FRESNO–Forgotten Bread, a new anthology of first generation Armenian-American writers, is not simply a fine example of ethnic literature from the 1920s to the present. Reviewers and early readers are calling the collection, edited by David Kherdian and published by Heyday Books, a magical experience.
“It’s a stunning display by the writers who came before my generation,” said novelist Aris Janigian, author of Bloodvine.
“Totally unexpected,” said author and journalist Mark Arax. “A lot of these poems and short stories were new to me. It was hard to read them and not have your breath taken away.”
None of the anthology’s 17 writers, whose works appear side by side for the first time, quite made it into the high house of American letters. That is, none except for William Saroyan, and he barged in through the back door bellowing his greatness. Instead, toiling with the limelight always beyond reach, they produced an astonishing body of work that managed to be both Armenian and American.
On the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 14, poet and writer Kherdian will bring Forgotten Bread to Fresno, a place not unfamiliar in the anthology’s crossings. His lecture, sponsored by the Fresno State Armenian Studies Program, the College of Arts and Humanities, the English Department, and the Greater Fresno Chapter of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, will be held at 7:30 p.m. at the Fresno State Student Recreation Center, Peters Educational Center. Kherdian will discuss how the first-generation poets, novelists and short story writers enriched U.S. literature with their own unique voices.
“The story they tell is the human’story of suffering and the building of a new life in America,” said Kherdian, one of the collection’s first generation writers who has penned more than 30 volumes of poetry, novels, memoirs and children’s books over 40 years. “In the act of reconstruction, these artists played a crucial role.”
They were, in one way or another, the children of the Armenian Genocide. Serabian-Herald, Surmelian, Bezzerides, Varandyan, Hagopian, Minasian, Sourian, Pilibosian. Whether orphans of Anatolia or their family’s first born in America, they represented the generation of flight, said Barlow Der Mugrdechian, Fresno State professor of Armenian Studies. Onto their shoulders much expectation was heaped. Not only were they proof of Armenian survival but the first act of Armenian continuance.
“Yes, the Genocide and exile is part of what they were writing about,” Der Mugrdechian said. “But I also found it interesting how distinctively American they were. Reading Arlene Avakian, for instance, you see her dealing with themes of feminism. And some of Harry Barba’s best stuff is completely outside the Armenian immigrant context.”
Arax said the collection is nothing short of a cultural excavation, with Kherdian unearthing the first grafts of the Armenian experience onto places such as Racine, Wisconsin and Watertown, Massachusetts. This group of writers must have felt a great burden to find what was lost, if not the land itself than their family’s material possessions, he said. And yet they chose not to be merchants or doctors or lawyers but writers-a road they surely knew would not lead to wealth.
“What deed in the wake of the Genocide could reaffirm the Armenian presence more than their deed? Arax said. “Not only to live but to write. Writing these stories and poems were the first acts of remembrance, the first acts of honoring.”
As a kind of torch passing, each writer’s work is prefaced in the collection by a short biography written by a second or third generation Armenian American such as Arax.
Kherdian will be joined at the lecture by Arax and a handful of students, each of whom will read a short selection from the anthology. Following the lecture and reading, Kherdian and Arax will signs books. Admission is free.
For more information, call the Armenian Studies Program at 278-2669.