Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream

Image of Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream
Release Date: 
September 20, 2010
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The words “Armenia” and “bittersweet” have been a natural pairing for the people of that country and its diaspora.

At its zenith, shortly before Jesus’ birth, Armenia reigned across Caucasus as well as what is now eastern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. For a time, Armenia was the strongest state in the eastern Roman Empire and later became the first country to officially adopt Christianity. However, its strategic location between two continents has subjected it to invasions by many peoples, including the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Turks and Russians.

It was Turkey, in what it hoped would be a final cataclysm, that organized the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians from 1895-97 and again in 1915. That genocide was, in its perverse way, a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. Hitler himself famously remarked, “Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” as he planned the mass murder of six million Jews.

Garin K. Hovannisian’s Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American repudiates that monstrous question, melding the genocide with 100 years of history and American assimilation into a three-generation family memoir.

Hovannisian, a Fulbright grant recipient and journalist, certainly has the pedigree: His family is arguably one of the preeminent clans of the Armenian-American diaspora—his great grandfather Kaspar fought against the Turks alongside the legendary General Antranig; his American-born grandfather, Richard, a professor at UCLA, is one of the leading Armenian scholars in the world; and his father Raffi was the first foreign minister of the new Armenian republic after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A gifted writer, Hovannisian has done what any author, particularly a young one, should do—write about what he knows. But in so doing he has chosen a perplexing tone for this book—what I would call a “lyrical insistence” campaigning for the reader’s admiration and sympathies—that hampers the difficult goals Hovannisian has set for himself, which include surveying a century of geopolitics and family events.

By trying to do so much in 304 pages, Hovannisian becomes a man in a hurry and, by default, produces a hagiography—something I don’t think he intended. A less passionate framework might have given his family story more authority.

Here, I’m thinking of two books that also use the Armenian genocide as their backdrop, Mark Arax’s In My Father’s Name and Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate. Both take a tougher, more effective approach toward less accomplished families who also suffered and strived, like the Hovannisians, through their country’s turmoil and diaspora. But Arax and Balakian let the reader draw his own conclusions. Unfortunately, Hovannisian doesn’t.

Nevertheless, this book comes at the right moment, given our current national debate over immigration. Those who came to this country from 1890–1920—assimilating while still tending their roots—may be the greater generation than that which took on World War II. Today’s immigrants, both legal and not, are a different, just as compelling, story. Like their predecessors, they too seek the best of justice, opportunity and responsibility that America has to offer.

As important, Family of Shadows will, one hopes, inspire a longer, more detailed biography of a true American hero. Professor Richard Hovannisian—plump, pessimistic, dedicated—is the pioneer of Armenian studies in this country, producing a seminal, four-volume history of the country of his father’s birth. As his future wife Vartiter would write when, as a twenty-three-year-old, he traveled from Berkeley to Lebanon to learn Armenian, Hovannisian “left the land endowed with the best blessing . . . and stepped into the land that is the monument to the ignored.”

As important, he has served as a bulwark against the Turkish government’s forty-year propaganda campaign—an effort using every trick of statecraft and public relations, as organized as its original extermination of Armenians—to deny, obfuscate, and deny again the genocide it perpetrated. (Their work has not gone unnoticed; similar disinformation about the Holocaust has come from Iran since Ahmadinejad came to power.)

As Armenian Americans squabbled over the best way to organize into a cohesive force, it was Hovannisian the academic who took the podium and gave the shortest, most powerful speech in the history of public rhetoric: “Words into action.”