Meline Toumani: Genocide and Narrative Ambiguity

meline toumani
photo: Mark Smith

Born in Iran and ethnically Armenian, Meline Toumani grew up in a close-knit Armenian community in New Jersey, where the genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish government in 1915 and hatred of the Turks were defining facts of life. In 2005, Toumani did the unthinkable and moved to Istanbul on a quest to understand how to remember a genocide without being crippled by it.

You went to Turkey because you "could no longer live with idea that I was supposed to hate, fear and fight against an entire nation and people." Could you describe the process that led you to that position?

Coming from a family that was not directly involved in the genocide and that had a very strong sense of Iranian-Armenian ethnicity gave me a little bit of space to question and look from the outside. At home our identity was many things, but it wasn't really about hating Turkey or being obsessed with the genocide. But when I participated in community activities, which was all the time, it came to me that this was a dominant part of our identity as a community. Since I didn't have that direct experience and I didn't have a grandmother who had told me some horrific story about what she had suffered, I had one foot in and one foot out.

So, without questioning the reality of the genocide, you began to wonder whether focusing on genocide recognition was helpful for your community?

I definitely wasn't questioning what happened. When you've been immersed in something like that for your entire life, it's a part of you. But it began to feel to me that the community was not psychologically well.

A lot of that manifested for me in looking at creativity and expression within the community. The [genocide] narrative was holding us hostage. As an Armenian, whatever you do has to serve that in some way--through your volunteer work or as a playwright or a musician or whatever. You're not just addressing the history or the culture. You're addressing this political impasse. A piece of writing that sets out with a political agenda is going to be limited from the beginning. You can't explore its emotional and psychological dimensions freely.

Early on in my work I tried to frame it in a political way: "genocide recognition campaigns are bad for Armenia because it's creating a climate in which diplomatic relations can't be established." I was trying to establish a geopolitical argument for why genocide recognition was problematic, but it's more about an existential condition than it is about a political argument.

At one point you use the phrase "soft recognition": the idea that you can make changes one person at a time. Is that where you started when you got to Turkey? I don't think it's where you ended.

I'm very glad that you understood that. That is where I started and that's not where I ended. I had this vision that if there were just a certain way to portray the Turks to the Armenians and a certain way to portray the Armenians to the Turks, and if I could behave in a certain way as an Armenian among Turks, I could open up some speech where people would realize that the other side wasn't so bad.

Then [Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink was assassinated. He was the ultimate case of someone really trying to connect and he was murdered because of it. Not in spite of it but exactly because of it. That moment had a huge impact on me. I was well into the project, and it really threw me for a loop as to what was I really doing here. Especially when I went back to Turkey and experienced discrimination and intolerance for Armenians every single day in so many ways large and small, spoken and unspoken. My intention was to be diplomatic and tactful and pleasant in talking to people and not offend anyone and not be too belligerent with Turks because I wanted to open up the pathway to communicate.

After two and a half years--this comes toward the end of the book--I realized I had to get out of there because I'd completely lost track of what I believe in. That led to a lot of self-questioning about what set me off into this project in this first place. The way I ended the book is that it really wasn't about Turkey or Armenia or the genocide, but about how to find a way to individuate yourself.

Your title, There Was and There Was Not, has such a fairy-tale quality.

I've been waiting a long time to tell somebody about the title!

When I first started, the working title was "Silence and Madness." The idea was that you have this overwhelming silence on the subject on the part of Turkey and this growing madness in the Armenian diaspora and these two things play off of each other. As I got further and further into the work, I realized silence wasn't relevant any more in Turkey. Hrant Dink was murdered and suddenly there wasn't silence anymore.

Then I was sitting with my parents at a café in Yerevan [Armenia]. We had been shopping in the outdoor market and my mom had bought a bunch of books. She opened one and started reading from it in Armenian: "There was and there also was not." I heard that a million times growing up in stories. The previous week in Istanbul, in a Turkish class, we had been reading a story that started, "There was and there also was not." I suddenly was struck that we started the stories in exactly the same way. I told my parents about having read that in my Turkish workbook. My dad said, "That's your title!" We looked at each other--you can't say that because that's like you're saying there was a genocide and there wasn't a genocide. Then I realized it captured exactly what I was trying to do with the book in all sorts of ways.

I felt at first hamstrung by the fact that I'm an Armenian telling the story and [thus] expected to be an unreliable narrator. I was really attached to the narrative ambiguity of what happens when someone tells you a story and they tell you at the outset that there was and there was not. The storyteller puts that on you from the beginning and you have to sit with it the entire time.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

My biggest fear, to the extent that I want to reach Armenian and Turkish readers and have an impact on the conversation between the communities, is that the people who read only the first two chapters will completely misunderstand. Armenians who read the first chapters will think I'm some kind of traitor and hate me for it. And the Turks who only read the first two chapters will think, "Oh great, Armenians are just as crazy as we thought."

You answered in terms of Armenian and Turkish readers. What about other readers?

Often the immigrant experience comes to us in a cute package, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. "Oh look at the funny old grandmother in her black widow costume and the aunt who's trying to feed you." That's a very real part of the immigrant experience in America in a lot of ethnic groups, but it underplays the extreme existential crisis that comes from having that kind of bifurcation in your life. This is not a cute clichéd thing about bringing egg rolls to school when all the other kids have sandwiches. There is crisis in a lot of different parts of your life and your psyche when you have that experience. Perhaps I darken it a bit? --Pamela Toler

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