Literary Bridges: Armenian-American Writer Peter Sourian in Armenia


Peter Sourian at Gandzasar

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

YEREVAN — Armenian-American writer Peter Sourian traveled to Armenia and Artsakh in early December to give a number of lectures and participate in the presentation of a collection of his short stories, together with one essay, published recently in Yerevan. The book tour was organized by the Writers Union of Armenia as part of its new “Literary Bridges” program, with the assistance of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Armenia. The goal of this program is to establish connections between Armenians writing in non-Armenian languages in the diaspora, and an Armenian readership in the republic as part of a process of cultural exchange and enrichment.

Sourian, born in Boston in 1933 but raised in New York, is the author of three novels —Miri (1957), The Best and Worst of Times (1961) and The Gate (1965). He has published a book of essays and criticism called At the French Embassy in Sofia (1992), and a number of short stories. Deeply influenced by French literature and culture, Sourian writes poetry in French and has done translations from French into English. A number of his works have Armenian themes, especially The Gate.

At the Writers Union in Yerevan, from left, Sourian, Berch Zeytuntsyan, Levon Ananyan and Karpis Surenian

Sourian’s first novel has been translated into German and Swedish, but this is the first time that a volume of his works has been published in Armenian. Titled Entrik otarneri het [Supper Among Strangers], it contains seven short stories, one essay and an introduction by David Stephen Calonne. One of the stories, “Freedom of Expression,” has never been published before in any language, while the other pieces first appeared in English in publications such as Playboy, Saturday Evening Post and Ararat (New York City). Introducing Sourian’s work in Armenian was the idea of veteran translator Aram Arsenyan, who was responsible for translating the entire collection.

Despite his venerable reputation as a leading member of the second generation of Armenian- American writers — and a writer who was termed by no less than William Saroyan as his worthy successor — the Armenian public up until now, with a limited number of exceptions, was unfamiliar with Sourian’s work. As Levon Ananyan, head of the Writers Union and the man instrumental in organizing Sourian’s visit, exclaimed on several occasions, Sourian was being “returned” to Armenia thanks to Aram Arsenyan’s translations and also through Sourian’s physical presence, brief though it might be.

In Armenia, Sourian had a full schedule. He usually was accompanied by Ananyan and Arsenyan of Armenia, Aram Arkun of New York (editor of the new book) and various well-known Armenian writers. Sourian and his new volume were first presented at a press conference at the Writers Union on December 6, at which many Armenian writers were present. Perch Zeytuntsyan recalled meeting Sourian many years ago in New York, though only later did he have the opportunity to read his works. Zeytuntsyan complimented Sourian’s delicate and unique style of writing. Arsenyan pointed out that Sourian was respected as a university professor, an American television and film critic and of course as an Armenian-American writer. Karpis Surenyan, Artem Harutyunyan, Yervand Petrosyan, Artur Andranikyan and Aram Arkun also spoke about Sourian.

Sourian lectures at the V. Brusyov Yerevan State Linguistic University, with Diana Hambardzumyan and Aram Arsenyan seated behind him

That afternoon, Sourian gave a talk to a large audience of more than 100 at Yerevan State University, translated into Armenian by Arkun, on the critical importance of literature. He showed how literature is important for the survival of the Armenians as a people, the maintenance of a free society and the development of enlightened youth. Sourian was moved to be able to interact with the new generation of Armenians. As he said afterwards, “It sounds phony, but it isn’t. I was thrilled to see many of those young people.”

Sourian with students and faculty at Gumri; Vartevan Grigoryan fourth from the left

The following day, the anniversary of the 1988 earthquake, Sourian went to Gumri to lay flowers at the monument to the dead in the city and then spoke to more than 100 students of the Mikayel Nalbandyan State Pedagogical Institute, the main institution of higher learning in Gumri, together with intellectuals of the city. This meeting was particularly moving not only because Sourian shared the sorrow of the Gumri Armenians. His talk and interaction with the students made them feel that they were remembered on such a day, and that Armenian intellectuals of the diaspora considered it important and worthwhile to spend time in this ancient and important Armenian center.

At the Pedagogical Institute, Sourian became acquainted with Vartevan Grigoryan, rector (president) of the university and Sergo Hayrapetyan, dean of its faculty of history and philology. Sourian also visited the headquarters of the Writers Union in Gumri, where he met its head, Andranik Karapetyan, Stepan Mikayelian, a local poet and children’s author and the poet Samvel Margaryan.

When asked what the significance of this visit was for him, Sourian responded: “This is a difficult question to answer, not because it is intrinsically difficult, but because it is a question whose answer requires the most profound and humble respect. Do I dare to say that meeting with these young people starting out in life, rising from the ashes, gave me joy? It was a privilege for me to be there. It was also a privilege to meet at length with some of their teachers and for me personally, especially, with some of the writers of the Writers Union, my comrades.” On December 8, Sourian lectured on the role and influence of Western literature in Armenia to some 40 students of the V. Bryusov Yerevan State Linguistic University under Prof. Diana Hambardzumyan’s supervision in the morning and in the afternoon, on the evolution of young writers and scholars to again roughly the same number of students at the Department of Philology of the Romance and Germanic Languages of Yerevan State University. That day ended with a meeting with Minister of the Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan, who spoke about the ministry’s activities since its establishment two years ago and its plans for the future, which include the promotion of Armenian literature in the diaspora.

From left, Aram Arsenyan, Sourian and Levon Ananyan, at the medieval cemetery of Noraduz

On December 9, Sourian left Yerevan for Artsakh together with Ananyan, Arkun and Artem Harutyunyan, a famous poet originally from Artsakh. On the way, he stopped in Kashatagh or Lachin Region of the Republic of Mountainous Karabagh and visited Berdzor’s Vahan Tekeyan School, originally called the Hambardzum Galstyan Middle School, a school supported through the Tekeyan Cultural Association. Sourian felt that while driving from Yerevan, he was privileged to view, “over several hours, one of the most extraordinary landscapes that I have ever seen in my life.”

In Artsakh, Sourian visited the Grigor Narekatsi University, where he gave a brief talk about his work to a large audience after being introduced by poet Vardan Hakobyan, who is president of the university and Arkun. Minister of Education and Science Vladimir Khachatryan, renowned for his bravery as a commander during the fighting in Karabagh, spoke about the importance of relations with the diaspora. Sourian was impressed by the writers he met in Artsakh. He pointed out the following about their common profession: “It is almost like the priesthood for me. This is a sacrifice. You know that the chances of getting much more than a pat on the back are slim, but they do it anyway.”

In the early evening, Sourian was received by President Bako Sahakyan of the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh, together with Davit Babayan, policy advisor to the president, and Minister Khachatryan. The next day Sourian saw the medieval church of Gandzasar and the imposing cathedral of Shushi, as well as the excavations of the newly-discovered ancient city of Tigranakert.

After returning to Yerevan, on December 12, Sourian visited Oshagan to place flowers on the tomb of St. Mashtots, the man who in many ways was responsible for Armenian literature and then met with Bishop Mkrtich Proshian, primate of the Diocese of Aragatsotsn.

Levon Ananyan characterized this trip and the first publication of Sourian’s writing in Armenian, as an extremely important experience for Armenia. Ananyan declared that next year, the process of translating The Gate into Armenian would be initiated.

The trip was perhaps even more important for Sourian. This was only Sourian’s second voyage to Armenia and he was deeply affected by the warm reception both as an Armenian, and, psychologically, as a writer. He explained, “If I ever held doubts as to whether I am any good as a writer, those doubts — which I have always had, were assuaged, not in an unexpected way, but in a way that was more gratifying than I might have imagined. For this reason, I feel I must work as hard as I can to justify this reception. I feel that also as an Armenian, without presuming to identify myself with Saroyan, I do want to cite Charents’ response to Saroyan in 1935, in Armenia. After Saroyan said, somewhat apologetically, that I don’t write in Armenian, Charents replied, ‘but you are an Armenian writer all the same.’ And I subscribe to that way of thinking about myself.”

Sourian added that there will be more of the Armenian culture in whatever he will do after this journey: “I am certain that I take away, without any doubt, a great deal from this trip, much more than I might have expected, even though I was eager to come. I don’t answer more specifically, because I am certain it will come out in the work. As Hemingway once said, ‘I don’t want to dissipate what I have in me, by talking about it now.’”

Sourian has three unpublished novels and exclaims that he still has much creative energy in him: “This is one of the reasons why I feel very young for my age. This is not a romantic or empty sentimentality. It is rather that I feel that I have a great deal in me to do, and that my health seems to be good. A lot of what I wrote after my three novels as artistic work for a certain period of time was worthless, but it may turn out to have been a profound preparation and work in a ‘draft’ sense for my future as a writer.”