In April, millions around the world marked the 101st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, during which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were systematically slaughtered by authorities in Turkey (what was then the Ottoman government). Among those millions marking the anniversary, of course, were not Turkish officials, nor the United States government (despite President Obama’s promise to do so). There are precious few Armenians alive today who can say they were present during those dark times. However, characterizing today’s Armenian as being bound by transgenerational grief, Aline Ohanesian reminds those that question why today’s Armenians relive those horrors of a century ago via Ani, the niece of Lucine/Seda: “Because it happened. Remembering it is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice.” While forty-four U.S. states acknowledge the term “genocide” as referring to the atrocities that took place, the United States has refused to join the twenty-nine other countries around the world that have also recognized the validity of the term, unwilling to upset Turkey – a NATO member – and a country the U.S. considers an important ally.
In an impressively captivating first novel, Ohanesian draws on the experiences she learned from her grandmother. She utilizes the method of the historical back-and-forth from present to past to tell the story of young Orhan, who must make sense out of the apparently strange bequests of his suddenly late grandfather, Kemal Türkoglu. The novel displays moments of predictability, which does not render it any easier to put down.
What must be considered the book’s greatest contribution is that it trumpets the message of remembrance while tackling thorny issues of identity. Such issues have always been around, though only gaining greater traction (in Western academic literature) in this so-called post-colonial, globalized world. More specifically, what does it truly mean to be a “Turk” or “Armenian” (or any other nationality, for that matter) in 2016? Until the end of the novel, Orhan’s entire identity is derived from his knowledge that Kemal Türkoglu, a Turkish national, was his grandfather. He finally learns that his lineage is far more complicated. The identity of his true grandfather appears unknown (though likely Turkish), but the woman (Fatma) he had always affectionately referred to as “Auntie,” was actually his Kurdish grandmother.
Other issues complicate the prejudices that always arise upon learning of one’s nationality. Orhan, always having considered himself a Turk, had his own difficulties with the Turkish state. Moreover, Orhan, being a young man, was obviously not alive at the time of the genocide. Can it not be understood that, as a Turk indoctrinated with Turkish state education, that he would – at least initially – not view what began in 1915 with the same eyes as any Armenian? Was it his run-in with the Turkish authorities that provided him with the open-mindedness necessary to at least consider what Seda and Ani told him? Or was it the objectivity that photography provided him that allowed him to view any position without preconceived notions?
Then, there is the interplay between Seda and her niece, Ani: an older generation tired of remembering the suffering, and a younger generation whose identity is inextricably tied to never forgetting what they themselves never experienced.
Of course, we have Seda herself. Born as Lucine, but convinced to take a Turkish name for her own safety, she thereafter lives the rest of her life with a Turkish name while remembering her suffering as an Armenian. This juxtaposes her relationship with a Turk, Kemal Türkoglu, the only man she ever loved.
The attempts to answer the questions Ohanesian’s novel raises could fill (indeed, have filled) entire libraries. That the book is beautifully written makes it all the more compelling (“From her paneless window, Seda can see the sun rising up again, its orange light chasing away all the sounds in her head”).
With remembering comes enduring, and vice versa – a message conveyed to Lucine by her father at a very young age:
“What your grandfather didn’t understand is that strength comes in different disguises. It does not always ride a mighty horse or wield a shiny sword. Sometimes we have to be like a riverbank, twisting and turning along with the earth, withstanding swells and currents. Enduring.”
[signoff predefined=”Social Media Reminder” icon=”facebook”][/signoff]