‘The genocide is a big part of how we define ourselves,’ said a Columbia freshman named Markrete Krikorian. ‘As a culture, I think we need to let it go.’ But she added that until the event is ‘recognized by the people who did the genocide to us, then we can’t move on.’
—Tirella, “A Nod to Dark Days, a Moment in the Sun”
Several months ago an interviewer came to my church in search of Armenians who could give their opinions about the Armenian Genocide Resolution that had recently been passed by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The choir director’s husband insisted that I talk to the interviewer, although the fellowship hour was almost over and the photographer had already left. I was hesitant, but I spoke to him honestly. When I read what I had said in the next Sunday’s Metro Section, I was half excited that my name was in The New York Times and half embarrassed at my lack of eloquence. But my candid answer served as a valuable looking glass into my opinion on the genocide and preserving its memory. In order for the genocide to be “recognized,” Turkey needs to admit that it occurred, but this can only happen if there is solid evidence supporting it. Every year, 1915 becomes more remote and genocide survivors more scarce. I am thus anxious for the genocide to be recognized by Turkey so that Armenians can “move on.” This article made me notice the extent to which I operate as a preservationist in many areas of my life, including my writing. But how does my writing relate to discovering better methods of persuading Turkey to recognize the genocide?
The theme of preservation is prominent in all three of my essays for this course. Each essay brought me closer to identifying the best way to preserve the past, even as I encountered and explored new problems of preserving memories. In my first essay, “New York City Apricots,” I focused on why immigrants retell their pasts instead of focusing on the present. I suggested that an exile is compelled to preserve and retell the past because it “continues to influence an exile’s life in the present” and because exiles often need to “prove [their] constancy and tame [their] fear of death” (6). In the case of my grandmother, she needed to continue retelling and reminding herself of the past because it brought her closer to it, so that the past, however difficult, seemed less remote, and death seemed more remote. When I realized in this essay that exiles must continue to remember the past, I was also reflecting on the importance of the Armenian Genocide in my life. In the New York Times quotation, I even stated that Armenians might “define” themselves by the genocide to keep that memory alive and to remind ourselves that our culture was not eliminated or allowed to die, but survived (Tirella). In my second essay, I explored how to record history to make it memorable. This concern stemmed from my desire to convince Turkey that the genocide occurred by making the history of the genocide vivid, relatable, and believable for the reader. As I discovered by the end of my second essay, making history more appealing also risks distorting reality. In my third essay, it made sense to investigate why certain writers would distort history. My culminating idea was that humans create distorted stories because they cannot handle failure, and those stories protect their idealized creations. In my three essays, I was subconsciously moving closer to answering the question of how to present a history of the Armenian Genocide so that it would be relatable and memorable, yet believable.
Looking back, I notice that during all three progressions I often chose obscure quotations to propel me toward this goal. In my lens essay, I not only picked the source essay that nobody else in the class chose, but I also quoted the less prominent material from André Aciman’s “Shadow Cities,” such as his experiences in Rome. When trying to prove that an exile views all objects in the “key of loss,” I used Aciman’s description of old pictures of Rome, covered in “a series of colored transparencies,” which, when lifted, reveal “today’s ruins” (Aciman 47). Aciman invariably connects this image to his own internal state, allowing me to conclude that Aciman is looking at himself in his photos; Aciman’s current life is a ruin compared to his past. This roundabout analysis could have been simplified by quoting Aciman’s statement a few sentences earlier. He says that looking at the photographs or at any shadow city helps any exile, “like Narcissus leaning over a pool of water, find [himself] at every bend” (47). My unusual choice to draw out my claim with obscure quotations may reflect my fear of overlooking possible insights by excluding important but unnoticed examples. Perhaps I assumed that the more obvious quotes would be readily analyzed and emptied of insight and advice by others. My goal was to find what modern historians or genocide activists were doing wrong, and for that I drew insight from the less obvious. My care for often-ignored quotes may also reflect my concern with the way the Armenian Genocide has often been forgotten. In aspiring to remedy this problem of ignorance about the genocide, I chose to include quotes that I felt other readers would ignore.
I also unwittingly made sure I quoted from each segment of my source essays. A curious instance occurred in my second essay, when I cited Georges Perec’s thoughts about noticing “not the exotic any more, but the endotic” (206). I felt compelled to quote from Perec’s third essay in the collection, even though I had not previously included it and was not planning to include it because it did not seem to contribute directly to my argument. This thoroughness demonstrated once more my subconscious fear of excluding an important detail that might hold the key to convincing Turkey and other governments to recognize the Armenian Genocide. All my choices as a writer mirror my treatment of the genocide. I was afraid time would erase the memory of the genocide, and that fear motivated my meticulous and thorough analyses. Perhaps I subconsciously thought that by being more thorough, I could learn how better to preserve the past and even shape a new approach to the genocide issue.
As I look back at the themes and conclusions I drew from each essay, I see that my main concerns when I finished each essay also share something surprising. Each time, I felt uncomfortable because I did not have enough space to address the full scope of issues I had intended to address. In my lens essay, I said I had “limited space” and that if “I had had more space, I would also have liked to explore my grandma’s use of ‘figments’ in her life in New York.” I longed to explore how my grandma preserved her past and how her techniques compared to Aciman’s methods. I wanted to learn how to incorporate methods of preservation into my own life in order to apply them to the genocide, so I regretted not being able to delve further into this inquiry. In my third essay, I did not have enough space or time to add “more about other aspects of [Jonathan] Lethem’s life.” I seemed to have an underlying anxiety about including everything, as if I could attempt to preserve every aspect of the genocide or as if I needed more information to better solve this problem.
Genocides, battles, and mindless killings fill the pages of history and the newspapers of our modern day, but the Armenian Genocide is unique in that it has never been recognized or officially declared a genocide by its perpetrators. Figures such as Hitler have exploited this lack of attention to the Armenian Genocide. Hitler believed that the Holocaust would be forgotten, since “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” My underlying explorations, quoting tendencies, and anxieties reflected in these three essays are directly related to this lack of recognition. My anxiety to preserve the memory of the genocide produced a corresponding anxiety about writing my essays that drove me to explore problems in peculiar ways, quote material that did not seem obviously relevant, and worry even more than usual about making editorial comments. I wanted to be meticulous and thorough and to be a new kind of historian because I saw the failure of attempts to convince Turkey of the genocide’s reality. However, I cannot solve the problem of genocide recognition, no matter how many essays I write to explore it. This type of idealistic aspiration for perfect preservation by one person is impossible. But I can continue to develop and explore my own methods of preservation, so that anyone who comes in contact with me or my writing will remember.
Aciman, Andr. “Shadow Cities.” False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory. New York: Picador, 2000. 37-49.
Tirella, Joseph. “A Nod to Dark Days, a Moment in the Sun.” The New York Times. 21 Oct 2007: The City.