Diaspora Conference Highlights New Generation of Scholars


By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — While veteran academics such as Kevork Bardakjian and Richard Hovannisian could be spotted on the program and in the audience at the three-day conference, “International Conference and Student Workshop on the Armenian Diaspora,” held at Boston University, February 12-14, the podium was occupied largely by a younger generation of scholars in their 20s, 30s and 40s. And this is good news for the field of Armenian studies.

In fact, the entire first day of the conference featured papers by graduate students who hailed from places as far-flung as the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), Universite de Montreal and the University of Chicago.
Perhaps the most startling statement came early in the day when Kebranian harshly criticized Peter Balakian’s editorial in the New York Times, titled “Bones” (12/7/08), describing his trip to Der Zor where he pocketed bone fragments and bits of soil, as a mere “tourist” action, and a kind of desecration.

Kebranian also stated that “the richness of Armenian culture tends to be reduced to the Genocide,” which, she said, leads to the culture of victimhood. In her written abstract, Kebranian stated, “[This] paper suggests that by privileging this discourse, the Armenian Diaspora, especially its American wing, conforms to a wider Western discourse of human rights that renders Armenian Diasporic identity in exceedingly politicized terms, in turn muting and/or debilitating more authentic Armenian cultural expressions.” She continued in her spoken remarks to say, “Armenians suffer from a Diaspora obsession with the Genocide…that has reduced Armenian narratives to a single story.”

Joyce Apsel of New York University, in her paper, “Teaching the Armenian Genocide in North America: New Resources, Programs and Integration within Genocide Studies,” praised the Zoryan Institute for its expanding for its expanding summer curriculum on the teaching of the Genocide. However, she said there were still many gaps in the curriculum.

Rubina Peroomian from UCLA tackled the subject of third-generation Armenian-American writers in her paper, titled, “The Third-Generation Armenian-American Writers Echo the Quest for Self Identity with the Genocide at its Core.” She noted that the generation which actually endured the Geocide produced many memoirs, while the second generation, faced with the challenges of assimilating and moving to new worlds, was largely silent. She said, “The third generation seeks catharsis and no matter how deeply assimilated, carries within them the memory of the Genocide.” Writers she noted include Peter Balakian (Black Dog of Fate) and Micheline Aharonian Marcom (Three Apples Fell from Heaven) and noted that “continued denial prevents healing.”

Susan Pattie (University College, London) in her paper, “Constructing Narratives of Belonging among Armenians in the Diaspora,” stressed the change that is taking place in the Armenian narrative, now that an independent nation state is developing.

Sebouh Aslanian’s fascinating presentation focused on the Armenian translation of an immense historical work, Charles Rollins’ History of Rome. Published first in Paris in 1739, its 16 volumes were published by the Mekhitarist monks in Venice, when Edward Raphael Gharamiants, an Armenian-Indian merchant, left a large bequest to the Armenian Catholics of Venice on condition the Rollins work be translated.

In his abstract, Aslanian comments, “…this history demonstrates how the life-story of this merchant and his preoccupation with Rollins’ work can help illuminate the complex networks of circulation that connected the Mekhitarist cultural revival movement in Venice to the far-flung Armenian settlements in the Indian Ocean and India.”

More than one presenter, and George Sharinian spoke of the need for far more translation of Armenian literature.

The first afternoon segment of the program dealt with the issue of repatriation. Sevan Yousefian of UCLA in his paper, “Picnics for Repatriates,” focused on the Nor Sebastia community that formed outside of Yerevan and its union activities, while Astrig Atamian of the Institut National des Langues et Civilixtions Orientales (INALCO), Paris discussed the role of the French-Armenian Communists during the repatriations. In 1947, one of every 10 French Armenians moved to the Soviet Republic of Armenia.

Kari Neely of Middle Tennessee University concentrated on the work of one writer, Kevork Ajemian, who, she says, was a unique voice in Armenian literature and politics and a founding member of the Armenian Society for the Liberation of Armenia.

The final segment of the Saturday session dealt with the depiction of the Armenian experience in works of art and included talks by Helin Anahit of Middlesex University, London, Emily Artinian of Chelsea College of Art and Design, Londong Christopher Atamian from New York, Charles Garoian from the Pennsylvania State School of Visual Arts, Neery Melkonian from New York and Abelina Galustian from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The conference as a whole offered a broad panoply of perspectives on the Armenian Diaspora and is certainly one of the most diverse and far reaching forums in the recent history of Armenian studies. Saturday’s panels were introduced by Simon Payaslian of Boston University, Marc Mamigonian of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), Jo Laycock from the University of Manchester, Hrayr Anmahouni from La Crescenta, Calif., and George Shirinian, director of the Zoryan Institute.

The vigor and variety of the presenters and their topics, as well as the relative youth of most of the participants would seem to bode well for the future of Armenian studies, a field that has often struggled to attract committed students.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Charles K. and Elizabeth M. Kenosian Chair in Modern Armenian History and Literature at Boston University, currently held by Payaslian and the International Institute for Diaspora Studies, a division of the Zoryan Institute in Toronto.