Writing as Exorcism: An Interview with Aline Ohanesian

In a year that saw the publication of a large number of books that deal with the Armenian Genocide, Aline Ohanesian’s Orhan’s Inheritance has generated much praise and accolades—from being named Amazon’s Best Book of the Month for April 2015 to being among Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Voices Program. Ohanesian spent six years writing the book, which is loosely based on her grandmother’s story. As part of her research, she traveled to Sepastia (today, Sivas), where the story unravels.
When Orhan Turkoglu’s grandfather passes away, he is faced with questions he must confront—beginning with, why would his grandfather leave the family home to an Armenian woman, Seda Melkonian, in a Los Angeles nursing home. Armed with his grandfather’s sketchbook, Orhan must travel to L.A. to meet Seda.
A story buried for years, Orhan must now confront the truth. Orhan’s Inheritance is a story about love, hope, and resilience.
In the following interview with the Armenian Weekly, Ohanesian discusses some of the themes that surface in Orhan’s Inheritance, as well as her choices of characters and style. She also talks about the challenges of writing such a novel, and what she hopes her fiction might achieve.
Ohanesian was also a finalist for the prestigious PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver.

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The Armenian Weekly—Your great-grandmother is a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. How much of Orhan’s Inheritance is about her own experiences during the genocide?
Aline Ohanesian—She and both my paternal grandparents were survivors. I purposely located the story in a village different from theirs because I wanted to create a bit of a psychological distance between myself and the story. I wove their experiences into details. such as the scene where gold coins are sewn into Bedros’s undergarments. That detail is directly from my great-grandmother’s life.

A.W.—You provide an extensive amount of historical information in the genre of a fictional novel. How much, and what type of, research did you conduct when writing this book? How much is fictional and how much is based on real events?
A.O.—I have a master’s degree in history and was pursuing my Ph.D. when I dropped out to write this novel. When you’re writing about a historical event that is still disputed by its perpetrators, it’s important to be historically accurate. I think I read every history book ever written on the subject, including books by denialists like [Edward] Erickson. I spent the good part of a year reading historians like Raymond Kevorkian, Taner Akcam, and Richard Hovanessian. I also looked for primary documents. Ara Sarafian’s publication of the Blue Book was indispensable. [My] book is fiction but it was important to me to get the history right.

A.W.—To this day, Turkey denies the Armenian Genocide, as do many other countries around the world, including the United States. How do you think a Turkish audience will respond to your book? How would you want them to respond?
A.O.—I think it’s extremely important to distinguish between the government, which is steeped in denial, and the citizens of Turkey, who are mostly kind and generous. Most educated people in Turkey understand the truth. Some are even brave enough to speak it. The country is unfortunately going more towards conservatism and certain human rights are in peril, freedom of speech being chief among them. You can’t have a democracy without it and Turkey has a free speech problem that extends far beyond the Armenian Genocide issue. On a personal level, my greatest hope is to have this book published in Turkish. I think the Turkish public is more than ready for this story.

A.W.—There are many complex themes you cover in this book. Some sad themes involve the trauma and hate that comes with genocide, loss, and the pain of the past. However, you also include some positive messages, including the power of art and stories, survival, cultural pride, justice, and love. How did you manage to intermingle and balance all of these themes within the course of your novel?
A.O.—Writing this book was in many ways an exorcism. I expelled every thought and emotion I had about this history. I poured absolutely everything into this book. There is no one theme more important than the next. Our every moment on this earth is nuanced, and literature has to reflect that. I will say that I have always been obsessed with the power of language. I find it difficult to think of anything outside of language. It’s impossible, really. I believe stories are the basic units of human understanding, and which stories we choose to tell ourselves and one another constructs our reality.

A.W.—The narrator expresses the inner thoughts of various characters in the book, including Lucine, Mairig, Kemal, Orhan, Fatma, and Ani. It can be much harder to write a book using a third-person, omniscient narrator, but you did so quite skillfully. Why did you choose to create a third-person narrator?
A.O.—I didn’t want the book to be restricted by one character’s perspective. It was important to me to have Turkish voices, Armenian voices, and voices from different generations. This is our shared history. It belongs to both our people. I wanted to create a Rashoman effect, where you have contradictory interpretations of the same event. It was important to point to the relativity of truth, its unreliability, and to still emerge from the world of this novel understanding that even with all of that, the actuality of the Armenian Genocide is undeniable. To put it simply, it’s fine to disagree about the color of an object, for example, but not its very existence.

A.W.—Many characters faced conflicts with their faith in this book. When conducting your research, what revelations did you find between people involved in the Armenian Genocide and their experience with their faith?
A.O.—Unlike the main character in this book, my own grandparents were deeply religious. My paternal grandfather, who grew up in a missionary orphanage in Lebanon, was a preacher in the Armenian Protestant church. He drew strength from his faith, but I could never understand that. I grapple with faith myself, more so after writing this book. It was also my way of stressing that this conflict, if you want to call it that, had more to do with nationalism than it did with faith. There was an inherent racism in the policies of the Ottoman Empire towards its Armenian population. We were called rats and dogs—language that was very similar to the rampant anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust.

A.W.—You often create images with enough graphic detail to elicit emotion in the reader, but you are careful not to take the descriptions too far. How did you manage to create this balance? Was this a difficult task?
A.O.—No, it was not difficult. It was an aesthetic decision and an instinctual one. We all know the horrid stories like the one Siamanto told of women dancing naked then being lit on fire. These images informed my writing, but I refused to put them in the novel. It’s been done again and again. This is a 100-year-old story. I wanted to tell it in a fresh way or not tell it at all.

A.W.—Part of what makes your book so powerful is the diversity of characters you create. Some are genuine and relatable, others are disdainful and inhumane, but all of them are unique in their own way. Which character could you connect to most? Which character did you enjoy writing about the most? Which character was the most painful to write about? Do any of these answers interconnect?
A.O.—It was fun to have all these different voices in my head. I was surprised by how well I connected with Orhan. We are polar opposites. I am a female, Armenian artist and activist. He is a Turkish male who is politically apathetic and has turned his back on his art. Ani was basically me at 18. Ready to take on the world, change it, force it to acknowledge my people’s history. Fatma is my favorite character. She’s based on a good friend’s grandmother whom I admire greatly: a feisty, foul-mouthed powerhouse of a woman. I hope to be like her one day. The hardest character to write was Orhan’s father Mustafa. The most painful was Lucine. My heart cracked open for her. There was a lot of weeping over my keyboard when it came to her.

A.W.—What was your writing process like for this book? For example, did you create a plot outline, write different scenes at different points, or did you just start writing to see where it went? Did you use a combination of these techniques?
A.O.—I began writing longhand in the voice of Seda at age 87 and age 15. It was like writing from two different perspectives because she had changed so much in those 70 years. Orhan came next. So I had this genocide survivor and this 29-year-old Turk. I wrote in their voices a long time by hand, before forming an outline. I filled a dozen Moleskin journals with their voices. It took me over six years to write this book. There were long stretches of time when I wrote between 4 and 6 a.m., then continued writing from 9 a.m. until noon. In many ways writing is like pathology or possession.

A.W.—Lucine’s niece, Ani, tells Orhan: “My mother nursed me with my mother’s milk but also with sorrow. It flowed from her heart to her breast, into my insides where it probably still rests. She herself had ingested the same from her mother. They call it trans-generation grief now. We call it being Armenian.” This is a very powerful statement. How much of this statement rings true to you as an Armenian? Did this “trans-generation grief” play any part in your writing the book? What else do you think defines “being Armenian?”
A.O.—This statement is true for this character. She is trying to convey her pain to a Turkish man who is not a denialist as much as he is politically apathetic. I think some people are more affected by trans-generation grief than others. I don’t think that being Armenian is defined solely by our collective victimization. Are we a traumatized people? Of course. Who could endure what we have—the genocide and 100 years of denial—and not be traumatized? But we are also a resilient people, a joyous people. Anyone who doubts that should go to an Armenian wedding.
Writing this book was my way of dealing with this trans-generation grief. I’ve given a great deal of thought to whether or not I want to transpose this grief to my young sons. In the end, I decided that even this grief was a gift, a gift bestowed by the men and women who survived, and it may be a heavy cross to bear, but I am consciously bequeathing it to my sons in the form of this novel.

A.W.—What are your plans for your next book or piece of writing?
A.O.—I am currently researching California in the 19th century. My first novel was about the land of my ancestors. The second will be about my adopted homeland.

"The Armenian Weekly," June 18, 2015

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