The coffee club has been full of conversational rants the last two weeks because of tax day and the claims of 4/20 and Holy Week. Now Armenian Martyrs Day arrives. Kate Mgrdtchian and Vardan Vardigian drink and talk and talk and drink and bang backgammon pieces around the board in between their rants.
Two of the finest novels to explore the Armenian genocide and its impact on survivors are Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, and The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian. I offer a taste of these two books, but my paragraphs are only pointers to these masterful works.
Bluebeard is the story of Rabo Karabekian, a fictional abstract expressionist artist. One of the themes Vonnegut explores is how to make meaningful art after and in the midst of our inhumanity toward one another. Wrestling with that question has been the substance of the work of Vonnegut, Elie Wiesel, and others. It remains a question for theologians and preachers and for those who gather in coffee houses for conversation.
“Never trust a survivor,” my father used to warn me, “until you find out what he did to stay alive.” (Bluebeard, pp. 29-30) Karebekian’s father survived the Armenian genocide in scenery that is reminiscent of those who survived the Holocaust in Slaughterhouse-Five. Instead of the slaughterhouse, Vonnegut’s Karebekian survives because of an outhouse. The artist struggles with the demon of survivor syndrome, a sense of shame for having survived when so many others did not.
Bohjalian in The Sandcastle Girls also shows in part the struggle of other survivors of the Armenian genocide and the impact that this genocide had on her granddaughter, a few generations removed from the genocide. Bohjalian’s novel envelopes his family story and brings to life the stories behind photographs from the genocide.
Both Vonnegut and Bohjalian offer the story that all Armenians confront: survivor syndrome. Do we forge an amnesia and erase the events of 1915? Part of my family did that. Do we seek revenge? Part of my family did that. Of course, a third way exists, one that honors the memory of all who were impacted by the genocide and that engages in the work of justice to eliminate all new genocidal efforts. Serj Tankian and many others offer expressions of hope and movements forward. I lobby and write and pester in the hope that the denial of this genocide will end and that we—Turks and Armenians–can live lives of forgiveness and reconciliation.