How long must they wait? Voice: Peter Balakian is doing more than writing of the genocide of his people. He's also trying to create a groundswell to pressure Turkey to admit its atrocities against Armenians.

October 24, 1998|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

A hot day in July 1962. Eleven-year-old Peter Balakian languished in his bed in suburban New Jersey, rereading "Roger Maris at Bat" and waiting for the measles to hit full force.

As the boy drifted in and out of fevered sleep, his beloved grandmother sat guard. Nafina Aroosian was a woman who left a wake of rich impressions: thick chestnut hair braided in a bun, oddly blotched hands smelling of lemon rinds, heavily accented accounts of strange and prophetic dreams. Even the folk tales she told were impossible to forget: the roasted lamb with rubies in its eye sockets, the elk that feasted upon the livers of pregnant women.

But this particular day when Peter woke, Gran was talking to herself.

"There were maggots on the slits of their backs," she was saying. "We were on the ground. Four of us ... I felt Alice in the sling on my back asleep. The gendarmes began slapping me. One of them used the whip. The blood and milk oozed. Alice was crying.

"The Turk had an ax and a short knife with a mother-of-pearl handle. The blood was warm, then cold. I recognized him from the souk in Diarbekir. He was like a dead animal on me. I watched the dead feathers fly up into a blue sky where my box kite flew at Easter ..."

Peter listened in surprise: Was Gran telling dreams again? Or was she merely dreaming out loud? He was afraid to ask.

Years later, long after Nafina Aroosian had died and her grandson was launched as a poet, Peter Balakian was to discover the truth behind that arresting moment. As he relates in his book "Black Dog of Fate" (BasicBooks, 1997), his grandmother was caught in a flashback, not a dream. She was caught in a memory of one of the century's most heinous crimes.

Balakian was a graduate student when he read his first account of the Armenian genocide. He was horrified to discover that in 1915, the Turkish government had massacred more than 1 million Armenians, including his grandmother's first husband, parents, siblings and other relatives. Aroosian, then 25, had been sent on a death march into the desert with her two infant girls.

Members of Balakian's paternal family also were killed or scattered. But these tragedies were never discussed with the baby boom children living the good life in Tenafly, N.J. Like many Armenians who resettled in America, the Aroosians and Balakians chose to protect their children by raising them without knowledge of the past.

Balakian felt compelled to learn more. He interviewed relatives, reviewed documents, studied accounts of the time in an effort to reconcile the fragmented past with the present.

Balancing past with present

It took seven years to write the dramatic, poignant story of his quest to link the world of Frosted Flakes and Hoss Cartwright to "something ancient, something connected to earth and words and blood and sky."

His critically acclaimed book, now out in paperback, won the 1998 PEN/Albrand prize for memoir. And it has strengthened Peter Balakian's growing reputation as an advocate for recognition of the Armenian genocide and its legacy. Next week, the writer will speak on the moral act of memory at Western Maryland College in Westminster and Bibelot at Woodholme Center.

"I'm talking about the transmission of trauma across the generations," he says. "The history of the Armenian genocide is a history that a lot of people are learning for the first time -- and it means a lot for me to be able to be a voice for that."

An English professor and creative writing teacher at Colgate University, the 47-year-old author also has written four books of poetry and a biography of poet Theodore Roethke. He serves as director of the university's new Center of Ethics and World Societies.

In addition, Balakian helps instruct an interdisciplinary honors course on modern genocide that explores international relations, ethics and witness literature. It uses the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust as paradigms to study genocidal killings taking place in such places as the Balkans and Rwanda.

Located in the eastern provinces of what became Turkey, Armenia was settled more than 3,000 years ago. The first Near Eastern culture to become Christian -- it adopted the religion in A.D. 301 -- that population eventually became a minority in a majority Muslim country. Over the centuries, Armenians endured waves of persecution.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia has struggled with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, border fights and economic blockades. But nothing can touch the grimness of the Armenian massacres, which began in 1894 and culminated in 1915.

With the waning of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the Turkish government decided that Armenians were a threat. As many as two-thirds of the population were killed, deported or sent into the desert to starve, events widely reported in U.S. newspapers at the time.

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