Remembering the Armenian Genocide: an Interview with Dana Walrath

An Armenian family receiving food relief, 1915
An Armenian family receiving food relief, 1915 (source: Wikimedia)

Like Water on Stone book coverIn 1914, the Ottoman Empire had more than 2 million people. Less than ten years later, their population was reduced to less than 400,000.  It’s hard to imagine how a war could lead to such terrible destruction. Today, as we honor the hundred-year anniversary of when these killings began, it’s just as hard to imagine how one might explain such a terrible tragedy to your children.

Dana Walrath, writer, poet, artist, Fulbright Scholar, and second generation Armenian, has written Like Water on Stone, a novel that tells the tale of three Armenian youth running for their lives during during this harrowing time in history. The novel is written in verse, which gives it enough distance to make the book palatable for younger readers. Indeed, the book is marketed as young adult, though this grown up didn’t even realize that as I was turning the pages.

I found it fascinating that Walrath chose to write a young adult book about a tragedy that most Americans have, sadly, never heard of and, on top of that, she wrote it as poetry. The characters in Like Water on Stone are so lively that I was filled with questions as I read about how she researched this monumental undertaking. So I got in touch with Walrath, and I’m happy to share her answers with you today.

An Interview with Dana Walrath

What drew you to epic poetry? Did you always know this would be a long-form poem, or did it start as something else?

My subconscious or some other equally mysterious forces definitely contributed to finding the form of the book! The story was always in free verse but even this was not a deliberate choice that I made. The scale and horror of genocide demanded it: Severed heads, rape, rivers red with blood, stinking heaps of dead bodies; the living emaciated, naked, sunburned, marching through the sand—we all turn away. I could only put it onto paper in fragments that slowly accumulated into a story. I wrote many of the toughest sections first, as poems that expressed the shattered memories of genocide survivors who were part of a prose novel set in New York City in the 1930s. When I separated these poems off into their own book, its free verse form was well established. This form also lends itself well to evoking the distinct flavors of village life in the Ottoman Empire in 1914, the yearning, and each character’s distinct voice. Poetry can go straight to the senses and bring a setting, so different from the life experience of the average North American reader, to life.

photo of Like Water for Stone author Dana Walrth
Dana Walrath, author of Like Water on Stone

What kind of research did you do? How much were you able to pull from family history? Did you read mostly narratives of the time, or was it more dry facts?

As an anthropologist, participant observation is one of my primary forms of research. In a story that drew its inspiration from my family’s history, this means that in some way every moment of my life somehow flowed into the story. Still, I had only the barest fragments of actual family history to pull from as I wrote. When I was a kid, my mother told me that my grandmother, Oghidar—a ten year old girl at the time—hid during the day and ran at night with her younger brother and sister, after their parents were killed, in order to make the journey of hundreds of miles from their home in Palu along the eastern branch of the Euphrates River to Aleppo. I knew that Oghidar came from a family of millers and that somehow a pot came with them. That, plus one story from the orphanage was about all I had to work with in terms of concrete facts. My grandmother died before I was born. My mother’s Uncle Benny and Aunt Alice were colorful characters in my childhood, but I never thought to ask them any of the serious questions. In my family, as often is the case for those who have survived atrocities, we did not speak about them.

When I was college age, I read everything that I could about the genocide: history books, fictionalized accounts ranging from Franz Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh to David Kherdian’s The Road from Home, to memoir such as Michael Arlen’s Passage to Ararat and Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, Henry Morgenthau’s 1918 account of what he witnessed as US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI. I never imagined any of this as research for a novel, because at that time I never imagined that I would become a writer. By the time I began to write this story, twenty-something years later, Armenian Genocide scholarship had expanded geometrically.

During the summer of 1984, I traveled to Eastern Turkey, a roots journey to search for understanding of the grandparents I never knew. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this trip was part of my research. Nearly the entire time that I traveled, I kept my Armenian identity secreted away like the ancient vandalized Armenian structures scattered across the landscape labeled only as “church” or “fort.” The official Turkish policy of genocide denial extends to erasing the presence of Armenians on this land. In Palu, I found my way to a mill, a series of buildings along a fast flowing stream that ran up the slope like stepping stones. The head-scarfed lady of the house broke with the policy of denial and said that the mill had been in her family for 60 years but before that, it had belonged to Armenians. I shared the truth of my identity with her on the rooftop of her home, a half dozen or so children, with large brown eyes watching, and mounds of apricots drying beside us in the sun. For a brief moment we erased the official Turkish policy of denial. This mill became the setting for Like Water On Stone.

While in the thick of writing, I stayed deliberately away from other fictionalized accounts in order to tell my own story. During the final revisions I returned to the abundant scholarship to fact check every detail. These included powerful, first-person narratives as well as scholarly works, and various primary sources that reconstructed life in the Ottoman Empire before the genocide. I had the great good fortune to be finishing this novel during the year that I spent in Yerevan, Armenia, as a Fulbright Scholar. This meant I had the Armenian Genocide Museum and institute at my fingertips for fact checking. My anthropological work involved working with elders who also spontaneously shared their family’s genocide narratives with me, often with an account of how their parents had told them and charged them to never forget.

What percentage of your research was focused on the genocide itself, compared to general aspects of the cultures of that time period?

Armenian child refugees in Syria, 1915
Armenian child refugees in Syria, 1915 (Source: Wikimedia)

I probably devoted more time to general aspects of the culture than I did to the facts of the genocide, but the research about the genocide felt longer because the work was invariably shocking. The first-person accounts by unbiased witnesses such as Leslie A. Davis, U.S Consul-to-Harput, are as harrowing as those of the survivors themselves. I was always left with physical pain not just from reading the grueling accounts, but also from Turkey’s continued denial of these atrocities.

When I turned to general stuff the time flew by. I read countless proverbs in order to choose the right ones for Like Water on Stone. Many of them, such as “Water goes, sand remains” and “You can’t put a fire out with spit” are still with me even though they did not fit into this book. I listened to haunting songs gathered from Palu. I helped harvest grapes at a friend’s vineyard. The most pleasurable “research” had to have been folk dancing. Walking back to my apartment on my second evening in Yerevan in the fall of 2012, music called me just as though the Pied Piper had landed in Yerevan too. I followed it and found a folk dance troupe, the Karin Ensemble, in the midst of leading a revitalization movement to restore dances that had been disappeared by both the genocide and the suppression of nationalism during Soviet Times. People of all ages, including lots of hip, young men dance for hours at these monthly mass dances, and many other smaller events in between. From that moment I was hooked. I began attending twice weekly classes led by Anna Berberyan, one of the troupe members, and not only learned countless dances, but became a member of this community. Whenever I am in Yerevan, as I am now, I connect back with these friends, dancing together, our feet moving in intricate patterns in unison, without words, as our ancestors did for generations.

Music is a big part of the story. I love how the music tugs on everything: pulling the eagle in, pulling the boy up. Did you listen to music from the time period? I feel like you must know a lot about the oud by now. How did you research this? Have you held one or played it?

The poem Ardziv from Like Water on Stone, a book about the Armenian genocideI am so glad you love those parts! My love of music, and love for my oud-playing husband made those parts of the story flow. Our oldest son once asked me if music was our religion. That music connects us through space and time, to places and ancestors lost, makes me think my son was onto something. Religions, unfortunately, have tended to divide people over the ages. Music, on the other hand, makes cultural boundaries and specificities disappear. Perhaps music is more of a spiritual practice than a religion.

George Mgrdichian playing the oud on his Now Sounds of the Middle East and Portraits of the Near East albums, were part of the soundtrack of my childhood. After hearing George play live in New York City, my young husband, already a classical guitarist, decided to pick up this instrument. He got his first oud when we traveled in Turkey in 1984, as well as a saz, the Middle Eastern equivalent of the banjo. He had his first lessons with Maestro Mgrdichian, whom my Armenian Mother had befriended in the grocery store one day! In recent years, he has formed a band, Lokum, that plays music of the region, most recently at the Vermont State House as part of ceremonies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Along the way, I have held many an oud, carrying them through airport security and the like, and have even played a tiny bit. Its fretless fingerboard and strings transfers over naturally from my instrument, the cello.

One extraordinary resource from ethnomusicology also contributed to my musical research for Like Water on Stone: Bedros Alahaidoyan’s, Palu’s (and District) Musical-Ethnographical Collection. I often wrote while listening to Maro Nalbandian performing this collection of songs passed down to her from her grandmother, mother, and other elders who had lived in Palu. The cadences of these songs flow into the poems. You can hear some of these songs here on the Houshamadyan website.

What poets inspire you? In particular I’m curious about long-form books of poetry that you enjoy as well.

The short, powerful lines in the individual poems of Langston Hughes and Kay Ryan inspire me, as does the work of Julie Larios who mentored me at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Hughes of course bridges from short form to long from poetry with his Montage of a Dream Deferred, though this work creates more atmosphere and sense of place compared to a verse novel or long form poem, where story is the primary engine. For storytelling through verse, my inspiration comes primarily from two sources: the wonderful verse novels for young people, such as those of Karen Hesse, Margarita Engle, and Jacqueline Woodson; and the long tradition of epic poetry in Armenian literature, with Hovhaness Tumanyan leading the way.

What drew you to this event, to this aspect of your history?

I have been chasing my Armenian identity for most of my life, perhaps a response to my mother’s urge to leave this part of herself behind. As a young person, I never understood my mother’s affinity for all things blond. She married an odar, a foreigner, an American. Though we ate yogurt long before it became a grocery store staple, we spoke no Armenian at home. As her children, our job was to fit in, to leave most everything Armenian behind, to become blond. Now I can see this was the natural response of an immigrant trying to rise in racialized American society, of a person striving to leave behind the atrocity of genocide. She was seeking the privilege for her children that she herself did not have as a kid. With more cousins in Soviet Armenia than in the US, and both grandparents gone by the time I was six, there was little extended family to pull us back.

When I got to college I embraced my Armenian side fully for the first time, joining the Armenian club at Columbia University, filling my language requirement with Western Armenian, reading everything I could about the genocide. But with my thoroughly American beliefs, practices, and looks, I had to figure out my own particular version of Armenian identity. Writing now from Yerevan, where a stunning animation of Like Water on Stone premiered this week at the Tumo Center for Creative Technology, I feel like I am truly home. One piece of magic surrounded the creation of the animation: The great-grandaughter of my grandmother Oghidar’s older brother from Palu, Shushanik Droshakiryan, has led this project. Her younger sister Gohar created many of the raw drawings that went into the animation. I have not only come home, but I have come home to family.

To a stranger who knows nothing about Armenian culture, why might they be interested in this topic?

While I love sharing the richness of Armenian culture, I believe that the most important reason to connect with the Armenian Genocide is its resonance with all the global social justice issues of today and ongoing conflicts in the region. Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, has pointed out that the U.S. handling of the Armenian genocide 100 years ago set up pernicious patterns that disrupt not only the Middle East but the entire world. The present day actions of ISIS are part and parcel of this legacy.

Stories about the Armenian genocide can help prevent future genocides. They can contribute to creating a new world order which deals responsibly with the lingering consequences of slavery and the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Australia by Europeans.

As anthropologist Gregory Stanton has shown in his model of the stages of genocide, denial is always the final stage. This year we are not just commemorating a genocide that took place 100 years ago, because until denial ends, this genocide is still ongoing. That fact has given tacit permission for other genocides to take place. Over the course of the 20th century, an estimated 83 million people died through genocide from the Holocaust, to Cambodia, to Rwanda, to Bosnia and beyond. One large wall of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. contains these chilling words from Adolph Hitler’s speech to the Weimar in 1939 “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

I love the poems that are from the POV of the eagle. What made you decide to add that character?

Ardziv, the eagle, came into the story quite far into the writing process. As I watched trusted readers feel the pain of reading some of the more harrowing aspects of genocide, I realized that I needed a framing device to reassure them. As well, I had originally written the story to have about a dozen or so narrators, which created an additional challenge for readers, especially for those to whom every name sounded foreign. When Ardziv appeared as an omniscient narrator, the storytelling simplified tremendously. But even more importantly, he made it safe for the reader, for the young ones while they traveled, and for me as I wrote.

Why an eagle? Besides their flight, their strength, and their ability to see long distances—qualities that have given them lead roles in many cultures’ mythology—eagles have been a part of Armenian symbolism for several thousand years. Their presence as mythic beings predates the Armenian adoption of Christianity as a state region in 301. This association made Ardziv perfect for grappling with the themes of honor and revenge. That eagles hunt also provided ways to engage with killing as a concept. While Ardziv certainly stands for the strength that lives inside of us, he is also the embodiment of our creative spirits and imaginations. This is what can sustain people.

To go to a completely different cultural setting, Ardziv came to me as a character when I was in the heart opening yoga pose “eagle.” This pose involves wrapping one arm under the other and bringing palms together. The most potent strength comes from the heart and not from honor or revenge.

The poem Shahen from Like Water on Stone, a book about the Armenian genocide

Poems by Dana Walrath from Like Water on Stone. Copyright © 2014 by Dana Walrath. Published by Delacorate Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. Used by permission.



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