Early in Michael J. Arlen’s revered memoir Passage to Ararat, the author makes a visit to the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City. “Out of the blue,” he tells us, “I was asked by an Armenian group in New York to come down and give a talk about my writing.” Never before had he spoken to an Armenian group and, much like his famous father, the writer Michael Arlen, he had little to do with Armenians or the Armenian Apostolic Church. That night, he says, “for the first time, I met Armenians on my own.” One of the Armenians he met, an “older gentleman with thick white hair” bemoaned the fact that they never saw his father at the Cathedral. Arlen replies that he didn’t think that his father thought of himself as Armenian. “’Of course he was Armenian,’ said the old man. ‘You are Armenian. It is not such a strange thing to be Armenian. Come, have some coffee.’” From “such small beginnings” sprung one of the most well-known memoirs of Armenian-American life. Yet the question is not as simple as the old man would have it. Between Arlen’s claim that his father did not feel Armenian—or, as we might say today, he did not emphasize his Armenian identity—and the old man’s insistence that he of course was Armenian lies the entirety of debates about national belonging, identity, ethno-religious affiliation, and the complexities of life in/as diaspora. What is sometimes called Diasporic Literature explores all the compelling possibilities for a life lived between what Anny Bakalian aptly described as either being or feeling Armenian.
Diaspora is constitutive of the Armenian experience and is one of the most used terms to talk about Armenians. Yet an exact definition of diaspora often eludes us. Khachig Tölöyan, founder of the journal Diaspora and one of the concept’s greatest theorists, has written about the change from a relatively restricted use of the term diaspora to one in which it can mean nearly any “expansion and scattering away from a center” (1996, 10). As Tölöyan traces, in antiquity the term referred to the Greek colonies of individual city-states, and then to the Jewish dispersion, especially after the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. This Jewish Diaspora became the paradigmatic case of a diasporic population. By the early twentieth century, the Armenians living around the world also became known as one of the paradigmatic cases of diaspora. Today, scholars often refer to any population living outside its homeland as a diaspora. Tölöyan’s body of work, much of which can be accessed through academia.edu, offers brilliant insight to these shifting definitions and suggests that there is something important in a narrower definition. Krikor Beledian, one of the great contemporary Armenian writers and critics, agrees, insisting that “every exile or separation doesn’t necessarily lead to a ‘diasporan’ experience as it is called here” (2016, xxvii). It ‘isn’t solely a matter of exotic disorientation, but also an ordeal that results from an irretrievable loss. Exile becomes definitive, a one-way trip” (xxxvii-iii). The Armenian experience clearly fits into this more specific understanding of the concept. This, of course, accords with the lived experiences of most Armenians, who self-consciously understand themselves to be part of a diaspora. Indeed, սփիւռք/spuyrk is a constant term of discussion and debate among Armenians. Tölöyan quotes Dr. Vartan Gregorian’s metaphor of “Homeland and diaspora: one body, two lungs,” a metaphor which expresses a common understanding of how the Armenian Diaspora around the world and the Republic of Armenia (should) function together. From 2008 until last year, the Republic of Armenia had a “Ministry of Diaspora.” Today, Zareh Sinanyan serves as the Chief Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs at the Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia. Yet not all Armenians orient towards the Republic of Armenia (or a lost historic Armenian homeland) in the same way. In addition to differences in definition, the internal variation of the Armenian Diaspora is significant and consequential. We find, rather quickly, that one of the bedrock concepts of Armenian life—diaspora—is in fact quite complicated!
In addition to the scholarship of intellectuals like Tölöyan and Bakalian, fiction and literary nonfiction (like memoirs) are important vehicles for grappling with the complications of life in diaspora. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what counts as Diasporan or Diasporic Literature has been the subject of some disagreement. Hyungji Park, writing about Asian American literature and literature of the Asian diaspora suggests that, “diaspora literature is not easy to define or identify, and often intuition is as good a criterion as another” (2015, 155). Most scholars try to differentiate ethnic literature, often by third or fourth generation authors dealing largely with the host country (for instance, America) from genuine diaspora literature that has an anchor in the home country or at least what Tölöyan calls the transnation. Yet these categories are not perfect. For instance, Arlen’s memoir Passage to Ararat is grounded in his American experience and explores the event of a thoroughly English and American writer coming to terms with his ethnic (Armenian) past. Yet, in the course of the book Arlen not only grapples with his famous father’s relationship to Armenians and Armenia, but also travels to the Republic of Armenia and historic Armenian lands in the Republic of Turkey. While the younger Arlen’s memoirs might fall somewhere between ethnic and diasporic literature, his father’s English language novels almost never touch the Armenian experience at all. Yet we would still consider Michael Arlen an Armenian diasporan writer—even if his books might not be classified as diasporic literature. Perhaps the most capacious definition of diasporic literature would include anything written by a diasporan author. Though the genre itself might be best limited to books that are somehow about the diasporic experience, we can still learn much about diaspora, life in diaspora, and the varieties of Armenian life in the Diaspora from diasporan writers.
|Passage to Ararat||Michael J. Arlen’s memoir exploring both his relationship to the famous writer Michael Arlen and both of their relationships to their Armenian heritage. A classic of English language writing about Armenians, it explores important themes of identity and belonging in Diaspora and through the generations.|
|Armenian Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenian||One of the classic works on Armenian-Americans and the question of Armenian identity in Diaspora. By Anny Bakalian, the book and her distinction between “being” and “feeling” Armenian has inspired much of the subsequent work on Armenians in America and on Armenian identity in Diaspora.|
|An Armenian Trilogy||Three plays by William Saroyan, published posthumously by Dickran Kouymjian. With an introductory essay. The three plays are Saroyan’s most explicit literary musings on Armenian identity and the connections between different nodes of the Armenian diaspora.|
|Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France||Krikor Beledian, one of the foremost writers and critics of Western Armenian today, presents a sophisticated study of Armenian literature in France. The introduction offers important general insights about diasporan experience and diasporan literature. Translated from French by Christopher Atamian and edited by Barlow Der Mugrdechian.|
Perhaps the two most famous writers of Armenian descent in the English language, Michael Arlen and William Saroyan exemplify the wide variety of participation in Armenian diasporic life that is possible. While Arlen essentially ignored his Armenian heritage for much of his career, Saroyan wrote distinctly ethnic Armenian characters into the fabric of American life, and later in life turned to explicitly diasporan themes. Michael Arlen was born 125 years ago on November 16, 1895, in Bulgaria, with the given name of Dikran Kouyoumdjian. His family of Armenian merchants moved to England in 1901. He enrolled as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, but left university and moved to London in 1913. For our purposes, it is significant that his first published work, in 1916, was under his Armenian birth name for the Armenian periodical Ararat: A Searchlight on Armenia, printed in London. Yet by 1920 he began using the name “Michael Arlen,” and wrote at the intersection of the genres of romance, psychological thriller, and horror. The Green Hat, published in 1924, catapulted him to success and fame. A Woman of Affairs, a 1928 silent film starting Greta Garbo, was based on the novel. Already before his success, he had kept company with the likes of Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence. With his new-found fame, Arlen continued to run in such circles, even serving as the inspiration for the character Michaelis in Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He continued to write and publish books, others of which were also adapted for film. His final novel, The Flying Dutchman, was published in 1939. He moved with his family (including his son Michael J. Arlen) to New York in 1946 where he lived until his death a decade later.
Clearly, Arlen’s work and life both consistently moved away from the Armenian experience and his “Armenian identity.” Changing his name from the distinctly Armenian Dikran Koyoumdjian to Michael Arlen, he wrote novels about contemporary European life, and kept company with the literary stars of his day. While his family history mimics the movement of many diasporan Armenians of his day—from Ottoman territories to Europe to America—very little of his life or writing reflects an Armenian diasporic experience. It was this reality that his son alluded to when he told the old man at the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral that he didn’t think his father “thought of himself as Armenian.”
On the other end of the spectrum is William Saroyan, who achieved the height of his fame when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1940. Beloved by Armenians worldwide, Saroyan was born in Fresno on August 31, 1908. Though it was The Time of Your Life, a five-act play that opened on Broadway in 1939 that won the Pulitzer Prize and The Human Comedy, depicting life in a fictionalized California town during World War II that would be included in American literature anthologies for years to come, among Armenians My Name is Aram takes pride of place. Even the title of this work announces a difference from someone like Michael Arlen: the young boy with the decidedly Armenian name is the protagonist who gives his name to the book. Instead of hiding his Armenian background and ignoring it literarily, Saroyan makes the Armenian experience in America central to his work. Based on the earlier distinction between ethnic and diasporic literature, we might say that Saroyan is writing ethnic literature in My Name is Aram. Though the particularities of Armenian life in California are on full display, the protagonist is solidly an American and Californian. Yet, later in life, Saroyan would turn more explicitly not only to the Armenian ethnic experience in America but to life in the transnational Armenian diaspora. In what was published posthumously as An Armenian Trilogy, Saroyan explores not only Armenian identity (as he does in My Name is Aram and more explicitly in Rock Wagram), but the movements of the Armenian people across host countries and to historic Armenia. In Armenians, set in Fresno just after the Soviet takeover of the independent Republic of Armenia, Armenians living in Fresno debate what—if anything—they can and should do about the situation thousands of miles away. In Haratch, named for the famed Armenian newspaper in Paris, Saroyan discusses Armenian identity with several transnational characters—including a young Khachig Tölöyan, who appears in the play as “Khachig.” Finally, in Bitlis, Saroyan describes his actual trip to his ancestral town of Bitlis. Through these three plays we travel from Saryon’s California birthplace to a central node of the Armenian Diaspora in Paris to historic Armenia. Collected together, the plays certainly constitute Armenian Diasporic Literature.
Of course, much more could be said about William Saroyan. We will take up his work in more detail in the future. Likewise, we have neither exhausted the debates about diasporic literature in general nor the breadth of Armenian Diasporic Literature. As Tölöyan notes in a chapter on Armenian-American literature, in addition to the work in English of writers of Armenian descent, there are also the thousands of pages written in Armenian by diasporan Armenians living outside the Armenian homeland. Many of these pages were written in America. However, as Tölöyan notes, “since the second and third generations of ethnics do not know Armenian well enough to read it, they have no access to the mass of these writings” (1996, 26). Beledian also distinguishes between an “Armenian literature of the diaspora” and “Armenian diasporan literature,” where the “first includes only works written in Armenian. Their ‘Armenian’ content derives exclusively from the language itself. The second term may include works written in different western languages by writers of Armenian origin or those claiming Armenian roots” (2016, xxii). In his remarkable study Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France Beledian limits himself to those Armenians writing in Armenian. Few readers or scholars have looked at the English literature (or French or Arabic or Turkish or other languages of host countries where Armenians lived) and the Armenian literature together in a way that would fully explore the robust potential canon of Armenian Diasporic Literature. Some pioneering scholars have done so, and the debates about Armenian literature and Armenian Diasporic Literature are well beyond the scope of this short piece. At the very least, however, we have endeavored to introduce the concept of Armenian Diasporic Literature and to highlight how literary production and the life of literary figures are themselves productive sites for grappling with the complexity of the experience of the Armenian Diaspora.
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