The San Juan Capistrano author drew on her family’s expulsion from Turkey in writing “Orhan’s Inheritance,” published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. A critic described it as a “remarkable debut from an important new voice.” We spoke with Ohanesian shortly after the book was released in April.
Ohanesian: Today has been quite a day. Amazon just announced the book would be one of the best books of the month, along with (works by) Toni Morrison and T.C. Boyle. I almost fell out of my chair when my husband said, ‘Have you seen this?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This cannot be happening.’ That just happened a few hours ago.
Orange Coast: In the letter that’s attached to the publicity material, the publicist makes mention of three other books that were the literary books of the year, “The Tiger’s Wife,” “The Orphan Master’s Son” and “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” What are your thoughts on that comparison?
Ohanesian: I have a list of books that I love, maybe 10, and “The Orphan Master’s Son” is on that list, and “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides is on that list, and “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones. I look at that list, and I think what we have in common is that these are literary books that also explore a different landscape that the American reader is curious about, whether it’s Korea or the Balkans. In my case, it’s the Ottoman Empire, which is the like the parent nation-state of Turkey, which is an important ally right now.
Orange Coast: For me, “Orhan’s Inheritance” is to Turkey what “The Kite Runner” was to Afghanistan. “The Kite Runner” really helped me understand Afghanistan outside of the tiny news blips from CNN.
Ohanesian: I know a lot about that region. I have a master’s in history, and I almost got a Ph.D., but I left the program (at U.C. Irvine) to write this book. I felt like writing a novel, I would reach more people than writing a dissertation. Well, I never expected all this. I just expected maybe a hundred more readers.
Orange Coast: It seems like these novels are well-suited to our times because if you are going to invest a substantial chunk of time in fiction, you want a novel that is beautifully written, tells a good story, and also informs you about a topic of global importance.
Ohanesian: I think you’re right. Also, people are global citizens now in ways that they weren’t say 25 years ago. I’m a history buff. I don’t think the novel is going anywhere. I’m online constantly. I tweet, I Facebook, I read books, I get my New York Times on my iPad. I have two children and they’re constantly connected, but there is nothing like the novel. My 13-year-old is a voracious reader. Now the 9-year-old has finally discovered “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and I cannot pry it out of his hands. I can tell him, let’s go see a movie, and he’s like, “No, I just want to see what’s happening with the White Witch and Aslan.”
Orange Coast: Do you have a sense that your life is going to change because of the novel?
Ohanesian: No. I’m very grateful for all the things that are happening with the novel, but I have to say that to be perfectly frank, even with all the wonderful blessings, the best part of it was sitting by myself in my room writing it. And I cannot wait to get to that part of the journey once again. That’s been the highlight. Nothing beats the actual doing of it. I don’t know about my life changing. I have two children and a ginormous family. They all have wonderful senses of humor and they all know how to make me laugh at myself. I had to wipe my son’s bum about two minutes after I found out about the Kirkus starred review. I think that keeps you grounded.
I feel like my publisher is behind me and I’m extremely well-supported and I need to do everything I can to support them back.
Orange Coast: Did you feel when you sold the book to a publisher that there was great enthusiasm for it?
Ohanesian: That’s a great question. This book was sold at auction. I spoke to three editors, two of whom ended up bidding against each other for it. The other two editors were from major houses. I won’t name which ones. The editor at Algonquin wrote me the most touching two-page letter about why I should pick her. I just knew it really wasn’t about the money offered at all, it was about who would be the right shepherd for the book. Whose hands would this book be safest in.
Orange Coast: One thing from that letter that struck you?
Ohanesian: I haven’t read it in three years. I think it was her enthusiasm for the book, and also it was I asked every editor what would make this book better and the editor at Algonquin had some very good answers. The other two were like, this book is perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing. Of course I went with the editor who was going to make the book better.
Orange Coast: You’re a glutton.
Ohanesian: Do you get massages? OK, so you know the experience when you go to a masseuse and with her hands she can sense where all your knots are. That’s what it was like talking to that editor. I thought, you are the one for me.
Orange Coast: When did you know that you had something special in the book?
Ohanesian: It was always special to me. All my grandparents were survivors of the genocide. I first heard about this from my great-grandmother Elizabeth. I was 8 years old. I took her words and her story and did absolutely everything I could with those words. For me, it was always special. My intentions were so pure.
I just wanted to tell the story as honestly as I could and be as fair as I could to all characters despite which side of the situation they were on. The Turkish characters are very likable, they’re decent human beings trying to do the best they can in a very difficult situation. I didn’t want to demonize anybody. So I was in my own universe. I never really thought about what the rest of the world thought about the book. Even with the auction, even now, the only way this news is important, all the wonderful things that are happening, it only matters because this story matters.
Orange Coast: What was the sequence of writing the novel?
Ohanesian: I think people who are of Armenian descent know about this just the way Jewish people know about the Holocaust. I started seven years ago. I had young children. I was very sleepless and I heard a voice speaking three sentences, and I decided I was going to write that down. It was a female, much, much older voice, and I started building a character around that voice and then a world around that voice.
When I realized who she was, I realized I was borrowing from my great-grandmother’s survival stories. The quote was very interesting. What that voice said was about the futility of words, how sometimes they are just not enough. When I got the Kirkus starred review, the only sentence that they quoted was that sentence that was given to me seven years ago.
Orange Coast: What’s so strange about it is that words obviously do matter to you.
Ohanesian: I knew the voice wasn’t mine. It said something like, “There is only what is, what happened. The words come much later corrupting everything . . .” I thought, we don’t have anything outside language, words empower… So I was having this dialogue with this imaginary person who was old and feisty and crotchety. I started researching, I did some archival research, and I traveled to Turkey and stayed in the village where the book takes place. It was a very long journey to where I am now.
Orange Coast: Had you been a fiction writer? You’d published short stories before?
Ohanesian: Not really. The short story is not my favorite form. I mean I love reading short stories, but when I’m writing creatively, it’s usually long form. I’ve been a finalist for some cool short story awards, like the Glimmer Train best new writer. But I like to write long things. I like to read long things too.
Orange Coast: Making a commitment to write a novel is probably one of the most serious decisions a writer can make. How did that go? Was it ever in doubt?
Ohanesian: I heard the voice, I started writing, and it was like falling down a rabbit hole. I couldn’t leave the story alone, I couldn’t leave the characters alone. It was an obsession. It felt like I was having an affair. When people say, “Oh, that must have taken so much discipline,” or “That must have been really hard,” I understand that it took discipline and it was not easy, but I wouldn’t chose to do anything else. The best part of this journey has been writing the novel and I can’t wait to do it again. My husband never doubted me. There were a few times where I felt discouraged. He never said, “Get a real job.” We never thought about me doing anything else.
I’m an immigrant and I think with immigrant families, (there’s an expectation) you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Announcing I’m going to be a writer to my Armenian family is a little like announcing I’m going to be a Hare Krishna. They don’t get it. They don’t know who Toni Morrison is. My aunt, I’ll tell her that my book was chosen as a best book of the month by Amazon, and she’ll say, “Well, are you going to be in Costco?”
Orange Coast: Well, you probably will be in Costco.
Ohanesian: Then, in their eyes I will have made it. Who cares about The New York Times? I get a lot of, “You could have been a lawyer. Your cousins all went to law school.” Now, less so, because they’re starting to realize maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea.
Orange Coast: You grew up in Northridge? Where did you go to college and how did you decide to live in San Juan Capistrano?
Ohanesian: I grew up in Northridge and I went to UCLA. I met my husband in Northridge. We fell in love really, really young. His family was in Laguna Niguel and he wanted to be near his family. We came out to Orange County and I love San Juan. I think it’s got so much history. In fact my next book takes place in Southern California and a big chunk of it takes place in Orange County.
I love living here. I think the history is rife with juicy stories that need to be told. I’m having a ball right now. I’m researching the Franciscan priests and the Native Americans and the Mexican rancheros. It’s so fascinating. This is my adopted homeland. The first book was about my ancestral home, my roots. This is where I’ve chosen to call home, where I chose to raise my family. I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life.
Orange Coast: The battle scenes are so different from the village scenes. What was it like writing those?
Ohanesian: I didn’t think of it as writing a battle scene. I always thought of it from the perspective of intimately knowing these characters. I know Kemal really, really well, and love him and know his strengths and cherish his loveliness. He really is a kind, good human being. When you’re a writer, you sometimes have to think of ways to maximize the conflict in your story and imagining a gentle soul like Kemal having to kill another human being was too awful to have to write about so that’s when I knew I had to write about it.
Orange Coast: You first heard about the Armenian genocide from your grandmother? Can you tell me what she told you?
Ohanesian: I was 8 years old and I remember it vividly because it made such a huge impact on me. I knew that our people had suffered some sort of trauma. It was vaguely referenced. I had heard, you know, how adults speak and you sometimes hear things when you’re a child. No one in my family had told me their personal story. She told me basically how she had escaped, and there were details that as a child resonated with me. She told me that her mother had sewed gold coins into her clothes. She was 4-1/2 maybe 5. Her mother sewed all the gold coins she could into this 4-year-old’s dress. She had regressed. She was fully potty trained, but with all the trauma that was going on, she had to wear these cloth diapers. She remembered the fear as she was walking in the caravan and those coins were rubbing up against each other. When you hear a story like that at age 8, it does change you for life. It’s not a coincidence that this is what I had to write about as my first novel.
Orange Coast: You had traveled to Turkey to do some research. At what point was that, and what were you looking for?
Ohanesian: I had already completed the novel. Well, it was a draft. I didn’t feel like it was really done until I could sink my toes into that soil and breathe the air and meet the descendants of the perpetrators as well as the victims. And also meet some Orhans and Kemals of the world, maybe someone like Orhan who is not terribly interested in history–just apathetic is the best way I can describe it. He doesn’t have any ill intentions, he just wants to get on with his life. Maybe make some money, find a wife, have a good life. What does it matter what happened 100 years ago?
I had quite a profound experience when I went. I was accompanied by my husband who also happens to be Armenian-American and a Turkish poet and a Turkish historian, who have to remain nameless because they are afraid of losing their jobs in Turkey. I found two Kemals and I found many more in Turkey who knew what happened and were willing to take days off from their jobs. They were a couple who weren’t married yet and in the part of Turkey we were in, they had to take two separate rooms in the hotel. It’s so Muslim there, it’s not done; if you’re not married, you can’t stay in the same room. And then there was a lot of times when I didn’t know if I could trust them. I didn’t know what kind of Turks they were. I didn’t know if they would confront me and be denialists. Or if they truly did want to help me, or if they were apathetic. I met them on the Internet, which is not the best way to meet anybody. I had a lot of fear. None of that fear materialized. I was in the best of hands. I met some really wonderful people.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are still in denial in Turkey. But I’m hopeful. Turkey is still one of the greatest jailers of journalists in the world, even more than nondemocratic countries. They have a freedom of speech problem and a historical accuracy problem that goes far beyond the Armenian genocide. They are persecuting homosexuals. They have issues like any country has issues.
I had such a profound experience. I found the village that my favorite poet is from. It was 100 percent Armenian in 1915, 100 percent Roman Catholic. The pope at the time had recognized that village as a Catholic outpost in a Muslim country and I found that village and there was not a single shred of evidence (that Armenians had lived there). The church had been demolished and they were using it as a barn for cows. The poet that I love talks about the school in that village and how everyone spoke three languages: Turkish, Armenian, and either French or English. They were a very advanced society 100 years ago, and we went and they were still burning cow dung for fuel and they were getting the water from the well. The cows were living inside the dwellings.
Then, I couldn’t find any of the buildings that I knew this community had. The name had been changed and Turkified. At the cemetery, there wasn’t a single headstone. Two of the Turkish people with me, whom I didn’t know very well, whose ancestors may have slaughtered mine–talk about awkward and tense–but those two beautiful brave souls, they were doing all the translation for me, and they told me, “You are an anthropologist. You will not speak Armenian in this village. You will let us do all the talking because this is dangerous.” They protected me, and they lied through their teeth the entire time we were (there).
On the way out, we were very, very disillusioned. It had been raining and it was very, very tense in the car. I saw the cornerstone of a building and it was white marble, glossy. There was nothing pretty in this village. It was very bleak. There’s this piece of marble and I asked my husband to stop the car, and I ran to this tiny little stone of this terrible prison-looking building. I can read Armenian, and in fact I had found the one remaining Armenian headstone that had been turned diagonally and had been re-purposed as a cornerstone for this building. I started weeping. The translators, the Turks, were asking, “What is it, what is it?” And I said, “It’s a headstone that’s been re-purposed.” I said, “What is this building?” They couldn’t answer me at first. Then they said, “This building is a madrasa where they teach only the boys of the village the Quran.” And the tiny cross on the headstone had been scratched out.
I’m giving you just one day. It was seven days of this. We were all emotionally exhausted. Those two Turkish people are now part of the family. They came and stayed with me. They met my entire clan. I would do anything for them. They’re part of my inner circle. What we went through the four of us together, changed our lives.
This book would not be the same without that trip. It would be a completely different book. I understood my characters. I understood Orhan’s father a little better. Any kind of fundamentalism, all kinds of extreme ideologies, I’m uncomfortable with. I met people like that as well.
I try to remind myself that it’s not my job as a novelist to education people about their democracy, but I do happen to know a lot about it. I’ve entertained thoughts about writing about it as an op-ed but I’m trying to stay in the realm of literary circles as much as possible.