The Guardian US - PEN World Voices Festival, Armenian Genocide

On the evening of 24 April 1915, 82 Armenian artists and intellectuals were taken into eastern Anatolia into the deserts of Syria and executed. The first in a wave of mass killings that saw Turkey’s 2 million population of Armenians reduced to around 400,000 in a series of widely reported executions, deportations, forced assimilation and Islamisation, as well as the 20th century’s first genocide, the murders came after the executions of an Armenian unit within the Ottoman Turkish army whom the Young Turks had suspected of collaboration with the Russians.

“Thus having eliminated the ‘muscle’ of the Armenian nation, the Young Turks destroyed the ‘brain’,” said historian Ronald Suny during a panel entitled Armenian Genocide: a Dark Paradigm, which ran as part of the PEN World Voices festival on Wednesday night in New York. Held in honour of the centenary of the Armenian genocide, the attending experts on Armenian and Turkish literature also included playwright Eric Bogosian, English PEN president Maureen Freely, writer and activist Nancy Kricorian, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, Turkish human rights activist and publisher Ragip Zarakolu, and poet and novelist Peter Balakian.

The genocide’s “dark paradigm”, as well as Armenia’s relationship with Turkey, which denies the massacres, was the focus of the meditative evening, as well as the readings of works by the executed Armenian writers such as poet Siamantoand novelist Zabel Yesayan.

“People come away thinking that there was a lot of tension between these groups, but in fact, Armenians were a very important part of the Ottoman empire for centuries,” said Bogosian, whose latest book Operation Nemesis follows the true story of a secret assassination plot to kill the leaders of the genocide. Constantinople’s literary scene, for example, influenced by French and Russian writers, was vibrant, “lyrical, dense” but “contemporary”. When the arrests happened, many people did not see it coming.

The shock was “intense” among the community, Bogosian continued. The Christian population had been moved into deportation caravans or killed with a “level of sadism and violence that cannot be overemphasised … It was if people were trying to think of how could they do the most cruel things to the most people.” As a result, many artists who had survived were scarred by witnessing the events, and many took on a “pact of silence”, unable to make head or tail of their suffering.

Lifton echoed this, noting that Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide in response to the massacres, also considered the wiping out a culture’s institutions and rituals as a part of a cultural genocide. “When [artists and writers] are destroyed, what is being destroyed is not only a group of human beings, but a whole imaginative constellation that’s so crucial for any culture, and what results is a culture drained of its psychological and spiritual strength,” he said. 

During the recent centenary, which saw the Armenian community unite in a series of memorials and gatherings, international communities increased pressure on various governments, including the UK, to recognize the genocide. Despite lobbying from senators and celebrities such as reality television star Kim Kardashian, who has Armenian heritageBarack Obama once again stopped short of naming the genocide, due to the US’s desire to keep relations with Turkey for the fight against Isis.

The biggest question of the evening, however, was less about the need for international recognition and more about Turkey’s need to accept its own atrocities. “Turkey is not a person, but in the newspapers, Turkey is always described as a person who is doing the denying it,” said Freely, who grew up in Turkey and acknowledged that there are still two histories taught to school children, one that “cannot be spoken” and one that “must be memorized”. Echoing Zarakolu, she said, “for those of us who are Turkish … it is a deep question of conscience. Until that question is embraced openly there is no hope for the people of Turkey.”

Despite these sentiments, the panelists remained positive. When a question from the audience came about how the panelists felt individually the effect of the centenary, Suny related a story about a recent lecture to a group of Armenians. “A very prominent scholar said to me, ‘Ron, I know you’re going to talk about genocide, but can you be upbeat about it?’... But I think we can be upbeat about it,” he said to the laughter of the crowd. “Overwhelmingly scholars, the New York Times, and others have come out and no one says alleged genocide, they say genocide … I would say over these past 10 years, I am un-depressed. I am more and more enthusiastic.”

It’s also about changing the narrative. “If we get some deep historical knowledge of that, that’s simply the first step to then being able to create our own story,” concluded Suny. And that task surely remains with Armenia’s writers and artists, whose legacy and words will always live on.