David Kherdian: A Life Saved by Writing


By Armen Festekjian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — A recent interview with David Kherdian felt more like an educational journey through human development than a discussion focused on his latest books and poems.

A lifelong poet, novelist and thinker, Kherdian is living a peaceful life in this quiet Western Massachusetts community. He didn’t always live in such a rural setting; he grew up in an industrial town in Wisconsin, a son of survivors of the Armenian Genocide at a time when immigrants in the US were not embraced.

Sitting by the window in the living room, his tone deepening as he recalled the past, the innate storyteller began to weave his words into an image of a young, confused, and troubled boy, caught between the two separate worlds of an American future and an ancient, traditional Armenian past.

“There was a great deal in our collective past that was troublesome,” he said. “Then there was discrimination in the school, and there were times I was flunked simply because I was a minority. These things affected my personality, and my attitude towards life, as well as my attitude towards people.”

However, as the young Kherdian matured, he realized that he had to understand for himself the unsettling past he had inherited from his ancestors, as well as the tortured past of his parents. All of this had to be put into order for him to move forward with his life.

“To be inhibited by these [complications] is to become enslaved by them if we do not free ourselves,” he said.

Kherdian was 19, he said, when realized that “if I didn’t get the first 12 years of my life straightened out, I would never become an adult, much less a free man.” With this inner freedom as his goal, Kherdian began looking back on his childhood, and it was only then that he discovered his talent for writing and realized he could use this skill to set himself free from the traumas of his parents’ lives, that is, once he began shaping his identity and controlling his destiny.

Thus, for him, writing became an act of healing, through which he could gain peace with himself.

It was not long before his writing began to expand from being therapeutic into something that could bring meaning and understanding to others. In freeing himself with his stories and poems, he could reach others and allow them to heal.

“If what I had discovered for myself liberated me,” he said, “that meant others could participate in similar pursuits, and not necessarily in writing, but in creative remembering — and in whatever form they found appealing. The important thing is to question, to enquire, to explore, to examine. Art at its best is a liberation from what is to what can be, an opening to a higher dimension of reality, beauty and strength.”

Although he considers himself a poet, Kherdian spent much of his time writing novels, autobiographies and anthologies. “I had to make a living in writing, so for me poetry was a luxury,” he said. During these 25 years he made a living in writing, he would get up in the morning and work until noon “[writing] anywhere from roughly 500 to 2,000 words a day.”

William Saroyan, towards the end of his writing career, became Kherdian’s mentor. “I was the only protégé he ever had and I was very proud of that. And one of the questions I asked him was, ‘how do you start a story?’ And he said, ‘Well, you write. And it may start on the fourth page; it may not start on the first page. You may have to write a while and then some day you say, oh this is it.’”

Kherdian has written hundreds of poems and scores of books, including his most famous work, The Road From Home, written in 1979. In this Newbery Honor novel, he recreates his mother’s voice in telling the true story of a childhood interrupted in 1915 by the Armenian Genocide. “I never called it my book, I called it my mother’s book, I did it for her as a gift,” he said enthusiastically. He and his wife, Nonny Hogogrian, have collaborated often in children’s books. In a new children’s book, Come back, Moon, Hogogrian provided the illustrations and Kherdian wrote the words.

While writing a novel or an autobiography takes time and determination, “poetry is a very different animal,” said Kherdian. “You cannot start a poem; a poem starts in you. And there are moments — maybe once a year — suddenly a power appears inside of you and you have a connection to the unconscious that you don’t have ordinarily. And you find that you want to write something, you begin to write something, your being touched by something way beyond you and transmitting this energy.”

Kherdian has recently finished writing a retelling of the legend of David of Sassoun. Seeing that very few Armenian-Americans are familiar with this story, to which Kherdian refers as “a symbol of our Armenian nation,” he saw the inspirational potential of putting the tale into his own words.

Kherdian was ahead of his time in discovering that through writing he was able to repair his relationship with his father, who had long since passed from this earth. As a memoirist, working interchangeably with poetry, fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction, he found a new method for inner transformation, but he likes to say that these creative discoveries are in the air and come to us for a purpose higher than our own needs. “We are meant to bring what we find into the light of consciousness for the purposes of our planet.” Many of Kherdian’s works can be found on Amazon as well as his personal website at www.davidkherdian.com.