By Alin K. Gregorian
LOS ANGELES — Since 2015, the year marking the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, the floodgates have opened to mark this bitter anniversary not only with documentaries, but through art. The Armenian Genocide has served as a backdrop for many movies, books or paintings this past year and even now.
One novel that has received rave reviews and seen huge sales has been Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian. The hardcover came out in 2015 and after a tremendous reception, the paperback was published earlier this year.
The book combines the tender story of love-struck teens amidst the background of the Armenian Genocide, uprooting and death, while also telling the contemporary story of a young Turkish man who upon the death of his grandfather, realizes that the family’s homestead has been willing to an old Armenian woman in a Los Angeles nursing home.
The story captures the experiences of a well-to-do Armenian family right at the start of the Armenian Genocide. Of course, it is crushing to read how they are going about their lives, not realizing that the end is near.
Ohanesian’s book didn’t just get reviewed; it got raves in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.
“The credit goes to my publisher, Algonquin Books, and I suppose to fate or kismet. All publishers send books to these publications. Very few of them get reviewed and even fewer get favorable reviews.”
And not only did the book get raves in newspapers, it became a book group favorite and endorsed by many other groups and writers.
The book was a #1 Indie Next Pick for the month of April 2015, a Barnes & Noble Discover Selection, an Amazon Top 100 Book of the Year, and a Library Journal Editor’s Pick. The book was also long listed for the prestigious 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
“I started writing this book in 2007. I had no contacts in the industry and had no idea if it would ever publish. The timing of the release was not intentional. The universe sometimes works in our favor,” she said.
“Every storyteller needs an audience. It is why we write. Pretending otherwise would be disingenuous. I am extremely grateful to people and institutions that recommend the book to others because it means more people will know this story. One of the greatest moments in my life was finding out that the Independent Bookstore Association had chosen it as the #1 pick for April 2015. I love indie booksellers and the idea that they chose my book over all the others was incredible,” she said.
“I was walking in the airport in Portland the other day and spotted my book on a shelf right next to Toni Morison. I gasped audibly. I’m still trying to process all the love this book has received,” said the humble Ohanesian.
The writing process is hard, but in one interview, Ohanesian had said that one day she clearly heard the words of Seda, the older Armenian protagonist stuck in a Los Angeles nursing home, and that her character was born.
When asked if this happens regularly, she joked, “Are you asking me if I regularly hear voices? No, I don’t normally hear voices! It happened in the very beginning and only once, unfortunately. It was the catalyst that brought me to the writing table. I definitely don’t think characters are floating in the ether. Story ideas, emotions, yes. But characters are built over time with a great deal of meditation.”
Reading Orhan’s Inheritance, one would be hard-pressed to guess that this is the first novel for Ohanesian.
She shyly demurred. “I never felt self-assured while writing it. I simply did my best to inhabit the body and psyche of whichever character I happened to be writing about. I never studied writing or literature in school. If I have any training at all it has to do with the fact that I have been a voracious reader and lover of fiction my entire life.”
When asked whether the subject and its closeness to her made it harder or easier to write about, she said, “Both. Easier because I felt I knew this land and these people. Its sorrows and joys were part of my DNA. Harder because there wasn’t enough psychic distance between me and the story. I doubt I will ever be as emotionally vulnerable as I was while writing this book.”
And emotion is certainly present in this book. Ohanesian steers clear of getting cheap tears but deftly brings to life the rich Armenian family whose daughters are caretakers of their family. Their mother, a woman who fancies herself an artist and had hoped to live abroad, is in the depths of a depression after the arrest of her brother. The father is trying to run their textile business but day by day it becomes clearer that the Armenians’ fate is not an enviable one. Add to this mix a young Turkish boy and his father who work for this family and you have a microcosm of the fate of the Armenians.
Ohanesian is a descendent of Genocide survivors. She was born in Kuwait to Armenian parents who had come from Lebanon and Syria. “I came to Los Angeles at the age of 4 and have lived here ever since,” she said in a recent interview.
“My maternal great-grandmother, Elizabeth Arslanian, was a survivor. I knew her as a child and she was the one who first told me about the genocide. My paternal grandparents were also survivors. They met as orphans in Lebanon,” she noted.
One of the striking things about the book is that the characters are not black and white; the delicacy of the teens’ love or the violence of their separation and different fates come through with a light touch.
“I relate in different ways to different characters. The difficulty of writing from a character’s perspective has very little to do with their gender or race. It has more to do with who they are on the inside, their values, their soul,” she said. “It was easier to write from Orhan’s perspective than it was his father’s. Orhan is a kind decent person and an artist/ photographer. It was easier for me to relate to him than his religiously extreme, close-minded father.”
Ohanesian said that she admires the works of Turkish authors who tackle the issue of the Armenian Genocide, including Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk.
“I admire both those writers tremendously and have read all their works,” she said, adding, “I don’t think it’s my place to compare my writing with theirs.”
The story takes place in the Sivas province as well as Istanbul, which Ohanesian has visited. She added that her family hails from Adana and Antep, but that she has not visited those regions yet. “I would definitely go back to Turkey. I’d like to visit the eastern provinces with my sons,” she noted.
Currently there are no plans to turn the book into a movie, but Ohanesian said that she is looking for a film agent.
Ohanesian is currently working on her next novel, “a reimagining of one of one of Western Civilization’s founding narratives.”
She noted that she is also touring with the paperback version of Orhan’s Inheritance.
Orhan’s Inheritance, published by Algonquin Books, is available at Amazon and bookstores across the nation.