The Armenian genocide has haunted Peter Balakian's imagination since he was a young man, and it played a crucial role in his development as a poet. In his 1997 memoir, Black Dog of Fate, he describes a transforming moment in 1974, after he refused to attend a memorial service commemorating the 10th anniversary of his maternal grandmother's death. Then a 23-year-old English teacher at a New Jersey high school, Balakian wanted to spend the weekend with his girlfriend in Cambridge. But when he returned to school on Sunday night, he found himself opening his notebook to begin a poem called "Words for My Grandmother."
"The poem was a surprise," Balakian writes. "Out of my head came things I didn't know I remembered." The most startling phrases referred to his grandmother's "half-confessed past" and to her hands, "still discolored by/ the arid Turkish plain." Nafina Aroosian's parents, siblings and first husband all died during the Turkish government's murderous 1915 assault on its Armenian subjects—she and her two young daughters barely escaped with their lives—but no one in his family had ever spoken directly to her grandson about these traumatic experiences. Instead, his grandmother told young Peter stories filled with surreal images from a mythic past, like the dead black dog a poor woman desperately offers to appease the malevolent figure of Fate. The boy had no idea what these stories meant, but they "hibernated in me until I was ready to understand them," Balakian says. "Words for My Grandmother," written in a pell-mell rush that was not his usual style, "was the first time for me that poetic language became a mode of historical exploration...[;] out of the collision of language with personal memory came something larger."
Balakian mingled personal memories of a mid– 20th-century childhood in suburban New Jersey with the larger subject of his Armenian heritage, particularly the terrible events of 1915, in such critically praised volumes of poetry as Sad Days of Light (1983), Reply from Wilderness Island (1988) and Dyer's Thistle (1996). Black Dog of Fate chronicled his discovery of his family's past and Armenia's tragic history, examining the impact it had on his life and work. His newest book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response (Nonfiction Forecasts, Aug. 18), published this month by HarperCollins, narrates in blistering detail the Turks' persecution of the Armenians, beginning with a series of massacres in the 1890s and culminating in the slaughter of 1915, during which more than a million people were systematically exterminated. It also depicts the heroic efforts of U.S. diplomatic officials in Turkey, who smuggled out accounts of the deportations, forced marches and mass murders they witnessed, and the outpouring of American sympathy and humanitarian aid to Armenia that followed.
Meeting Balakian in his sister's Upper East Side apartment, PW wonders why, after dealing with the genocide so eloquently in his poetry and memoir, he decided to write a conventional history.
"I feel like I have followed the thread of truth across various genres," he replies. "The idea for this book happened while I was on tour for Black Dog of Fate. People kept giving me texts about the Armenian genocide and the massacres of the 1890s; they would put things in my hand, send things to me. Somebody sent me a chapter from Clara Barton's history of the Red Cross about her mission to Armenia in 1896; somebody sent me a 1917 anthology called Armenian Poems, edited and translated by the Boston feminist and social critic Alice Stone Blackwell. I discovered that the Armenian story had an enormous American presence, and I thought, 'Wow, I've got to do something with this.' "
Visiting Manhattan before the start of the fall semester at Colgate, where he's a professor of humanities, Balakian reminds us that writing history isn't much of a stretch for him. "My scholarly training is in American studies [he has a Ph.D. from Brown], so thinking about issues in American culture wasn't anything new for me. I brought the two halves of my life together when I started working on The Burning Tigris, which is not only about the Armenian genocide, but also about America's first international human rights movement. This was the first time that ordinary Americans as well as cultural and political elites came together to form large-scale relief committees nationwide, and they combined fund-raising with activism and intervention. Clara Barton took the Red Cross out of the country for the first time in its history to a land thousands of miles away; her relief teams rescued dying, maimed and famished Armenians, and they also did innovative, almost Peace Corps–like work, trying to restart the decimated infrastructures of agrarian and merchant economies."
But the U.S. government failed to back up these initiatives with effective diplomacy or military action. "This is at the heart of the tragedy," says Balakian, who speaks with the same articulate intensity that distinguishes his writing. "There was phenomenal popular support for stopping the genocide, for bringing some justice to Armenia. The American people wanted the U.S. to take the Armenian mandate after World War I. [This would have made it possible for Armenia to become an independent nation, instead of being divided, as it was, between Turkey, Iran and Soviet Russia.] But conservative Republican isolationists, who did not want to get involved in other parts of the planet, killed it. Presidents were being advised by State Department heads who were uncomfortable about intervening in other nations; the god of national sovereignty stood in the way of more urgent international human rights. We have seen this unfold time and again in the 20th century, most recently and horrifically in Rwanda, where 800,000 people were butchered in a 90-day period, and our State Department would not use the word 'genocide' because using that word would have meant doing something, and they didn't want to do something. This is a problem that we as the world's most powerful nation have to solve.
"Genocide done with impunity sends a disastrous message," he continues. "Germany was Turkey's ally in World War I; a number of high-ranking German officers actually oversaw Armenian deportations and massacres. I believe they saw that the Armenians could be eliminated efficiently and effectively, and that had an impact on what happened later. Hitler's 1939 statement, 'Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?' remains a haunting statement, ringing down through the decades of the century. That's why it's emblazoned on the walls of the U.S. Holocaust Museum."
Speaking and writing about the Armenian genocide is "a fundamental act of moral decency and civility," Balakian believes, because Turkey has consistently denied that the Armenian genocide ever happened, and U.S. legislators have collaborated in the Turks' aggressive campaign to prevent other nations from commemorating it. "I think that those who fight against the Armenian genocide recognition resolutions that have periodically come before Congress are toeing a foreign policy line on appeasing Turkey to cultivate an important ally in a strategic part of the Middle East. But I think as more Americans realize how deeply the U.S. was immersed in Armenia between the 1890s and the 1920s, they are going to come out in favor of acknowledging this history. I think that the abundant and powerful testimony of brave U.S. State department officials in the killing fields of Armenia in 1915 and 1916 have great lessons to teach us today. Language stirs us at our deepest places of conscience and memory into being witnesses and testifiers to the truth. My own grandmother, a genocide widow stripped of her homeland and loved ones and everything familiar to her, used language and legal recourse to appeal to the world for justice as early as 1920, and this was a very great and courageous act."
A copy of Nafina Aroosian's application to the State Department "for support of claims against foreign governments" sat in a dresser drawer for 60 years before Balakian came upon it. Reading this document changed his life; it buttressed the half-understood images in "Words for My Grandmother" (written about a year before he saw the claim form) with chilling facts. "As Emily Dickinson once put it, I felt as if the top of my head had been sliced off. With the discovery of the Armenian past, a vital wellspring of images, feelings, resonances of lost places came into my life. The muse of history became a powerful guide in my understanding of lyric poetry, and I continue to find poets like Auden and Yeats particularly meaningful to me because of their immersion in history. Certainly some of our greatest writers have been almost exclusively preoccupied with the workings of the human interior, but poets who mine the fields of history have done extraordinary work, and great poets do both. Yeats is a model for me, because he was passionately involved in the symbolistic and visionary temperament as well as the historical temperament, and I feel deeply immersed in both. I don't think you have to exclude anything from art."
His aunt Anna Balakian, professor of French at NYU, vehemently disagreed. "This is not what poetry is for!" she shouted at Peter after attending a reading he gave from Sad Days of Light, which addressed the genocide and used language from his grandmother's State Department claim. A noted scholar of surrealist literature, "Auntie" Anna felt art should be, like the work of her friend Anaïs Nin, "the isle of non-reality... freedom from heritage." Another "Auntie," Nona Balakian, well known in publishing circles as a longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review, was more supportive. "When I turned up on her doorstep with a couple of things that dealt with the Armenian past, it really excited her," her nephew recalls. "She carried around a strong passion for the historical dimension of the imagination; she had a great interest in writers like William Saroyan, Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty, who were friends of hers. Her generosity and her wonderful spirit of excitement for what I was working on meant so much."
Loving portraits of both aunts appear in Black Dog of Fate, which is more than a record of Balakian's discovery of the Armenian genocide. "That book allowed me to understand much more deeply the inner fabric of my family's imaginative psychic life," he comments. "As a memoirist, I worked as a poet first: I was interested in building images and scenes, freezing the past in tableaux. The biggest challenge was to make the narrative move, because poetry time is slow time, the slower and deeper the better. But my wonderful editor, Gail Winston, who was then at Basic Books and is still my editor at HarperCollins, was telling me, 'You've got to get moving from this image to a storytelling voice pretty quickly!' I had to give up some of my poetry time, but I didn't give up all of it, and I hope that my memoir has that poetic dimension of rich, lyrical and sensuous language."
Currently in its 23rd printing, Black Dog of Fate surprised its author by achieving commercial as well as critical success. "I wrote it because I had to tell this story, come hell or high water; I had no expectations of making money. Its success was gratifying, because I feel that the bigger story wasn't just about me. I think the sense of recovering a lost history had an impact on readers, and I like the idea that a memoir can carry larger dimensions with it."