TCA Pasadena-Glendale Presents Program on Levon Zaven Surmelian


Zareh Sapszian and Sona Khandjian

PASADENA, Calif. — Tekeyan Cultural Association’s Pasadena-Glendale Chapter organized an evening dedicated to the life and literature of the Armenian-American author Levon Zaven Surmelian on Thursday, May 26, at the Beshgeturian Center in Altadena.

Zareh Sapszian, a fiction writer and contributor to Nor Or, was invited to deliver the lecture. Sapszian was born in Aleppo, Syria. He graduated from Karen Yeppe High School, and became a teacher of Armenian language and literature at the Armenian Evangelical High School in  Ainjar, Lebanon. He then moved to the United States, due to the civil war in Lebanon and settled in Los Angeles. He is married and has one daughter.

Sapszian first presented a biographical sketch of the late Surmelian, who was born in Trabzon, Turkey in 1905. Surmelian’s father, Garabed, was a pharmacist and had three other children. He lost his parents during the Armenian Genocide.

When Russia occupied Trabzon in 1916, Surmelian escaped to Batumi, Georgia. In 1918, he moved to Istanbul, Turkey, which was under the control of the Allied Nations, and studied rural economy at Armash. In 1920, he traveled to Armenia with his classmates, to help improve Armenian agriculture. Disappointed in the Soviet regime, he fled back to Batumi, and then returned to Istanbul.

Finally in 1922, Surmelian immigrated to the United States and settled in Kansas. His first order of business was to study English, then further his studies in rural economy. Two years later, he became infected with tuberculosis and traveled to Los Angeles, where he spent four years in a sanitarium to recover from his emaciating disease. He married Zarmig Geurdjian in 1957, but had no children. His wife passed away in 1992 and only two years later, he died.

Introducing Surmelian, Sapszian noted that first and foremost, he was a poet. His first book of poems, titled Joyous Light, was published in 1924. At this point, Sona Khandjian presented a poetic recitation of some of his most famous poems, leaving a lasting impression on the audience.

Surmelian’s first book in English, titled I Ask You Ladies and Gentlemen, was published in 1945 by E. P. Dutton. This autobiographical book became a best seller quickly. His second book, titled 98.6, was published in 1950. The title, 98.6, refers to the temperature of the human body and it tells the story of a young man suffering from tuberculosis.

In 1968, Surmelian published two more books, Apples of Immorality and Techniques of Fiction Writing. The latter became a textbook for literature in universities throughout the United States.

It’s noteworthy to mention that Surmelian’s library and entire wealth was bequeathed to the Armenian General Benevolent Union, which in turn dedicated a state-of-the-art printing facility to honor him in Yerevan, to be used by the writers’ union.

— Kevork Keushkerian