Interview: "Public Prosecutor with a Pen: Peter Balakian Uncovers His Armenian Past"

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Public Prosecutor with a Pen

Peter Balakian Uncovers His Armenian Past

An Interview by Lucine Kasbarian

The Armenian Weekly, 1997


Peter Balakian is a name Armenian-Americans have become increasingly familiar with in recent years. Known primarily for his literary output, this Colgate University English Professor catapulted headlong into the Armenian-American political scene in 1996 when he responded to the ill-favored installment of genocide revisionist Heath Lowry as chair of Princeton University’s Turkish Studies Department. Specifically, Balakian is responsible for spearheading a petition entitled “Taking a Stand Against the Turkish Government’s Denial of the Armenian Genocide and Scholarly Corruption in the Academy: A Statement issued by Concerned Scholars and Writers” which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1996. Since then, he had led an extremely vocal crusade in American political, scholarly and civic circles to expose the Turkish government’s attempts to revise the historical record.


Not only can Balakian be credited with generating considerable media attention to the issue of Genocide denial, but he has done so from a self-proclaimed “outsider’s” perspective with regard to the Armenian community. This approach is very much in evidence in his newly published memoir, Black Dog of Fate, in which he addresses the issue of the Armenian Genocide with a voice that is detached from the Armenian experience in America – and, judging from book reviews thus far – remarkably appealing to American readers.


A published poet and nephew of literary figures Anna and Nona Balakian, Peter Balakian carries on the family’s literary legacy with his new book. In it, he recounts growing up as a privileged child in a North Jersey suburb, where his life focused on All-American pastimes and dreams. In the first half of this volume, he chronicles the life and times of a young man struggling with the emblems of adolescence, parental authority, and his awareness that he is ethnically different from his classmates – yet with few tangible earmarks to show for it – as the historical episodes responsible for his family’s emigration to America are not imparted to him.


This coming-of-age memoir takes a harsh turn midway, as Balakian refuses to let unspoken evils lurking in the past continue to evade his reach and obstruct self-knowledge. What follows is a journey of discovery into the dark side of his family’s past, where he unravels a history full of death and destruction. Readers are taken through his gradual discovery of the greatest effort to wipe out his ancestors during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. In discovering this past, Balakian finds himself better equipped to address enigmas within his own family – who withheld the past to protect him, perhaps even unwittingly, in exchange for American cultural attachments they may have perceived as more sophisticated than their own. This journey allows Balakian to make sense of a disjointed cultural upbringing, ultimately driving him to propagate his findings to the world.


With Black Dog of Fate, Balakian takes his place among the new generation of Armenian-American intellectuals who have dedicated themselves to seeking redress for the crime of Genocide and its continuation iin the form of denial – a highly moral crusade that serves all of humanity in its pursuit of truth and justice. And as a talented narrator, Balakian succeeds in depicting this tragic historic event – and how one family was affected by it – in ways that speak to a wide American audience. Such an audience has been secured by way of distribution through a noted publishing house (Basic Books, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers) and through its selection by a national bookseller, Borders Books.


Lucine Kasbarian: I enjoyed many things about your book, particularly your ability to conjure up memories of the love and security surrounding you in your childhood. Throughout your book, some typically Armenian dynamics emerge, but not without attendant contradictions. Can you discuss some of the contradictions you encountered in your household – growing up in a family that held knowledge and education in high esteem but avoided instruction about Armenian history, for instance?


Peter Balakian: Well, I think I try to ruminate about that toward the end of the book. In examining the refusal to explore or witness the Genocidal path, I think the primary issues are those of denial or psychic numbing. There was a need for many to remove themselves from these experiences which were so painful and traumatic. And I think that’s not an uncommon generational pattern. One finds this in immigrant histories and post-traumatic stress stories. My family seemed very much involved in what I call a sort of latency period. But at the same time, on both sides of my family, there were very strong impulses toward mainstream Americanization. Both of my families were very much into being American … in some ways. And in some ways, “ahead” of being Armenian. And it remains a contradiction since someone has to acknowledge that, even while the drive was to be in the mainstream.


LK: Yes, I picked up on that and was trying to come to terms with it. Clearly, there was an Armenian character in your home, but without necessarily establishing a connection with an Armenian-American society outside of that home. And I imagine that this was something you consciously dealt with, insofar as your parents really wanted you to experience life with others in your neighborhood who weren’t necessarily coming from backgrounds similar to yours.


PB: My parents didn’t have any Armenian “experience” either, when you get down to it. They were totally “mainstreamized.” They didn’t have many Armenian friends, for example, although their families did, that’s true.


LK: One of my questions concerns something you touched upon in your speech at an April 24th gathering this year. You raised the notion of “containment” – which appears in the play “Nine Armenians” and the book “Rise the Euphrates.” It’s something you address in your book when one of the characters says “When the past is behind you, keep it there.”


PB: Right.


LK: For some reason, that quote seems to tell us that there are those Armenians who were brought up uninformed about the Genocide and are only now, later in life, coming to terms with their past because their parents had perhaps let go of a sense of responsibility in passing on that message. When, in your book, you describe that “the continuation of Genocide is to kill the memory of Genocide,” I think of cultural assimilation represented around us in the plays performed and in the grandchildren of Genocide survivors that I meet. This condition is something to be concerned about, especially if it’s setting a standard for coming generations.


PB: I don’t know if it’s a sense of responsibility that’s shirked. I guess what I’m trying to articulate is that for the most part, there was no problem with Armenian Genocide affirmation once I got into it. My family was very excited by it. They never understood that it had a very universal and moral reality to exist in that way. They were passionately Armenian, but had no nationalist interests. So it was completely devoid of politics and maybe that’s what you’re not seeing … I know that’s the Dashnag orientation – totally political as I understand it. By comparison, there was no dream of reclaimed Armenia and national identity. That’s something that neither side of my family had.


LK: I think that’s part of it, but as someone who grew up in a Dashnag community, I came to see the Genocide issue not only in terms of political recognition and reclaiming lands, but also with providing people with a cultural identity. So I guess I am searching for that cultural connection.


PB: In my estimation, Genocide recognition was not a political concept my parents’ generation had a sense of. I know my grandmother gave a talk at the 15th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. But I think one has to be historically realistic here. I don’t believe Genocide recognition as we know it today could have existed before the Holocaust studies movement and the civil rights movement. And the way that I dealt with it in my book was to indicate that those social developments are what sprung us to an international human rights arena. So that’s how I see it, at least. I do realize that the Dashnag orientation has had a much deeper, ongoing, vocal and articulate sense of the political reality. But I grew up in a very assimilated Ramgavar Armenian cultural life and came into it on my own as a poet in my 20s – as you know from my book. So these are paradoxes and complexities that are interesting to me, and I also think that as an artist, they have been helpful in establishing a “double outsider” status for me.


LK: Your ability to be integrated into the American world and the opportunities that have presented themselves to you through your work and talents have enabled you to tell the Armenian story to the world, perhaps in a way that people who have been culturally insulated would not be able to do. That’s an enormous gift, especially given the perspective that you’re coming from. It’s not something many other Armenians necessarily have.


PB: I know. I agree with you, I guess. I would hope that there are a lot of Armenians out there who are in mainstream places. I deeply believe that this is the project of our time. To join our rightful place in the mainstream. I feel that for too long we have been ghettoized and talking to ourselves. My message, wherever I go, is: “Talk to others! Get out there on your local news show and into your libraries. Just get in there.” We are now demanding our necessary moral representation in universal history.


LK: I agree. The unfortunate thing is that there are a lot of people out there who need an organized context in which to learn and operate. You are an exception. You have been able to transcend the silence until pursuing Genocide recognition almost took on a life of its own. You’ve educated yourself and espoused an enormous responsibility. I also advocate the idea of having Armenian issues enter the mainstream of Armenian consciousness and want to see others take on projects such as books like these. Howeer, I have a concern for those who may turn into leaders of their time, who may enter the mainstream 20 years from now, but need to have a larger context in which to be educated. There needs to be some dynamic in which people can enter the mainstream bringing with them an understanding of the past that has come to them through community interaction.


PB: I agree, and that’s a complicated process. On one level, the process is simpler. One can have workshops for Armenian-Americans, for both young adults and adults, to talk about how one organizes, how to send messages to the mainstream, and how to deal is a continuous way the way the Jewish culture has done so successfully. That can be done. It takes money and planning. The other thing is social and that’s more complicated. It has to do with how you’re raised and how you’re introduced to America, and that’s harder to control. I grew up like a total “twinkie.” M life was about this privileged upper-middle class life, with prep-school and football.


LK: There are things that you have been privy to that others could not possibly have seen, and there is an enormous value in that.


PB: Yes, and I feel you can’t tell people that they have got to be raised this way or that. In my case, being very mainstream American helped me bring the Armenian story to that place. And so it’s certainly one combination that works and I’m sure that there are other combinations that will work too. Part of establishing an organized presence is about “workshopping: on how to have a rapport and organic relationship with all mainstream walks of life. Part of making it work for us is to be seen as insiders. To get jobs like publishing Black Dog of Fate done, you want to be perceived of as an insider, not an outsider.


LK: As Armenians living in America, we’ve become masters at living in two worlds – which we can use to our advantage.


PB: I think that’s it.


LK: One of the most shocking spots in the book dealth with the high school term paper incident. You planned to write about Armenia and found very little in your public library in the mid-1960s. You ended up writing about your grandmother’s birthplace – present-day Turkey – and did so without mentioning the Armenians or the Genocide. The shocking part was not so much that you chose to write about Turkey, or that you hadn’t been informed about the Genocide, but your father’s outrage about your selection when he had never taught you anything about your family’s experience in the first place. You went on to make up for what you didn’t know as you did your investigating in coming years. Was this book a catharsis for that frustration you encountered during the term paper incident, in discovering that information was being withheld?


PB: No, I don’t think it was a catharsis. In fact, I’ve come to look back on all these episodes for a long time now. I do think writing this memoir is a catharsis, but I wouldn’t point to that particular incident as the initiation point. That incident to me was just interesting, because it suggested how complicated the trauma of the Genocide was to my parents to explain it to us. I think in some ways it was just as basic as that. They wanted to protect us. They wanted us to know, but didn’t want us to know. I think it was that kind of paradox. The book is a catharsis in that it is a need to unveil a three-generational perspective of the pain of the Genocide and its aftermath. But I want to separate that from the term paper incident. It strikes me as a really interesting incident, but just a little piece of the bigger puzzle.


LK: Would you share your thoughts about some typically Armenian traits you discuss in your memoir that we may wish to study about ourselves? Characteristics Armenian-Americans may wish to keep at the cusp of the 21st century versus those we should think about discarding? Does “Armenian guilt” have a place in our society, either as a way of forming a conscience, as a means of control, as a means of alienation?


PB: That’s a hard one. It’s an issue that affects more than just Armenians. I hesitate for a moment because I’m happy to talk about myself, but hesitant to make cultural generalities. I am not a psychiatrist, so notions of guilt are not precise to me, but personally, there are kinds of guilt that are necessary because they call upon our conscience to be part of the larger collective responsibility. Then there are forms of guilt that are destructive, corrosive and merely means of manipulation and control. I don’t think Armenians have any kind of guilt. It seems to be something that functions as a social-psychological mechanism in all walks of society and all cultures. Each one has its own unique brand of guilt and way of articulating guilt. But it is part of the Armenian experience, and I think it is the outgrowth of a lot of insecurity. And a lot of pain, sorrow, and anger that has come out of our complex Diasporan history. It’s part of our culturall temperament. We find ourselves as children and adults dealing with elements of it, and it’s a way that generations deal with each other for authority sometimes. I think a lot of it is about feeling insecure. It operated in every culture yet we have our own unique brand.


LK: I was impressed with the way you formatted the book. It seemed that there was an analogy that you were making from the content of the book itself to how you wove everything together. In the first portion, there was a sense of youthful innocence as you describe your life in an even-paced manner. The second part of the book is written in a style that is acutely aware of the hegemonies in the universe. There is a controlled outrage that snowballs out of that control. The tone is entirely different. The text reads in a way that consumes the reader. Can you describe how that aspect of the book was written?


PB: It was a complex weave of many threads that were unfolded and needed special kinds of shaping as references to the Genocide unfolded. As you get into the Bloody News part of the book, where we’re dealing with a lot of documents, there is a different kind of layering process going on that the narrative must unravel with and through. And that was a real challenge. We had everything there from the Morgenthau memoir to eyewitness accounts, diplomat dispatches, Turkish telegrams, Turkish military tribunals, my grandmother’s human rights suit, my great uncle’s testimony at Soghomon Tehlirian’s 1922 trial; then I roll it one step further into Turkish denial today and the Robert Jay Lifton/ Heath Lowry story. I wanted it to go from soup to nuts, to have the fullest arc possible. Hence all the sectioning and gradual unveiling about about that.


LK: When did you first think about writing this memoir, and how was that tied into your spearheading the Concerned Scholars and Writers project? Is there a connection?


PB: I began writing the book in 1989. I had been working on it for a long time. The only thing incorporated after 1989 (aside from briefly mentioning comtemporary Armenian politics) is the Lifton/Lowry denial and ethical corruption in the universities situation. That was the last thing I wrote about in the book. I wanted to bring it to that place. By bringing in a moral significance to the whole story, it reaches that very high pitch, and I hope that people are responding to this. The book without the denial is a different book.


LK: Given that you were part of a “legacy of silence” about Genocide instruction in your household, have you made a conscious decision to educate your children?


PB: Yes. I don’t push it on them; they’re just around it and are very responsive. My daughter is extremely articulate about all this stuff and has been for a long time. My son is still a little young, but my daughter goes to Camp Nubar and its all her choice to be involved.


LK: If you had to send a message to American-Armenian youth out there reading this interview or your book, what would you want to say to them?


PB: The book will say what it will. I won’t try to summarize that. My message as a writer and teacher would be that this is an exciting time for this ancient culture’s story to be heard and told. And to tell it in the mainstream. Find your own way of being connected to this culture and its noble history. Being a mainstream American, it’s where I’ve come from. I’m for being double-headed. Know your facts, know your history, know Armenian history in a natural way and give it to your friends who are not Armenian. Let them know that our story binds us to the stories of Black Americans and Jewish Americans and that we join hands with acknowledgment of slavery, the Holocaust, the Pol Pot Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide. This is a place of moral leadership. And that is what should empower young people today. And that’s a great responsibility. It’s also an affirmative way of dealing with this tragic past. I think the tragic past should be empowering in that it offers moral leadership. Not run from because it’s bloody or sad, although it is, and it has been for 82 years.


LK: Where do you see yourself going from here? In your book, you referred to discovering a memoir written by a relative who survived the Armenian Genocide. Where do you think that memoir will take you?


PB: I’m not sure what my next book project will be. I’m a poet, so I will always be writing poems. Part of my position in American culture comes from my position as a poet. I’d like to see Bishop Balakian’s “Armenian Golgotha” translated. We need money to do that. There has to be a lot more structured organization and financial backing, or you can’t tell the story properly. There has to be money, just as there is for Holocaust Studies. People have to say, “This is a priority.” We have to give money to Armenia, but for this story to be cemented in history, it’s going to take commitment, organization, and financial backing. I hope to be in the mainstream in every avenue I can be at the University, and that my interest in Genocide Studies will become serious and professional. Armenians should be looking into Genocide Studies as a discipline to find their place. I’d rather see money and chairs go to a Genocide Studies program. In Armenian Studies programs, you will be educating a handful of people, whereas in Genocide Studies programs, you will be educating masses every year.


LK: In terms of your work paving the way for dialogue on the Genocide issue, do you see your role as a poet and writer remaining as such, or do you see yourself as a participant and conduit in the dialogue process with politicians, scholars, and even the Turkish government? What has your relationship been with those who are in a position to open up that sort of dialogue in various sectors of society?


PB: Do I see my own work as networking? Of course. That’s become a natural, ongoing part of my life now. I strongly believe in building coalitions. That’s another bottom-line idea for me.We haven’t done a good job doing this with non-Armenians who will stand up with us and get involved in our story, of doing scholarship and research for any books, teaching courses, and that’s what it’s about. That’s how Black and Jewish cultures have established themselves in the academy. We have that same potential. And I’m happy to get involved in the American political system as well. I have acted jointly with Armenian political organizations. I’m all for being on the political front and sitting down with the Clintons to discuss how the US can take a role in moral leadership on this and the denial business. Why should American be led around by Turkish intimidation and blackmail? It’s absurd. So I foresee progress on these fronts.


LK: Some academics prefer to stay within the realm in which they are recognized, as opposed to venturing outside of their areas of specialization. How do you feel about that?


PB: I believe in the concept of a public intellectual. Whatever you can participate in, you do. I don’t believe in drawing artificial lines between politics and scholarship or politics and art. They all circulate through and with each other.


LK: Is there anything you’d like to add?


PB: I feel that the thing that is most appealing about the Armenian Genocide story is that it’s a universal story. It’s not just my people’s story, but a human rights story with a landmark place in history. That is why I am passionate about making this story known.


Peter Balakian’s “Black Dog of Fate” is available for purchase for $24 through the Hairenik Bookstore: http://www.hairenik.com/about/contact/


Interviewer Lucine Kasbarian’s educational textbook, “Armenia: A Rugged Land, an Enduring People (Dillon Press/ Simon & Schuster) is due for release this coming November, 1997.