I don’t speak Armenian. I’ve never been to the Republic of Armenia. I rarely eat the food or attend Armenian Church services. But I can’t shake the feeling that I am definitely Armenian. Yet as much as I feel that I am Armenian, I also can’t seem to figure out what that means.
Human beings are “meaning makers” – we turn our memories into stories that give meaning to the past. Meaning helps us understand pain and joy, it teaches us about ourselves, and it gives us various parts of our identities. Family histories especially confer meaning on each new generation; in many ways, our family stories create us. Yet what happens when those stories are immensely painful? And what happens when these stories in particular are not told?
Whenever my dad talked about growing up in an Armenian family in Worcester, Massachusetts, the life he described always felt so foreign to me that he and I might have grown up in entirely different countries. I cherished those rare stories I heard about my dad’s childhood – like how he spent afternoons with his grandfather on the second floor of his family’s tenement, speaking only Armenian and learning woodworking. Yet his family had been desperately poor; life hadn’t been easy, but even amidst the difficulties – or perhaps because of them – his family maintained the Armenian way of life that my dad’s grandparents carried with them from the old country.
There are many things about my Armenian family that I learned only in small bits and pieces scattered through my childhood, or that I never knew until I started asking questions. For instance: the grandfather that my dad spent so much time with as a boy was a survivor of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, and my grandmother’s mother saw her husband, three daughters, and parents killed before she was marched through the desert for months. These were not the stories I heard growing up.
The genocide is not often spoken of, even amongst Armenians, and this silence has carried scars of its own. An undercurrent of deep unhealed pain runs through the Armenian’s identity, and even if we know little of the genocide, our ancient heritage, or the vanishing traditions – this pain touches us.
But how are we supposed to make sense of this pain? When silence replaces stories, we grasp at meaning but have nothing to hold onto.
For the children of the silent generations, any identity we receive from our part-Armenian-ness consists almost entirely of wanting to have more of it, to know more of it, and to be more of it. Michael J. Arlen, son of an Armenian father and a Greek-American mother, begins his memoir Passage to Ararat with this very idea: “At a particular time in my life, I set out on a voyage to discover for myself what it is to be Armenian. For although I myself am Armenian, or part Armenian, until then I knew nothing about either Armenians or Armenia.” A generation of Armenians was swallowed by the genocide in 1915, but now a new generation of Armenians is threatened with extinction as well, though of a different sort: for the great-grandchildren of the survivors, Armenia is losing its meaning.
How can we go about creating meaning where what we have encountered most often is silence? We can start by looking for the stories.
The silence in my family has started to relax, mostly because my dad and I decided to make a film about it. Our documentary, tentatively titled Journey to Armenia: Three Generations from Genocide, will be the story of our trips together to the Republic of Armenia and Eastern Turkey (aka Western Armenia), beginning with our first trip this summer. Like archeologists of our own family history, we will visit the four villages that our family members fled from almost a hundred years ago. And in the process, we hope to learn more about what being Armenian really means.
"Asbarez," March 15, 2012
"Asbarez," March 15, 2012