Armenian Reporter – 5/19/2007 – arts & culture section

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May 19, 2007 — From the Arts & Culture section

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1. Big award in a big city for Gor Kirakosian
2. Goth band Paradise Lost in Diran Noubar’s Over the Madness
3. Piandaryan’s first feature on the big screen in Southern California
4. Harry Koundakjian honored at Haigazian University in Beirut
5. Second installment of Siroun Storytellers on June 3rd in L.A.
6. Your VISA to the sounds of the ethnic cultures of Los Angeles

7. Books: At the intersection of literature and journalism, Mark Arax
stands tall (by Paul Chaderjian)
* A profile of the reporter, wordsmith, and historian

8. Art: Define power and beauty (by Tamar Kevonian)

9. Music: Sayat Nova reaches three million U.S. viewers (by Paul Chaderjian)
* Nune Yesayan’s music featured on "The Shield"
Sidebar: Meet Nune again

10. Stage: Armani on the Couch (by Tamar Kevonian)

11. Stories of Armenian cinema unveiled: Khatabala

12. Essay: My valley (by Mark Arax)

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1. Big award in a big city for Gor Kirakosian

Gor Kirakosian’s first feature film Big Story in a Small City, won the
Best Foreign Film category at this year’s Beverly Hills Film Festival.
The festival bills itself as an international competition dedicated to
showcasing emerging filmmakers. With more than 15 thousand attendees
this year, the festival filled several screening rooms over its
five-day run. The 7th annual festival featured world premiers,
parties, and seminars. Gor accepted his award on the final night of
the festival at the black-tie gala awards closing ceremonies, which
were held at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Up ahead for the filmmaker is
the DVD release of Big Story and screenings at the deadCenter Film
Festival in Oklahoma City from June 7-10 and at the ReelHeART
International Film Festival in Toronto from June 18–23.



* * *

2. Goth band Paradise Lost in Diran Noubar’s Over the Madness

On Monday, May 21, Diran Noubar’s new documentary, Over The Madness,
will have its world premier at the Cannes Film Festival’s Market. The
film is about the UK band Paradise Lost and chronicles the emergence
of the Gothic Metal music movement. The band is celebrating its 20th
anniversary this year, and it is credited with starting the gothic
metal movement along with the bands Anathema and My Dying Bride.
Paradise Lost has sold more than two million records and has a loyal
cult following. Noubar’s rÊsumÊ, meanwhile, includes his critically
acclaimed documentary, Armenia: A Country under Blockade. The 2005
film was narrated by System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian and explored the
human impact of Turkey’s blockade of Armenia.


Kay [email protected]

* * *

3. Piandaryan’s first feature on the big screen in Southern California

Writer-director Jack Piandaryan’s first feature film, The Parallel,
premiered last weekend at the Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino,
Calif. The 95-minute feature stars Gerard Hart and Margaret
Scarborough and is about a teenager who wakes up 20 years into the
future. The filmmaker began in the industry as a projectionist in a
small sound-editing facility. "From there, we somehow got George
Lucas’s attention, and a while later we opened Skywalker Sound South
in Santa Monica," he says. The audio postproduction facility is
presently known as Todd-AO Studios West. "After working there many,
many years and running their screening room as if it was my own, I
formed Piandaryan Films," he says. Piandaryan’s next project, "Passing
Bus," features a bus that takes people into dreams or another
dimension. A third film, "The Lawful Outlaw," is being planned.


* * *

4. Harry Koundakjian honored at Haigazian University in Beirut

Haigazian University is celebrating the impressive career of
world-renowned press photographer Harry Koundakjian with an exhibition
called "50 Years of Photo Journalism." The exhibition features 75
photographs and includes images from the biggest stories of the
century and photos of stars, leaders, and politicians. Koundakjian
began practicing photojournalism in 1952 at the French-language paper
L’Orient and its sister Arabic publication Jarida in Beirut. He joined
The Associated Press in 1967 and was appointed chief of the AP Middle
East photo staff in 1969.


* * *

5. Second installment of Siroun Storytellers on June 3rd in L.A.

Diarists and bloggers who have written about their broken hearts are
invited to share their story at the Siroun Storyteller’s next meeting
on June 3rd in Atwater Village. "The Broken Hearts Club" reading has
been organized to help "reveal the humorous complexities of growing up
Armenian in an American world." Siroun Storytellers organizers say
they created their readings to "give a voice to those who want to
share their personal narratives in a cozy and creative atmosphere. The
event will serve as a fundraiser for Sose, a nonprofit women’s health
clinic in Goris, Armenia. Sose’s initiatives target Armenian women
located in remote villages and the organization is run by local
Armenian women and doctors.

[email protected]

* * *

6. Your VISA to the sounds of the ethnic cultures of Los Angeles

The band VISA incorporates the varies textures of Latin, Greek, and
Armenian sounds and offers listeners a breathless tour around the
globe. VISA will perform at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles on May
24, along with Dirty Diamond, Fish Circus, and the Murdocks. The show
at 8 p.m. will be hosted by comedian Voki Kalfayan. VISA says its
music serves as a passport for people to go anywhere on the globe.
With the haunting sound of the duduk played by the famed Jivan
Gasparyan Jr., VISA also features the talents of Orbel Babayan, Shant
Bismejian, and Carlos Alvarado on the electric guitar. The rest of the
band includes Alex Katcherian, Suguru Onaka, Chris Daniel, and Hiram



***************************** **********************************************

7. Books: At the intersection of literature and journalism, Mark Arax
stands tall

* A profile of the reporter, wordsmith, and historian

by Paul Chaderjian

History, great characters, and human drama are all elements that flow
out of the pen of Mark Arax, who has been telling some of the most
interesting untold stories while working as a reporter at the Los
Angeles Times for more than two decades.

Mark Arax, considered one of the top journalists at the Times, is
also a literary figure in his own right — a modern-day scribe, born
into the most sensational Armenian stories of the 20th century. He
could not help but investigate the story of his family, his people,
and his native California, and turn them into literature through a
unique voice, a narrative voice that is Saroyanesque in spirit,
Steinbeckian in scope, and as epic as any modern scribe’s can be.

After working in the Los Angeles Times offices in Southern
California as a reporter from 1984 to 1990, Mark became an overnight
literary celebrity in his hometown of Fresno because of a book he
wrote about the murder of his father.

"The murder is when I first started," he says. "One of the first
things I did was bought a little notebook. I think that gave me my
first interest in reporting. I would take notes of things I would hear
on the streets, things I would hear my mom discussing with one of my

Mark says he spent more than half of his life investigating the
crime, trying to piece the murder mystery together and looking into
"it’s permutation and repercussions."

After writing In My Father’s Name and telling the story of his
family, his town, and the murder that shaped his life, Mark was ready
to return to the newspaper business. That’s when the Times decided to
base him in his native Fresno and in the middle of a region that was
home to fascinating stories.

"It was like a third world country in a way that we needed a bureau
here," says the athletic 50 year old who looks nothing like the
stereotypical newspaper man. The need for a bureau in the most
bountiful agricultural region in the world brought Mark back to the
front pages of the Times in 1993, and he didn’t have to leave home
again. He’s been working for the paper ever since.

"I started writing the story of this place," he says, "and I almost
covered it like a foreign correspondent, covering a foreign land and
sending those stories to Los Angeles. And really, it was a foreign
land, but in some way it was basically L.A. in the 1930s and 1940s."

Arax was the first to write about developers buying votes by bribing
local lawmakers. "I broke the stories of corruption in Fresno, in
zoning. I did a lot of stories on how growth was like a giant Ponzi
scheme in the Valley, where it wasn’t even paying for itself."

The FBI investigation into local corruption was dubbed "Operations
Rezone," and Mark’s stories help push the investigation along. The
results were the conviction of one of the biggest local developers,
John Bonadelle, and several local city officials. "We were subsidizing
the wealthiest homebuilders in Fresno by giving them these incredible
breaks on fees and other things," he says.

* Gladiator days and migrant workers

We sit in his front yard in a serene and upper-middle-class
neighborhood in northwest Fresno, and he talks about his career. He is
handsome, fit, and confident. He speaks slowly and uses his words
cautiously. His practice of using precise, deliberately chosen words
in his creative nonfiction pieces also shows up during the interview;
he speaks carefully, repeating my questions as perhaps a way to
validate, verify, or think about them before answering.

Mark says another one of the big stories he spent several years
investigating was about California’s prison system, writing pieces
that would eventually change how prison guards did their jobs. "When
prisoners would get into fights," he says, "the California guards were
shooting them. And it was this crazy logic. These guys are fighting,
and to prevent the fight from turning deadly, the guards killed them."

His story, "Gladiator Days," made headlines around the world and led
other national media to focus on the California prison system. The
judicial system also made the state of California pay millions of
dollars to date to some of the families of the 39 inmates killed and
to the more than 200 inmates injured — and in some cases paralyzed —
between 1993 and 1998.

Powerful storytelling, revealing the truth, focusing on the victims
and the perpetrators all led the state to stop guards from shooting
inmates engaged in fistfights.

"I also told the story of the farm workers," he says with great
modestly. "I had a story called ‘The Summer of the Death of Hilario
Guzman.’ That won the SDX Society of Professional Journalists award
for magazine writing this last year."

Mark’s 11-thousand-word story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine
followed one family from the highlands of Oaxaca to the Big Valley of
California. "They happened to be a family from a tribe that no one had
ever documented, Triqui Indians," he says. "I followed them for one
year from one raisin harvest to the next in the Valley."

During the year that Mark spent learning about the Guzman family, he
watched them deal with the death of one of their elders, cross the
border to burry their patriarch, then brave another border-crossing to
return to work.

"Really a harrowing story," he says and continues to talk about the
two babies the family was blessed with the year he followed them
around. Mark spent hours interviewing family members, watching their
lives play out, to capture for readers the reality of the people whose
hard work and sweat puts food on tables across America and the world.

"I also wrote stories about the Black Okies," he says. "There were
plenty of stories about the white Okies from Steinbeck. But no one had
told the story of the black Okies. And I found them off Highway 99,
living in these little shacks on salt ground, alkali ground, and I
told that story."

The Third-World, surreal living conditions, barbaric prison guards,
corrupt officials, and the human spirit were right here in the Golden
State, and Mark was able to uncover the stories through diligent,
meticulous hard work, research, and laser-sharp insight.

* J-school

Under a shade tree whose branches are being blown by breezes from the
Western Sierra on this Saturday afternoon, I ask him about the recent
headlines and Armenian community demands that his managing editor step
down. He says he doesn’t want to talk about the recent headlines, but
he is willing to talk about his career at the paper.

He talks about his family and that he was the older of three kids
and only 15 when his father was shot and killed by two gunmen inside
his father’s West Fresno bar. "My father was murdered in 1972. My mom
was widowed, so I felt a responsibility to stay close to home. That’s
why I went to Fresno State."

At Fresno State, Mark says, he met the most accomplished
Armenian-American journalist ever — Roger Tatarian. "He was my
mentor," says Mark.

Tatarian had been editor-in-chief of United Press International, one
of the biggest news services at the time. "He had a heart attack and
returned to Fresno, where he’d grown up," says Mark.

Tatarian had come home to build up the journalism program at Fresno
State, and during the years Mark was enrolled, that program had been
one of the top three in the country, winning national writing awards
and the Hearst writing competitions.

"I had won a Hearst Award," remembers Mark. "Then we did some
investigative pieces. Then I was the editor of the weekly and then the

Then it was off to Columbia University, where Mark had planned to
pursue a year of graduate studies in journalism and another three
years in law. "I decided after that first year in journalism that I
just loved writing so much," he says.

Instead of pursuing a law degree, Mark went to work for the
Baltimore Sun from 1981 until 1984. He joined the Los Angeles Times in
the summer of 1984 after his mother had a bout with cancer.

"I came, took care of her, then went to L.A.," he says. "Started off
in the San Gabriel Valley and became for those first three or four
years our Asian reporter. I was documenting how Asians had moved into
the San Gabriel Valley and had created the first suburban Chinatowns
in America. Those stories were nominated for a Pulitzer and won some
‘Story of the Year’ awards for the L.A. Times."

* Family history

Right around the time his work was being praised by his peers and
receiving professional acclaim, Mark decided he was ready to write
about his father and his family. The year was 1990, but he had already
begun his research in the mid-1970s. He already had a collection of
audiotapes with interviews of family members.

"I didn’t know what I was doing," he says. "I was just getting the
stories of my grandfathers, my grandmothers. I think I was trying to
fill the void of my father’s death, because there were no answers. It
was an unsolved murder. So I was trying to find some kind of an answer
about our story."

The stories he recorded were of his two grandfathers. Both had been
born in the year 1900 in Western Armenia and had survived the
Genocide. One was a Dashnak, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary
Federation. The other was a Hunchak, a member of the Social
Democractic Hunchakian Party.

"My grandfather Yegishe Mekhitarian was the priest of the red brick
church," says Mark, referring to the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic
Church in Downtown Fresno. "He was a very strong Dashnak from Moush.
The last thing his mother did was give him a Bible and the Dashnak
[party program] and say, ‘don’t ever forget the Dashnak.’"

Mark says his grandfather had never talked to his children about the
Genocide, but he sat down with the inquisitive journalist and told him
the story.

"Forty-five family members killed," says Mark. "Everybody. Mothers.
Fathers. Brothers. Sisters. All gone. Only he survived. He was 14 or
15. He walked hundreds and hundreds of miles, a Turkish family took
him in, and he eventually landed in an orphanage in Lebanon and then
in Jerusalem, where he was taken in by priests, and he became a

Principle or perhaps stubbornness or both were driving forces in his
grandfather, says Mark, and he sees that dynamic at work in his life.

"Basically, as a matter of principle," he says, "Etchmiadzin asked
him to recognize some Soviet Armenian holiday. My grandfather, the
Dashnak, refused, and they basically declared his church, the red
brick church, a renegade church."

Mark says his grandfather continued his duties at the church, which
now falls under the auspices of the Cilician See. "He ran it as a
renegade," he says, "and Etchmiadzin eventually defrocked him. They
removed his frock, and he continued to be a priest, a renegade

* Aram Arax

Mark’s paternal grandfather, Aram Arax the poet, was from Bursa on the
Sea of Marmara. He took his pen name from the Arax River and passed it
down to Mark. Aram and his family had left their village for Istanbul
before 1914 because his mother was a wet nurse. As had Mark’s own
father, Aram’s father had also died when Aram was only 15.

"When the Genocide began and April 24 happened," says Mark, "Ara
went to Beyazit Square in Istanbul, and he saw these Hunchaks hanged.
They were hanging there in the square, and he knew something was going
to happen."

Mark says Turks were walking around and trying to recruit Armenian
boys to join their killing brigades. To escape the "recruiters," Aram
Arax went into hiding, like another 20 thousand Armenians in Istanbul
who hid in attics. "They were called the Army of the Attics, Tavan
Tabouri," says Mark.

Mark’s grandfather hid in his attic for a year and a half. He had
gone into hiding with tons of French literature. "He wanted to be a
poet when he came down," says Mark. "He was as strong a Hunchak as the
other one was a Dashnak.

When Aram Arax passed away in 1989, Mark says, his grandfather died
a frustrated poet. "His pen went silent for half a century from the
moment he got here. He became a fruit tramp in the Valley, harvesting
fruits and vegetables. His first job was picking potatoes and weed

Aram’s first employer was Kirk Kerkorian’s father, Villa, who lost
his empire in the raisin bust, shortly after Aram went to work for
him. "That was my grandfather’s first job," says Mark. "Then his pen
went silent. He was just trying to make a living."

Mark says Aram Arax took up writing once again when he was in his
70s. "By then, he had lost too much time," says Mark. "His voice was
too political, and it just wasn’t honed. You just can’t take off from
writing for half a century and except to pick it up."

The stories of these two men, whom marks calls "firebrands," is what
Mark recorded on audiotapes early in his career. The making of a poet,
the escape to Jerusalem, a renegade priest, a fruit tramp, and an
unsolved murder — those were the stories that brought Mark’s
fascinating and tragic life to the present through the pages of his
first book.

* Investigating the murder

In My Father’s Name took Mark six years to write. "I think I solved
the story of this town," he says. "I solved the story of family, of my
father, but I couldn’t quite put my hands on the killers or the plot.
I surmised some things in there."

The book was published nearly 30 years after the murder, and it
unlocked distant memories in those who knew about the murder. "The
book dislodged some truths and brought some people to the fore," says
Mark, "and ultimately the police were to find one of the shooters."

One of Mark’s father’s murderers was arrested in 2003 and convicted
of first-degree murder in 2004. "Basically, a couple of these drug
smugglers got busted," says Mark. "And one of them had a lot of guilt
on his mind, because he had just read my book. So he came clean to the
police and pointed out this one guy, who had been the shooter."

Even though there was an arrest and conviction in the murder that
changed Mark’s life forever, the motive behind the murder is still not

"There were competing motives," says Mark. "One was that it may have
been robbery. But the second is that it might have had something to do
with my father exposing a major drug-smuggling operation in Fresno."

That drug operation, says Mark, reached the highest levels of the
police department at the time, and a few days before his murder,
Mark’s dad had driven to Sacramento to meet with the attorney
general’s office and to try to expose this drug operation and the
official corruption. "So in a way," says Mark, "my dad was a like a
journalist without a pen and without the protection."

Mark says the convicted shooter is jailed at Avenal Prison, one of
the jails that Mark wrote about in his "Gladiator Days" stories. "This
shooter is actually writing me from prison, wanting to talk to me
about that," says Mark. But he says the shooter is also wanting money,
and Mark says, "we don’t pay for interviews."

* Juggling newspaper and books

For the past 15 years, Mark’s stories at the Times have been more than
straightforward pieces of cookie-cutter journalism. Mark’s words tell
stories, but through devices of creative nonfiction and literary

By bringing characters to life, by taking you to the places and
people he writes about, Mark is able to convey not only facts but real
life in black and white print. "That’s been my forte," he says, and
it’s this forte has as been his entree to the book publishing world.
Since 1990, he has been juggling two careers — one in journalism and
on in books.

"Many of my stories were long, in-depth look at lives," he says.
"The paper would sometimes give me a year to do one series of stories.
It is a tremendous job."

Mark says it takes a long time to see enough life play out so that
he feels like he knows the people he is writing about.

"It’s a deeper, deeper kind of journalism," he says. "It’s one that
maybe comes a little closer to the truth. I don’t think you can
achieve the truth. But it comes at least a few steps closer to the
truth than stuff that’s done and turned around like that."

* Nonfiction bestseller

The second book Mark wrote, King of California, became a bestseller.
It was on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list for seven or eight
weeks, selling about 40 thousand hardcover copies.

"I wanted to communicate how the South came West," says Mark, "how
the plantation South was uprooted and grafted onto a piece of
California, and how the biggest freshwater lake west of the
Mississippi was drained by man, with a little help from nature, and
turned into the richest cotton land in the world."

Mark says King of California is a story of guile, will, and a little
bit of larceny. "There’s a murder or two in there," he says. "It’s
just this grand story of this rising West, and the story of how
through that Tulare Lake basin came the Latinos, the white Okies, and
then the black Okies. It’s a really rich narrative story too."

Another bestseller that features Mark’s words is a book called My
California. More than a dozen writers are featured in the collection
of essays about the place called California, but Mark is planning his
own book of essays about the Golden State. His book will part memoir
and will feature some literary journalism.

"Trying to write a modern-day version of Joan Didion’s Slouching
toward Bethlehem, which is the seminal book. It’s one of the books of
the canon of California literature," he says. "That’s my ambition and
goal. Whether I can pull it off remains to be seen."

One of the stories in Mark’s upcoming collection of essays about
California is called "Saroyan’s Pile," and Mark wants to make an
entire book out of this one story. The Pile is Saroyan’s archives that
are sitting in a big warehouse in Livingston, Calif., north of Fresno.

"His archives dwarf Twain’s, Steinbeck’s, all of them," says Mark.
"And those archives have all kinds of stuff in them, his mustache hair
clippings. The rocks he collected. The shards of glass he collected on
bike rides. He said he collected rocks because it reminded him that
the most beautiful art is simple. He was crazy a little bit,
beautifully crazy."

* Arax and Saroyan

King of California, won the International Saroyan Writing Prize from
Stanford. The award was significant for Mark because he had met with
the literary genius about a dozen times early in life and then in

"I would see Saroyan in the stores when I was eight, nine, ten years
old, on his bike," says Mark. "I would always stop him, and he would
talk to me. I just remember he asked a lot of questions. He was very

When Mark received his first journalism writing assignment from
Roger Tatarian, he was asked to write about spring.

"I thought, ‘How in the hell am I going to do a story on spring?’"
he says. "I was walking around Fig Garden Village, and there was
William Saroyan on his bicycle."

Saroyan very graciously talked to Mark about spring, waxing on
poetically. The year was 1978, and Mark’s story about spring turned
into a profile of the writer.

"He’d always tell me, ‘Write about what you know in the language
that you know it,’" remembers Mark. His grandfather Aram would take
him to Saroyan’s house once in a while for a visit, and the aspiring
writer would ask the established playwright and novelist a lot of

"And he said, ‘Don’t worry about big words,’" remember Mark. "He
said, ‘Just count the words in my stories. There’s only 300 words.’"

Mark says Saroyan emphasized the simplicity of language. "It wasn’t
about big words," says Mark. "It was the way you took everyday
language and turned it into poetry through the rhythms, the voice, the
music of the sentences.

* The future

Mark says he wants to go through Saroyan’s archives because among them
are letters his grandfather wrote Saroyan starting in the 1940s. "I
want to find those letters and use them. It may be its own book, the
Pile, Saroyan’s Pile or Journey through Saroyan’s Pile. I may find my
own family’s story through that Pile, the story of Fresno, the story
of being an Armenian writer, and all that kind of stuff."

Also ahead for Mark is a trip to historic Armenia. "My friends keep
bugging me about going to Armenia," he says. "I had the chance to go
with my grandfather when I was 19, and I didn’t. And I regret that."

Mark says he wants to go back and follow the meanderings of the Arax
River. "I want to use the river as a metaphor of something that is
there, something that waters the Ararat Valley, and yet the river
itself you can’t touch."

The other side of the river, says Mark, "is the story of the
Genocide and our loss. It’s always there. There is a Kevork Emin poem,
where he says, ‘I’m eyelash to eyelash with the mountain, and yet you
can’t hold it.’"

Knowing Mark and taking into account his accomplishments, he’ll come
eyelash to eyelash with the mountain, and in that meeting, he’ll find
something that others before him had not discovered. He’ll ask the
questions that have not been asked, and in the end, the power of his
pen will prove mightier than all the Ottoman swords.

**************************************** ***********************************

8. Art: Define power and beauty

by Tamar Kevonian

Greg and Judith Beylerian unveiled their new show at the Seyhoun
Gallery in West Hollywood, California, on May 12. The title of the
collection, "Power and Beauty," was inspired by a milennia-old poem
that encompassed everything the artists had been working on in the

"This was a reflection of the last two years of my work," says Greg.
What is true power? What is true beauty? Where do they come from? What
are their characteristics? What is their value? Ultimately, what is
the relationship of true power and true beauty with divinity? These
are the ambitious questions they set out to address

Beylerian’s iconic face drawings are on one wall. They represent
consciousness. Body portraits on the other wall represent the beauty
of the human form, which contains the soul, and the handmade book of
poetry and art. Unlike most art shows, the Beylerians incorporate the
spoken word and movement into their exhibits. Involving all the senses
is part of the package for them. "The performance art and the reading
of the poems is the verbal expression into power and beauty," Greg

The distinctive line drawings of faces are Greg’s core drawing
exercises. "It’s my practice in letting go and surrendering to the
flow." The "flow," he explains, is a process of allowing an artist’s
true self to go through him or her unencumbered. "I keep the drawings
in chronological order to track the evolution of my style.

Having attended design school for his master’s degree, he learned
the technical skills, how to draw and use tools, to manifest his
vision. He worked with architects in New York, and particularly with
Gaitano Pesce, whose work is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in
New York. Greg considers Pesce his mentor. "He’s truly a visionary and
has transformed the way we see things. He’s an innovative user of
materials," proclaims Greg.

Fifteen years ago, Judith helped pack Greg’s motorcycle and sent him
on his journey to California. Neither one of them knew what to expect
once he arrived. "There was something in me looking to the West
Coast," he said. "Moving to L.A., I was finally ready to focus on
manifesting myself as an artist."

Los Angeles was free of context, with no preconceived expectations.
True to its spirit, Southern California gave Greg space and peace of
mind. "I’m a big lover of New York City, don’t get me wrong. I found
myself to be very fluid and comfortable in this environment."

In the last few years, Greg’s work has evolved from using the body
as a three-dimensional canvas to fusing his line work and painting
with digital photography as an artistic tool. "I went back to basics
using natural lighting," says Beylerian. Made using museum-quality
materials, the work is printed on metallic paper that is fused between
two pieces of acrylic. The content integrates fine art with

Judith Beylerian’s background is steeped in garment making. Her love
of textiles stems from her family’s involvement in the clothing
industry, but her inspirations comes from antiques. The styles have
the feeling of costumes but true appreciation of her art comes from
the intricate details of the stitching, texture, and the colors she
uses to create the entire effect of each piece.

Known to friends as Jude, she is a close collaborator of Greg’s.
They share one studio under one roof. For this particular exhibit she
staged the performance piece and worked out the couture of the
orators. "Jude’s involved intimately on every level. She is my
inspiration and my muse," pronounces Greg with love and pride. Jude
provides a reference for Greg’s definition of beauty, esthetic from a
female perspective, and his constant search for visual truth. "I
always have her over my shoulder," he says.

In this collection of photographs, Beylerian did not use the live
body as a canvas, but used instead the photographed female form. "I
can’t find anything more beautiful than the human form," he says. He
integrates his line drawing into the photograph. The face drawings
represent his exploration of the spirit of the person, to interpret
what we cannot see, while the photography explores the external
beauty, making a physical portrait of the soul. "Combining them is the
dialogue between the two," he explains.

************************************** *************************************

9. Music: Sayat Nova reaches three million U.S. viewers

Nune Yesayan’s music featured on "The Shield"

On Tuesday, May 22, an estimated audience of at least three million
Americans and an unknown number of viewers worldwide will hear Sayat
Nova’s "Patkert Tamamov Kashats" on the FX channel’s hit police drama
series "The Shield" starring Michael Chiklis. Bringing Sayat Nova
alive for 21st-century audiences is Armenia’s modern-day minstrel,
Nune Yesayan.

"This is the second time ‘The Shield’ uses Nune’s music," says
executive producer of Prime Entertainment Garbis Titizian. "’Tamam
Ashkhar,’ also from Sayat Nova, was used on June 8, 2004. That was
episode 314 on season three, and this week’s show is number 517 in
season six."

The music-placement agency pitching Nune’s music to Hollywood is
called NOMA Music. NOMA executive and former recording-industry
insider Michael Wyner says Nune was referred to him when producers of
"The Shield" were looking for Armenian music three years ago. When the
producers called Wyner again, Nune was his first choice for the
upcoming episode.

"I’m grateful to have this chance," says Nune. "I am excited to
think that people in faraway places, people who would not otherwise
hear our traditional and folkloric Armenian music will now have a
chance to hear Sayat Nova on TV."

"The producers were looking for a song to be used at a cafe as a
detective speaks with a business partner," explains Wyner. "The
producers and editors thought that Nune’s song was a good fit for the
scene. The script called for Armenian music to go with the

Wyner says there will be a second episode of the show that will use
Nune’s songs this season. "Like all of the bands and songwriters we
represent," says Wyner, "the production contacts us and provides us
with details of what they are looking for, for a particular scene. We
then forward along the appropriate music, based on what we think will
work best."

NOMA Music has been in the music-placement business for the past
ten years, and Wyner says he has pitched Nune’s music to other
productions as well, including other television shows and motion
pictures. Films and TV shows Wyner has provided music to in the past
include "The Ghost Whisperer," "Brothers and Sisters," "Without a
Trace," and the cult films "Phat Girls" and "Dorm Daze."

"The Shield," says Wyner, is a huge hit with a "very dedicated
viewership, which has grown over the years." The series is also
syndicated all over the world and can be watched in Great Britain,
France, Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, Colombia, Finland, Hong Kong,
Spain, Italy, Malaysia, Australia, Chile, and via satellite worldwide.

"I did not see the 2004 episode of the show with my music," says
Nune, "but when in my travels, people tell me they watched the show
and loved it. They said they were surprised to hear a song they knew.
It’s a small world, isn’t it, when you have Armenian characters and
Armenian music on an American police show?"

"A lot of people in industry don’t touch international music," says
Wyner, "because they don’t understand it. We do and we like
championing artists unknown to mainstream world audiences." Wyner has
18 platinum records to his name for his work with artists like Sting,
John Cougar, and the Go Gos.


* * *

Sidebar: Meet Nune again

by Paul Chaderjian

Even before studying music in college, Nune Yesayan made a name for
herself at her high school for being a gifted vocalist and talented
performer. She graduated from high school in 1986 and was accepted to
the Polytechnic University of Yerevan to study engineering.

During her first year in college, Nune excelled in her engineering
studies and received high marks in both mathematics and physics. She
spent her time away from school performing Armenian folk music with an
amateur band. The group, which included long-time friend and
collaborator Arthur Hagopian, appeared at small venues and a few

After successfully completing her first year of course work at the
Polytechnic University in 1987, Nune decided to change her major and
focus on her passion for music. She applied for admission and was
accepted to the Jazz and Pop College of Yerevan, where she began her
studies in the fall of 1988.

Nune’s teachers and vocal coaches at the Jazz and Pop College
included famed Armenian jazz performer Datevik Hovanesian and
Yerevan’s most prolific pop producer, composer Arthur Grigorian. In
addition to her intense rehearsal and study schedule at the college,
Nune performed regularly at Grigorian’s Yerevan jazz club, Azad

Following graduation from the Jazz and Pop College in 1990, Nune
auditioned and was accepted into the Armenian National Jazz Orchestra.
Under the direction of famed composer and conductor Constantine
Orbelian, Nune performed with the orchestra in Armenia and throughout
the former Soviet Union, singing Armenian folk songs and jazz

Nune’s first television appearance as a solo act was on the "Ayo"
television program, a show similar to "Pop Idol." Nune won the highest
possible scores from a panel of judges, retained the title of "top
female vocalist" for the entire length of the television season, and
quickly became a household name in Armenia.

Similar successes followed in 1990 and 1991, when Nune participated
in two more nationally televised talent competition shows. Nune was
named "Miss Soul" in 1990 and "Best Female Vocalist" at the Asoop
(Comet) Award Show in 1991. Accolades and honors from domestic and
international awards shows including the "Armenian Music Awards" in
Los Angeles have continued and included honors for best album, best
music video, best concert, and best female vocalist.

Nune recorded her first album of traditional Armenian songs in 1991.
It was produced by Garbis Titizian and Prime Entertainment. Arthur
Hagopian, who was part of Nune’s first amateur band, arranged the
album using modern instruments and contemporary arrangements. The
music video for her rendition of the folks song "Kele Lao" was an
immediate hit in the Armenia diaspora and a regular staple of the
U.S.-based Armenian television station Horizon TV.

In 1991 and 1992, Nune was invited by her former teacher, Arthur
Grigorian, to perform in shows he produced. Her appearances on
television with Grigorian’s group were a hit, and the group’s concerts
were always sold out.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, harsh economic conditions in
Armenia forced Nune to seek employment opportunities abroad. Her
ability to sing in many languages and in various styles won her
contracts at five-star hotels in the Middle East. During her concerts
and small-venue shows, Nune sang contemporary hits, pop and jazz
standards, and songs in English, Arabic, French, and Armenian.

Upon her return to Armenia in 1997, Nune partnered again with Prime
Entertainment in an effort to distribute her CDs internationally.
Executive Producer Garbis Titizian arranged for the release of Nune’s
first CD and the recording and distribution of her second album,

In 1998, Nune formed her own band, which continues to work with her
today. Nune took her band on the road throughout Armenia, performing
benefit concerts for the Armenia Fund, an organization which funds the
development of Armenia’s infrastructure.

Nune’s North American debut took place at the Pasadena Civic Center
Auditorium in Southern California. Because of her hit music videos and
popular CDs, Nune sold out her first concert in the United States and
enjoyed unexpected and unprecedented attention during her appearances
at Armenian schools and record stores.

Since the release of "Kavare Mer" and "Who Knows" in 1998 and 1999,
Nune has released one new album each year including "World" in 2000,
"Nune" in 2001, "Love" in 2002, "Sayat Nova" in 2003, "Me" in 2004,
her "International Album of Nune" in 2005 and "Dle Yaman" in 2006. Her
musical range has expanded from singing traditional Armenian folk
songs to include singing new songs written specially for her.

Nune’s music is in rotation on her 24-hour Internet radio station,
Nune Radio, which has been on the air since 1998. The station,
accessed through, logs hundreds of listening hours weekly and
is regularly listened to not only in major diasporan communities, but
also in unexpected places Hong Kong, Ecuador, Croatia, Algeria, and

Every one of Nune’s concerts in the United States, Canada, England,
France, Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Argentina, Australia, Russia, and
Armenia has sold out weeks in advance. Her concert in honor of those
who lost their lives during the terror attacks on September 11, 2001,
was attended by nearly eight thousand people and mentioned on the CNN
"World Report" and The Associated Press and Mir television news

Nune’s most notable concert venues have included the Hamaleer Sport
Complex in Armenia, the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, the
Kodak Theater in Hollywood, and Lincoln Center in New York City. She
has also appeared in concert with famed Armenian-Persian singer Andy
and French idol Patrick Fiori. Her largest audience to date was at a
charity concert she performed at the Gerard L. Cafesjian Center for
the Arts at the Cascade in Yerevan. The open-air concert attracted
more than 35,000 fans.

In addition to her charity concerts, Nune has continued to dedicate
her time and efforts to helping her homeland and her people. She has
performed for Armenian troops on the front lines in Karabakh regularly
and has appeared on the globally telecast "Hayastan" All-Armenian Fund
Telethon as host and performer in 2000, 2004, 2005, and 2006. She
continues to enjoy press coverage in Armenia, Russia, and in Armenian
publications throughout the diaspora.

Even mainstream American media, including the New York Times, Los
Angeles Times, LA Weekly, and the Boston Globe, have featured her
photographs, taken note of her fame, and written about her phenomenal
status among her people and her impact on the world of Armenian music.

****************************************** *********************************

10. Stage: Armani on the Couch

by Tamar Kevonian

Imagine a four-year-old girl locking herself in the closet to play
with her mother’s glamorous clothes and create an extravagant
imaginary world. This is Nora Armani, whose one-woman show "On the
Couch with Nora Armani" and the 20th-anniversary revival of "Sojourn
at Ararat," created with Gerald Papasian, are part of this year’s
Fountain Theatre’s Summer Armenian Festival in the Little Armenia
section of Los Angeles.

The little girl’s love of performing for grown-ups has developed
into a full-blown career in the arts. "I recruited my brother and
cousins as actors and I directed them," she explains, "I created
stories from my Armenian textbooks." After graduating high school, the
Egypt-born Armani had the opportunity to study dance in Armenia, but
her traditional Armenian parents quickly vetoed the idea. Instead she
began her studies in medicine, a more "practical" vocation. The young
Nora hated medical school and soon left to attend the American
University in Cairo because of their theater department. But once
there, she chose to study sociology with a minor in English and
directing, another practical vocation instead of the field closest to
her heart. She then proceeded to the London School of Economics for
her master’s degree in sociology. Echoing the adage that education is
never wasted, she says, "A sociology background gives me all the
richness for my writing."

A chance encounter with a producer at a film festival resulted in
"On the Couch with Nora Armani." "I was inspired to tell my own
story," she says. "Who am I that people will care? But I find that if
you tell about honest, real experiences, it makes it universal."
Alternating between humor and poignancy, it is a woman’s journey of
belonging and not belonging, of being and discovering. The story is
made up of dramatized excerpts from her life that has appealed to not
only Armenians, but also to Arabs, Russians, and Serbs among many all
over the globe who have seen her perform her show in Paris, London,
Cairo, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Houston,
Montreal, Geneva, Lyon, and a score of other venues. It was filmed for
broadcast on CUNY-TV New York and is now available on DVD. It will be
included in an anthology of five plays by Middle East–born American
women writers, edited by Dalia Basiouny and published by Stanford
University Press.

The show itself debuted in 2000 and received rave reviews in
publications ranging from L.A. Weekly to the Boston Globe. Armani
doesn’t tire of performing the show. "Each experience is different,
each audience is different. The text doesn’t change but it’s sharing
with the audience that keeps it fresh," she explains. The content
developed out of her need to express her thoughts and feelings about
her experience as a member of a displaced minority and as a woman. "I
have grown enormously with this show. As a person, as an artist, as an
actor." Members of Armani’s family are scattered throughout the world,
with her father in Los Angeles and her brother in Japan. "On the
Couch," she says, "was an homage to my family and ancestors, in the
broad sense of the world. Doing the show, I bring my memories and my
family closer to me." Ultimately she believes the show accomplished
what it set out to do — even though that wasn’t clear to her in the
beginning. "The show isn’t caught in the past but ends with a question
of ‘What now?’ It’s a question of identity."

Identity is also one of the themes of "Sojourn at Ararat," a
collection of translated Armenian poems structured into a play.
Originally created in 1986 for the Edinburgh Festival, it was a
product of yet another chance encounter. A close friend and colleague,
Aramazd Stepanian, invited Armani and, her then-husband, Gerald
Papasian, to translate and read a few poems as part of his production
of "Baghdasar Aghbar" by Hagop Baronian. Simply reading the poems was
not dramatic enough, so Nora and Gerald decided to stage the poems for

"We separated all the poems into three piles and saw that there was
a theme: life is wonderful, Genocide, hope," says the actress.
Translating that into the categories of Paradise, Paradise Lost, and
Paradise Regained, they found that most of the poems fell into the
second category. Although they set out specifically not to make it a
Genocide-themed production, they ultimately had to face the reality
that genocide had to be the main focus around which the other themes
revolved. "Reading them out loud gave us a sense of what the poets
wanted to say," she explains. The poems are translated into English
and edited to sound best when spoken.

Initially the show was intended only for the festival. The review by
the highly respected newspaper, The Scotsman, put the whole production
in a new light; Papasian and Armani decided to bring the show to
Ensemble Theatre in Los Angeles. L.A. Weekly dubbed it "Pick of the
Week" and it won the Drama Logue Critics Award for two consecutive
years. The show is performed in English or French and has toured in
Paris, Montreal, London, Boston, Yerevan, Venice, Washington, and
Geneva, among others. They recently performed the show during AnnÊe de
l’ArmÊnie, France’s celebration of Armenian culture taking place this
year throughout the country.

Nora Armani believes in the power of the poems and says, "All we’ve
done is put them together so it becomes a play. That’s it." In 1988
the run of the show at the Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California,
coincided with the devastating earthquake in Armenia. Audience members
who had seen the show multiple times were convinced that the content
had been altered to reflect the events occurring in the country:
earthquake, war, hunger, riots, independence. "But not a word (had
been changed)," stresses Armani. The poems felt applicable to all of
the trials faced by Armenians, regardless of whether it was in the
past or the present. "It’s really timeless," she stresses, "we don’t
have a right to kill it and we are so happy now to be passing the
torch to a new generation of actors." This time the actress is the
director and will be casting the show with new actors. The process has
given her a new viewpoint on the play. Watching other actors give life
to the work with their own artistic interpretations, she is able to
see how it plays out from a more objective perspective.

The Fountain Theatre’s first Armenian program was a production of
the show in 1991. Armani’s roots in the Los Angeles theater scene are
deep and long ranging. During the course of her career, she has come
into contact with many in the artistic community. People such as Aaron
Paley, president and co-founder of Community Arts Resources (CARS) a
trailblazing organization dedicated to the cultural scene in Los
Angeles, claims that Nora was instrumental in laying the foundation of
contemporary Armenian theater in the city. This view is seconded by
Nora Parian, one of the founders of the very active Luna Playhouse.
She says that at the time there was no one else from the Armenian
community who was as active as Armani.

Theater "needs a structure," she explains. "It’s not coincidence
that it’s flourishing in Los Angeles and not elsewhere." She goes on
to expand on the idea that for theater to blossom it needs its own
dedicated building and not a community center that occasionally houses
plays alongside weddings and Ping-Pong tournaments. "I commend my
friends at the Luna Playhouse. They are insisting on English-language
performances along with the Armenian." She goes on to say that it’s
important to be part of the mainstream culture in which we live but
not lose our identity. Geography plays a large part in the success of
a venture like this. The density of the Armenian population in Los
Angeles, along with the automobile culture, where people are used to
driving, contribute to creating an environment for theater to thrive.
In contrast, New York’s communities are much sparser and spread out
over a larger geographic area, thus prohibiting the same thing from
happening on the east coast. Another large factor for theater’s
success on the west coast is the large segment of the population who
emigrated from Armenia in the last twenty years. "Armenia has a
structure from Soviet times and they [the people] have a habit of
attending theater."

"Actress" is a limited word to describe this well-rounded artist.
She is also a director and poet. On May 30, a poetry book edited by
Lynette Craig, Home is Where the Hatred Is, will be released in
England. Armani is one of seven women who write about their
experiences dealing with exile. It is a recurring theme in Armani’s
life which has spanned three continents. Now, with this
20th-anniversary revival of "Sojourn at Ararat," she has come full

"On the Couch with Nora Armani" will be performed from May 18 to June 3.

"Sojourn at Ararat" will be performed from June 9 to August 12.

********************************************* ******************************

11. Stories of Armenian cinema unveiled: Khatabala

Khatabala is an obsolete word in Eastern Armenian meaning trouble,
difficulty, a jam, a pickle. And the restored movie hitting the screen
of Armenia TV next is one misunderstanding, one predicament after

Khatabala (1971, 69 min) is based on a well-loved comedy by the same
name by the 19th-century Armenian playwright Gabriel Sundukian.

Veteran Armenian film director Hamo Bek-Nazarian had wanted to make
this play into a film, reveals Anna Terjanian, host and writer of the
Armenia TV program "Mi filmi badmutiun" (The making of a film). But
that idea came up in the last creative years of the film director’s
life, which unfortunately coincided with the World War II years.
"Everything was a little bit too complicated then," says Anna. Only
seven films were produced in the whole Soviet Union during the war,
she adds. And although Hamo Bek-Nazarian had already written the
screenplay, he wasn’t allowed to film the screen version of Khatabala.
"That was reportedly the reason Bek-Nazarian left Armenia for good,"
she says. Bek-Nazarian (Bek-Nazarov) was the director of the
first-ever Armenian movie, Namus (Honor, 1928).

The good fortune to direct the much-desired screen version of
Khatabala went to Yuri Yerzinkian, the co-director of Arachin siro
yerke (see last week’s edition of the Armenian Reporter.) He worked
with a screenplay by Aghasi Aivazian.

"Yuri Yerzinkian is among the directors who has directed the largest
number of films for Hyefilm studios, but most of them were not
destined to be classics," says Anna. Besides Arachin siro yerke,
Khatabala is this filmmaker’s most popular and appreciated film.

The screenwriter, Aghasi Aivazian, considers this script to be one
of his best. But in an interview for this episode of "Mi filmi
badmutiun," he says the script is not fully conveyed in the film. "In
our documentary he says that people have always told him Khatabala was
one of his best scripts, and that after it was filmed, Parajanov had
approached him, telling him that he should have had directed the
film," Anna says.

This episode of "The Making of a Film" discloses many interesting
details about Khatabala.

Minas Avetisian, the famous painter, was art director responsible
for the set. He did much of the work with his own hands. "There were
murals in the set that Minas Avetisian painted himself at the request
of the film director, but unfortunately because of poor filming, those
precious murals are almost invisible in the film," Anna says.
According to eyewitnesses, once the filming was over, members of the
production crew cut the murals to pieces and took them home as
precious souvenirs of Minas Avetisian.

In this comedy, a young man of fortune and European education comes
to Tbilisi to marry Margrit, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. She
happens to be an extremely unattractive girl. But as the first
khatabala of the film, he thinks the gorgeous wife of the merchant’s
employee is his intended, and he falls in love with Natalia.

The comedy of errors unfolds, and the suitor does not see his
bride-to-be until well into their engagement.

* * *

Gabriel Sundukian was from Tbilisi. Khatabala, like most of his
plays, was set in his native city. So the production crew went to
Tbilisi to shoot the film. Alas, this was not an ordinary work trip.
Back then most of the Soviet Union was plagued by a cholera epidemic,
and Armenia was the only country that had escaped the epidemic. The
production team ignored the risks and crossed the border. "But they
didn’t know they would be locked in their hotel," says Anna. "They say
that only Mher Mkrtchian dared to go out of the hotel and bring back a
whole lamb with him to cook khashlama."

Members of the crew have to thank their lucky stars: none of them
inhaled the breath of death.

Like many other episodes of "The Making of a Film," this one had
challenges to be conquered. The making of Khatabala was not
documented by contemporaries, although there are some notes in the
memoirs of Yuri Yerzinkian. Most of the archival material found for
this story are about Minas Avetisian. Members of cast and crew members
have long perished, although leading actors Sos Sargsian and Vrej
Hakobian were interviewed for this page of the history of Armenian

"Mi filmi badmutiun" will reveal more details on these and other
behind-the-scenes stories of Khatabala. And what is more, it will make
watching the restored version of this comedy even more enjoyable.

This episode of "The Story of a Film" premieres on Armenia TV on
Monday, May 21, at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time (10:30 a.m. Pacific). It
will be followed by a screening of the restored version of Katabala.
The pair of programs are repeated during the week.

* * *

Watch Armenia TV on Dish Network. To get a dish and subscribe, call
1-888-284-7116 toll free.

****************************************** *********************************

12. Essay: My valley

by Mark Arax

A boy growing up in the Great Central Valley didn’t hold much in the
way of bragging rights. I don’t remember anyone ever calling our
flatland ”the Great” when I was a kid or thinking that we were part
of some vast, shared landscape. No fine books in praise of the valley
existed back then, at least not on our shelves. As for William
Saroyan, he spent a whole damn novel calling my Fresno ”Ithaca.”
Overcome with a kind of booster’s pride, I sometimes felt the need to
prove myself and our place. This impulse was never more keen to me
than when Jean-Simon and his family would come up and over the
mountain from their home in that other valley, the San Fernando.

They were French Armenians who knew my mother’s clan back in
Marseilles, and their summer visits were marked by the father,
Michael, in his pajamas and slippers, cooking rabbit and wine stew in
our kitchen and by the big city weariness of little Jean-Simon.
Growing up in L.A., he had seen and done it all. Disneyland was a big
yawn. Koufax and Drysdale old hat. The Santa Monica beach was so much

Nothing about my valley held any wonder for him. Every toy I brought
out from the closet — skates, skateboards, a slip ‘n’ slide, clackers
— was something he had discovered and discarded two years before. He
seemed to burn through life at triple our small-town speed, and the
divide between us only grew wider, and more ugly, with each year. One
summer, I reached into the toy closet and brought out a pair of boxing
gloves. ”Ever seen these, Jean-Simon?” It was supposed to be a
two-fight event, but my little brother got carried away in the
preliminary bout. Jean-Simon’s cousin was knocked down silly in a
corner of the closet when our parents rushed in. Jean Simon and I
never got to duke it out. The very next summer, our friends from L.A.
began making the three-hour trek up the scorching valley without their

What could I have told him anyway about the place that my
grandfathers had chosen after a life of genocide and exile more than
80 years ago. That we had tamed every river busting out of the Sierra
and created a farm belt out of desert and marsh, agriculture at a
speed and variety never before seen in civilization? It may have been
a miracle, 250 crops in all, breadbasket and salad bowl and fruit bowl
and creamery rolled into one, but we Araxes no longer had anything to
do with it. My father’s father had sold his last vineyard in the 1950s
and went into the grocery business. My father, one of the first
students to major in grape growing at Fresno State, owned a bar.

Yes, almond and peach trees blossomed white and pink in our
backyard, but they were suburban almond and peach trees, badly pruned
and bearing meager fruits. I had no dirt under my fingernails, at
least no honest farm dirt. What rolled out from mountain to mountain,
7 million acres of lush farms from Bakersfield to Redding, began just
20 minutes in either direction from our house. ”The country,” my
mother would chant, as if it were some elixir. ”Let’s take a drive
out in the country.” Out in the country was a life apart from the one
we had in the suburbs, and it might as well have been a sea away, so
few times we touched it.

How to capture the Central Valley’s refusal to be pinned down, its
insistence on being many places at once, each with its own capacity to
inspire awe or contempt?

There was a vastness I could never quite grasp as a child. I felt it
in the wind at night, smelled the grapes turning to wine in Gallo’s
big tanks, but the valley always eluded me in the end. My father kept
a knife in the drawer that looked different than every other knife and
when I asked him what it was for, he simply said, ”Girdling grapes.”
Why he kept it there, what girdling even meant, were questions that
didn’t occur to me for another 20 years.

Maybe all kids are stupid to their place, but the bigness of valley
agriculture only compounded the mystery and added to the distance that
separated us from the farm. It seemed that we were neither urban nor
rural but some fraudulent variant of the two. Fresno, like every other
city along Highway 99, wasn’t so much a farm community as it was a
community amid farms. What we glimpsed on our way to Disneyland or
Candlestick Park wasn’t the prettified vineyards of Napa or the gentle
wheat fields of the Midwest. The valley had its own rusty, gnarled,
corrugated, fermented beauty. Likewise, our farmers didn’t live on the
land and cultivate 40- and 80-acre homesteads like the farmers of
nearby Reedley or Selma. Our farmers called themselves ”growers,”
and they lived in the suburbs and drove 45 minutes each day to their

I remember feeling a spiritual distance between city and farm — so
close and yet so far. Was my valley a beautiful place, an ugly place,
a place where the soil was dead or never more alive, where the spirit
became annealed or reborn, where the economics of industrial
agriculture penciled out for a few or for many?

Sooner or later, any writer attempting to tell the story of the
Central Valley must account for the gravity of its landscape. I’ve
spent half my days second-guessing the brushstrokes I’ve used to show
this place to the outsider who has only my words as eyes, or to the
native whose eyes have failed him. My own eyes still play tricks on

I recall a time in the early 1970s when my father grew disillusioned
with suburbia. He turned his bar into a nightclub and brought in Chuck
Berry and other big acts from the city. Early one morning, I was
awakened by the sound of shovels and hoes working the soil outside my
bedroom window. If my father couldn’t return to the farm, he was
determined to bring a little farm to North Lafayette Street. He and
Grandpa had trucked in dirt from the river and cleared a quarter of
the back yard. The three of us spent the day planting tomatoes,
peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes, and squash.

Maybe because the soil was virgin or maybe because I followed so
intently my Grandpa’s instructions — ”Irrigation is art. Not so
much, not so little” — but you should have seen that garden. From
July to December, I picked baskets of red and green and purple
vegetables and washed and polished each one. Grandpa said he had never
seen such a bounty. Next year would be even better, he promised. Then
the first frost came and the green leaves withered and my father went
to work one Sunday night and was shot and killed by two men. The
police called it a hit but the men were never identified, and the
murder was never solved. I left Fresno for the big city.

A decade ago, I returned with my family and moved into a house not
far from the old house and planted a garden with the hoe my
grandfather had left me. The town has changed, and the fig orchards
where I rode my minibike and gigged frogs are now housing tracts and
strip malls. As another orchard gets plowed under, I plant another
apricot or persimmon tree or take out another strip of grass to add
one more row of vegetables. My garden is now ample and year-round, and
the dirt under my nails is honest farm dirt. The country is right
outside my window.

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