issue. And let me say that this silence is not so much a sin against the Armenian people as it is a sin against the American people. The fact is that the undeniable evidence of the Armenian Genocide was collected, in great part, by the American ambassadors, consuls, and missionaries who were stationed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. It was Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Ambassador to Constantinople, who saw first those massacres as "a campaign of race extermination" -- the dictionary definition of "genocide." The word itself hadn't been coined yet, but when Raphael Lemkin, a Polish scholar of Jewish descent, did coin it in 1943, he himself applied it to the crime perpetrated by the Young Turk regime against the Armenian people.
FP: The reality of Armenia and post-Soviet “democracy”?
Hovannisian: My father moved to Armenia in 1989 with all the dream and faith and ambition in the world. But the truth is that he learned very soon that democracy would not grow so easily on soil tyrannized and communized for centuries. Today the Armenian government is ruled by "oligarchs" -- a strange breed of businessman, thug, and politician -- which are miniature versions of the same surrounding the Kremlin in Moscow. Elections are rigged. Corruption is rampant. And by now it is clear that Armenia has yet to overcome the shadow of Communism.
Of course my father is not the foreign minister anymore. He is the leader of the opposition Heritage Party in parliament.
FP: Share with us a bit about your writing past, how you got started.
Hovannisian: It began with sonnets to imaginary mistresses; that was in elementary school. Then, sometime in middle school, I got drawn into the dark and twisted netherworld of Edgar Allan Poe. In high school, I turned political. Frontpage, actually, was among the first magazines to publish my fury and resentment of the academic establishment: the chronic political correctness, the attack on intellectual diversity, the sabotage of academic freedom. With my friend Alec Mouhibian, whose dazzling essays you have also read on Frontpage, we put out a newsletter called "A Dose of Sense" and relished our newfound notoriety. Later at UCLA, I wrote a weekly column for The Daily Bruin, then moved out to start my own paper, The Bruin Standard -- guardian of the counterculture.
I don't write much politics anymore, but my inconsolable individualism is, I think, the evidence of those days of battle.
FP: Any feedback on the book that has surprised you?
And do you feel now, perhaps, that you have achieved some liberation with the book having been written and published? Has your relationship with the “haunt” changed? Has a bit of a weight been taken off of you?
Hovannisian: I am surprised by your interest, to be honest -- and very grateful. The book has just been released to much excitement in the Armenian American communities, but it has yet to catch the attention of our national media. I get it. It does require a bit of imagination to pick up a book like mine, but I have to believe that those who invest some faith in Family of Shadows will be rewarded by it -- not because its author has any special talents, but because the story itself is truly dramatic, deeply meaningful, and so relevant to our world.
As for the "haunt," I must confess that I've only acquired new demons. Now I must live with the anxiety that I haven't really done justice to my family story. You know, I realized that it's an impossible thing to accomplish justice in words.
FP: Well, my friend, Family of Shadows is truly deeply meaningful and it's written with a profound voice and message. I wish you healing and can only say that, in my view, your brilliant and moving book brings immeasurable justice to your family’s story. You should be proud, not only of your gigantic effort, but also of the magnanimity of heart and mind that shines through your words -- and that clearly influenced you to take on this journey.
One feels after reading your book, and doing this interview with you, that one is in the company of a very special person -- a person that has accomplished the justice he seeks on so many realms.
Thank you, Garin K. Hovannisian, for not allowing the truth to be buried, for bringing respect to the memory of the 1.5 Armenians who were murdered by the Turks, and for bringing to light the fascinating and profoundly meaningful narrative of your family.
It was an honor to speak with you and to be a witness of your family's story that you have so elegantly and powerfully put into words.