Aline Ohanesian: Turning the trans-generational grief of genocide into historical fiction

Raffi HadidianAline Ohanesian is the author of critically acclaimed novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, which was long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, an April 2014 Indie Next pick, and an Amazon Top 25 pick for 2015. The novel was also a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Aline was born in Kuwait and immigrated to Southern California at the age of three. After earning an MA in History, she abandoned her PhD studies to conduct the research that led to her debut novel. She is an alumna of the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley writers’ conferences. She lives and writes in San Juan Capistrano, California with her husband and two young sons.

The paperback edition of Orhan’s Inheritance was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016.

[This interview was originally published on January 18, 2016.]

Photo by Raffi Hadidian


What led to your fascination with the Armenian genocide? Was it a story that seems to have been passed down with your mother’s milk, as it were?

I had an emotional connection to this history because my grandparents on both sides were survivors. I felt I had to tell this story not only for them but for the 1.5 million who lost their lives. Writing this novel was my way of coping with and exploring trans-generational grief.

What aspect of this cultural history spoke most powerfully to you in terms of storytelling?

I’m always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. When people suffer the worst of fates and still manage not only to survive but be kind and loving.

Tell me about the research you did for Orhan’s Inheritance.

In some parts of the world, the history in this book is contested, so it was very important to me to be as historically accurate as possible. It took me seven years to write this novel. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I probably read every history book ever written on the subject, including a few books from denialists. I have a masters in History from UCI [University of California at Irvine] and whenever possible I referenced primary sources, things like diaries, letters, ledgers, etc. I also took a trip to the interior of Turkey, where the book takes place, and spent time in a small village where they still burn cow dung for fuel. It was like walking into a time warp. Great for my research.

How long did you work on the book?

It took me seven years to write it and another year to find an agent. She sold it on the first round within a week of signing me.

orhans-inheritance-paperback

What is the key to blending the history and politics of something like the Armenian genocide with a story so that the two are in balance?

Writing a book like this, with two time periods and several characters whose story spans eighty years, is like weaving a tapestry. What matters most is the characters and their story. I only included history that impacted my main characters in a direct and personal way.

I love the fact that Orhan is a photographer who has experienced a form of photographer’s block but learns how to see again — but differently — from his encounters with Seda and Ani. It has stayed with me as one of the central “images” of the novel. Can you explain the genesis of this idea and how you wove it into his character development?

I have an affinity toward people who make art in whatever medium. They are my tribe. Making him a photographer reduced the psychic distance between us. I tend to place a high value on people who choose art over everything else in their lives. With Orhan, I got to experience what it felt like to turn one’s back on one’s art. It wasn’t just a block, but a voluntary distancing of himself from his art. I wanted to explore the personal consequences of that, not just to him but to his family and community. Making art is hard, but the alternative can be devastating too, if one has the ability, sight, calling, whatever you want to call it.

I was particularly intrigued by the question that arises late in the book when Orhan is forced to confront the issue of identity. Is he a Turk of the past or the present, or a global citizen of the present and future? How is he supposed to live his life in light of these questions? I imagine that is a question that has been (and is still) faced by Germans and the new generation of Serbians and some Rwandans, etc. How do you view the issue of collective guilt?

It’s so true, and this book was #1 in Serbia I think precisely because that society is still dealing with those questions. As a novelist, I don’t propose any answers to the question of collective guilt. Instead, I ask the question and let my characters answer it for themselves. There have been major shifts in identity formation as a result of our global connectedness, via the internet, speed and ease of travel, etc., but in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our world is still suffering from violence born of nationalism, racism and sexism. Collective guilt is different from personal, individual guilt and has to be acknowledged by the nation-state. In the case of Turkey, that state has a deep history of denial and oppression of basic human rights.

I was also moved by Ani’s sentiment that “Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice.” What role does fiction have in this “remembering”?

I think great art can also bear witness. Here I’m thinking of the work of Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and others. Those are the writers I admire the most, the ones who can tell you a heart-wrenching story and inadvertently teach you about history and its power structures. There’s a great quote by Toni Morison that goes, “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

I’m curious about whether Orhan’s Inheritance has been well received by the Jewish community (if you know). I would imagine the concept of “transgenerational grief” would resonate among those who are descendants of the Holocaust, both literally and figuratively. Your description of Armenian loss having existed for generations “like something precious, in every syllable of language taught in Saturday schools, and in the smell of dishes, and in the lament of songs” rings very true for me. It’s universal.

I haven’t heard from any Jewish organizations, but I will say that I have been a student of the Holocaust and its literature, and I feel an affinity toward that community both in my personal life and my professional one.

What do you make of recent research that suggests the trauma of events like genocide can be passed down genetically? (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones/)

My community and I always knew it to be true and I’m glad that science now supports that wisdom.

What was your area of study when you earned your MA in History? What were you working on in your Ph.D. program?

I was studying American history, partly to try to figure out what it means to be an American. My dissertation was on the intersection of citizenship and consumerism in American culture. I had an incredible group of professors and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

For those who want to learn more about the subject, which books do you recommend, both fiction and nonfiction?

For non-fiction I would recommend Dawn MacKeen’s The Hundred Year Walk, which just came out to raving reviews. It’s a lovely story of her grandfather’s survival and it explains the past but also points to what’s happening now in the Middle East. There are some great novels about the topic. My three favorites are Micheline Marcom’s Three Apples Fell From Heaven, Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle and Antonia Aslan’s Skylark Farm. There are dozens more including one from Chris Bohjalian called Sandcastle Girls.

What has been the highlight of being a debut novelist? 

One highlight is receiving letters and emails from readers who’ve been impacted by the novel. I never imagined the lovely things people would say about my words. It is a surreal and wonderful experience and it’s been happening at least once a week since the book came out last April. I’m incredibly grateful for the reception the book has had, but to be honest, the very best part of this journey has been and remains the hours I spend writing. That is my prayer, my religion and my privilege. It’s not always easy but it’s always rewarding. (Even on bad days when I want to throw my laptop into a ditch, I’m still grateful I get to write. To try.)

What are you working on now?

It’s a secret. No, just kidding. I am working on two things at once. I have no idea which of the two will take fire, but it’s exciting. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m stepping way outside my comfort zone. I don’t know how readers will react, but I’ll worry about that after I’ve finished writing.

How has social media changed the landscape for writers, especially those early in their career?

Social media is a great way to create community and converse with other writers and readers. It’s only a problem if it gets in the way of your writing. I’m sure some people can tweet and work on their novels at the same time, but I’m not one of them. I have to limit social media so I don’t have any of those apps on my phone or my laptop. I have them on an iPad that I use in my leisure time. Like a lot of other things, it can be a double-edged sword.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you as a reader and a writer? What have you read recently that has impressed you?

I mentioned some of them earlier. I re-read one of the Russians at least once a year. Having said that, I’m always reading so I’m always discovering new favorites. I’m on a Lidia Yuknavitch kick lately. I loved The Small Backs of Children. And Josh Weil’s The Great Glass Sea blew me away. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. I could go on and on.

Are there any books you especially like that you think have been unfairly overlooked?

Oh, so many. I don’t understand why some books get the attention they do, while others are ignored. I do believe there’s a benefit to living in Brooklyn and/or having an MFA. Like in any business, connections matter when it comes to coverage and who gets reviewed, etc. I do think gatekeepers like agents and editors are important. But the writer can’t worry about anything beyond the page. I worry about the words and let the rest take care of itself, or not.

Do you have any recommendations for standout fiction by women for the readers of this blog?

Many of the writers I’ve mentioned here are women and women of color. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is an excellent short story collection. I love Susan Straight both as a person and a writer. I thought the structure of Naomi Williams’s Landfalls was very interesting. Again, I can go on for pages.

What the Hell is “Women’s Lit”? Garine Isassi Asks the Burning Question

Garine Isassi  start-withe-the-backbeat

When I was pitching my novel to agents, the first line of questioning after my initial one-sentence summary went something like this: “What is the genre of your book? Is it romance? Is it about the girl?” I would begin an answer, saying, “Well, yeah. It’s about a woman in the music industry, and I guess the romantic subplot means it has romance in it, but that’s not the main point of the story. . . .”

That is as far I would get before the agent would make an announcement on whether I could continue or not. Either they’d say, “Oh, then it’s Women’s Lit,” and we would keep talking, or, they would condemn my pitch with, “I can’t sell Chick Lit anymore.” End of conversation.

A few times, I tried to argue that the book has more to it. It’s about authenticity. It’s about race relations. It’s about the love of music.  The quickness to pigeonhole my work left me deflated. Here I think of myself as a modern woman in a world where women have come a long way away from being shoved to the side. The line of questioning was solely based on my gender and/or the gender of my protagonist, not on the level of writing talent or storyline. They had barely even heard my pitch – just that it was a story told from the point of view of a woman. The most disheartening part of that experience was that most of the agents I spoke with were women.

It wasn’t always like this for authors.

In 1847, the epic romance Wuthering Heights was published. The author listed at the time was Ellis Bell. The dramatic love story is complete with crazed jealousy, paranormal heroines, and mansions set under stormy skies. Later that year, Jane Eyre came out, supposedly penned by Currer Bell. It became a bestseller.  No genre was mentioned in the reviews.

As we know now, both of these books were written by women — Emily and Charlotte Bronte, respectively – and about women.  They were read, analyzed, reviewed, and praised. There was no doubt that the complicated romantic content was appreciated by the men of letters at the time. (Remember, at the time, novel writing as well as novel reading and reviewing, was a man’s endeavor.)  Hailed as classic masterpieces, these books have been a mainstay in literature class syllabi for a century and a half.

Today, it is highly likely that both of those books, and countless other classics written by women, would be placed directly into the Romance section of the bookstore and probably never reviewed at all by the current version of “the men of letters.” Why? Because the publishing industry has ventured so far into marketing categories that today these classics would be considered “Women’s Lit.” The category has become a catch-all label umbrella over all novels involving romance, family relationships between women, any mom, women’s friendships, or — my favorite — simply because it was written by a woman and includes at least one main character that is a woman.

I suppose that the sheer number of books that are published every year makes it necessary to classify them. Many categorizations make sense — Mysteries, Political Thrillers, Science Fiction, Paranormal Romance; these are somewhat specific genres where authors buy in to the idea that they are writing according to the genre’s standard.

Fine.

I get it.

But, what if I’ve written a story that does not neatly fit into a genre? For the male author, there is no question — the book is categorized into General Fiction or maybe Literary Fiction. But if you are a woman? No way is it that easy.

Take, for instance, Jodi Picoult. Jodi is firmly entrenched in the “Women’s Lit” category as an author. She’s done well under that branding. But one of her recent novels, Nineteen Minutes, is about a school shooting and the havoc it wreaks on the relationships around a violent event. It got great reviews. It’s a bestseller.  On Amazon, the category is Women’s Lit. Compare that to another book about a school shooting and the havoc it wreaks on the relationships around a violent event, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (who is also a woman, despite the male first name). This novel is considered Fiction or Contemporary Fiction.  Both books are about the same thing. Both have a woman as the main character.

Consider this example: Chris Bohjalian. He’s written several novels, many of which center on women and what they do. They are great books.  His thrilling family saga, The Light in the Ruins, puts forth not one but two women protagonists, one of whom is a detective, set against the backdrop of World War II, and is categorized in Literary Fiction.  Meanwhile, The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, a family saga with two women protagonists, one of whom is a spy, set against the backdrop of World War II, is — you guessed it — Women’s Fiction.

This annoys the hell out of me.

Not only does this “separate but equal [maybe]” sham perpetuate the critical oppression of women’s talent, it doesn’t give the books a chance of making the sales impact that might be possible.  Men are half of the potential audience for fiction. Men don’t want to be seen reading a Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult novel no matter how great the story might be. The branding effect makes it like buying tampons for your wife at CVS — only the few and brave will even consider it.

Even in retrospect, the industry is applying this label. A novel about the lives of several Chinese women and their relationships, set in the mid-20th century, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, is now called Women’s Fiction on Amazon, while a book about the lives of several Japanese women and their relationships, set in the mid-20th century, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, is called Literary Fiction. They are both richly-written, best-selling novels with fantastic plots. Both were made into movies. At the time that they were published, these books were simply labeled Fiction. What changed? Did we suddenly discover that Amy Tan is a woman and Arthur Golden is not?

If we want to get even more indignant about the this last one, I would like to point out that Amy Tan has much more authority on her subject of Asian culture in this situation. Yet she is shoved into the realm of the soft world, the women’s section . . . but that is a-whole-nother rant on the nature of diverse voices in publishing.

Allow me to point out some classics that would fit neatly into a Men’s Lit category, if it existed. A Picture of Dorian Gray. The Catcher in the Rye. Anything by Ernest Hemingway.

The point here is that the labels all seem to be at the whim of the publisher and how they decide to market the book. The content seems to have little bearing on the label. At best, it’s a bit lazy on the part of the publisher and the readers. At worst, it is an attempt to relegate women and their talent to second-class status. The Bronte sisters, all those years ago, seemed to have it easier than we do. After all this time and great strides toward equality, we still have not reached the point where a woman doing the exact same thing as a man is not explained away somehow, as if there needs to be a justification for her existence in the arts. We stopped saying “a lady doctor” and “a female executive.” Why do we still say “a woman author”?

Although recent surveys show that most people working in the publishing world are women and most readers of fiction are also women, this is still happening. From the 10,000-foot view, we seem to be doing it ourselves. In order to buoy ourselves against losing confidence, we “women authors” buddy up and create our own spaces, practically authorizing the separation.

My publishing company is called She Writes Press. And guess what category my book is under? Yup. Women’s Fiction.

The irony is not lost on me.

~ ~ ~

Garinè B. Isassi is the author of the novel Start With The Backbeat, available wherever books are sold.  Like her Facebook page and follow her on twitter @garineisassi.

Aline Ohanesian discusses her fictional exploration of the Armenian genocide in ORHAN’S INHERITANCE

Orhan4_pg2-HCjkt.indd

Raffi Hadidian
Raffi Hadidian

Aline Ohanesian is the author of critically acclaimed novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, which was long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, an April 2014 Indie Next pick, and an Amazon Top 25 pick for 2015. The novel was also a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Aline was born in Kuwait and immigrated to Southern California at the age of three. After earning an MA in History, she abandoned her PhD studies to conduct the research that led to her debut novel. She is an alumni of the Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley writers’ conferences. She lives and writes in San Juan Capistrano, California with her husband and two young sons.

The paperback edition of Orhan’s Inheritance will be published by Algonquin Books on January 19.

What led to your fascination with the Armenian genocide? Was it a story that seems to have been passed down with your mother’s milk, as it were? (This is certainly the case with many Jews like myself.)

I had an emotional connection to this history because my grandparents on both sides were survivors. I felt I had to tell this story not only for them but for the 1.5 million who lost their lives. Writing this novel was my way of coping with and exploring trans-generational grief.

What aspect of this cultural history spoke most powerfully to you in terms of storytelling?

I’m always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. When people suffer the worst of fates and still manage not only to survive but be kind and loving.

Tell me about the research you did for Orhan’s Inheritance.

In some parts of the world, the history in this book is contested, so it was very important to me to be as historically accurate as possible. It took me seven years to write this novel. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I probably read every history book ever written on the subject, including a few books from denialists. I have a masters in History from UCI [University of California at Irvine] and whenever possible I referenced primary sources, things like diaries, letters, ledgers, etc. I also took a trip to the interior of Turkey, where the book takes place, and spent time in a small village where they still burn cow dung for fuel. It was like walking into a time warp. Great for my research.

How long did you work on the book?

It took me seven years to write it and another year to find an agent. She sold it on the first round within a week of signing me.

What is the trick to blending the history and politics of something like the Armenian genocide with a story so that the two are in balance?

I’m not sure I would call it a trick. Writing a book like this, with two time periods and several characters whose story spans eighty years, is like weaving a tapestry. What matters most is the characters and their story. I only included history that impacted my main characters in a direct and personal way.

I love the fact that Orhan is a photographer who has experienced a form of photographer’s block but learns how to see again — but differently — from his encounters with Seda and Ani. It has stayed with me as one of the central “images” of the novel. Can you explain the genesis of this idea and how you wove it into his character development?

I have an affinity toward people who make art in whatever medium. They are my tribe. Making him a photographer reduced the psychic distance between us. I tend to place a high value on people who choose art over everything else in their lives. With Orhan, I got to experience what it felt like to turn one’s back on one’s art. It wasn’t just a block, but a voluntary distancing of himself from his art. I wanted to explore the personal consequences of that, not just to him but to his family and community. Making art is hard, but the alternative can be devastating too, if one has the ability, sight, calling, whatever you want to call it.

I was particularly intrigued by the question that arises late in the book when Orhan is forced to confront the issue of identity. Is he a Turk of the past or the present, or a global citizen of the present and future? How is he supposed to live his life in light of these questions? I imagine that is a question that has been (and is still) faced by Germans and the new generation of Serbians and some Rwandans, etc. How do you view the issue of collective guilt?

It’s so true, and this book was #1 in Serbia I think precisely because that society is still dealing with those questions. As a novelist, I don’t propose any answers to the question of collective guilt. Instead, I ask the question and let my characters answer it for themselves. There have been major shifts in identity formation as a result of our global connectedness, via the internet, speed and ease of travel, etc., but in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our world is still suffering from violence born of nationalism, racism and sexism. Collective guilt is different from personal, individual guilt and has to be acknowledged by the nation-state. In the case of Turkey, that state has a deep history of denial and oppression of basic human rights.

I was also moved by Ani’s sentiment that “Remembering is all we have in the face of denial. Silence is the enemy of justice.” What role does fiction have in this “remembering”?

I think great art can also bear witness. Here I’m thinking of the work of Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and others. Those are the writers I admire the most, the ones who can tell you a heart-wrenching story and inadvertently teach you about history and its power structures. There’s a great quote by Toni Morison that goes, “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” she declares. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

I’m curious about whether Orhan’s Inheritance has been well received by the Jewish community (if you know). I would imagine the concept of “transgenerational grief” would resonate among those who are descendants of the Holocaust, both literally and figuratively. Your description of Armenian loss having existed for generations “like something precious, in every syllable of language taught in Saturday schools, and in the smell of dishes, and in the lament of songs” rings very true for me. It’s universal.

I haven’t heard from any Jewish organizations, but I will say that I have been a student of the Holocaust and its literature, and I feel an affinity toward that community both in my personal life and my professional one.

What do you make of recent research that suggests the trauma of events like genocide can be passed down genetically? (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones/)

My community and I always knew it to be true and I’m glad that science now supports that wisdom.

What was your area of study when you earned your MA in History? What were you working on in your Ph.D. program?

I was studying American history, partly to try to figure out what it means to be an American. My dissertation was on the intersection of citizenship and consumerism in American culture. I had an incredible group of professors and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

For those who want to learn more about the subject, which books do you recommend, both fiction and nonfiction?

For non-fiction I would recommend Dawn MacKeen’s The Hundred Year Walk, which just came out to raving reviews. It’s a lovely story of her grandfather’s survival and it explains the past but also points to what’s happening now in the Middle East. There are some great novels about the topic. My three favorites are Micheline Marcom’s Three Apples Fell From Heaven, Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle and Antonia Aslan’s Skylark Farm. There are dozens more including one from Chris Bohjalian called Sandcastle Girls.

What has been the highlight of being a debut novelist? Being an Indie Next pick, an Amazon Top 25 of 2015 book, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, the Center for Fiction first novel nomination?

One highlight is receiving letters and emails from readers who’ve been impacted by the novel. I never imagined the lovely things people would say about my words. It is a surreal and wonderful experience and it’s been happening at least once a week since the book came out last April. I’m incredibly grateful for the reception the book has had, but to be honest, the very best part of this journey has been and remains the hours I spend writing. That is my prayer, my religion and my privilege. It’s not always easy but it’s always rewarding. (Even on bad days when I want to throw my laptop into a ditch, I’m still grateful I get to write. To try.)

What are you working on now?

It’s a secret. No, just kidding. I am working on two things at once. I have no idea which of the two will take fire, but it’s exciting. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’m stepping way outside my comfort zone. I don’t know how readers will react, but I’ll worry about that after I’ve finished writing.

How has social media changed the landscape for writers, especially those early in their career?

Social media is a great way to create community and converse with other writers and readers. It’s only a problem if it gets in the way of your writing. I’m sure some people can tweet and work on their novels at the same time, but I’m not one of them. I have to limit social media so I don’t have any of those apps on my phone or my laptop. I have them on an iPad that I use in my leisure time. Like a lot of other things, it can be a double-edged sword.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you as a reader and a writer? What have you read recently that has impressed you?

I mentioned some of them earlier. I re-read one of the Russians at least once a year. Having said that, I’m always reading so I’m always discovering new favorites. I’m on a Lidia Yuknavitch kick lately. I loved The Small Backs of Children. And Josh Weil’s The Great Glass Sea blew me away. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. I could go on and on.

Are there any books you especially like that you think have been unfairly overlooked?

Oh, so many. I don’t understand why some books get the attention they do, while others are ignored. I do believe there’s a benefit to living in Brooklyn and/or having an MFA. Like in any business, connections matter when it comes to coverage and who gets reviewed, etc. I do think gatekeepers like agents and editors are important. But the writer can’t worry about anything beyond the page. I worry about the words and let the rest take care of itself, or not.

Do you have any recommendations for standout fiction by women for the passionate readers of this blog?

Many of the writers I’ve mentioned here are women and women of color. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is an excellent short story collection. I love Susan Straight both as a person and a writer. I thought the structure of Naomi Williams’s Landfalls was very interesting. Again, I can go on for pages.