«Vana Derohanessian Though the specific timeline of the multicultural history of Los Angeles might be debated, Los Angeles’s role as a center for ...»
Seeking the Next Saroyan: Cultural Representations of Armenian
Americans of Los Angeles
Though the specific timeline of the multicultural history of Los Angeles might be
debated, Los Angeles’s role as a center for people of varying races and ethnicities is
rarely called into question. Aside from contributing to traditional cultural products like
food, music, and fashion, a variety of ethnic and racial groups—including African
Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Jewish Americans—have had an active role in the producing such popular cultural products as television and film in Los Angeles, sometimes to the delight, but sometimes to the dismay of people from their very communities. For more recent immigrant communities, like the Armenian Americans in Los Angeles, their anxiety regarding cultural representation may manifest itself through ethnic self-policing. Armenian Americans have lived in Los Angeles in significant numbers since the 1960s and have had a more obscured ethnic representation by way of literature, television, and film than other ethnic groups.
Recently, however, with the rise in popularity of the television reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians, one example of Armenian American life has become very visible.
In this paper, I will examine the ways in which Keeping Up with the Kardashians has become the new cultural text that is produced, distributed, and consumed by an American public who view the Kardashians as representatives of Armenian Americans from Los Angeles and how such a representation has become a source of friction for Armenian Los Angelenos.
It’s estimated that over eight million Armenian people live in diaspora, with one million of those people living in Los Angeles, making Los Angeles home to the largest Armenian community in America. Much has been written about the Armenian Genocide of 1915. However, a detailed explication of a visual text that is not based strictly on memoirs is much more infrequent. Different ethnic groups such as African Americans, 302 Vana Derohanessian Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans of Los Angeles have produced contemporary literature that is reflective of the specific experience a minority ethnic group has in a multicultural city. A majority of the literary cultural production that comes from the Armenian diaspora comes in the form of memoirs and oral histories that stemmed from the displacement of Armenians from Armenia. Some Armenian Americans have asked, “Where are our contemporary tales that represent the Armenian experience in America?” Recently, Armenian Americans like author William Saroyan, former California governor George Deukmejian, former all-time winningest college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, or even the infamous physician Jack Kevorkian have been eclipsed by realitytelevision’s Kardashians. Armenians who live in Los Angeles (particularly the Armenian population that has grown dramatically over the past three decades in the San Fernando Valley) are concerned about the pervasive cultural representatives they find in visual texts and on television, specifically in Keeping Up with the Kardashians, because of what the community sees as negative ethnic stereotyping.
When writing about texts regarding the Armenian American experience and how it’s represented to a consumer culture, it’s important to expand upon what Armenian American literature looks like today. Many books written about Armenians in America are memoirs, with a few earning critical acclaim for their superb level of writing. Peter Balakian published Black Dog of Fate, which became a New York Times bestseller, and more recently, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. In 2012, Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls, a fictional account of a young aid worker who helps Armenians in Syria at the time of the Genocide, was also a New York Times bestseller. All of these texts utilized archival documents or eyewitness accounts as part of their central source material, as do a myriad of other Armenian American authors.
And while The Sandcastle Girls is told from a present-day American narrator’s perspective, the narrative tone for most of the other works about the Genocide is intentionally meant to preserve a historically accurate voice. The Armenian Genocide has been central to the community’s cultural memory and identity, and the fear of forgetting this history is woven through Armenian American non-fiction and fiction alike.
Seeking the Next Saroyan 303 With this threat constantly on the horizon, the focus in these narratives has remained the Genocide.
The fear of forgetting the Armenian Genocide is engrained in the minds of the Armenian diasporic community from a very young age. Turkey’s denial of the events of 1915 has withstood the recognition of several European countries, including France, which acknowledge the events as genocide. In his 2012 book The Holocaust and the Armenian Case in Comparative Perspective, Turkish historian Yucel Guclu contends that Armenians have long associated the Genocide, or “case” as he refers to it, with the Holocaust as a vilifying rhetorical strategy unfounded in fact and devised to demonize the Ottoman Turks.
The term “genocide” was coined in the 20th century, and has a special meaning. It is defined not only by the characteristic of mass death, but by the characteristic of mass death caused intentionally by the policies and actions of a state, with the expressed purpose of wiping out a national, ethnographic, religious or other group. There are only a small handful of mass deaths in all of history that have been deemed, by consensus, a genocide. The tragedy of the Armenians is not one of those events.
Gulcu goes on to say that the Armenian case, though not genocide, was a tragedy suffered not only by Armenians, but also by Greeks and Assyrians in his attempt to assuage the reader and gloss over the institutional, systematic deaths of Christian peoples that was well-documented and photographed by human rights ambassadors.
When colonizers attempt to distract and defend their actions as legitimate wartime casualties, the colonized are left to suffer the losses of life and land, and are tasked with passing down their traumatic narrative to future generations in order to preserve what remains of their ethnic identity. The Armenian population has been continually marginalized by sustained Turkish colonial practices. Bedrosian, in her introduction to her collection of critical articles about Armenian American writers titled The Magical Pine Ring: Armenian /American Literature, notes, To this day, the Turk casts a dense shadow over the Armenian psyche and the collective memory. Coming to terms with how and why is beyond 304 Vana Derohanessian the scope of this study, but as a figure in the story Armenians tell about themselves, the Turk might fill every circle in their Inferno, and some not yet charted. (17) The shadow that Bedrosian acknowledges is one that invades the identity of most Armenian Americans. There are still living survivors of the Genocide, and many Armenians who immigrated to America are either directly related to a survivor or are caring for a survivor presently.
In Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Cathy Caruth details the connection between trauma and history.
The story of trauma, then, as the narrative of a belated experience, far from telling of an escape from reality—the escape from a death or from its referential force—rather attests to its endless impact on a life.... The crisis at the core of many traumatic narratives—as I show concretely in my readings of Freud, Duras, and Lacan—often emerges, indeed, as an urgent question; Is the trauma the encounter with death, or the ongoing experience of having survived it? At the core of these stories, I would suggest, is thus a kind of double telling, the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival...
. it is the inextricability of the story of one’s life from the story of a death, an impossible and necessary double telling, that constitutes their historical witness. (16) The crisis of death and life following the Armenian Genocide shapes the Armenian American identity and deals with the trauma by preserving what remains of cultural organizations. This shared trauma guarantees, to some extent, unity in the community and prevents the loss of cultural identity. The community cannot bear the death of their identity, and the resulting homogenous identity of the hard-working, burdened immigrant often does not allow heterogeneity in cultural representation.
Much like the descendants of Holocaust survivors, Armenian Americans not only lost their political and intellectual leaders, friends, and family, they also lost their money, Seeking the Next Saroyan 305 property, and—most significantly for the diasporic community—their homeland. The shadow cast on the Armenian American psyche is not insignificant. Turkey absorbed Western Armenia, and unlike Germany, has made no reparations. Levon Abrahamian, in Armenian Identity in a Changing World, contrasts the Jewish and Armenian diasporas.
The Jews lost their homeland after losing statehood, while the Armenians only lost statehood, and even this was in a sense substituted by the institute of religion. Only the Armenians of Western Armenia lost their homeland like the Jews, but here too there is a considerable difference between the two types of diaspora. All this brings us back to the problem of the homeland, which seems to be the crucial characteristic of the Armenian diaspora. (326) Indeed, the loss of homeland for Armenians, regardless of whether they descended from either the East or West, was catastrophic. Fractured families relied on the church and schools to preserve the sense of homeland when they settled in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Greece, and France. And so the personal stories that detail how Turkey subjected them to such trauma are told often and are filled with familial pathos, as the shadow looms over Armenian American psyches, homes and schools.
There are close to a dozen Armenian private schools scattered in and around Los Angeles (concentrated in the San Fernando Valley) that serve the cultural and sometimes religious needs of the Armenian American community. In addition to learning the Armenian language, children from 1st through 12th grade take Armenian History, and for some parish schools, religion courses. The mission statement for A.G.B.U. MDS, one of the larger Armenian schools in the Los Angeles area with a potential capacity of 950 students, reflects this desire to maintain a coherent ethnic identity. The school expects students to Become individuals aware of their Armenian cultural heritage who: have acquired a basic knowledge of Armenian language, literature, and history;
have developed an appreciation for Armenian culture and their identity;
306 Vana Derohanessian are prepared to contribute to Armenian community life and their historic homeland. (A.G.B.U.) Children from ages three to eighteen are taught Armenian history and the importance of remembering the horrifying, traumatic experiences of their grandparents and greatgrandparents in an effort to shape their social conscience. A vast majority of Armenian American children from Los Angeles attend one of these schools at some point in their lives, either as full-time students or as students who attend these private schools on weekends for cultural edification. Kindergarteners are taught songs chronicling the pain and suffering of their ancestors. Middle schoolers are assigned books like Adam Bagdassarian’s Forgotten Fire by and David Kheridian’s The Road From Home: A True Story of Courage, Survival and Hope that discuss first-hand accounts of the human rights violations that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century such as torture, rape, and murder. High schoolers watch films like the 1982 full length feature Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which tells the story of an Armenian village that fought against Turkish insurgents. Nearly all read at least one work from William Saroyan, most likely My Name is Aram. Saroyan’s seminal collection of short stories follows a young Armenian American boy growing up in Central California’s San Joaquin Valley. To put it in perspective, Saroyan’s My Name is Aram is as much a cultural touchstone to Armenian Americans as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to Americans from multiple backgrounds.
William Saroyan captured the feeling of being without a homeland in his writing.
He was born in Fresno, California in 1908 as Armenians were being displaced from their home country by the Ottoman Turks. Fresno at the time was an immigrant town, home to Chinese, Irish, Jewish, Japanese and Mexican peoples, in addition to an influx of Armenians who moved before the worst days of the Genocide began. Saroyan describes the dichotomy of Armenian-ness and American-ness in his work Antranik of Armenian. His narrator says, The nation is lost. The strong nations of the world are jumping with new problems. To hell with the whole God damn mess, I said. I’m no Armenian.
I’m an American. Well the truth is I am both and neither. I love Armenia Seeking the Next Saroyan 307 and I love America and I belong to both, but I am only this: an inhabitant of the earth, and so are you, whoever you are. I tried to forget Armenia but I couldn’t do it. My birthplace was California, but I couldn’t forget Armenia, so what is one’s country?... Well, I do not know for sure, but I know it is all these things as remembrance in the blood. (38-39) It is ironic that although many Armenian Americans have embraced such literary cultural representations as found in Saroyan’s novels, the representation that is most wellknown is the television representation of the Kardashian family. Indeed, the power of popular culture has helped Jewish Americans cope with the trauma that colonized peoples struggle with generations after the initial trauma takes place. But of the two competing Armenian American narratives, the story of the privileged Kardashians has eclipsed Saroyan’s community-approved narrative.