Coming to Terms with Armenian-American Identity: The Testimonies of Michael Arlen, Jr. and Peter Balakian in Passage to Ararat and Black Dog of Fate

Coming to Terms with Armenian-American Identity: The Testimonies of Michael Arlen, Jr. and Peter Balakian in Passage to Ararat and Black Dog of Fate

Paper presented at the “Critical Approaches to Armenian Identity in the 21st Century: Vulnerability, Resilience, and Transformation” conference organised by the Hrant Dink Foundation and the Hamazkayine Educational Foundation, with the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, held in Istanbul, Turkey, October 7-8, 2016

The United States offers a very interesting context to explore issues of identity at multiple levels. It is a diverse society that promotes a sense of citizenship while at the same time largely allowing for the practices of pre-immigration cultures. The Armenian-American story is fascinating that way. “Armenian-American” has become much more defined as an identity over the past few decades, comprised of many traditional Armenian elements accommodated within and shaped by the American environment that surrounds them.

That was not always the case. For most of the 20th century, assimilation was the name of the game. In that light, the memoirs to be reviewed in this study consider two individuals who were born into families in which the Armenian heritage was secondary or outright discouraged and who came of age in that 20th-century America. The two somehow encounter and connect with their Armenian identities later on in life. Passage to Ararat by Michael Arlen, Jr. was published in 1975 and Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate came out in 1997. Each published his text at almost exactly the same age, in their mid-forties, having about one generation between them, capturing somewhat different historical moments in terms of Armenia and the Armenian people.

Biographies

The introduction to Michael Arlen, Jr.’s Passage to Ararat lists the family’s background: a Greek-American mother and an Armenian father who was raised in England. Dikran Kouyoumdjian’s family originally came from Bulgaria. He took on the name “Michael Arlen” at twenty-one. He became a well-known novelist in the early 20th century, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1927. Perhaps it would be overly simplistic to refer to the senior Arlen as a self-hating Armenian; Arlen, Jr. quotes him as saying, “Now who would claim he was Armenian if he was not?” (p. 1)[1].

Arlen, Jr. was himself born in England in 1930 and received a part of his education in France. The family moved to the United States during the Second World War. “By the time I turned forty …,” Arlen writes, “[m]y own identity as an American seemed … fairly definite – at least on the surface” (pp. 10-11). His own family – wife and children – was American. He wrote for The New Yorker and is also noted for a book on the Vietnam War, besides his memoirs on the Armenian legacy.[2]

Peter Balakian’s family background is Armenian on both sides, having settled in the New York-New Jersey area. He was born in 1951 and received his higher education at Bucknell University, New York University, and Brown University. He has been on the faculty of Colgate University since 1980. Balakian is noted as a literary figure and a poet who has been widely published, including works pertaining to the Armenian Genocide or with other Armenian themes.[3] The Balakian family had no qualms about their Armenian background, yet they were ready to assimilate into American life. For example, Balakian says he and his siblings never learnt the language: “In Tenafly, New Jersey, in 1960, who would want to know Armenian, a language spoken by an ancient Near Eastern people who lived half a globe away and were now part of the Soviet Union?” (p. 5)[4]

Structure

Neither Passage to Ararat nor Black Dog of Fate are classical autobiographies. They are personal memoirs – essays, really – selectively highlighting episodes from the lives of the authors that somehow touch upon their Armenian background. Both texts offer quite lengthy accounts of Armenian history, including general overviews and, as it were, traditional narratives of a people that has struggled and survived against all odds. Arlen in particular emphasises past Armenian glory. He cannot, of course, refer to the 1988 earthquake, the Karabagh movement, or independence in 1991, events that Balakian works into his story.

Both authors quote heavily from Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story as a source of information on the Armenian Genocide. Balakian takes the trouble to offer insights into modern politics, Turkish denialism and so on, introducing his readers to the Armenian lobbying in the United States in the 1990s. Arlen, writing twenty years earlier, is much more personally affronted when it comes to, for example, the lack of any public acknowledgement of the Armenian heritage in Istanbul, where he visits. Arlen also devotes a big section of his text to Soviet Armenia. He is on a literal journey to give meaning to his personal journey of self-discovery. Balakian is much more personal, much more family-oriented. He intersperses his episodic writing with poetry. Arlen’s narrative is more limited and clear-cut in terms of chronology.

Points of Comparison

Both Arlen and Balakian record childhood conversations they had with their mothers about their ethnic background. Balakian asks his mother what makes them different from their Jewish neighbours. Following some information on Noah’s Ark and Mt. Ararat, the young Peter is confused about the location, even the concept of Armenia. His exasperated mother says, “But we’re American. That’s the main thing. We’re not like other Armenians. They’re too ethnic” (pp. 43-45). Likewise, Arlen asks his mother what he considered “a daring question”: “Are we Armenian?” His mother responds that his father has “Armenian blood”, but the Arlen family is English. As proof, Arlen, Sr.’s passport is furnished (p. 3).

Both authors thus had a sense of curiosity about their personal identity, stemming in large part from external factors. Arlen is confronted about his Armenianness at school; Balakian tries to fit in more with his then-Jewish milieu. There is the important distinction that, for Balakian’s family, being Armenian was a natural sense of identity, even if it was not advertised, whereas the Arlens were much more adamant in their Englishness and later Americanness. Of course, the Arlen family had a mixed ethnic background, but there is also a generational gap between the two authors such that Balakian might have lived in a time with more comfort expressing an ethnicity than Arlen did.

The recurring theme of Arlen’s memoir is his relationship with his father. In fact, Arlen’s quest to come to terms with his Armenian identity is an attempt at getting some resolution to his relationship with his long-dead father. Arlen drives at the tragic Armenian history of the late 19th-early 20th century and speculates that his father purposefully wanted to avoid Armenianness and – even though it would be a sacrifice for himself – it would be a boon for his children (p. 188). He later recounts his visit to the Armenian Genocide memorial, feeling the presence of his father, being deeply moved, and getting a sense of closure there (p. 251).

Balakian discusses his relationship with his father as well, which was often tense for its own part. But there were a lot of growing pains there, many natural conflicts of parent and child. They maintain a bond through it all. And the Armenian identity had little, if any role to play in that process. Those few times Balakian mentions an Armenian element to their interactions, there is a sort of forced connection. For example, when Balakian gets himself into trouble as a teenage, he refers to his father’s “Old World disgust for the eldest son who ha[s] disgraced himself” (p. 108). Their tense interactions are filled with the father’s “Armenian silence” (p. 111, p. 112) – a bit of a strange, arbitrary category. In any event, the two always have an awkwardness in particular around bringing up things Armenian, to say nothing of the Armenian Genocide (p. 124). Arlen, of course, never had any conversations with his father about the Armenian Genocide.

This is the key element that overlaps in the experience of the two authors: an unease vis-à-vis their fathers which they try to account for and reconcile with somehow through their Armenian identities. It is interesting to note that both Arlen and Balakian approached their mothers with questions about their heritage while the two devote more space, give more meaning to dealing with their fathers. Not that the rest of the family is ignored. Balakian’s first and foremost connection with Armenia and Armenianness is his grandmother. Arlen’s wife meanwhile has a strong voice in his memoir, directing his own thoughts and narrative. But it is the fathers somehow – the ones who bear the name, or who bore the Kouyoumdjian name and purposefully changed it, and who bears the Balakian name – that pass on the legacy more immediately. It is a patriarchal approach, expected not just in the traditional Armenian sense, but also not surprising for 20th-century Americans.

Both Arlen and Balakian also take time to compare the Armenian experience with the Jewish one. Arlen recalls a Jewish student at his school getting beaten up. Consequently, he develops an appreciation for fitting in, for assimilating. Yet he later offers some admiration for the Jews that they “had handled their nightmare better than the Armenians had handled theirs … were more nearly free of it” (p. 185). Balakian too writes at length about his own affinity with the Jewish people, as a big part of his childhood was spent in a Jewish neighbourhood. He wanted to be Jewish and was upset at having to move away. At the end of that section, Balakian once again a little bit forcefully makes the connection with the Armenian experience (p. 49). All the same, for two Americans writing in the 1970s and 1990s with an American audience largely in mind, it is to be expected that the Holocaust would come up in any discussion of the Armenian Genocide.

William Saroyan features in Passage to Ararat as well as in Black Dog of Fate. Both authors meet with him, but offer very different perspectives on the man. Balakian describes him as “an embodiment of a particular sensibility that Armenian Americans feel close to the bone” (p. 138). Indeed, he is sort of an ultimate Armenian-American. For most of the 20th century, Saroyan was the name that Armenians were proud to be associated with in America. Certainly that was the case in the Depression, but even during the decades that followed. Balakian’s aunt, who knew Saroyan well, has a dream about him after his death. She describes him as “a natural utopian”. She elaborates: “We have a dream instead of a country. Because territory has eluded us, we have a freedom to invent that most people don’t.” (p. 145) In particular for Armenian-Americans living in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, William Saroyan came to be a powerful, comforting symbol.

Nevertheless, Balakian ends up sharing a negative impression of the man. Saroyan was quite full of himself, not really engaging. Balakian met him (in fact, also met Arlen, even quotes Arlen briefly elsewhere in Black Dog of Fate) as a part of his aunt’s literary circle. He meets the old Saroyan, already gone to seed, not quite so famous, still living in the past. It was a chance thing; Balakian ultimately merely tolerates Saroyan, out of respect. Arlen meets the Saroyan of just a few years prior. He seeks him out as a part of his journey. They discuss life, Armenianness, and the senior Arlen. It is Saroyan that exhorts Arlen, Jr. to make the trip to Soviet Armenia. There is something there, he says. Armenians on the whole are both crazy and very simple. Saroyan didn’t really know Arlen, Sr., he says, but felt close to him. Thus Arlen, Jr. represents Saroyan as something of a character (the comic relief?), but, regardless, he is a driving force of the narrative (pp. 43-52).

Food is an element that Arlen and Balakian share in their experience. Armenian cuisine serves to bind Balakian to other members of his family – of course his grandmother most notably. But, in general, it is the space around the table that brings Balakian together with his immediate and extended family. He notes that, when the family moved to a more American, “WASP-y” neighbourhood, food became a more clear manifestation of Armenianness. His mother even took the trouble of combining Armenian ingredients with what little deference she may have given to suburban American cooking – whatever deference she could manage given her excessive pride and activity in the kitchen, as well as her dismissiveness of regular American fare (pp. 52-57). Arlen for his part notes that it is only in the Golden Horn, an Armenian restaurant in New York, that his father felt some comfort with being Armenian, with being around Armenians, with speaking the language. Why should this be? Food is most enjoyable, most fun as a marker, but it is also essential and immediate, something with which one interacts every day. And maybe it is most noticeable for young Americans in the mid-20th century. Dolma is not meatloaf, kadayif is not apple pie in a way in which going to Armenian church on Sundays might not be in such a stark contrast with, say, going to Presbyterian church on Sundays.

Conclusion

The largest question looming over both texts is: why was the experience of the Armenian Genocide kept from the new generation? Why was it so difficult, even impossible to openly discuss this part of the Armenian legacy? It was a thorn in the side of the relationships of both Arlen and Balakian with their families. Why did that need to be so?

In Arlen’s case, it was a very immediate, personal affair. Arlen, Sr. was a self-denying Armenian. He purposefully changed his name. He married an odar – whether or not purposefully. The Arlen family was made to be English, European, later American, pointedly so. It was not even a question of not talking about the Armenian Genocide. It was simply not being Armenian in any meaningful way at all.

The Balakian story is different. Peter Balakian, the family, never denied their Armenian heritage. Perhaps the language was purposefully lost or not actively pursued for the new generation. Certainly there was a concerted effort to integrate, to assimilate, to become as full Americans as possible. But none of the Balakians were ever told they were not Armenian. The family prepared and partook of Armenian cuisine. They helped found and attend an Armenian church. It is only the experience of the genocide that was never passed on.

One can speculate as to why. It could be a matter of shame, of deep sadness to be kept away from the children. A trauma to be repressed. Neither the Kouyoumdjian-Arlen family nor the Balakian family (i.e., Peter’s father’s side) experienced the Armenian Genocide first-hand. Maybe there was another kind of shame there, a survivors’ guilt. Arlen offers an account of how self-hatred grew among Armenians as a result of Turkish denialism after suffering such a great loss (pp. 243-247). But the irony is that it was the legacy of the genocide that awoke in Balakian a strong sense of Armenian identity. In Arlen’s case too, it was exposure to history that seemed to give some meaning to his sense of bearing the Armenian heritage.

And what of their American heritage, their American identity? Both Arlen and Balakian readily assert their Americanness. It is quite a rich and full identity to bear, and the two feel secure in it. And why not? Balakian says that his parents made sure that he and his siblings were “Americans first” (p. 296), this way protecting them from the horrors of the Armenian past – something that Arlen, too, speculated was the motivation behind his father’s reticence about the family’s Armenian background. In addition, Balakian says, to being an all-American kid, “the small bit of Armenianness I understood gave me a feeling of having a slightly more substantial sense of identity than many of my peers” (p. 296), although it’s not clear how useful or helpful such a thing might have been. Perhaps Balakian is equating that sense of a home with the experience of his Jewish friends – a home that was Armenian as opposed to, within a larger American society.

The American identity allows for accommodating other identities in a way in which the Armenian ethno-national identity does not. These explorations by Arlen and Balakian aim at accommodating a certain legacy within a given reality, but viewed from the American perspective. Fitting the American into the Armenian would be a problem, but not the other way around, one might expect. So then why are these explorations problematic? Is it the case that broader American society is still not accommodating enough: even if most Americans understand that a vast majority of the population has an immigrant or mixed background, one’s non-American identity still has to be explained, to be justified, perhaps simply informed to a larger public? Or is the specific case of having the Armenian identity as one’s co-identity problematic, an identity the elements of which are sad and tragic in themselves?

Arlen is carrying with him a sense of shame, of being tainted as an Armenian. One gets the sense that Arlen is “coming out” with his text – a phrase used in the sense of homosexuals publicly revealing their orientation, and really quite similar to the experiences of crypto- or Islamised Armenians in Turkey today. Arlen echoes Saroyan when he says, “to be an Armenian, to have lived as an Armenian, [is] to have become something crazy … crazed, that deep thing – deep where the deep-sea souls of human beings twist and turn” (p. 139). He is analysing the concept of Armenian qua Armenian, trying to somehow fit it into his Western sensibilities. He is doing it as an outsider.

Balakian does not visit Armenia or Turkey in Black Dog of Fate as Arlen does in Passage to Ararat. However, both discuss the current and past homelands, and both offer the same insight that recognising the past is something beyond just acknowledging a simple event in history. Both wish that the Armenian experience could somehow find its rightful place in public consciousness – even public conscience – everywhere, but most of all in Turkey. This seems to be the major turning point about which both authors write. The generation before them was silent about the Armenian Genocide. Their own generation not only discovered or re-discovered the experience of their ancestors, but turned it into a public, political issue. There is a moral facet, an imperative to this relationship with the past, something their parents had never established.

What their parents did establish and maintain, though, was Armenian food, Armenian church, Armenian newspapers, schools, community centres, athletics, dance groups, the language, traditions such as priests blessing homes, which Balakian remembers (pp. 62-63). The Armenian identity had ways of expressing itself long before the first public Armenian Genocide commemorations of the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, the Armenian Genocide was commemorated, talked about, requiem masses were held, even before the fifth decade after 1915. Balakian’s own grandmother delivered a talk on the 25th anniversary, he notes (p. 184). What these authors record in their memoirs – Arlen less so, Balakian more – is that the Armenian Genocide as a public issue turned into the defining element of Armenian-American identity in the 20th century. Why should that be so, though? Is it just easier, a more essential issue – like the food – that can rally more people – unlike the food – in righteous indignitation around a dramatic, tragic cause? Is it more emotional, more appealing within the community and for the outside world? And/or is the current generation making up for the silence of the previous one?

Balakian’s aunt reveals the family’s survival story, and Balakian is furious that he is finding about all those details so late in life. He demands to know why it was kept from him, why even the previous generation never talked about it with the generation before their own. The aunt responds: “We had a different kind of relationship with our parents. What was private was private. It’s not like today when everything is discussed by everyone to anyone in any place. You see parents on TV discussing their sex lives and their children are in the audience while their husbands watch from work with their friends. What kind of world is this? Maybe some mystery to life isn’t so bad. Why does everyone these days feel they have to know everything from the time they are born?” (p. 214)

Why does everyone feel that way, even more so today, with the internet and social media? Maybe not everyone, but everyone who participates in the globalised world: every Westerner, every American. In the end, Arlen and Balakian remain Americans first. Surely they acknowledge or discover their Armenian sides or more about their Armenian sides. But one cannot change one’s identity so radically, one cannot retroactively change one’s childhood, upbringing, or educational experiences. Perhaps Arlen and Balakian are trying to find out whether or not they are or can ever be more Armenian or Armenian enough. Being Americans, they have the luxury of asking that question and exploring it – something their immediate ancestors could never conceive of in the Ottoman Empire, and also something in which many, even most people in the world today cannot participate.

In the end, an apt summation can be given by quoting an unnamed member of the Armenian community in New York with whom Arlen interacts when he is unexpectedly invited to speak at an event at the church. “It’s too bad we never saw your father here,” he says, to which Arlen doubtfully responds that Arlen, Sr. might not have thought of himself as an Armenian. “Of course he was Armenian,” the old man says. “You are Armenian. It is not such a strange thing to be Armenian. Come, have some coffee” (p. 11).

 

[1] All page numbers cited for Arlen refer to the ebook/Kindle version: Michael J. Arlen, Passage to Ararat, FSG Classics, 2014

[2] “Arlen, Michael J”, Library of Congress Authorities. https://lccn.loc.gov/n50001592 (accessed 28 September 2016); A second memoir, Exiles, is not considered in this paper. It is a collection of essays on his adolescence, also touching upon his family background; see “Reading Michael Arlen Jr’s ‘Exiles’”, Christopher Atamian, Ararat, 3 January, 2011. http://araratmagazine.org/2011/01/reading-michael-arlen-jr%E2%80%99s-exiles/ (accessed 28 September 2016)

[3] “Biography”, n.d. http://www.peterbalakian.com/bio.html (accessed 28 September 2016)

[4] All page numbers cited for Balakian refer to the ebook/Kindle version: Peter Balakian, Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir, Basic Books, 2009

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