Fiction as a Path to Truth

I’m the proverbial cuckoo’s egg on this panel, as I am here to talk not about a memoir but a novel, and the novel was not about my parents’ wars, but about my grandmother’s surviving the mass deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which came to be called The Armenian Genocide.

My first novel ZABELLE is a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life as a Genocide survivor and immigrant bride. When the book was published and I did an eight-city reading tour, I was often asked if Zabelle was my grandmother, to which I replied that Zabelle was a fictional character, a composite based on my grandmother, several of her friends and my own imagination. The seeds of the book were episodes from my grandmother’s life and from the lives of several of her friends, but the fiction that grew out of it had a life of its own.

It would never have occurred to me to write anything other than a novel. I had been writing poetry since I was able to put words to paper, and in the graduate writing program at Columbia I had written a series of poems in the voices of my grandmother and other women whose lives and stories were undocumented. So after my grandmother died, I took these stories, adding to them hundreds of hours of research, and two trips to record the recollections of one of my grandmother’s best friends who had been with her during the Deportations (and who became the model for the Arsinee character) and began to shape it all into the novel that eventually became ZABELLE.

If there were any one driving force behind the writing that I produce (whether poetry, novels, essays or leaflets for street demonstrations), it would have to be the desire to put forth into the world an alternative to prevailing narratives that erase or elide the perspective from the margins of history. This marginal narrative might be my version of childhood events as opposed to a teacher’s, or the history of the Armenian Genocide up against Turkish denialist historiography, or an anti-war perspective in the face of a war-mongering government. My goal in putting words to paper is to speak the truth about what happened or is happening. Perhaps there is some irony in the fact that often I choose fiction as the vehicle to convey this kind of truth.

But there are many ways to get at truth. One is via facts—and I did all the research to make sure that I had the correct information to create this fictional world. But even for history or memoir, which make the claim to being non-fiction, the facts take you only so far, and the writing—what to include, what to leave out, how to frame it—requires imagination. Fiction can be as good a path to truth as fact.

I am interested in what Joe Sacco calls the “innumerable historical tragedies over the ages that barely rate footnote status in the broad sweep of history.” The Armenian Genocide, outside the community that had suffered it, had for many decades been one of the footnotes of history, and a contested one at that. But I’m also interested in what Grace Paley called “writing the dark lives of women.” The lives aren’t necessarily dark, but the details of the experience of ordinary women’s lives were for a long time kept at the margins of literature.

When I was on the first stop of my ZABELLE book tour in Boston, during the discussion afterwards I said, “I didn’t want to write about the first woman aviator. I wanted to write about an ordinary Armenian woman.”

One of my grandmother’s friends, Peter Bilizekian, who was eighty-four at the time and sitting in the front row, interrupted and said, “Your grandmother was no ordinary woman!” And of course, to me, she was extraordinary, and in turning her stories into the basis of a fictional character, I had hoped to memorialize the ordinary extraordinary woman that she was. I had also hoped to give voice to the tens of thousands of survivors of the Armenian Genocide through this one exemplary tale.

From “How to Write Our Parents’ Wars” panel at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 1/24/10, NYC

January 24, 2010