In the weeks before the September 21-Independence Day release of Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream (HarperCollins), Rachel Goshgarian phoned the author, Garin K. Hovannisian, in Yerevan, for a conversation. To learn more about the author and the book, visit FamilyofShadows.com
RACHEL GOSHGARIAN: Why did you write Family of Shadows?
GARIN K. HOVANNISIAN: I’ve known for a long time that I would write the family history. I didn’t know I would have written it quite so early in life. But it so happened that, in the spring of 2008, I found myself in a book-writing course taught by Sam Freedman at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. That is how I came to think about my family’s past—not as a history, but for the first time as a story. I began to think about my grandfather Kaspar—the survivor of the Genocide, soldier of General Antranig. I thought about my grandfather Richard—the professor and pioneer of Armenian studies in the United States. And of course I thought about my father Raffi, the first citizen and foreign minister of a new Republic of Armenia.
I had never before really paused to consider the perfect pattern of my family story: Armenia lost, remembered, regained. And when the pattern was illuminated for me, I knew I would have to write the book.
R.G.: How have you approached your family story? How have you kept the rhythm through a century of narrative?
G.K.H.: I knew I was telling a sacred story—and I was greatly burdened by the anxiety of doing justice to it. So I knew that I could not tell the story in a conventional way; I would need to test different approaches. Naturally, I approached the narrative through history—my grandfather had taught me that—and through journalism—research, reporting, interviews. But sometimes even the established disciplines failed, and I found myself turning to literature and poetry, hoping through art to understand and to recreate the life of our people.
R.G.: Whom did you interview?
G.K.H.: I conducted hundreds of interviews—in Los Angeles, Tulare, Fresno, San Francisco, New York, Beirut, Yerevan…. There was so much I didn’t know about my family—so many details that would be forgotten if they weren’t asked for, demanded, collected, and written back to life. There was a woman in Armenia, Karine Hovsepyan, who was among a generation of quiet heroes fighting on the frontlines of our war of liberation in Artsakh. She had so many stories about my father—stories I might never have heard. When we last spoke, she did not tell me…. I learned only recently that we have since lost her to cancer.
R.G.: Do you consider this book a memoir?
G.K.H.: I never did find the proper category. My publishers called it an investigative memoir. That’s about right, I think. Certainly this isn’t a pure memoir. Because, as you know, remembrance is also imagination, an act of creation. And an author writing in solitude, writing about memories that are his alone, can be led into temptation.
In my case, though, I like to think that the journalist in me was quick to sober up the poet. The historian ultimately conquered the secret novelist. Not completely, perhaps. I’m sure the evidence of that battle is all over the book.
R.G.: What audience did you have in mind when you were writing this book?
G.K.H.: A few times during creation I imagined my great-grandfather, whom I never knew, reading the book. I hoped he would not be disappointed. To be honest, I cared less about my audience in this world.
I knew, of course, that Family of Shadows would be published in the United States, and so I would cast my family and our people into a narrative beyond their own—onto a stage greater than the thirty thousand square kilometers that is modern-day Armenia. This wasn’t too difficult, because as I wrote, I began to see, really for the first time, the intricate, miraculous tangle of our common history, how narratives and characters can collide through time in unexpected ways.
How Vartan Gregorian, for example, the Iranian Armenian student who taught Armenian to my grandfather in Beirut in 1955, could go on to become—as if in another lifetime—the President of Brown University and then the Carnegie Corporation. Or how in the winter of 1988, after the devastating earthquake in Soviet Armenia, so many civilizations chanced to meet in Yerevan. The Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, a young Jeb Bush, a couple of young reporters who have since become the editors of the New Yorker and the New York Times, my father and grandmother—history had brought them all here, to the same hotel on Republic Square!
The fact is that I do believe that Family of Shadows is a universal saga—both international and individual—and I have to believe that anyone with a sense of history or empathy can relate to it.
R.G.: How is your family story different from other Armenian stories?
G.K.H.: It begins where all of our stories begin. It begins at the end—1915, the death of our nation. Of course you will recognize the story of my great-grandfather Kaspar: genocide, survival, diaspora. But with my grandfather, growing up on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California, you will notice the narrative begin to twist. Because against all odds and logic, my grandfather is possessed by strange curiosities about his family past. Ultimately he leaves his father’s farm, learns Armenian, and becomes the founding scholar of modern Armenian history in the United States.
And when we reach the story of my father, the family narrative—which has been, so far, a version of an American Dream story—is deformed once and for all. Here we have a twist without precedent. Because my father suddenly decides in 1989 that his lucrative law practice in Los Angeles is just not enough—that his future, like his past, is actually in Armenia. And that is, of course, where he goes to spend the rest of his life.
So maybe this is the story about the end of the American Dream. But I don’t think my father would agree. For him, the American Dream was never about achieving liberty but about championing liberty—returning freedom and democracy to native lands.
R.G.: What does Armenia mean to you?
G.K.H.: When I talk about Armenia, when I talk about the national yearning, I struggle to formulate ideas that are truly independent of my family, truly my own.
To my great-grandfather Kaspar, living in a village of Kharpert in 1915, Armenia was a reality—a homeland divided and then destroyed. To my grandfather Richard, on the morning shift on his father’s vines in the San Joaquin Valley of California, Armenia was a memory—a secret realm that did not exist even in his classroom atlases, a land that lived only in the mind. For my father Raffi, it was a memory, too, but also a fantasy—that ancient image of a village table set with lavash and yogurt and honey, against a backdrop of the biblical mountains. It was a fantasy that ultimately led him to Soviet Armenia.
But once there, at its source, the fantasy is challenged, isn’t it? It must begin a difficult negotiation with reality. So the negotiations are ongoing.
R.G.: What does the title of the book mean to you?
G.K.H.: The book begins with two quotations from the Old Testament—one from Genesis and the other from Judges. I hope you can find at least a few satisfactory interpretations between them.
But you’ve got to be moved by shadows—they are poems. They exist and yet they don’t exist. They are the evidence of things that we don’t necessarily see—in this case, the evidence of a distant, unfathomable past.
Funny thing, I’m remembering a class I took at UCLA some years ago, a history of Christianity course in which the professor, Professor Bartchy, spoke of “jumping over your own shadow.”
Of course you can never do that—you are condemned to your shadow, and it to you. But the point was that we try to liberate ourselves, don’t we? Maybe this book is about that struggle—the struggle of man against memory.
R.G.: Your book is about three men. Is there a role for women in your book?
G.K.H.: Family of Shadows is populated by women—profound women, powerful women, women who have their own claims to history and immortality. Actually the character of my grandmother, Vartiter, is for me the most fascinating of all my characters. Perhaps one day I will write a novel about her, so that I might begin to understand her: her wounded wisdom, the wealth and intricacy of her emotions. But not for a long time. I don’t think I’m ready to understand her.
R.G.: Why did you write this book in English?
G.K.H.: This is our tragedy—that it is in English words that an Armenian story should find its final shape. I hope one day to write in Armenian.
R.G.: Why did you choose to become a writer?
G.K.H.: Of course the noble answer is that it wasn’t really a choice, but a calling. I am not sure that’s the case. I remember a time when I wanted to be a lawyer, a professor, a detective. For most of my childhood, actually, I dreamed of becoming a magician. I would practice before the mirror for hours.
It is true, though, that I have always written. As early as I could put words on a page, I was writing sonnets to my imaginary mistresses. And then, sometime in middle school, I remember being consumed in the dark and fantastic world of Edgar Allan Poe. “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’” My grandfather first recited that poem to me.
Anyway, in high school and some of college, I did take an embarrassing detour, but ultimately a useful detour, into political writing. I was going to become an opinion columnist, an advocate of libertarian ideas. Those ideas are still mine, but I keep them more quietly now, and I have since returned to the most meaningful and beautiful and of course futile kind of writing, which is literature—writing into people.