by Stephen Cox | Posted May 14, 2011
Liberty is always delighted to acclaim the artistic success of libertarians. Our delight is increased when they are Liberty’s own authors.
Today it is my pleasure to introduce a book by one of my own favorites, Garin Hovannisian. The book is Family of Shadows, it’s published by HarperCollins, and it’s causing a stir on several continents.
Family of Shadows is the story of Garin’s family — who were by no means vague or ghostly people. They were vivid presences, taking their part in some of the most interesting events of the 20th century, from the massacres in Armenia during the time of “the breaking of nations” to the destruction of the Soviet Union. The book is a story of survival, and of the individual freedom that makes survival worth the effort.
It’s also a story told with great style and insight. All historians deal with “shadows,” but a good historian makes them more substantial than the ostensibly real people who surround us daily. And a good historian, like a good novelist, makes us wiser as we read. While reading Family of Shadows, I kept thinking, “This is a very good novel.” But it’s not fiction, nor is it fictionalized. It’s an exhaustively researched history, free of the shallow assumptions, inane theorizing, and formulaic prose of normal historical writing.
Read it for yourself. You’ll find that you won’t be able to put it down. In the meantime, I thought you’d be interested in knowing more about the author. So I asked Alec Mouhibian, himself a writer for Liberty, to interview his friend Garin.
Here’s a look into the writer’s workshop.
— Stephen Cox
AM: Stories ask to be told. But some stories prefer to be left alone. Why, and how, did this story call to you?
GH: It's strange; I can remember exactly when and where it happened. It was in the fall of 2007. I was all alone in a computer lab on the eighth floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. I was a student there, writing my master's thesis about a group of magicians who had been meeting in secret for generations. . . . I'm not sure that's important. But what happened to me that afternoon is, I think, what writers waste their lives waiting for, one of those cosmic events — when stars seem to align into a constellation. . . .
What I mean to say is that I discovered, suddenly and for the first time, that all the details and metaphors and meanings of my family history somehow belonged to a great narrative.
My great-grandfather Kaspar had survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and escaped to the vineyards of California's San Joaquin Valley. My grandfather Richard had left his father's farm to pioneer the field of Armenian Studies in the United States. My father Raffi had left his law firm, the American Dream itself, to repatriate to Soviet Armenia, where he went on to serve as the new republic's first foreign minister.
So I realized that the family story was about three men who left — individuals who cheated their destinies — but it was also about men who, unbeknownst to them, had been serving a pattern greater than themselves. A homeland lost, remembered, regained — it was a perfect circle!
Then I knew I would have to write Family of Shadows.
AM: You mentioned how this story hit you as you were wandering the world of magic. You're quite the magician yourself. What connection is there between your history with magic and the discovery that led to this book?
GH: My father gave me my first magic set when I was five, and I knew immediately that I would become a magician. I loved to make the impossible happen, to play at the border of reality and fantasy. Of course I also loved to watch the reactions of people — the astonishment spread upon the faces of strangers. Anyway, I long ago gave up the wand for the pen, but not, I think, the passions that run through both of them: mystery and vanity.
AM: Explain where you had to go to write this book, what you had to explore, and how this vastarray of settings get along with each other in the story and in your mind.
GH: I didn't know, when I decided to write the book, just how far I would have to travel. I couldn't imagine that I would have to spend countless hours at the National Archives in Washington or the Armenian academy called the Jemaran in Beirut or the National Library in Yerevan or the Tulare Historical Museum in the San Joaquin Valley of California. But I think it was that other kind of travel — not through space, but into lost time — that was the most exhilarating. I realized that if I were to tell my story straight, I would have to conduct some difficult interviews — to go deep into the minds and memories of my living characters, where so many details of my story had been trapped for decades.
AM: Your book is evenly divided between the histories ofthree men. Before we go further, explain your process for choosing what to include and what to leave out of their story, and the stories of the many characters surrounding them.
GH: The book, as I first wrote it, was about 450 pages long. The one you'll find in bookstores today is 300. You know very well that you were in part responsible for this. I remember the first time you read the manuscript. I was sitting across from you, minding my coffee, pretending not to notice your reactions. You were quiet, mostly, but every so often, you would emerge from silence to sing the blues, and I knew this wasn't a good sign.
AM: I never thought my rendition of "My Baby Ain't No Baby No More" could be so pregnant.
GH: Oh, it was — and actually it made me realize just how big my own book had become. The truth was that those 150 pages were important — they told so much history and gossip — but they weren't important for this book. So I began to cut. It was slow and deliberate and painful at first. But then you remember what happened to me? Suddenly, I was slashing away at my pages — reversing months of labor. I bet I lost a lot of good lines, too, but it was necessary and, ultimately, deeply liberating.
AM: Homeland. Patterns greater than self. These fall under the greater concept of "Armenia," toward which all the dream-roads in your book lead. Define Armenia — in your own terms — for those (including Armenians) who have no idea what it might mean.
GH: To begin with, Armenia is an actual land — stretching between the Black and Caspian seas — where the Armenian people have lived for thousands of years. We used to have our own empire, but for most of history we were content merely to survive the rise and fall of neighboring empires — the Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Arab. Armenia was where kings came to do battle. And so the blood, the ethos, the mythology of countless civilizations is in our soil.
Armenian history forever changed in 1915. Western Armenia was cleansed of all Armenians by the nationalist Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire; those who survived the genocide scattered to new diasporas across the world. Eastern Armenia, meanwhile, was absorbed into the Soviet Union as the smallest of the 15 socialist republics. That tiny sliver of land is the Armenia you'll find on modern maps.
But for much of the 20th century, Armenia existed mostly as a dream. My father and my grandfather before him spent their childhoods yearning for a "free, independent, united Armenia." Forgive me, I do have to be poetic, because the truth is that for us, the millions of Armenians living in exile and dispersion, Armenia had become something like a poem: a spiritual landscape blossoming with metaphor and mystery and apricot. It is there that Family of Shadows is set.
AM: Mmm, metaphor. That strangest and most bitter Armenian crop.
Let's talk about Liberty, and its own role in the soil. I've known you for years, but I never really wanted to know you until your byline appeared in this magazine at the tender age of 17. How does individual liberty figure in the Armenian-American dream? How does it contend with the shadows that haunt every corner of the real and imagined Armenia?
GH: You're testing me. "Let's talk about Liberty" — wasn't that the slogan of the Cato Institute conference we attended in San Diego ages ago? That's where we first met Stephen Cox — followed him into literature and then into Liberty. It was our breakthrough!
Now you know as well as I do that Family of Shadows isn't a libertarian manifesto. But it is, I've long secretly believed, a kind of allegory of individualism and rebellion. At its deepest level, it is the story of three men who were born into times and places where they did not belong, who defied the great forces of history, who defied destiny. My great-grandfather defied his destiny of death during the genocide of 1915. My grandfather rejected his destiny on his father's farm. My father abandoned his destiny in the American Dream.
Maybe that's not fair, though. For my father, I think, the American Dream was never about achieving and enjoying liberty for oneself, but about spreading liberty across countries and continents.
AM: Is there no tension between the spread of liberty and the participation in an ethnic-national heritage, which might be at odds with individualism? How can this be reconciled in Armenia?
GH: Governments don't have ethnicities. People do. So I confess not to feel the tension. I don't see why an individual, living in a free society, shouldn't feel free to seek his private solace or meaning or peace wherever he pleases — in philosophy, religion, even national heritage. You build yourself a free country, but then what? You still have private problems. You still have to deal with death and salvation.As the great poet sings, "you're still gonna have to serve somebody."
AM: Classic Milton. Always comes through. Now of course your book is a powerful human drama, and should therefore matter to anyone who ranks himself among the humans. But perhaps you can explain why Armenia should matter to America.
GH: After the genocide of 1915, an unprecedented human rights movement swept through the United States. American citizens collected more than a hundred million dollars to help the surviving refugees; kids who didn't finish their suppers were told to remember "the starving Armenians." The most important witnesses and chroniclers of the genocide had been American ambassadors and consuls, and now it was the president himself — Woodrow Wilson — who was proposing an American mandate to safeguard Armenia.
In those years, the American people invested their spirit in the Armenian struggle — and I think the mysterious logic of that investment has revealed itself slowly through time. It's been forgotten, but in February 1988, half a million Armenians gathered in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, to launch the first successful mass movement against Communist rule. Independence followed in 1991. That's when my father, an American citizen, returned to Armenia. That's also about the time when a million Armenians left a newborn Armenia to seek more certain destinies in the United States.
The stories, the histories, the Armenian and the American Dreams, were in conversation long before I tried to capture that conversation in Family of Shadows.
AM: The Russians have a saying: “Every grandmother was once a girl.” Perhaps it can also be said that every answer was once a question. So...any questions before you go?
GH: You know, I have been wondering: who is John Galt?
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution.
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