A century after the Armenian Genocide began, Armenian author Meline Toumani stood before a crowded room at the Evanston Public Library Monday night and called for the Armenian community to broaden the discussion away from a single-minded focus on gaining Turkish recognition.
“I wondered if there was a way to honor history without being suffocated by it to belong to a community without conforming to it,” Toumani said. “A way to remember a genocide without remembering the kind of hatred that gave rise to such atrocities in their first place.”
Toumani, author of There Was and There Was Not, an account of her attempts to grapple with conflicting narratives around the genocide, joined professors from Northwestern’s Middle East and North Africa studies program (MENA) for a panel discussion. She spoke of endemic hatred she found growing up in the Armenian diaspora in New Jersey, and how that influenced the project that became her book.
The murder of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks has been recognized by some countries, but not all. Turkey still denies its existence, and the Armenian government continues to fight for global recognition. Last year a student painted the Rock with the Assyrian flag, calling for US recognition of the Armenian genocide and intervention against ISIS’s ongoing ethnic cleansing against Assyrians.
“This is where we find ourselves now,” she said, “locked in a clash of narratives that confuses outsiders, frustrates officials, stifles economies and warps identities.”
Do you have a first memory of when you first learned to dislike or mistrust Turks?
I have lots and lots of incidents and anecdotes that involve this sort of tension between Armenians and Turks in the diaspora, but that sense that Armenians have this deep-seated anger and even hatred towards Turks, and that it was reciprocal, that’s been with me as long as I can remember.
The book is not about the fact that Armenians hate Turks, the book is about the fact that Turkey has left the Armenians deranged because Turkey hasn’t acknowledged this history. The marketing of my book has rested way too heavily on this idea that I was raised surrounded by hatred for Turks. Yeah, that was true, but there’s a reason for that hatred. I can tell some flashy stories about crazy things people would do, like I tell a story in the book about my mom not wanting to buy a bathrobe because they were all made in Turkey, and finally she furtively buys one and cuts out the tag. But that's not the point.
What was your college experience like?
Berkeley has its liberal history, but the student body is incredibly diverse. I loved my high school but it was a very American place—I felt much more conscious of my ethnicity or differences. In Berkeley absolutely anything goes—everyone fits in. I was involved with the campus a cappella group at Berkeley and that took up an enormous amount of my time and energy but I just loved it. I really learned how to write, and moreover how to make a critical argument. I think I learned that not so much in my English classes but in my public policy classes, and that’s actually what led directly toward my journalism career was studying public policy and Berkeley. I totally trace the way I write now back to my class with Professor David Kirp.
What brought you to Evanston and Northwestern?
[Northwestern] Professor Elizabeth Hurd wrote an essay in Al Jazeera America about the importance of bringing in new voices and perspectives about the Armenian genocide debate.
She spent a lot of time saying that my book was an example of a really fresh perspective, and it was important for scholars to show solidarity with the way that I had put myself out there. I was incredibly grateful to her for saying that.
You publish a book and all of a sudden you’re out there. The internet is this war zone where people just think nobody is affected by the things they’re saying. I’m not sure I wouldn't have gone down this road if it were the way it is now, where expressing yourself sort of means being attacked.
Why do you come here to speak about these issues, and why do you think people should read the book and pay attention to the Armenian struggle?
I don’t actually on some level think of my book as being mainly about the Armenian genocide or about Armenia and Turkey. I think of it as a book about coming to a community and wrestling with the burdens, the expectations, and the sense of belonging that being a part of a community brings versus individuating from that community and having a sense of identity that is more self-contained. That tension between individual identity and community identity is really what the book’s about.
Since the book has come out, that I’ve been constantly hearing from readers from different backgrounds: a Pakistani-American doctor, an Indian-American lawyer in California, lots of people who grew up in the Jewish community, and even people who grew up in a particular segment of a Christian or Catholic community.
In terms of some grand statement about foreign affairs and why we should all care because the world is all globalized and connected, ehh. You can’t force people to be interested in things.
From the beginning I fought and fought with my publisher because I didn’t want a subtitle. Every nonfiction book these days has a subtitle [for the book]. In my mind I can picture the rhythm of a subtitle: The blank of blank and why you should blank. So every subtitle has a kind of formulaic thing and to me it’s kind of that all these books and subtitles are fighting in this crowded marketplace for attention, and the inevitably have to reduce this more complex thing into an aggressive statement of why you should care and why this thing is important. I really feel that that message I was trying to get out was a universal story.
Last but not least--Kim Kardashian. What do you think about her?
I’ve spent so much time thinking about her it’s both funny and ridiculous. Being Armenian, anyone else who is Armenian you feel connected to them, involved with them somehow. I have no problem admitting that I have a sort of certain irrational fondness for her even though everything she does goes against absolutely everything I believe in. I hate celebrity culture. I hate social media. But what can I say, there’s like this weird Armenian thing where I get a kick out of her and I feel strangely proud that she’s beautiful and all of these ridiculous things. You have to make it clear by the way that as I’m saying this I’m laughing, I think this whole thing is funny.