~~Worldwide Reading for Armenia was sponsored by the International Literature Festival Berlin and the Lepsius Haus in Potsdam, and took place in several major cities around the world in April 2015.
The Boston reading was held at MIT. The literary evening included readings from three giants of Armenian literature: Zabel Yessayan, Hagop Oshagan, and Eghishe Charents. The readers were Jirair Libaridian, diplomat and historian and Nanor Kebranian, Columbia University for Oshagan; Susan Barba, New York Review of Books, and Areg Danagoulian, MIT for Charents; and Danila Jebejian Terpanjian, Harvard University, and Judith Sarian, NAASR, for Yessayan.
Below, my opening remarks about the occasion, the three writers, and the readings.
Tonight, we commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide—what we Armenians call the Aghéd—by paying tribute to three giants of Armenian literature: Zabel Yessayan, Hagop Oshagan and Eghishe Charents.
The lives and deaths of these three writers intersected with some of the most cataclysmic events of the Armenian world in the first four decades of the twentieth century: The Adana massacres of 1909 about which Yessayan wrote after a visit organized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople; the destruction of the Armenian population of Van in 1915, which Charents memorialized in the poem, Danteesque Legend; the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and writers on the eve of April 24, 1915 in Constantinople, Yessayan being the only woman on the Ottoman lists; the formation of the Armenian fugitive underground in Constantinople where Oshagan was in hiding for three years, escaping seven arrests. Later, in the 1930s, in Eastern Armenia: the founding of Soviet Armenia and Charents’ and Yessayan’s ideological commitment of communism—Yessayan’s case is more complicated, though; the unleashing of the Stalinist purges, which claimed the lives of both Charents and Yessayan.
Yessayan and Charents were both arrested in 1937 and died some years later; there is no gravesite for either of them. By contrast, Oshagan’s end came with a heart attack in Aleppo, on the eve of a planned memorial visit the next morning to the killing fields of the Der Zor desert where so many refugees of the genocide had lost their lives. He is buried in the Armenian cemetery in the Christian Suleymanieh district of the city.
Between them, Charents and Oshagan divide up a privileged space in twentieth century Armenian letters—Charents as the preeminent poet of Eastern Armenian literature, and Oshagan as the towering figure in the modern Western Armenian novel and literary criticism.
Other than their literary ambitions, little unites these two great figures—linguistically, esthetically, culturally, but most of all ideologically—Charents an avowed communist Soviet citizen, and Oshagan a writer who rejected all ideological intervention in literature and wrote his most ambitious works after the Genocide, in statelessness.
The case of Yessayan is of another order: She begins as a writer in pre-Genocide Constantinople, is marked for arrest in 1915, escapes, and by a circuitous route eventually settles in Paris. Then in an act of radical reversal, repatriates to Soviet Armenia. Yessayan’s doubly tragic figure hovers over the two major events of twentieth century Armenian history–the Aghéd and Sovietization.
Three turbulent lives, large and impassioned, each the stuff of at least a few novels, each a world onto itself, sustained by torrential forces, extraordinary courage, singular talent, and prodigious literary output. Tonight, we pay tribute to all these attributes, but more so to their common literary project: the project of turning thought (and language) to the horrific and the unspeakable, and against all odds, creating literature—poems, chronicles, novel cycles–out of this fateful, defining encounter with genocide–literature as testament for what was destroyed, obliterated beyond repair, but at the same what was recovered, restored, and imagined anew: Yessayan in the chronicle, the memoir and to a lesser degree the novel; Oshagan in the novel first and foremost but also in the literary criticism/history and the dramatic plays; and finally Charents in the poem. It is an astounding spread of literary forms, languages and intentions, which brings into its sphere Yessayan’s unique re-working and combining of the chronicle, the memoir, and the testament; Oshagan’s architectural conception of the novel, and Charents’ expansion of the idea of the poem as a capacious form that can accommodate the lyrical, the elegiac, the political, even the mythic.
We begin with selections from Zabel Yessayan’s account of the Adana massacres of 1909, Աւերակներուն Մէջ (In the Ruins). The work was published in 1911, after which this remarkable woman traveled to the Caucasus, then to Cilicia again in 1920, back in France until 1933, and finally to Armenia where her fate was sealed. The second reading is selections from Hagop Oshagan’s monumental and unfinished novel, Մնացորդաց (Remnants), whose third part the author had imagined as a description of the annihilation of the population of his native Boursa. It was written in Cyprus, in feverish speed, and first published between 1932 and 1934. And we conclude with two poems of Charents from 1935-37, Իմ Կէսօրին and Տխիւր Կարուսէլ (To my Midday and Sad Carousel), both of which were published only much later in 1968 in the first collected edition of his work. These are poems of longing and profound sadness. When Saroyan met Charents in 1934 in Mosocw, he reported being struck most of all by Charents’ profound, all-encompassing sadness. No doubt one of the sources of this sadness is that 18-year-old conscript’s experience of the destruction of the Armenian population of Van in 1915.
The selections will be read first in English translation and then in the original Armenian. This bilingual dimension of our reading is a tribute to another, less violent kind of encounter, the encounter of translation, which brings two languages into a common sphere and creates the conditions for a conversation between them, a conversation which will fertilize both. Translation, therefore, is also an act of imaginative renewal, albeit more modest, which turns the original toward a language other than itself, and from this meeting something new comes into being. In an accomplished translation, such as those of G.M. Goshgarian and Susan Barba, we sense not only the vitality and possibilities of the language of passage, but also the echoes of the original.
Oshagan, wrote: “Our literature is our homeland.” Homeland, perhaps not– but home, certainly. This home, this evening, is no match, to the homeland, to what was lost a hundred years ago in lives, property, traditions, dialects, artifacts, and more. It is no match either to the three writers we’re honoring. And that is why, in the end, our evening is a kind of wake not only for the victims and survivors of the Armenian national catastrophe but also for that which can be recovered in remnants only. Thank you. And now I will turn things over to Judy Sarian, for the first reading.