The publication of this English translation of Armenian-American Sketches by Bedros Keljik is a landmark in the literary life of our community. When the Armenian-American community transitioned to being predominantly English-speaking in the 1950s and thereafter, our literary life also went through a transition. We have been fortunate in developing an English-language Armenian-American literature, starting with the works of William Saroyan — such as The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934) and My Name Is Aram (1940) — as well as Leon Surmelian’s brilliant memoir (recently back in print), I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen (1945). These were followed by the establishment of the sadly now-defunct literary quarterly Ararat, published by the AGBU for some 50 years, and the appearance of well-known names like Diana Der-Hovanessian and Peter Balakian.
Unfortunately, the Armenian-language literary scene which existed in the US in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, in periodicals such as Baikar’s special annual issues, Hayrenik Monthly, and Nor Kir (an independent quarterly), did not survive the transition. And while many people have worked hard for many years so that we would have at our disposal English translations of famous Armenian authors like Naregatsi, Raffi, Siamanto, and Krikor Zohrab, very few translations have been made of the early Armenian-American immigrant authors who wrote in Armenian. This has created a rather strange situation. The second and third generation Armenian-Americans, most of whom only speak English, have access to the Armenian poets of old Constantinople but not to the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of the immigrant writers who were the contemporaries of their own grandparents. On the other hand, some of these writers did gain enough renown in the Armenian community to be taught in Diaspora Armenian schools. The outcome is that someone who grew up attending Armenian schools in 1960s Beirut is more likely to be familiar with the works of Hamasdegh, who immigrated to Boston in 1913 and published stories about his childhood in Kharpert, than are the very grandchildren of the Kharpertsis who immigrated to America at the time that Hamasdegh did — regardless of how involved they are in the community and how many translations of authors like Toumanian, Isahakian, or Tekeyan they have on their shelves.
Keljik the Man
The present volume is a wonderful first step in remedying this lack. Author Bedros Keljik led a remarkable life. Born in Kharpert in 1874, he attended the famous Getronagan School of Kharpert, founded by its principal and teacher of Armenian language and literature, Hovhannes Haroutunian, who, under the pen-name Tlgadintsi, became the founder of the Western Armenian school of provincial literature.
A part of the first graduating class of the school in 1890 along with legendary writer Roupen Zartarian, Keljik promptly left for America after completing his studies. After living in Worcester, Boston, New York and Chicago, Keljik settled in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1899 where he started an oriental rug business still run by his grandson, Mark Keljik.
Bedros Keljik was part of the large Kharpertsi clan originally named Geoljukian which originated in the Kharpert district’s village of Dzovk on the shores of the lake of the same name, which was called in Turkish “Geoljuk.” Many members of this family came to America, including successful businessmen and professionals, writers and musicians, and active leaders in the Armenian church and community. To just mention immediate relatives of Bedros Keljik, his brother Krikor was a writer who used the pen-name Devrish and worked with Bedros in the rug business, and his nephew, Vahan Totovents, who had already been published as a teenager in Turkey, came to America and worked in the rug store when he wasn’t attending classes at the University of Wisconsin. Totovents left the Midwest for the Caucasus to fight as a volunteer when the Genocide began, and became the personal secretary of General Antranig. Settling in Soviet Armenia after the Genocide, his stories of his Kharpert childhood, written in Eastern Armenian, made him one of the foremost prose writers of the Soviet period until he was killed in the Stalinist purges.