Aris Janigian, left, with Susan Barba (photo: Aram Arkun)

Janigian Discusses with Susan Barba His Novels, Literature and Life

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WATERTOWN – The Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA) Boston Chapter and the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) New England District presented a literary evening on May 15 with California novelist Aris Janigian and Susan Barba, poet and editor, as discussant.

TCA Executive Director Aram Arkun thanked the AGBU and its local chairman Ara Balikian, traveling that week, for cosponsoring the event and introduced the new chairwoman of the TCA Greater Boston Chapter, Dr. Aida Yavshayan, who presented the biographies of the two speakers.

Janigian started the evening with a reading from his third novel, This Angelic Land. To make it accessible, he first provided some context. He explained that he chose as the most appropriate character to witness the destruction of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 a refugee from violence of the Beirut Civil War, Adam Derderian. The other main characters also are Middle Eastern. One of them is the Kurd, the best friend of Adam and a painter. Adam’s brother Eric, a documentary filmmaker, comes to Los Angeles to figure out what happened to Adam and speaks with the Wizard, an old Jewish mentor of Adam.

Barba said that this novel forms a bridge between Janigian’s heart-wrenching first two novels, Bloodvine, about two American-born Armenian half-brothers torn apart over a disagreement about a plot of land in 1950s Fresno, and Riverbig, the sequel, and his later works. They focus on the first-and second-generation Armenians in the US, whereas This Angelic Land moves forward 30 years or so.

In 1992, Janigian explained, he was living in Los Angeles, 32-years-old, in the mid-Wilshire area when the riots started. He said he had written three novels before his first published novel. He was working on a new novel when the riots happened but dropped that to work on this new topic and write his observations. However, Janigian said, “It was so complicated, the feelings I had watching the city go up in flames. Essentially I put the story aside for 18 years.” When the 20th anniversary of the riots were coming up he thought to revisit it and got advice from Arno Yeretzian of Abril Bookstore, who suggested making the main character Lebanese. That gave so many parallels (Lebanon and Los Angeles, the old world and the new, the Armenian Genocide) that it jumpstarted Janigian’s work.

Barba pointed out that though there is much action, the dialogue is what moves this novel. She queried Janigian on a shift in the later books compared to the earlier ones. In the earlier books the main characters do not have mentors and are left alone to fall back on their own resources when they confront challenges. What changed, she wondered?

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Janigian replied that Bloodvine was based on his father’s life, as he had a relationship with his brother that came to a catastrophic end, about which he never talked. Janigian did not even know that he had an uncle until he was around 12. He wrote the book after his father died to recreate what happened.

Janigian said that he himself had great mentors, like his own father, whereas his father’s father had died early. In Bloodvine people escape the old world into the new. There is a conflict on how to become American while remaining Armenian and America, not a person, offers a way to guide Andy Demerjian, the protagonist, but in Riverbig that project fails him. In his later books, there are younger characters who are already part of this country. Though Adam is an émigré, he is young enough, astute enough, with many people around him, to become sophisticated.

Barba thought there were a lot more questions in the first two novels. Andy Demerjian’s being on his own and asking big questions are what makes it poignant. Andy asks himself whether Abe is a bad person, she commented, what made him so, and could he be redeemed.

Barba said she likes the farming metaphors Janigian uses, such as grafting, and asked Janigian to comment on it. Janigian said that though he was a farmer’s son, he was raised in the nearby city. His father had polio and therefore hard labor was difficult for him but he did it every day, and Janigian would see its effects up close. Every day he would pull off his father’s boots to give his feet relief.

Later in life he took over his father’s business, in the grape industry, and he continues to this day to work at least two months a year in the fields. Farming, he said, is like watching fate come at you. The rain, for example, can destroy “your beautiful grapes” and there is nothing one can do. In one night, mice may come and desiccate the vines. “Farming is a struggle with nature,” he concluded, “and farmers are very interesting people. They are pragmatic, they are philosophical, they are narrowminded at the same time that they are generous. They are very interesting people to write about and no one writes about them.”

The Tekeyan members with the speakers: from left, Vatché Der Torossian, Sarkis Gavlakian, Dr. Aida Yavshayan, Aram Arkun, Susan Barba, Aris Janigian and Sossy Yogurtian (photo: Aram Arkun)

The reason, he said, is that writers tend to live in urban settings like New York City and therefore have little knowledge of farming life. Furthermore, the successful writers form a sort of club or network which is hard to penetrate from the outside. Janigian has never been, for example, to even one writing convention or conference, which he feels puts him at a disadvantage in promoting his work. Nonetheless, Janigian said he loves to use farming life as “a foil to the decadence and the abstractness of city life, which is mostly the literary scene. So there is part of me that is a jester in the literary scene.”

Janigian said that not only does no one write about farmers, no one likes to read about them.

Barba asked what had changed in American society since John Steinbeck (1902-1968), who was an enormously popular writer dealing with agriculture. Janigian said many fewer people live on farms or have any connection with farming. There has always been a contempt for farmers among city people, going back to Egypt and definitely Greece. He said, “I think the abstractness of life now with the internet and social media has reached a point where we are almost devouring ourselves.”

He added that writing about Armenians makes for an even tougher sell than just about farming. However, he emphasized, “Now for me, Armenians are important and interesting because their story is like the archetypal human story, especially as immigrants. All the drama of human history is linked up to them in a way that you can’t have a better people to talk about if you are going to talk about the American experience especially.” Attempts to pigeonhole this type of writing as merely ethnic literature are false, he said, because American literature is ethnic literature.

Janigian said, “If my books still sell, at least I know some Armenians are going to buy them…I hope that people can learn our stories through these novels. They are beautiful stories. They are rich stories. They are the human experience. They are the American experience.”

Aris Janigian (Aram Arkun photo)

When asked from the audience about his literary influences, Janigian started with William Saroyan, whom he would see riding his bike on occasion, when he lived two blocks away from Janigian, or at the public library. He would be awestruck, he said, and Saroyan became a very big influence on his life. His biggest literary influences, Janigian said, were William Faulkner, a rigorous writer who liked to tell stories, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard and Cormac McCarthy.

Janigian said that he writes three to four hours daily and that being a writer “is mysterious and magical,” as he nourishes intimate relationships with the characters he creates. Janigian said, “It teaches you about what you are not. Everybody wants to be what they are but writers are what they are not. This is why I think I want to be a writer. I want to not be me. I am sick of me already….I want to be other people.” However, he feels that despite the power of literature, with changes in contemporary culture and society, “we are losing this great thing. It is very, very sad. It is slowly dying. No doubt about it.”

Janigian said that he is changing focus with his new book, Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach. It follows Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont as part of a planned trilogy. He said that it is about political correctness, sexual politics and academia. A professor is waiting for a doctoral student of his whom he hopes to seduce, while he faces charges of sexual harassment from an undergraduate student. With a laugh, Janigian said that it is very controversial. In fact, the publisher of his last novel, which did so well that it spent 17 weeks on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list, refused to publish this book, stating that it would bring down his press. Janigian said everyone rejected it, even the French.

Janigian believes, he said, that many of our concerns today are a result of decadence and indeed that we are living in a period of decadence. In his new novel, he has a quote to the effect that puritanism is a reaction against decadence, but there is also a type of puritanism which is a final phase or refinement of decadence. His new book fleshes this idea out.

(first excerpt from the lecture)

 

 

(for the second video excerpt, see below:

https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=J4idMUupG4s

 

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