Friday, April 25, 2008

Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian

Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian is a memoir by the descendant of survivors of the Armenian Genocide who ended up in the US. Black Dog of Fate consists of several storylines, which are not always very sharply separated and partly intertwine. The first half or so of the book consists of Balakian's memoirs growing up in suburbia in New jersey in the 1950s and 1960s (Balakian was born in 1951). He grew up knowing he was Armenian, but not knowing anything about the history of his people, let alone why and how they ended up in the US. He was in most ways your average all-American boy, playing ball in the park, playing on the high school American football team, making out with girls in the backseat of the car, rebelling against his parents as a teenager.

No matter how much on the outside his parents and his family seemed integrated into the American lifestyle, inside their house some things were very different. The role of food, for example. Where all Peter's friends were served instant and deep-frozen dinners that were eaten in five minutes, dinner at the Balakian's was a family affair that took time and consisted of several homemade dishes. And then there were the Sunday gatherings of relatives at the Balakian's or Peter's aunts. These gatherings lasted for hours and Armenian food was an important part of them.

Then there was Peter's grandmother who doted on him, her eldest grandson. From time to time, out of the blue, she would tell Peter a snippet of her memories, a story, things that remained unconnected and that Peter didn't understood at all throughout his youth.

This first part of the book goes above and beyond being specifically a memoir of an Armenian youth in the US. It can in many ways be read as the history of an immigrant childhood in the US, maneuvering between being American and keeping one's ethnic heritage.

In his twenties Peter becomes aware of his heritage, of what happened to Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I and of how his own relatives escaped the Genocide and ended up in the US. His family's history forms the second storyline in the book. The third is a more general history of the Armenian Genocide mixed with Balakian's raising awareness of it. It also covers Turkish continuous attempts at denying the Genocide.

Read the full post on my blog here.

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