FRESNO: Month-Long Saroyan Project Celebrates Fresno Culture

By Betsy Lumbye

Fresno Bee
May 4 2008

I was young, 11 or 12, reading my way through another hot Virginia
summer. He was already in his late 50s, dividing his time between
Fresno and Paris.

Actually, William Saroyan never knew I existed. And l didn’t know
about him until I read "The Human Comedy," which my brother, Paul,
and I discovered among the stacks of books my librarian mother would
bring home.

Paul and I felt like we’d discovered fire. I can’t even remember
all the reasons, but we thought Saroyan was just about the greatest
author ever. Somehow he just knew how the world looked to kids, in
all its sadness, adventure and sweetness. Authority figures could be
bewildering in their stupidity. Adult relatives could be funny and
even crazy, but within a safe, extended family framework.

We’d never heard of Armenians before, but as we learned a little
about Saroyan, we thought they must be just like Southerners, only
a lot more interesting, and apparently louder.

Click here to experience an online tour of the famed Fresno native’s
life, including: "Follow," a previously unpublished novella Audio
clips from the author A Saroyan timeline An interactive map of Fresno
in Saroyan’s day Numerous historical photos

If I’d known then what I’ve learned from the stories we’ll publish
in The Bee and on for the rest of the month, I would
have been even more enchanted. And if I’d read "Follow," the novella
we begin publishing in installments today about a strong-willed
teenager who strikes out to find his place in the world, I’d have
been completely hooked.

It’s my fervent wish that other kids now will make the same discoveries
I have. Saroyan is cool, and so is Fresno. Because in many ways,
I’ve come to see as a transplant the past 11 years, the more you
learn about one, the more you know about the other.

Saroyan was a poor immigrant kid who turned out to have a lot more
going on than people suspected. He wasn’t much of a student, and truth
be told, was a square peg who gave up on mainstream education fairly
young. But he devoured books and looked and listened. He was funny,
earthy, independent and resourceful.

Unlike Fresno, which suffers from a chronic inferiority complex,
Saroyan had an ego as big as the Sierra. Like Fresno, but in a
different way, he was decidedly hot! Just check out the picture on
the front page of today’s paper. He wasn’t always the mustachioed
eccentric most often depicted these days.

I hope that our month-long Saroyan project sparks a revival of interest
in the author. I’d guess that even in Fresno, to a lot of kids Saroyan
is just a name on a theater or an elementary school. If they’d read
his work or even about him, they’d not only have a great time, but
they’d develop a new respect for the place where they live.

For the Saroyan project, reporters Donald Munro, Guy Keeler and
Don Mayhew are writing about Saroyan’s life, celebrity and literary
legacy. Reporter Doug Hoagland will write about the discrimination
experienced by Armenian immigrants, which Saroyan refers to in

On, we’ve assembled dozens of photographs of Saroyan
and old Fresno, with help from the Pop Laval Foundation, the Fresno
Armenian Society and historian Bill Secrest Jr. of the Fresno County
Library. Assistant Photo Editor Renee Fernandes has created slideshows
from Saroyan’s life, with background music from the period.

If you miss any part of the novella in print, you can find it all on There’s a bonus on the online version: Managing Editor
Jack Robinson has annotated the manuscript with hyperlinks to click
on for explanations of names or places that might not be familiar.

Bee staff artist SW Parra and Web designer Jason Melgoza have created
an interactive map comparing the Fresno of Saroyan’s youth with
the city of today. We also have produced an interactive timeline of
Saroyan’s life.

Then there are the audio clips taken from an interview with Saroyan,
first broadcast in 1976, on KFCF, FM 88.1.

One of the most interesting quotes is about his hometown:

"Fresno is a good place. It’s the world, and how good can the world
be in any case, wherever you go? How much different from Fresno is
Paris? If you’re there, you’re there, and you can see and feel a
culture, and you can see and feel a culture in Fresno, too."

It makes sense. In the end, culture is about people and their stories,
ideas and feelings — all the things Fresno is lush with. Read
Saroyan’s novella, browse through the pictures online, listen to
him talk about Fresno, and think about how much more this soil has
nurtured over the years than grapes and peaches.

It’s a mystique that definitely captured the imaginations of a couple
of kids in Virginia 40 years ago.

Betsy Lumbye is executive editor and senior vice president of The
Fresno Bee. She can be reached at [email protected] or (559)