Q&A with author who’ll speak at SMU on Armenian genocide

Peter Balakian, author of Black Dog of Fate, learned that his grandmother’s family was slain in one day in 1915.
When Peter Balakian was a small boy, his grandmother filled him with stories seeped in magical realism, with mysterious yet baffling lines.

[ad id=”1838″]“A long time ago there was and there wasn’t,” she’d say.

Perhaps his tender grandmother was just nurturing a fellow poet and soon-to-be historian of one of the great epic traumas opening the 20th century. She was a survivor of the Armenian genocide 100 years ago in April 1915.

Her grandson would eventually become her scribe, portraying her in his award-winning memoir, Black Dog of Fate.

Balakian, now a Colgate University professor, has made the genocide a key part of his life’s work as an award-winning writer, poet and genocide expert. He will talk about his work at Southern Methodist University’s Dallas Hall at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at an event sponsored by St. Sarkis Church of Carrollton and SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program.

He recently discussed his writing and more with The Dallas Morning News.

Tell us about your grandmother, Nafina Aroosian, and her role in shaping you as a writer and how you unraveled her story.

My grandmother had a penchant for telling folk tales in dreams. … They were wild tales that were almost magical realism tales. … The richness of her imagination was very important to my own imagination. … It turned out to be very important to me as a writer and a thinker of history, and the particular history of the Armenian genocide and how it came down to me.

Only recently, we have dug up out of the family papers, some of her writing. She was writing poems. … They are private poems and they are poems in which she is trying to deal with the losses of her life. Everyone in her family was murdered in the first week of April 1915, except for one half-brother, who was living in New Jersey at the time.

Tell us about Raphael Lemkin, the Holocaust survivor from Poland. Why is he important?

It was Lemkin who became the father of the U.N. genocide convention of 1948. That is the charter legal document that outlawed genocide as a crime. It was Lemkin who coined the phrase “Armenian genocide” in the 1940s. … As a graduate student he challenged his professor, “How can it be if one man kills another he is charged with murder, but if a nation-state kills more than a million people they are allowed to do it without any consequences?” and this moment ended up changing his career path.

Among Lemkin’s many layers of his understanding of genocide as a crime is the concept that the destruction of culture is also a vitally important aspect of the genocidal episode. At the core of group identity is also culture and the cultural institutions that codify group identity.

How many died and what did that represent as a percentage of the Armenian population?

The official number of dead in the Holocaust, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum is 5.1 million. In the Armenian case, Lemkin put the death toll at 1.2 million. The epicenter of killing was in 1915 and 1916. About two-thirds of the Armenian population perished.

Do you see links between the massacre of the Armenian Christians a century ago and the ISIS massacre in Syria?

I hesitate to make any easy analogies. … The context in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 is not the same for the explosions going on in the Middle East right now.

But the role of religious ideology in the Turkish Armenian case was less important for the ruling political elite. … They were like the Nazis and didn’t care about religion. They did know how to manipulate the power of religion to motivate other segments of their population to do killing.

The ISIS people are extreme fundamentalists who are now militarized. That is a long way from the practice of 99 percent of Muslims. The last two genocides on record were committed by Christians: the Serbs in Srebrenica in 1994, and the Hutus, who are primarily Catholic and Christian, against the Tutsis in 1994 in Rwanda. … Any religious value system is capable of being mobilized by extreme regimes who are hell bent on mass killings.

With so many spasms of violence now, is the world growing desensitized?

It can be desensitizing, overwhelming, numbing, but it has also initiated more human rights activism, more human rights culture, more human rights priorities even in the seats of the State Department and government in our own country than ever before.

You have a new book coming out, Vise and Shadow, and your lyric prose is in full bloom. Do you use poetry to sweeten the ingestion of atrocity?

The poem is a very real confrontation with the harshness of these histories and their legacies. Some of my poems deal with traumatic memory and inherited traumatic memory and they are interested in reclaiming the more psychological issues of historical violence as they are transmitted across generations. I don’t think of my poems as very sweet, in any way, but I think of them as rich complex language that can engage readers in the complexity of history in ways that no other forms of writing can. [blog_list style=”def” display=”specific” category=”null” specific=”1429″]

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