Reflection on Peter Balakian’s Talk at CWRU

“From Home to Genocide to Diaspora and Back Again”

Here’s the setting for reference; a ballroom illuminated in florescent light, acrylic chaires lined in neat squares facing the front where the map of Armenia is magnified on a white screen. In the center of it all, the man we are all here to listen to standing in a back blazer. I observe the room and see the faces of the same community I see every Sunday at mass and very few others that are unfamiliar. It appears that most of Cleveland’s Armenian Community, as much of it as I have come to know and myself included, are sitting here waiting for Peter Balakian to start his panel.

I first heard of Balakian as a junior in my collegiate years. It was my very first time away from a largely Armenian community and the homesickness had settled itself into my marrow while the cultural shock was as sudden as a grand piano to the sternum. A friend of mine had passed me his copy of “Black Dog of Fate” (Balakian’s autobiography) and in hindsight, he had passed on the baton of a cultural connection that I had been missing on foreign soil.

“Black Dog of Fate” is a retelling of Balakian’s own discovery of the atrocious history of the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in parallel with the discovery of his own family’s history. During his panel he comments that the book served as a mouthpiece for his grandmother, to the folklores she imparted on him, and the riddles in which she tried to convey something she could not talk about directly. The archetype of the wise grandparent is very typical of Armenian households. It’s an element that I and presumably most Armenians grew up with. Our grandparents carried the weight of history on their shoulders and passed the torch on to us so their stories stayed alive, to teach us the ways of the world. The myths and legends of the Armenian people are still carried on their tongues and the tragedies etched in their wrinkles instead of finding space in modern media.

Growing up in an Armenian household, we are taught about the Genocide of the Armenian people as soon as we are able to understand something as complex and as simple as the complete disregard of humane behavior. Our history teachers teach us about it at school and our parents elaborate on it at home. Every year during the eve of the 24th of April we see the torch march towards Tsitsernakabert (a monument dedicated to the victims of the genocide in Yerevan) broadcasted on every news channel. A week before that we hear that same history on those play on loop like a broken record, hear recounts from the family members of the victims who managed to get away. We are flashed with graphic images followed by a Turkish flag burning and the smoke settling as a temporary catharsis. It is a very impersonal experience that’s personal at the same time.  Facts are facts, and at the back of our heads there is always logical rage and despair kindled for a tragedy that’s just a hundred years old. “Black Dog of Fate” makes it personal, gives it a voice that’s jarring and beautiful and cracked and searching, walks us through Balakian’s own discovery of the tragedy of our people and that same voice reverberates in our ears in a continuous loop. The personal is always more painful.

So as I sit here and listen to him read a poem called “Home” (from his latest publication called “Ozone Layer”), and hear a patchwork of his family’s history and his own experiences of what home was and is, I see that same strand of displacement reflected back at me.  After he finishes, he remarks on home as a concept rather than a set place and I see heads nodding in tandem and eyes dimming in understanding.

For what is home when you are part of the diaspora? The concept itself has become very evasive; it’s no longer a set of four walls and a rickety roof echoing back the patter of the rain. It holds meanings that are as far as the galaxies and as a near as the next bus stop. Maybe to us home has become the history that we carried around with us, the footprints of our forefathers taking us to foreign land, maybe home is grandmother’s stories and the Armenian style feasts that were so typical to our people. This feeling of displacement and belonging goes hand in hand and the paradox tips the world off its axis.

I sit in this ballroom along other Armenians clutching our own copies of “Black Dog of Fate” and realize that this is also another piece of home. Balakian’s autobiography had brought an entire community under the same roof and given us accounts that connected us to the history of our people. It had acted as a bridge between our history and each other.

The atrocity of the Armenian Genocide is ever present with the continued denial practiced by the Turkish Government.  This year once again we will all turn on the news and most probably witness that denial replay on its hundred and second anniversary. This is a chapter in history that has not been granted any form of closure, a casket that’s wide open. It’s an avalanche of the violence that was almost successful in wiping away the Armenian people and consequently served as motivation to other dictators.

Maybe a semblance of closure can be found in the stories we tell to keep the memory of the victims alive. We raise their ghosts and we haunt them as much as they haunt us. They echo through Balakian’s work as he excavates the landscape of a history drenched in massacre.

As I applaud with the rest of the room, I think of home, the concept of it, the loss of it and everything in between. I think of history and the strings that attach us together under the same roof and I applaud the man at the front of the room that has given us an experience that feeds that all.

Astghik Poghosyan

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