Children’s Author Shares her Armenian Culture through Stories

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Children’s Author Shares her Armenian Culture through Stories

By Becky Morales for KidWorldCitizen

April 5, 2014

I am so excited I got to interview award-winning children’s author Lucine Kasbarian, who shares Armenian culture in her folktales and stories for children. You can see more at her website.

Tell me about your background. Where are you from and where have you lived? What cultures do you identify with?

I was born in New Jersey to American-born Armenian parents. Their own parents were survivors of the Armenian, Assyrian and Hellenic Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish regime in 1915. Though I have lived primarily in the United States, I’ve traveled extensively to the Near and Middle East, and identify with those cultures.

How did your parents teach you about your cultural heritage when you were growing up?

Because the Genocide nearly wiped out our nation, we considered ourselves an endangered species. As a result, my parents were very conscientious about immersing me in the Armenian culture. We spoke Armenian in the home and I was given constant access to Armenian music, literature, art … and the company of fellow Armenians.

Growing up in North America, I was encouraged to “live in two worlds.” There was my American life, where I went to public school and took part in ballet class, our school chorus and the school track team. I also had an Armenian life where I went to a Saturday Armenian school, an Armenian folk dance class, Armenian liturgical and folk chorales, and sports with an Armenian-American youth organization.

In high school, my closest friends were Americans of Russian, Greek, Indian and Persian descent. Some peers called us the United Nations. Being part of an ethnic minority naturally made me curious about the other cultures of the world, and embracing diversity was fun and interesting. You can say that exposure to Armenian and other cultures contributed to my interest in foreign travel, foreign languages, world music, folk art and international cuisine. So in truth, my Armenian cultural immersion was a passageway into becoming the citizen of the world that I consider myself to be today.

Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming an author and the books you have written?

When growing up, there were few books for children produced by mainstream American publishers about Armenia and the Armenian culture. Fortunately, I discovered the Armenian folk tale picture books retold by Virginia Tashjian and Nonny Hogrogian, and two middle grade novels – Some of Us Survived by Kerop Bedoukian and The Road From Home by David Kherdian. Seeing Armenian history and culture validated through these books were precious for Armenian-American youths like me who wanted to see themselves represented in literature.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, many maps of the world did not outline Armenia and could have led readers to think that it did not exist.

Eastern Armenia had been a Soviet state from 1920 up until 1991 and individual Soviet states were not always identified on maps. The Iron Curtain (and life before the Internet) prevented people living outside the Soviet Union from having contact with or even reading very much about the many peoples and cultures within it. (The term “Iron Curtain” refers to a barrier to understanding and the exchange of information or ideas, created by cultural, political, and military hostility between the Soviet Union and other countries.)

Western Armenia is today part of modern Turkey and its native Armenian population still struggles with persecution and discrimination. As a result, not much literary information about minority groups was available to the public, in English and for young readers, about that part of our patrimony.

So when I became a writer, I produced Armenia: A Rugged Land, an Enduring People to give young people something that was missing when I was growing up: an easy, illustrated introduction to Armenia and its people – in English and for young readers who were of Armenian ancestry as well as for readers who weren’t but would hopefully find it interesting.

The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale is an illustrated picture book and a family heirloom. This folk tale was passed down verbally through the generations of my family before I translated it for publication. During bedtime and in his ancestral dialect, my father would recite to me the story of an aggressive bird who travels the Armenian countryside in his ambitions to become a minstrel.

Along the way, I’ve also written for a number of children’s publications. The most recent contribution is in the Spring 2014 issue of Skipping Stones Multicultural Children’s Magazine. This issue will contain stories about Armenia and Armenians, including a photo montage. Skipping Stones celebrates cultural and ecological diversity, provides a meaningful exchange of ideas and experiences among young people, and is suited for readers aged 8 and up. Each issue contains essays, stories, poems, photos, recipes, and folktales written by both children and adults from around the world.

Often times, folktales teach us a lesson, or show children what is valued in a particular culture. What values or characteristics are the folktales teaching young children in these stories?

Armenian folk tales come from an ancient oral tradition, where they, and the values and truths found in them, were shared around the hearth to entertain and educate. The Greedy Sparrow tells of a trickster bird who takes advantage of everyone he meets – a baker, a shepherd, a bride & groom, and a troubador — and in the end, receives a comeuppance for his trickery. I think the story can touch all ages, not only because the story conveys a message that there are consequences to manipulation and dishonesty, but because it also showcases native Armenians practicing traditional folkways — rendered by the great illustrator, Maria Zaikina. To address the deeper implications of the tale – such as refusing requests with which you are not comfortable or using what does not belong to you, readers can visit my study guide here.

This particular tale has great personal meaning. My survivor ancestors did not have the luxury of hauling material possessions with them on their death marches into the Syrian Desert. Thus, non-material treasures, such as what was carried in their memory, become precious links to our identity, cultural traditions and past. The Greedy Sparrow was one of these treasures, which is why I call it a family heirloom.

Given this, I hope that Kid World Citizens will think about documenting what their own elders have passed down to them in order to preserve and cultivate what is known about the various cultures of the world. We have not only a right but also a responsibility to tell our stories and speak our truths.

On a final note: Realizing how much Kid World Citizens love cuisine and holiday traditions from around the globe, I’d like to invite readers to visit The Armenian Kitchen, where right now, readers can discover some amazing Armenian vegetarian recipes for Lent, and Armenian Holiday Traditions -- an illustrated guide for kids about how to celebrate some of the more memorable Armenian holidays throughout the year. Enjoy!

Also, if you are looking for more on Armenian culture, check out all of Lucine’s books and publications on her website.