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[Book] The Daydreaming Boy

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 PostPosted: Tue Mar 30, 2004 8:44 am    Post subject: [Book] The Daydreaming Boy Reply with quote Back to top

A Conversation with Micheline Aharonian Marcom on THE DAYDREAMING BOY (**)

Armenian News Network / Groong
March 29, 2004

Q: Vahe was orphaned in Turkey and moved to Beirut. How did Vahe
develop? Is he based on anyone? Your grandparents, both refugees as
well, met and married in Lebanon and raised your mother in Beirut.
Were your grandparents a huge influence on Vahe and the setting?

A: Vahe developed slowly, over the years, as the novel itself
developed. The character of Vahe in the book is entirely fictional,
but the name of the character is taken from the name of my second
cousin who was murdered in 1986 in Beirut during the civil war. This
is not my cousin's story or history, but it is, in a very small way,
an homage to him; it is in his memory that I wrote THE DAYDREAMING
BOY. He was murdered as part of a series of confessionally inspired
violent acts, part of the `ethnic cleansing' of Beirut and its
division into two cities: East Beirut, which became the Christian
quarter, and West Beirut, which became the Muslim quarter. This firm
division was wholly artificial: the myriad groups and religious sects
had always lived in mixed neighborhoods, although there had been
concentrations of certain groups in particular areas. My own family
lived in what became West Beirut, where Vahe was killed in 1986.
During the civil war, many such confessionally motivated murders took
place in both the East and West of the city.

I can't say that my grandparents were an overt influence on this
novel. They have both been dead for many years, but of course my
memories of Lebanon, of Beirut, and of our family there before the
civil war broke out, did and does have an impact on me and on what I
choose to write about.

Q: You've said in order to represent these stories, you need to
accept the rumors of history. Is this a difficult process? How did you
go about representing the story of Vahe?

A: I am interested in all of the histories, and not just `official
history.' I suppose I am quite suspicious of official history, and I
know that what it leaves out, denies, and elides is often the history
of the powerless, the disenfranchised, the unclanned: the minority
voices; the unpopular and the vulgar. When I was a girl growing up in
Los Angeles, I remember watching those horrid Westerns where the
Native Americans were generally depicted as violent and debased. In
large part, that was the primary narrative I was familiar with about
the indigenous peoples of these lands - we certainly, at the time,
learned nothing in school about Pre-Colombian America, and very little
(Pilgrims and Indians, and the first Thanksgiving) about native
peoples after conquest. It was not until I was in the eighth grade,
when a teacher who was herself part Cherokee assigned us portions of
BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE - a history of the broken treaties and
atrocities committed by the US government against native peoples -
that I realized that official history is, often as not, replete with
lies. And the omissions are enormous. At the very least, it is written
by the victors.

On personal level, of course, I knew that official history was not to
be trusted, because to this day official Turkish history denies that
genocide of the Armenians took place during the First World War. And I
knew that was a lie, because my great-grandparents had been murdered,
along with numerous other members of the extended family. And although
as a child in the Los Angeles public schools I never thought to
question why we studied the First World War with nary a mention of the
genocide of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey, now I find that
incredible, terrible. Can you even imagine the study of the Second
World War without mention of the Holocaust? It's not possible. But
mostly it is possible, a
nd even probable, to silence or simply erase
the histories of disempowered groups; mostly, that is what happens.
But fortunately, small stories, rumors even, survive, thrive, and
eventually might even make it into history books and books of

Q: Your research is evident in both books, and you've spoken of
wanting to know more about the history of your ancestors. How did you
go about this research?

A: Researching this book was more complicated in some ways than
the research I did for THREE APPLES FELL FROM HEAVEN. For one, while
writing the first novel, I was able to read numerous survivor accounts
written by Armenians detailing their experience during the genocide.
And I was able to mine these memories for details of the place and
time and the terrible experience of the war and of the massacres. But
in THE DAYDREAMING BOY, I was interested in what happens after war, in
the years and decades to follow, because clearly the repercussions of
war are long and pernicious. But almost every memoir I have read by
genocide survivors, in fact perhaps all of them, does not address life
after genocide, in exile. Perhaps this is in part because after the
First World War, most Armenian war refugees were simply trying to
survive, to feed themselves and their children. Later, when Armenian
survivors wrote about the genocide, they focused on the events of
1915-17, because by then there was already a need to `prove' that the
genocide had occurred.

Vahe is an orphan. He was part of one of the transports of children
that were sent out of Turkey in 1922 when the last Armenians were
finally and fully removed from their ancestral homelands. He is
someone without family, without history and unable to ever know his
family history. I was interested in this situation: a man who lives in
exile and can never know more than he does; an extreme example of a
war survivor; a man adrift. But it is precisely this sort of a person
who would never write a book or a memoir! I found two texts written
by Armenian orphans, which proved invaluable and the rest, well, was
left to the imagination.

Q: Seeking truth in your writing is so important, yet, the truth
of genocide, as you've said, is beyond understanding. Is writing about
this paradox frustrating or is there something therapeutic in it?

A: It is not perhaps that the truth of genocide is beyond
understanding; we are now very familiar with the facts of genocide.
The twentieth century has made all of us, unfortunately, good pupils
of war and mass killings. But I suppose what we don't understand, or
what I fail to understand, no matter how much I try and wrap my mind
around it, are the whys and hows of it. How can we possibly (over and
over again) find the appropriate narratives (generally racist and
xenophobic) to justify such terrible and cruel acts to fellow men and
women? Genocide generally requires participation by large numbers of
the population. At the very least, it requires a cowardly acquiescence
on the part of many, so people must be motivated to act, to accept
that members of the group that one is killing are debased human
beings, or, in fact, not human beings at all, but animals. How does
this happen? What I often wonder is, why are we so primed, so ready,
and sometimes eager, to believe these narratives about the vile,
brutish Armenian, Jew, Gypsy, American Indian, Tutsi, African,
African-American, Mayan, etcetera?

Q: You're working on the third novel in this series, which began
with THREE APPLES FELL FROM HEAVEN. Did you first envision this as a
three-part series? Do the three novels together tell one complete

A: I thought, six years ago, that I would write the story of my
grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. I hadn't planned a
trilogy or to write long term about this topic, but I suppose I became
obsessed and the s
tories took hold of me. After the first book, I knew
that I wasn't `finished.' Will it feel finished after the third? I
don't know. But I imagine that it will be enough, or, at least, that
I'll be exhausted.

Q: What question does THE DAYDREAMING BOY answer for you? What
cracks does it fill in terms of what hasn't been said about the

A: I don't know if novels answer questions, but the writing of
the novel allowed me to explore, to inquire. What happened to the
thousands of orphans after the genocide? How did they make a life for
themselves? What would it mean to live without ever knowing your
family and without having the possibility of such a knowledge? What is
the story of the least historied, the orphans, the masses of unnamed
children that one sees in the black and white photographs from that

In my family, we never commemorated the genocide on that day or on any
other day. In great part, my mother wanted to forget the genocide and
all of the horrific stories she was raised on. But even my mother,
thousands of miles away from Turkey and from her family in Lebanon,
couldn't help but pass on the stories to her daughter.

Q: Could you talk a bit about writing about war? What issues does
it raise, personally and generally?

A: Elaine Scarry, a writer and academic, has something very
interesting to say about writing war. She writes: `While the central
activity of war is injuring and the central goal of war is to
out-injure the opponent, the fact of injuring tends to be absent from
strategic and political depictions of war.'

In other words, the people and institutions responsible for making,
analyzing and recording war explicitly leave out the suffering of war
and the mourning that follows. I suppose I believe that art and
culture must do this work, that literature must record, represent,
inquire into the suffering caused by wars in a way that history,
military or otherwise, simply does not. It's important - vital,
really. Otherwise, all war writing is in some way war propaganda - a
promotion of war and its supposed `glories.'

Recently, I read an interesting article by a columnist from the Boston
Globe, James Carroll, who writes about the failure of the American
imagination to grasp the real effects of war, how this in part stems
from the fact that from the Civil War until September 11, no massive
violence had been experienced in the continental United States. `We
wage war without knowing war,' he says. Perhaps the American writer
has an obligation to write war in a way that represents, investigates,
elucidates, to the extent that it is possible, some of the effects and
realities of war, and to do this in part to counterdict the
disingenuous war-movie lie that Hollywood produces over and over
again: that war is heroic, ennobling, romantic. Perhaps this is more
important than ever, given the bellicose pursuits of the current
administration and the history of previous administrations' military
escapades, invasions and coups d'etat around the world. At the very
least, we need to understand and know better than we do the role the
US government has played in wars across the globe since the turn of
the nineteenth century.

Q: What kind of connections do you see between the current
conflicts in Iraq and the Middle East and what happened to the
Armenians? What kind of generational effects are there to such

A: There are no direct connections between what happened to the
Armenians in 1915 and the current conflict in Iraq, but the entire
situation in the Middle East, of course, was affected terribly by the
fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent colonization of the
Middle East by the British and the French. Today we are still
embroiled in the fiasco that these two colonial powers, with the later
added power of the United States, wrought.
The Armenians, like the
Kurds, were not allocated a nation by the British and French after the
collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and both groups have suffered
enormously. In particular, the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq have paid a
terrible price in lives since the First World War. And memory is long
in the Middle East, history lives. People remember their histories
there, no matter what official discourse says.

By Micheline Aharonian Marcom
Riverhead Books
Publication Date: April 12, 2004
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