Aline Ohanesian Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Aline Ohanesian

Aline Ohanesian

An interview with Aline Ohanesian

Aline Ohanesian describes being moved to tears while writing her debut novel, Orhan's Inheritance, and how the power of words can forge an identity.

Kathy: I was struck when I first read your novel—and in subsequent edits—by how heartfelt it is, and how vivid. Was that richness and honesty the result of your personal connection to the story? Was it influenced by your family's traditions and travels?

Aline: My entire life, the landscape of my grandparents' villages loomed large in my imagination. I'm not sure if other hyphenated Americans are this way, and by that I mean Argentinean-Americans, Mexican-Americans, et cetera, but even three or four generations later, most Armenian-Americans can tell you exactly which villages their grandparents hailed from. So yes, I had an intimate relationship with the land even before I started writing.

As I started writing, I realized that there was a great deal that was familiar to me: the tastes and smells of the cooking, the aesthetics of the landscape, the sound of certain slang words both in Armenian and in Turkish. Of course, I also did a great deal of research. I have a master's degree in History and I spend a good year reading primary and secondary sources, as well as histories of the region and time period.

What was it like to have your great-grandmother tell you her incredible story of exile, especially since you were so young when she did so?

Both my paternal grandparents were survivors. In fact, they met in an orphanage in Lebanon. But the first person who bequeathed her story to me was my maternal great-grandmother. I use the word bequeath because the story she laid before me was like a precious gift. I was only eight when she gave me a detailed account of her ordeal and subsequent escape. Even at that age, I understood that her words were all she had of her past and that I was to be their guardian. Being able to share her story and the story of what happened to millions like her is emotionally the most rewarding thing I've ever done. It wasn't uncommon for me to burst into tears while writing certain scenes. There were times when I was definitely channeling the emotions and thoughts of those who came before me.

But clearly, the love affair was all your own creation (though convincingly so).

I love a good love story. I mean, who doesn't? There is so much darkness in this story that I knew I had to balance it with a love affair that was pure and good. What Kemal and Lucine feel for one another is perfectly natural. Love has a way of minimizing differences but I find the old adage about love conquering anything a bit naïve. I also wanted to insert bits of comic relief, and Fatma was this feisty loose cannon of a character who kept inserting her humor and cunning into the novel.

Without giving too many secrets of the plot away, a few of your main characters have questionable lineage and many of them go through life with more than one name. What did you want to suggest about the role of identity?

So much of Orhan's Inheritance is about the power of words, and names in particular. Elie Wiesel has said, "A name has its own history and its own memory. It connects beings with their origins." We leverage so much control in the naming and renaming of people, places, and events. What we call something matters; it impacts how that thing or person is perceived and how he or she interacts with the world.

Imagine if we insisted on using the word massacre to describe the Holocaust. It would be blasphemous. The same is true for what happened in 1915 with the Armenian Genocide. When certain characters are renamed in this novel, either by others or by themselves, it allows them to operate from a slightly different consciousness, allows them to go forward from a slightly different origin story.

Even to this day, Turkey does not acknowledge that these events took place—why do you think that is? Or is this too difficult of a question to answer?

I think stories are how we create our identity. The stories we choose to tell and those we'd rather not tell help create our identity. The same is true for nations. Turkey is not the only country in the world that chooses to reveal some of its past and to suppress or deny other parts. The United States still celebrates Columbus discovering America when we all know there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans living here for thousands of years before he ever sailed his ship. The only difference, and it's a major one, is that in the United States, we have free speech. I'm allowed to say what I just did without being persecuted for it. That's not the case in Turkey. Hidden stories or stories that don't toe the line with the national narrative are forced to stay hidden. Unfortunately, the Turkish government has a long history of persecuting dissenting novelists and journalists.

How much time have you spent time in Turkey? When did you go and was it a positive experience or a difficult one?

I went to the city of Sivas and some surrounding villages in 2012 with my husband. I felt so many contradictory feelings on that trip. There was this acute sense of familiarity and belonging coupled with insurmountable grief. I don't speak Turkish fluently, so a very brave Turkish couple acted as my guides and translators. We spent hours trying to find the village of one of my favorite Armenian poets who died in the genocide. We did finally find it, though it had been renamed. (Again, the power to rename someone, something, or someplace is undeniable.) There was no running water and the villagers were burning cow dung for fuel. Nothing had changed except that any evidence of the 100 percent Armenian population in 1915 had been eradicated. A one-hundred-year-old structure with Armenian inscriptions had been converted to a barn, and the cemetery didn't have a single Armenian gravestone. We were heading out of the village, two Armenians and two Turks, and the air in our tiny rental car was heavy with emotion, when I spotted this rectangular marble slab in this shabby building made of poured cement. We immediately stopped the car to take a closer look. An Armenian grave marker had been repurposed as a cornerstone. I translated the Armenian letters. Here was a tiny speck of evidence of the people who once lived on this land. Finding that stone pierced my heart, but it also gave me a glimmer of hope that the stories of the victims will live on. They can be found, if you look long and hard enough.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by Aline Ohanesian at BookBrowse
Orhan's Inheritance jacket
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