By Mark Arax
It was the spring of 1997 and Peter Balakian, the author of four collections of poetry, was about to launch his first big book. He felt the unease that any author feels knowing that his baby, now in the hands of marketers and reviewers, was no longer his own. That the book, a memoir, was the product of seven years of hard work and told the story of his family across two lands and two epochs made it all the more urgent.
There had been days he doubted it would ever get done, borrowing time from his wife and two children and an already full career as a professor of English at Colgate College. But Balakian had not only managed to finish Black Dog of Fate, he had written something splendid and monumental. All that spring, the early reviews had dribbled in and they were nothing short of stunning.
On the strength of this praise, the Talk of the Nation, a National Public Radio show based in Washington, had decided to devote an entire hour to celebrating Armenian survival and Balakian’s memoir. After a half dozen conversations, the show’s producer was on the other end to finalize a few small details. Everything seemed to have been ironed out when Balakian detected a slight catch in her voice. And then it came out, almost embarrassingly so.
“We’re going to need to bring on someone from the Turkish point of view,” the producer said. “Maybe a Turkish historian. Just for a few minutes. At the very end.”
Whether Turkey and its Washington lobby had pressured the producers or they suddenly felt compelled out of their own sense of fairness-gone- mad to include the “other side,” it no longer mattered. The show, at the eleventh hour, had come seeking a handshake to equivocation from a man who had written this about Turkey: “They stole our cooking, our art, our buildings, our bodies. Their whole culture was a theft.”
Balakian knew his publisher would be furious if he didn’t find some middle ground. He would be throwing away a chance to reach tens of thousands of potential readers. Even with the Turkish denial, the show would bring untold good to the Armenian cause. He took a moment for his mind to measure each tradeoff. In the end, he couldn’t accept the notion that the Genocide was not allowed to write its own narrative without heckling from the perpetrator, that a Turk would be stealing even a minute more from an Armenian.
“The producer went back and forth trying to find an arrangement that I might find suitable,” the 47-year-old Balakian recalled. “Finally, I said, `Look, this isn’t acceptable. This is contrary to the very moral center of my book. You’re not going to take the occasion of celebrating it by putting on a denier of the Armenian Genocide. This isn’t right and you must know it isn’t right.'”
He recollects the incident in a voice devoid of any moral haughtiness. He simply followed his gut, the same way he played baseball or football as a star high school athlete back in Tenafly, New Jersey. It came down to a call of conscience and principle. A voice inside told him to say “No” and it would work out fine, and it did.
A week or so later, radio’s best forum for authors, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air, had heard what happened and wanted to feature Balakian and his book, without any Turkish shuffle.
With the launching of Black Dog of Fate last year and his stepping forward to assume a political voice along with the voice of poet and author, Peter Balakian has arguably done more in a shorter time to advance the public cause of Genocide recognition than any single Armenian. His words conveyed through memoir and petitions and talks at universities and the Holocaust Museum and appearances on CNN and C-Span echo louder than any Turkish historian, any million dollar lobbying campaign by Armenians or Turks, any debate in the halls of Congress.
His petition condemning the Turkish government’s continued denial of the Genocide — signed by 150 top scholars and writers — has proven much more than a one day advertisement in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. The petition helped persuade Congress to shave a few million dollars off the aid package to Turkey.
“What Peter has been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time is incredible,” said Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, the novelist and author of the The Smyrna Affair who wrote the first opinion piece about the forgotten genocide in the US press in 1966. “For years, Richard Hovannisian and I and a few others have tried to move the Genocide issue beyond the Armenian community, and we’ve been only marginally successful.
“Peter’s doing a one man PR job. I often get carried away with anger, but he never gets angry or cynical. He just keeps moving forward, making more alliances with the Jewish community and important scholars, gathering signatures and reading from his wonderful book. He’s become something of an activist in the process.”
It is hard to oversell the importance of Black Dog of Fate. Armenians have had their share of weighty tomes, vital academic works that have moved scholarly mountains but caused the Turks little worry where it counted most. As for literature, there has been less determination. Of a handful of popular novels, most seem to bear witness through the voice of a mother or grandmother, carrying on silently or noisily about a past that takes a special ear to decipher.
The works of Housepian and Leon Surmelian and David Kherdian and more recently Peter Najarian and Nancy Kricorian, each one a triumph, have not always succeeded in generating a discourse beyond the book review page. My own memoir, with the Genocide as relief map, was more concerned with the complications and tragedies that befell an Armenian family in exile, and a crime in America.
Our one giant, Saroyan, in an outpouring that surpasses most every other American writer, shied away from the Genocide. It comes up here and there, almost always as a quiet insinuation. What stands out, then, are three books over a span of seven decades that deal head on with a crime surpassed only by the Holocaust in this century. Before Balakian, there was Michael Arlen and before Michael Arlen there was Franz Werfel.
It is this building onto the literary narratives of Arlen and Werfel and the scholarly narratives of Dadrian and Hovannisian — in a language distinct from any other — that stands out as Balakian’s highest accomplishment, says Rouben Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington, on whose board Balakian sits.
“One of the many unique things about Peter’s book is his analysis of how transgenerational trauma gets revisited. No one has done that before. The only writer to come close was Michael Arlen,” he said.
“Armenian-American scholars have done a lot of important work, but Peter has translated the knowledge base of academics and given it a moral dimension. He has created a language that is extraordinary in its style, He seems to have uncovered what all of us were thinking but we couldn’t articulate with the same clarity,” Adalian continued.
Balakian said he is encouraged by a new generation of Armenian-American writers and playwrights and movie directors who seem to grasp the importance, and resonance, have done a lot of important work, but Peter has translated the knowledge base of academics and given it a moral dimension. He has created a language that is extraordinary in its style. He seems to have uncovered what all of us were thinking but we couldn’t articulate with the same clarity,” Adalian continued.
Balakian said he is encouraged by a new generation of Armenian-American writers and playwrights and movie directors who seem to grasp the importance, and resonance, of their story. Perhaps it took a generation or two of American success and American complacency to open their eyes.
“You can’t generate a discourse by having a book published every 15 or 20 years,” Balakian said. “It’s not about one book or one article or one movie by one person. It has to be an intense galvanized cultural mobilization. This is true for the genocide issue and it should be true for the whole culture, whether we’re talking about the illuminated manuscripts of Toros Roslin or a movie by Atom Egoyan. We have a really positive message of survival. When I talk to non-Armenians they invariably say, “Wow, this is a riveting history. We’re really happy to know it. Where have you been?'”
Intense galvanized cultural mobilization? Sounds something like war. And if you’ve followed Balakian’s movements over the past few years, before the book, before the book tour, it is clear that Black Dog Of Fate is only part of a larger campaign.
He has, almost single handedly, forged an alliance with Jewish and Black intellectuals and Holocaust experts. Imagine Saroyan gathering signatures on a petition decrying Turkey’s continued denial of the Genocide. Into the fold of the Genocide recognition movement, Balakian has brought the heavyweights of literature and academia, that long list of names at the bottom of the petition in the New York Times: Seamus Heaney, Arthur Miller, Israel Charny, Yehuda Bauer, Norman Mailer, Alfred Kazin, William Styron, John Updike, William Gass, Kurt Vonnegut, Derek Walcott, Susan Sontag, Cornel West, Wole Soyinka, Henry Louis Gates and Joyce Carol Oates, to list but a few.
Balakian started the petition drive in 1996, beginning small and branching out. His sister, Jan, a professsor at Keane College, had written a number of scholarly pieces about playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible). Peter had a hunch that Miller would be receptive to signing the petition. Miller had been booted out of Turkey in 1985 after denouncing censorship and human fights violations.
Balakian got Miller’s fax number from his sister, and he sent over the petition and a minute later it came back, with Miller’s signature on it. Miller suggested that Balakian call Styron, the writer of Sophie’s Choice, and gave him the number.
“Styron didn’t know me from Adam. I said, `Arthur Miller said I should give you a call.’ He listened as I explained the petition. He said, `Michael Arlen’s book had a big impact on me. I want to do everything I can. I’m giving you a list of 10 writers, their addresses and phone numbers.’ That’s how I got to Mailer and Sontag and Grace Paley.”
It used to be that a first time novelist would write a thinly disguised memoir and call it fiction and buy a lot of family grief trying to convince Uncle Chet that he really wasn’t the beastly Uncle Chester in the book. The 1990s, with its hyper revelations and instant redemptions, brought a new appreciation for memory. Everyone had a story to tell about a drunken Ma and a groping Pa, and New York publishers ate it up.
Peter Balakian’s argument with the past wasn’t that simple.
Like a lot of Armenian-Americans in their 30s and 40s, I read Black Dog of Fate with an eye toward what we shared. Like Peter, I, too, had honored my father by excelling on the sports field. We had both been chosen, by one grandparent and by the fate of being the oldest grandson, to carry on the stories, though we didn’t realize it at the time. What we smelled and what we tasted were much the same. So were the cultural suffocations and the smart-ass ways we responded to them. Some of the aspects of Peter’s story that resounded most with me came from those early teen years, when his father was insufferable and girls were suddenly competing with baseball and football.
I loved the magic of dialing the baby-blue phone in my parents’ bedroom as I lay on the soft Kirman rug. My heart pounded as I dialed and asked, as quickly as I could when a parent answered, for Sally or Adrian or Kathy or Julie. When I try to picture them now in their middle age, with their teenage children or other careers or husbands, I only hear their 12-year-old voices, playful and flirtatious, coming through the perforated holes of the receiver
And yet in another, more fundamental way, my upbringing was as far apart from Peter’s as Fresno was from Tenafly, New Jersey. It wasn’t so much our fathers — mine a grape grower and bar owner and his a physician — as it was our recognition of our own Armenian-ness and the history behind it.
I found it hard to accept that Peter’s first real peek into Armenia and its Genocide had come after college at age 23. He had found Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane before he had found our history. What did this say about him? What did this say about his family?
Of course, this was a main point of his book. He had shown, like any fine memoirist, that the past wasn’t really the past, that his parents had done nothing more than bury Armenia’s tragedy beneath a thin coat of suburban gilding. He only had to scratch at it with a writer’s fingernail to reveal that trauma — overlaid with his father’s Brooks Brothers suits and medical bag, the affluent house across the river, the ’57 Chevy station wagon and the Little League games and Cub Scout meetings — was still trauma.
“I came to understand what I had only sensed as a boy: My family had a secret,” he wrote in a recent essay. “I came to understand that historical trauma is transmitted complexly across generations. The Genocide had shaped our family, as it did every Armenian family of the 20th century, and no matter how hard my grandmother, aunts and parents tried to repress this dark past, they couldn’t. The trauma and its aftermath leaked through the sunny light of suburbia, expressing itself in an encoded way.”
When and why that awakening strikes (it can come out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning) and how it alters fate and sets a person on a completely different track are questions I have spent half my life pondering. In the years after my father’s unsolved murder, I began to construct a family history through the accounts of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and longtime family friends.
None of them ever thought that my delving into their Armenian past had anything to do with my father’s murder. As far as I could tell, they simply chalked up my curiosity to a quirk of my nature. Only years later did I recognize a purpose. In my teenage railings to understand my father and myself, I understood that the question of who we were and where we came from was no less important than who pulled the trigger and why.
It was the same question I had asked about Monte Melkonian, who grew up down the road from me in Visalia, knowing almost nothing of his Armenian past until his family took a trip to the old country when he was a teen. Maybe the explanation given me was too simple and mythlike but it wasn’t much more than this: Monte had seen the shadow of an Armenian cross on the front door of a Turkish home in the family’s old village, and this was the first fire that burned and transformed the Little League pitcher into a Middle Eastern freedom fighter (terrorist to some) and an Armenian war hero who died a legend on the Karabagh front.
For Peter Balakian, the journey into Armenia’s past began with poetry, words scrawled on a piece of paper in his 20s. One phrase in a poem, “half-confessed past,” had bubbled up from a repressed memory of his grandmother, Nafina, and strange things started to happen. Something from his subconscious had popped out, and it was hard to put back in place. A short time later, he came upon a book that had been sitting for years on a shelf in his parents’ den — the life story of US Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau. Reading its pages, he felt a sick thrall and saw a vision of his grandmother reclined on a chaise longue, drinking a glass of yogurt and babbling fable.
The journey followed him to Times Square in 1985 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Genocide. He was invited to speak as part of the commemoration and found himself confronted by a crowd of Turkish-Americans heckling the civic act of mourning. They were passing out pamphlets blaming the Armenians for their own demise. The Genocide hadn’t ended. Truth was the last victim. Denial was the final act.
“I felt pure human outrage at the obscenity of it all,” he said. “That such obscenity could persist.”
The journey continued even as he was putting the last touches on his memoir. In 1995, he and author Housepian-Dobkin were sitting down to dinner at his mother’s house when Marjorie blurted out that she couldn’t contain her anger, that 30 years had passed and she was still drudging for justice. She told Peter she had just finished reading a landmark piece of scholarship by three Holocaust and Genocide scholars, Roger W. Smith, Eric Markusen and Robert Jay Lifton.
The scholars had exposed the direct ties between the Turkish government and Heath Lowry, the holder of the Ataturk Chair in Turkish Studies at Princeton. Lowry was a shill for the Turkish Ambassador in Washington, ghost writing his protest letters on the Genocide.
“I handed Peter the article and he read it and he immediately began to make plans, big plans,” Dobkin recalled. “He said, `I’m going to start a petition. I’m going to get Kazin and Mailer. I’m going to get 100 signatures.’ I said, `Peter, don’t get carried away.’ Little did l know.”
In the nearly two years since the launching of Black Dog of Fate, Balakian’s wife, Helen, and his 14-year-old daughter, Sophia, and 10-year-old son, Jamie, have learned to say goodnight to him into the phone. The AGBU and his hardcover publisher sent him on a 10-city tour across the country. More recently, his paperback publisher sent him back out on the road.
In Rhode Island, the governor declared it Peter Balakian Day. In New Jersey, a humanities council feted him and Bill Moyers and America’s Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. He’s been invited to speak to Holocaust memorial groups and museums in Nebraska, Texas and Minnesota. He’s given talks and readings at colleges in Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Charlie Rose invited him as a guest on his TV show. The New York Times put him on the cover of its arts page.
After 15 years of indifference and capitulation to Turkish pressures, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington finally seized an opportunity — through Peter’s book — to extend a hand to the Armenian community. This June, he spoke before 600 people in a packed museum auditorium.
“He helps people get beyond the statistics of genocide by personalizing that history, which is so difficult because genocide is about killing masses of people; he talks of mothers and fathers and families and grandparents. He helps personalize this history,” says Bill Parsons, Chief of Staff of the Holocaust Museum.
“He was eloquent and spellbinding. He presented a piece of history usually seen as distant and remote and strange. He almost Americanizes this history,” Parsons continued.
A few months ago, a school administrator from faraway Laguna Beach called Balakian and told him the Turks were demanding that the school cancel a staging of the Genocide play, Beast on the Moon. The administrator said he needed something fast that would answer the critics. Balakian mailed an overnight packet with a few documents and articles and the petition.
“He called a few days later and said, `The whole problem is solved. The play is on. Obviously we’re not going to take on 150 intellectuals and writers and the most important Genocide scholars in the world.'”
Balakian bristles when he hears Armenian-American community leaders and academics question the worth of running the petition as an advertisement in the Times. “I can’t think of a quicker, more effective way to convey our history. That ad cuts across many worlds and in one fell swoop provides instant legitimacy. It Speaks loud and it speaks of power, and we need all the power we can get.”