Peter Balakian, a Professor of English at Colgate University, gave a lecture before a sizeable audience entitled “The Transmission of Trauma Across Generations” on Wednesday, March 10.
Balakian is a noted poet, having composed such works as “Dyer’s Thistle.” However, this talk focused upon his best recognized work, a book entitled The Black Dog of Fate; at once a memoir of his childhood, his grappling with his cultural identity as an Armenian, and an account of the genocide which was perpetrated upon his people in Turkey in 1915.
Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in Middle Eastern History Keith Watenpaugh introduced Professor Balakian, speaking of the Turkish government’s continuing effort to suppress publicity and academic discourse regarding the Armenian genocide. Given the consequences the Turkish government may enforce upon academics who publicly speak about the genocide, many have chosen not to do so. “However,” Watenpaugh said, “I have learned that I have more to fear from being silent.”
Balakian began by talking about his childhood in an affluent New Jersey suburb, and the extent to which his family fostered a sense of Armenian cultural identity. “On the outside, the Balakians were very mainstream Americans,” he said. His father was a respected physician, his mother, a housewife, and both had assimilated into the suburban community.
However, within the home, elements of Armenian identity remained an integral part of family life. Decorations in the house bore a distinctively Armenian character, and meals commonly included ethnic dishes. At the time, Balakian, wanting to wholly embrace his American identity, resented the family’s insistence on perpetuating these aspects of Armenian identity. “This had a kind of tension for me. I grew up lusting for a Swanson’s TV dinner.” In retrospect, however, he recognizes the importance of the Balakian’s meal practices. “Cuisine was an instrumental way of creating a historical narrative,” he said.
His family was reluctant, if not altogether unwilling, to speak of the tragic past of the Armenian people. “I had grown up in a family with a secret,” he said. “Nobody in my family could speak about what traumatized them most-the Armenian genocide.” Though they had incorporated cultural elements into their suburban existence, his family failed to create any sense of history or a geographical perspective through which he could comprehend the culture. There were no photographs or maps of “the old country” in the home, and Balakian was never given a historical account of his family’s past. It was only when he reached maturity several years into college that he sought out this history on his own.
The book recounts this search, “a grown man’s journey into the past.” He began to read historical works about the atrocities that had occurred. More importantly, among the family archives, he discovered legal documents his grandmother had executed. Through these documents, he came to learn that before coming to America, she had suffered at the hands of the perpetrators. “She was arrested in 1915 by Turkish police, her family executed, her land confiscated, her property burned,” Balakian recounted.
Though her husband died as a result of sickness on a death march, she and her two children survived, ultimately reaching American shores. She then filed a lawsuit through the State Department against the Turkish government for their crimes against humanity. Though no reparations were received, Balakian characterized her efforts as a testament to her strength and resolve. In including his discovery of the documents in the memoir, Balakian stated, “I wanted the genocide to be inseparable from the account of my childhood.” Due to his discoveries, the historical events of 1915 became an integral part of his cultural and personal identity.
He then spoke of the Turkish government’s recent efforts to conceal facts about the Armenian genocide. “They have attempted to coerce, cajole, and blackmail to blot out the history of the Armenian people,” he said. “They have chaired professorships in Turkish studies at major American universities, ensuring that their denial of history will be communicated in academic discourse.”
As an example, Balakian spoke of a professor at Princeton University who “became recipient of a chair despite no scholarly record.” Balakian believes that the professor received the chair because he had previously worked on “projects [which] smear and defame evidence of the Armenian genocide.” Their campaign has ensured that the genocide can not “be written by any Turkologist who wishes to have a career.”
Balakian is greatly concerned by the Turkish government’s efforts. “This is a society that is defined by a rabid, xenophobic, institutional racism,” he said. In his writing, Balakian hopes to counteract their efforts by offering historical truth. “Through this, I hope people will talk more, and become part of the witnessing process.”