Going in search of a family history

Going in search of a family history

Contra Costa Times, CA
June 20 2004

MICHELINE AHARONIAN MARCOM isn’t old enough to remember the horrors
of the Armenian genocide. But she remembers her grandparents, who
were survivors.

“They were melancholy,” recalls the Berkeley-based author of “The
Daydreaming Boy.” “There was tremendous sadness. There was anger at
the Turks, and a lot of that anger came from the fact that Turkey to
this day has never acknowledged the genocide. Not only have they not
acknowledged it, they spend a lot of time and resources denying it
ever happened. And that makes the Armenians crazy.”

Marcom says she inherited a legacy of depression and bitterness from
the Armenian side of her family, which was shattered in the campaign
waged against Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government from 1915
to 1923.

It’s a legacy she explored in her first novel, “Three Apples Fell
>>From Heaven.” She intends to write three books on the subject, and
“The Daydreaming Boy” is the second novel of the trilogy.

Set in Beirut, the new book has a central character in Vahé Tcheubjian,
an adult survivor of the genocide. On the surface, Vahé is a successful
businessman. But his internal life is in constant turmoil. Paralyzed
by memories of a traumatic childhood in a Lebanese orphanage, he spends
his days in a haze of guilt, loneliness, despair and violent fantasy.

A refugee’s view

While “Three Apples” told the stories of multiple Armenian characters,
“The Daydreaming Boy” focuses almost exclusively on Vahé. Marcom,
who teaches creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, says she
wanted this book to take a radically different approach.

In a recent interview in the Berkeley hills home she shares with her
husband, a software engineer, and their 3-year-old son, the author
explained that she was particularly interested in the effects of the
genocide on Armenian children.

“I wanted to write a book that was spoken through one person,” says
Marcom. “A war orphan, a refugee. Someone who is an extreme creation
of war.”

The book begins with one of Vahé’s earliest childhood memories: the
day he arrives in Lebanon, one of thousands of orphans shipped into
exile in cattle cars. The scene was based on a historical account
Marcom uncovered a few years back.

“It was written by an American missionary who was at the orphanage in
Lebanon,” she recalls. “He described the trains coming from Turkey,
how they stopped at the sea and how the boys who had been on the trains
for weeks — they were thirsty, tired, hungry — ran to the sea and
drank the water. They’d always lived in the interior of the country,
so they’d never known salt water.”

That scene marks the first of many memories for Vahé. As he relives
his days in the orphanage — scenes of hunger, confusion and brutality
at the hands of his fellow orphans — the character assumes tragic
proportions. For Marcom, Vahé represents a generation of survivors.

“He comes to consciousness in the orphanage,” she says, “so he’s
someone who can never really know who his family is. He is a man
without history, a man adrift.”

War stories

Marcom was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and spent her early childhood
in the Middle East. Her businessman father was American, her mother
was Armenian-Lebanese. When Marcom was 5, the family moved to Los
Angeles, but in the years before the Lebanese civil war, she spent
summers in Beirut with her mother’s family.

Growing up, she heard dozens of war stories — many of them concerning
members of her own family. Her grandmother, who saved her brothers
and sisters from the Turks, was a heroine, but her father — Marcom’s
great-grandfather — wasn’t so lucky. “They came and took him in the
middle of the night,” says the author. “No one ever saw him again.”

Her grandfather’s family survived intact, which was unusual. “But
my grandfather’s father could only save his wife and children,”
says Marcom. “He couldn’t save anyone in the extended family. My
great-grandmother never forgave him. She lived to be 96, and she had
that bitterness toward her husband to the end.”

For Marcom, growing up with these stories was a heavy burden. “It’s
a lot to live with,” she says.

Her maternal grandmother remains a particularly vivid presence in her
memory. “She talked about it all the time,” says Marcom. “There seem
to be a couple of responses to genocide — one is to talk about it all
the time, like my grandmother. The other is to be completely silent.”

Marcom notes that the family continued to sustain losses throughout her
own childhood. She mentions her “Uncle” Vahé — actually her mother’s
first cousin — who was killed in Beirut during a particularly fierce
period of ethnic cleansing in the mid-1980s. “The Daydreaming Boy”
is dedicated to his memory, although Marcom says the character of
Vahé is not based on him.

Similar stories

Marcom did extensive research to prepare for the new book, reading
about Armenian history, Lebanese culture, the genocide and the orphans
it produced. The scope of her reading expanded as she went, finally
including books on Rwanda, Bosnia and other sites of ethnic cleansing.

“The parallels are horribly similar,” she says. “Vahé could be a kid
now living in Iraq. In war, the details are all different, but some
things are always the same.

“I’m now reading about the genocide in Guatemala. It’s eerie and
horrifying. Even the language is the same, the way people everywhere
call their enemies ‘dogs.’ The debasement, the sexual humiliation;
the photos we’re seeing from Iraq are probably mild compared to a
lot of what goes on. It always happens in war.”

Even more upsetting to Marcom is the degree to which the history of
the Armenian genocide has been erased. Growing up in Los Angeles, she
studied World War I with no mention of the Armenian experience. Today,
she continues to be surprised by students, friends and acquaintances
who know little or nothing about the events of 1915-23, which resulted
in as many as a million Armenian deaths.

“We are so un-historied,” she says with a sigh. “This is why we’re
so easy to manipulate and so lonely.

“We don’t know our ancestors, we don’t know our history. It doesn’t
matter who you are here. You come here as an immigrant, and within
a generation you become the same way.”

For Marcom, writing “The Daydreaming Boy” was an educational as well
as an artistic experience. She says she learned a great deal about
her ancestors from writing the book. But it’s clear that the climate
of her own childhood memories contributed to the story’s emotional
charge. Those memories and the history that inspired them remain
inextricably linked to her heart.

“I was very interested in trying to get inside the mind of someone
like Vahé, who has experienced extreme trauma,” she says. “I think
every day for someone like him is a struggle. Every day you survive
is an achievement. I’ve met people who have survived war and genocide,
and they have said that to me. It’s a lifelong inheritance. It never
goes away.

“I’m still trying to understand it,” she adds. “That’s why I’m writing
these books. I myself knew nothing about being Armenian, nothing about
the genocide, except that I’d inherited a hell of a lot of depression
and melancholy.”

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress