Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An interview with a famous Armenian writer Ara Baliozian

Ara Hakopian: Ara, your works have been translated into French, German, Greek, Spanish, Dutch, and Armenian. Several months ago your book “The Horrible Silence” was published in a Russian translation. This is the first time you have been translated and published in Russian. What are your expectations from the Russian edition and from the Russian-speaking reader in general?

Ara Baliozian: Like all writers my first and most important ambition is to be read, understood and appreciated, or rather in our case, not to be misunderstood.

A.H.: You are 70 years old. You have dedicated much of your life to literature, Armenian literature to be more precise. Why?
A.B.: I love all literatures regardless of race, color, and creed. I went into translating Armenian writers into English because I thought our translators had ignored some of our ablest writers.

A.H.: Have you ever regretted that decision?
A.B.: No, never! Sometimes I even think it was not a decision but an inevitable turning point in my life that I had no choice but to accept and adapt. As a boy in Greece I had the awareness and values of a barbarian. In Venice I discovered civilization. When I came to Canada at the age of twenty I had no qualifications whatever. I worked at a variety of jobs for minimum wage in department stores, factories, and insurance companies. These were not the happiest years of my life – the cultural shock, the complexities of the English language, the isolation, and life in the middle of nowhere… What saved me was the wonderful Canadian library system. I spent most of my free time reading. I couldn’t afford doing anything else anyway. I saved as much as I could for an early retirement.

A.H.: What is the hardest thing about being an Armenian writer?
A.B.: Survival.

A.H.: By that you mean–
A.B.: Literally, survival… making minimum wage. I have noticed that, whenever I say that to an activist or a partisan, he pretends surprise. “I didn’t know that!” he says. But the first question that I am asked again and again by ordinary Armenians is: “If you are a full-time writer, how do you survive?”

A.H.: Were there moments when you were desperate and thought about quitting literature?
A.B.: Yes, of course. But literature and music, especially organ music, never lost their fascination for me. I spent most of my free time reading and working on the organ and the piano. After I quit my job as a clerk in an insurance company, I became the permanent organist in a Catholic church; also a piano teacher at home.

A.H.: I suppose you like Bach?
A.B.: It would be more accurate to say that I worship him; if there is one thing that I regret is that unlike Wanda Landowska, Albert Schweitzer, and Glenn Gould, I have not dedicated my life to him.

A.H.: Did it take you long to publish your first book since you decided to dedicate your life to literature on a full-time basis?
A.B.: For many years after we came to Canada I had no hope of being an Armenian writer. Instead I became a Canadian writer, producing work for Canadian audiences, fiction, radio plays, and essays. Then in 1975 on the 60th anniversary of the Genocide a friend from Toronto asked me to write a brief introductory pamphlet on Armenians to be distributed freely to Canadians. The brief pamphlet became a paperback book, and a few years later, in a revised and expanded edition, a textbook that was used widely in several Armenian schools.

A.H.: And that success was an inspiration to continue?
A.B.: Yes, but it was less my idea than that of my editors and publishers. I have been asked to expand and update it by several publishers and I have consistently refused.

A.H.: Why?
A.B.: Because I do not consider it an impartial and objective book. It is rather a product tinged with nationalist sentiment that emphasizes our positives (or successes) and ignores and covers up our negatives (our failings).

A.H.: Is that bad?
A.B.: Yes, because it promotes chauvinism, egocentrism, narcissism...which also mean a reluctance to face our problems today...and we face many problems.

A.H.: Such as?
A.B.: Absence of solidarity being only one of them. Another, the waste of funds in maintaining several churches, schools, community centers, and newspapers in the same community when one would be more than enough.

A.H.: You started with writing fiction. Why did you turn to non-fiction later?
A.B.: I don't remember to have ever made a conscious decision one way or the other. Instead I allowed time and my natural inclination to choose for me. After doing all kinds of work against my will and because I had no choice, I exercised complete freedom in my choice of writing. When I met a group of actors who needed plays, I wrote half a dozen of them. When I met an editor who was in need of fiction I wrote fiction. I did not have a five- or 10-year plans. And now that I no longer write on demand I write whatever comes to mind and whenever I feel like it.

A.H.: “I write to explain the incomprehensible to myself, and I write only when my explanations clash with conventional wisdom.” Your words. In that connection I remember your book “Definitions. A Critical Companion to Armenian History and Culture.” It is quite a unique book. You gathered different words and people who in one way or another relate to Armenia and Armenians. The book could be called the Armenian explanatory dictionary with the only difference that explanations in that dictionary are given not from the conventional point of view but from the critical viewpoint. “A Book for Everyone and No One”?
A.B.: I prefer to think of it as a book dedicated to our chauvinist fanatics.

A.H.: Who is the primary target of your criticism?
A.B.: Anyone who thinks he knows and understands everything he needs to know and understand. I believe knowledge and understanding are processes without an end. Those who believe otherwise are the source of all blunders and disasters.

A.H.: When I told a friend of mine that I was going to interview you, he asked me to address this question to you: “Do you think making your concerns public in an open website accessible to all may have an adverse effect on the efforts of those Armenians who sincerely strive to advance the cause of justice for their nation, and Armenians' image in the world?”
A.B.: Justice is a noble concept of course provided it is fair, objective and impartial. In a court of law, there is the prosecution, the defense, the judge, and the jury. Our sympathies are with the victim, of course, but that does not mean the victim should be allowed to reach the verdict. If I am critical of the victim it is because I want to strengthen the case for the prosecution. In the long run, a prejudiced or unfair prosecution may do more harm than good to the Cause.

A.H.: You mentioned Greece and Italy. Tell me more about those periods of your life.
A.B.: I was four years old when World War II erupted and Greece was occupied by the Germans. We lost everything - literally. Both our house and my father's store went up in smoke. For the duration we became homeless people dependent on the charity of relatives and parcels from America.

A.H.: What was the life of Armenians like in Greece at that time?
A.B.: In 1941 a great many people in Athens died of starvation in the streets. Then after the liberation in 1945, Greece was plunged into civil war, which lasted as long as the world war.

A.H.: And you moved to Venice to Collegio Armeno Moorat Raphael to study?
A.B.: That was in 1953. That's where I discovered the 19th-century Russians beginning with Dostoevsky. That's also when I discovered classical music, beginning with Rossini. I studied the piano. For a while I wasn't sure if I wanted to dedicate my life to music or literature. I may even have thought I could do both, because my dedication to both was wholehearted and uncompromising to the point of being obsessive.

A.H.: And why did you move to Canada then?
A.B.: In the postwar years there was a general exodus of Armenians from Greece: some went to Armenia, others to Australia, South America, United States, and Canada. Since we had some relatives in Detroit, which is near the Canadian border, we immigrated to Canada hoping soon to join our relatives but that never happened. We bought a house, we found jobs, we became Canadian citizens, and decided to make Canada our permanent home.

A.H.: At that time there must have been very few Armenians in the neighborhood and Canada in general?

A.B.: In Kitchener, the city where we moved and live today, there were no more than about a dozen families. The Armenian community of Toronto, the nearest city, was more numerous but also scattered. The atmosphere was, unlike that of Greece, thoroughly alien and unArmenian.

A.H.: Now there must be more Armenians in Canada?

A.B.: Armenians in Canada are much more numerous and active today with schools and churches and community centers, newspapers, different organizations and cultural institutions, including a weekly TV program. This happened after the exodus from the Middle East during the civil war there.

A.H.: I think I wouldn’t be wrong if I said that in every diaspora there is a problem of assimilation. Do you see assimilation as a serious threat to our future as a diaspora?

A.B.: Also to our future as a nation. Where would Israel be today without its diaspora? The Azeris have oil on their side, we have our diaspora.

A.H.: How do you explain the fact that our assimilation rate in the Middle East or even in the Ottoman Empire was much lower than in the United States and Canada, which are close and familiar to you?

A.B.: The Middle East is tribal. There are many walls that separate the different groups – the religious wall being the strongest. Here in the United States and Canada we are Christians among Christians. There are other reasons too: we are spread out on a vast continent whose culture is more egalitarian, open, tolerant, and progressive than ours, which is why there are those who view assimilation as a healthy and desirable development.

A.H.: In other words, cultural differences in some places serve as a deterrent factor while in other places they are at the roots of bringing people together? Some dualism?

A.B.: Yes. Cultural differences perhaps are at the roots of our many conflicts, grudges, and unsettled scores. In that sense they may even be qualified as “anti-cultural differences." Because real culture does not or should not promote intolerance and atrocities, but mutual understanding.

A.H.: Going back to literature. In your best-selling book ‘The Armenians: Their History and Culture” you dedicate a 100-page section to the history of Armenian literature.

A.B.: Most odars don't know anything about Armenian literature. But this is true also of most Armenians. I wanted to emphasize that aspect of our achievements perhaps because our achievements in the political sphere have been dismal. We have nothing to brag about our political leadership. The same cannot be said about our intellectual achievements.

A.H.: Have you ever thought of expanding it to a book or several volumes?
A.B.: Yes, I have. But like so many other projects, I had to discard it.

A.H.: Why? There would be a high demand for such a book.
A.B.: It is not a question of demand but cooperation. There are no Armenian publishers in the Diaspora and partisans and ideologues control those that exist. Which means it is not easy producing an objective assessment. As for odar publishers: they tend to view such projects with suspicion because they are not familiar with what they call the "ethnic" market. An Armenian writer has no choice but to act as his own editor, publisher, promoter, and distributor. Even then, without the cooperation of our community centers and churches, there isn't much he can do.

A.H.: The Armenian writer seems to be, using Gostan Zarian’s words, “a radio station in the middle of a storm sending messages to distant places and receiving no answer.”
A.B.: In general, yes, if he doesn’t belong to a party or organization, i.e. if he doesn’t flatter the ego of a boss or a bishop, he operates in a vacuum and as a stranger in a strange land.

A.H.: These words by Zarian could be applied to himself also?
A.B.: Yes, Zarian never enjoyed the support of our elites. I consider that one of his greatest achievements – the general hostility he aroused among Armenians everywhere, Homeland as well as Diaspora, intellectuals as well as political activists and religious leaders. Everyone has something nasty to say about him. They cannot attack his ideas, so they attack the man. Even his application to the Writer’s Union of Soviet Armenia was rejected. Socrates once said that his poverty was proof of his honesty. Zarian’s unpopularity may be said to be proof of his integrity. Somewhere in one of his books he says that the door between him and Armenian intellectuals has always been half closed. Odar writers like Lawrence Durrell have written more knowledgeably about Zarian than our own intellectuals.

A.H.: I didn’t mention Zarian by chance. You have translated many of his works into English. He is your favorite writer, isn’t he?
A.B.: Yes, he is. You see, Zarian could condense in a single brief paragraph what others failed to understand after a lifetime of hard work. Zarian is a giant of 20th century world literature who can stand comparison with such modern masters as James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Jean-Paul Sartre. His worldview, his penetrating understanding of many aspects of human conduct and character, his many personal contacts and correspondence with some of the greatest writers, artists, and composers of the West made of him a truly universal and cosmopolitan genius.

A.H.: What other Armenian writers would you mention?
A.B.: Zarian has no equal in our literature because he lived to a ripe old age. By contrast Talaat and Stalin murdered most of our other writers, like Bakounts, Zabel Yessayan, Charents, Zohrab, Zartarian, Daniel Varoujan, and many others at an early age. Even more devastating has been the philistinism of our own political leadership that has exhibited a marked preference for propaganda.

A.H.: You said that our translators had ignored some of our greatest writers.
A.B.: For some reason our translators prefer translating poetry, perhaps because poetry allows them more freedom and is less-time consuming. When I started translating I planned issuing brief volumes dedicated each to 40 or 50 of our ablest writers, similar to what I did with “Zohrab: An Introduction.” But since I could not obtain the cooperation of any one of our cultural organizations, I gave up the project.

A.H.: I should say that your collection and translation of Zohrab's works is marvelous! Really wonderful!
A.B.: I think many of our writers fully deserve that kind of treatment.

A.H.: Thank you for the interesting conversation and I hope your first book in Russian will be welcomed with interest and understanding and will not be the last one.
A.B.: It has been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you!