"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, November 14, 2014

5 Questions with author Meline Toumani

1) You live in New York City, but I'm sure you're aware of L.A.'s massive Armenian population (I live in Little Armenia myself!) Have you experienced any differences in attitude toward the Turks between Armenian communities within the US, or do you feel the enmity is more or less universal?

If you don't mind, I'd like to re-orient this question a bit. I absolutely don't want to suggest that the most important thing about my book is the question of Armenians hating Turks or vice-versa. Even though I'm critical of the unchecked hatred that some Armenians feel toward all things Turkish, the most primary fact here is that this hatred is rooted in the genocide Armenians suffered under Turkish leaders in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, and the hatred has been fueled by the way modern Turkey continues to deny and obscure the full reality of what happened.

Having said that, there are all sorts of fascinating variations in the way different pockets of the Armenian diaspora in the U.S. relate to these issues. In the northeast--especially Massachusetts-- the Armenian community dates to the late 1800s, even before the genocide. It then grew into a robust and tightly-organized community when waves of genocide survivors settled there in the 1920s and onward. Now, that community is largely made up of people whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were genocide survivors, so naturally the genocide looms large. At the same time, it's a very Americanized community--a large percentage of Armenian families in the northeast have been in the U.S. for generations--so there is also a phenomenon that was described and labeled by the Armenian sociologist Anny Bakalian in a book she published many years ago, called Armenian-Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenian. It's a complex idea, "from being to feeling" an ethnicity, but a simplified version is that as a diaspora community becomes more assimilated, collective symbols and rallying points (whether as benign as food or as charged as genocide) take on a greater role in the community's life. These symbols help prevent an identity from fading.  

By contrast, in Los Angeles, as any Angeleno knows, there are pockets of the Armenian community (and not just in Glendale!) where it seems as if assimilation has hardly made a dent, and there's much less of that transition "from being to feeling." To begin with, the community in LA is largely the result of more recent migrations-- people who left Iran or Lebanon or Armenia itself in the wake of revolutions in the past 30-40 years. They are newer immigrants. And a Los Angeles Armenian can live a fully Armenian life, having minimal contact with non-Armenians, if they choose. There are several Armenian private schools serving students from kindergarten through senior year, Armenian groceries and small businesses fulfilling absolutely any need you can think of, from hair styling to plumbing to real estate. For these Armenians, "being" Armenian remains intact in a different way, for better or worse.

A faster shorthand would be to say that Armenians have ended up in the diaspora after living in various other countries, each with its own context-- Armenia, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and of course Turkey. Members of the latter community-- Armenians who have come from Istanbul in the past 30 years or so-- are often still involved with Turkey to an extent, with relatives and friends there, with a grasp of the Turkish language, history and political situation, so although they know better than anyone the particular oppressions Armenians in Turkey have faced, they also tend to be more able to hold all the complexities and ambiguities in their minds-- to resist essentializing and stereotyping, to understand that one individual Turk is not the same as, say, a Turkish nationalist politician writing anti-Armenian propaganda. In the wake of the 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink, an Istanbul-Armenian journalist, the diaspora in general is just starting to learn from the complex experience of Istanbul Armenians. Before that they were regarded as black sheep for having stayed "among the enemy." I think this new learning and awareness is a very positive development.

2) You've said that when you were first starting out in your career as a journalist, you avoided writing about Armenian issues and the genocide. What changed and inspired you to write THERE WAS AND THERE WAS NOT?

The short answer: I couldn't avoid it; I had too many ideas and feelings that I needed to explore and attempt to resolve. The longer answer: I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a person who was only writing about her ethnic background. And I doubted that these topics would be of wider popular interest (outside the Armenian community). But then I realized two important things: 1) Every American who writes, say, about Hawthorne or Melville, every southerner who writes about Faulkner, is also, in a sense, writing about his or her "tribe," drawing from the world he or she knows and feels and wants to interpret; I decided that embracing the intellectual and creative momentum I got from my own background wasn't something to be ashamed of; it would only be a problem if I failed to bring adequate self-questioning to the process. 2) Living and working in New York, surrounded by curious and brilliant writers and thinkers from all backgrounds, I started to understand how truly universal some of the dynamics of identity and tribe and self and "other" were, and I wanted to speak to these universal themes by mining, deeply and honestly, the conflict between Armenians and Turks. Every writer knows that the universal arises out of the particular. I've been deeply gratified by the way non-Armenian and non-Turkish readers have understood this about my book.

3) Can you tell us a little bit about what the title means to you?

Throughout the Middle East, including in Turkey and Armenia, There Was and There Was Not is the way you start a story: like "once upon a time." I was moved by the idea that Turks and Armenians could start their folktales and legends with these same words-- this same announcement of possibility-- but then, applying this logic to 1915, had ended up with such drastically different narratives. Of course, 1915 is not a legend or a folktale, and I'm not by any means saying that the two "versions" are equal. They aren't. But as a writer, I wanted to reach for this openness in my own mind-- not about what happened during the genocide, but about how I might try to understand the Turkish mindset, the learning process and emotional experience that the average Turk might be bringing to the table on the genocide issue: how did they learn what they learned? What did they truly believe? I felt that the only way to make a meaningful change in the endless "yes-it-was," "no-it-wasn't" rhetoric about the genocide was to embrace the absurdity and complexity of two nations living by these two clashing historical narratives. I also felt that although Turkey's denial of the genocide was a tragedy in itself, we are now at a point with this issue where that denial-- and the resulting natural response of even more extreme fixation among Armenians-- had come to hold the entire topic hostage, and so I wanted to frame my book by accepting this as a starting point, not for historiography but for the sociology of the situation. This is complicated because it can be misunderstood too easily.

 4) What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book, and how do you think non-Armenian and Turkish readers might be able to relate to it?

I'm still learning about this, and people's different reactions are fascinating. Ironically, I've discovered that among early readers of the book, the non-Armenian and non-Turkish readers tend to be most moved and most able to absorb the book's message. I won't try to summarize that message here; if I could, I wouldn't have needed 300 pages to get it right. But a reviewer on Amazon, of all places, put it in a way that I found perfectly accurate and valuable: she said that it would behoove us all to think about "our own version of Turkey"-- the family histories and prejudices we were raised with, the baggage, the sense of who we are and who is our "other," what are our own "unspeakables." The book is, among other things, my attempt to shed this baggage for myself: to examine it and then move into a mental space where I don't feel controlled by my history -- as a writer, as a human. And this process doesn't need to be a question of ethnic identity; the same can apply to family dynamics, or religion, or class, or sexuality, or a whole host of other labels and groupings we use to give our lives shape and meaning-- groupings that sometimes inhibit us as much as they give us security and purpose. My hope for the book, out in the world, is that it can be used in classrooms -- high school, college, or graduate school -- to generate debate among students about what the analogous identity issues are for them, whatever their background. 

5) What developments in the situation have you seen since you finished writing the book, if any?

While I was in Turkey, the country was undergoing major changes-- and it has continued to change. When I left, although Erdogan had already been Prime Minister for several years, he was still fighting to secure his power over Turkish society. Many progressive-minded people hoped that by challenging some of the harsh orthodoxies of Kemalism, and the military power that upheld it, Erdogan would make more room for minorities and underdogs, and for elements of democracy that had not fit into the Kemalist project. Unfortunately, he went far beyond that and has ended up replicating and even furthering the old autocratic model that those progressives hoped he would dismantle. Although there were some positive by-products along the way, such as increased dialogue around the Kurdish issue and even the genocide issue, for the most part the changes he's brought about now appear unhealthy for Turkish society in new ways. I feel a deep attachment to Turkey after having lived there for two and a half years, and watching from a distance, I feel sad to see his steamrolling of a culture and nation that, like any culture or nation, has so much beauty in it, despite its traumas and challenges.

Interviewed by Adriana Widdoes, Book Soup Event Host/Marketing Assistant

Meline Toumani discusses and signs There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond on Tuesday, November 18th at 7pm. 

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