Preserving an Endangered Culture: Lucine Kasbarian and the Greedy Sparrow

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The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature

May 16, 2011

Preserving an Endangered Culture: Lucine Kasbarian and The Greedy Sparrow

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Last month Armenians throughout the United States and the world commemorated the 1915 genocide as part of Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. To coincide with this remembrance, Marshall Cavendish published Lucine Kasbarian’s adapted folktale from Armenia, The Greedy Sparrow. While this picture book does not address the issue of genocide for young readers (in contrast to two excellent picture books from 2010—Meg Wiviott’s Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, set in 1938 in Nazi Germany, and Icy Smith’s Half Spoon of Rice, set in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge terror), it preserves and extends a culture that the Turkish authorities sought to eradicate.

Kasbarian adapts a traditional Armenian tale about a sparrow that wishes to become a minstrel. On his way to his goal, the sparrow asks a baker woman to pull a thorn from his foot. When he asks for the thorn to be returned to him and the woman tells him she threw it into the fire, he demands a loaf of bread. Using that loaf of bread, he “trades up” to get a sheep, a bride at a wedding, and finally the lute that will make him a minstrel. In his rapture, however, the bird falls out of the tree, loses the lute, and gets another thorn in his foot.

Kasbarian takes on greed and its consequences in a subtle and nuanced way, as some may interpret his trade of the bride for the lute to be “trading down,” especially since the author doesn’t reveal his hidden artistic desire until the very end. Furthermore, many of the people he tricks are themselves culpable—not the baker, but the shepherd who eats the bread the sparrow left with him for safekeeping, and the sheep left for safekeeping with the wedding party that ends up turned into shish kebab. The illustrations add much to this tale, including a level of complexity as the bride rides off on horseback with the sparrow hitching a ride on her head. The stupid-looking sheep that exhibits little awareness of his fate adds much humor to this rendition.

I interviewed Kasbarian about the inspiration for The Greedy Sparrow and some of the themes of the book.

You describe The Greedy Sparrow as based on an Armenian folktale. How did you change the tale to make the picture book, and why?

This tale was passed down orally in my family from my great-grandmother to my father to me—in the endangered Armenian dialect of Dikranagerd (present-day Diyarbakir, Turkey). The tale has been in the Armenian oral tradition for centuries. It was first put to paper by Armenian poet Hovhannes Toumanian at the turn of the 20th century.

The picture book contains the same message as the folktale itself—a cunning bird goes about improving his lot in life by swindling well-meaning people. The version I chose has a slightly different ending than the oral version passed down to me—though both versions have been told by Armenians—because it more clearly conveyed that manipulation and dishonesty have their consequences.

And unlike the tale’s oral version, the picture book incorporates native Armenian landmarks into the story to introduce readers to the Armenian landscape and patrimony, something that had not traditionally been necessary, of course, for Armenian listeners. For example, the sparrow flies over Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia to all Armenians and the resting place of Noah’s Ark. And the wedding takes place at the Holy Cross Cathedral on the island of Aghtamar, a place of great significance to Armenians. Introducing native lands and landmarks were important for me, and gives the reader true historical and geographical context.

Dispossessed peoples have strong ties to their lands, of course. The Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek people still await restorative justice for the unpunished crime of genocide, and this includes the return of their native lands.

While the sparrow punishes the baker’s good deed by taking her bread, none of the other characters—the shepherd, the groom, or the musician—is entirely innocent. Why did you choose to incorporate this moral ambiguity into the story?

Well, the story was passed down to me this way, so I cannot take credit for the ambiguity. I will say that all of the human characters start out innocently enough, but are duped by the sparrow who knows the vulnerabilities of human nature. The moral ambiguities add to the tale’s depth. Most readers feel that the wily sparrow’s downfall demonstrates the triumph of honesty over cheating. Other readers appreciate the message that unreservedly trusting a stranger—in this case, the sparrow—can be unwise. Both perceptions are legitimate. To help children and adults discuss the implications for everyday behavior, I created an activity guide for the book, located at:

How have you incorporated your family’s experience as survivors of the Armenian genocide into a picture book for young children?

Witnessing the abduction and forced assimilation of women and children, and undergoing near-annihilation and exile as a result of a planned genocide, my surviving family members felt the real possibility that the Armenian people could one day become extinct. Out of this grew a profound desire to practice and preserve as much of our culture as we could—songs, dances, cuisine, crafts, stories, and more. While her infant children perished in the death marches, my paternal grandmother managed to smuggle out the deeds belonging to our family’s confiscated property. That was the extent of the material family heirlooms that made it to America.

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” tale was one of these treasures.

Being able to work with the incredibly talented illustrator Maria Zaikina offered us the chance to visually recreate Armenian village life prior to the genocide and to celebrate the cultural traditions practiced there.

The Greedy Sparrow was released this April, which is Armenian genocide memorial month. It’s my hope that the tale will be a small contribution towards the idea that, in spite of genocide, a culture survives. Just as the sparrow himself bullied his way into possessing things that didn’t belong to him, Turkish invaders seized land, women, and cultural practices from the native Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks.

Just as the world must press for restorative justice for this unpunished crime against humanity, we can also hope that the same karma that caught up with the sparrow catches up with today’s Turkish government—which is the direct inheritor of the perpetrating regime and which denies yet continues to benefit from the fruits of that crime.