Processions of refugees wander the desert of Syria – defeated and lost, desperate for some safe passage under a beating sun as pitiless as the world around them.
It is a familiar scene, one we have come to witness on a daily basis. But this particular scene is not from the Syrian civil war, 2015.
It is 1915, a year that brought the Armenian Genocide. Historians estimate that 1.5 million were systematically killed by Ottoman Turks. It began one evening with the rounding up and killing of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople and included the forced death march of hundreds of thousands into the Syrian desert.
The Armenian Genocide led to the creation of a vast diaspora, with vibrant immigrant communities taking root in America. It is also the invisible character that shapes and haunts “The Ash Tree.”
Beachwood resident Daniel Melnick’s latest novel spans decades and generations to chronicle an Armenian-American family. While the book opens in 1972, in California, it quickly reaches back to 1915, to the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
Or, more precisely, the memory of 1915 – since memories of traumatic events are as vital to the events themselves in “The Ash Tree.”
“Memory is a very crucial thing to me, and the status of memory is central where there is this huge trauma,” says Melnick, who will do a reading at Mac’s Backs in Cleveland Heights at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22. “It impinges on each of the characters and directly on the consciousness of Armen.”
That would be Armen Ararat, the central figure in “The Ash Tree.” His life spans the entirety of the novel, beginning as a youth when he witnesses the corpses of 20 Armenian men hanging from the gallows under the supervision of Turkish gendarmes and soldiers.
We are quickly pulled forward 10 years to Berkley, California – where Armen is a student living with an Armenian landlady, Madame Hagopian, whose husband was one of the 20 men who perished that night.
“There’s hardship, even starvation, I know, but there is hope,” she says, exuding a world-weary yet stubborn belief that the endangered must somehow stick together to survive.
It’s an ongoing theme – one that comes with great tension in “The Ash Tree.”
You see, this is a story not about the Armenian-American per se. Rather, it is an exploration of the hyphen in between “Armenian” and “American” – the struggle, the road, that existential purgatory that lies between the Old World and the “American Dream.”
“So much of our culture is focused on identity politics, but what is often overlooked is the struggle to find identity,” says Melnick, a Jewish-American and a retired Cleveland State University literature professor who continues to teach at Case Western Reserve University.
“It is a genuine ongoing tension in not just the Armenian-American but also in other communities,” he adds, “where you have people that want to retain a connection and some that want to wash their hands of it.”
Melnick, 71, based “The Ash Tree” on his family and the community he encountered through his wife, Jeannette Melnick (nee Arax). Her painting, depicting a family on a fraying tapestry, is on the cover of the book.
“The Armenians have the fragile status of a dispersed people, and you suddenly had hundreds of people settling in places – some you wouldn’t imagine, like Fresno,” he says, referring to the his wife’s hometown. “And yet Fresno had a lot of same qualities of the lands they left behind.”
The central California city became a magnet for Armenian farmers in part because of its Mediterranean-like soil and weather.
“You could plant anything in Fresno and it could grow, just like back home,” says Melnick. “And the other thing is about Fresno is that it was this farmland, this city in the desert on the edge of the civilized world. It was the Wild West, with different people settling there from Mexico to farm and harvest – a collision of cultures, with a wildness and anarchy that wasn’t that different from home.”
So close, yet so far away – 7,000 miles, that is.
As Armen, who pens poetry before assuming the life of a farmer and businessman in Fresno, writes: “In exile, I cannot forget.”
America might be his place of exile, but it is home to his eventual wife, Artemis. And as a girl, the Connecticut-born Armenian-American dreamed of marrying an American-born man. She wanted to be free from the specter of 1915.
Negotiating the push and pull of the Old and New worlds is common in immigrant families, even generations later. But it is particularly acute in the Armenian-American community, says Melnick.
Not just because of the genocide, but also because of the ongoing struggle to have it recognized.
While France, Russia, Canada and Brazil and 40 other countries around the world have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, United States still has not, due to pressure and threats from Turkey, which denies that the genocide took place.
“Armenians feel that it’s a terrible mistake and injustice that the American government allows Turkish denials to continue,” says Melnick.
The grievance has been a uniting cultural force within the Armenian community, though it has also led to political divisions — which are explored in “The Ash Tree.”
“Armen is a lefty – and there were many in the Armenian community that saw the Soviet Union as a protector of Armenia,” say Melnick, referring to Armenia’s absorption into the U.S.S.R., in 1922. “On the right, there were those opposed to Stalin, so you have a very complicated feelings and complex situations.”
Divisions surrounding big events resonate throughout “The Ash Tree,” even as it culminates in the turbulent 1970s, when militant and clandestine groups dominated American and European politics.
That’s not to say that “The Ash Tree” is a historical or a political novel.
“While there are historical markers and political threads throughout the story, I’m more interested in how people cope with big events,” says Melnick.
George Santayana is famous for saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet it is a half-truth – for we are often overtaken by the past even if we remember it all too well.
“When I started thinking about this story, I wanted this to be a monument to the Armenians,” says Melnick. “But the idea of the hyphenated person resonates with so many different people that connect it with their lives and experiences and how they have dealt with memory and history.”
Melnick released the book for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide to underscore both the memory and the history.
“The irony is that it correlates with the massive exodus of Syrians,” he says. “One hundred years later… it is haunting.”