Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir / Edition 10

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Overview


In this tenth anniversary edition of his award-winning memoir, New York Times bestselling author Peter Balakian has expanded his compelling story about growing up in the baby-boom suburbs of the ’50s and ’60s and coming to understand what happened to his family in the first genocide of the twentieth century—the Ottoman Turkish government’s extermination of more than one million Armenians in 1915.

In this new edition, Balakian continues his exploration of the Armenian Genocide with new chapters about his journey to Aleppo and his trip to the Der Zor desert of Syria in his pursuit of his grandmother’s life, bringing us closer to the twentieth century’s first genocide.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Some memoirs are compelling for the private dramas they make public, others for the historic events to which they give witness and still others for the quality of their prose and its structuring. Precious few excel at all three; Nabokov's "Speak, Memory" remains the standard. Now Balakian, a 45-year-old poet ("Dyer's Thistle") and biographer of Roethke, ups the ante a bit, writing a memoir that not only compels in all three areas but that carries within it an urgent and timely appeal that a dark moment in world history not be revised out of existence. Balakian is of Armenian descent. His mother and father and their mothers and fathers immigrated to America shortly after surviving the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Turks, an event still disputed by some Turkish apologists who on occasion find sympathetic ears in Washington and American academia. At issue are the million or so Armenian Christians raped, murdered, tortured or left to die on a forced march into the desert. Ironically, the young Balakian, growing up in a comfortable New Jersey neighborhood, was sheltered from knowlege of the disaster:. "The word `Armenia' was synonymous with the rooms of my house.... I had never even thought to ask: Where is it?" But spending Friday afternoons as a boy with his oddly magical maternal grandmother, helping her bake choereg, he felt he had "access to some other world... something ancient, something connected to earth and words and blood and sky." This connection, particularly to words, is a notion that Balakian pursues as only a word-loving poet can. The mystical tales and dreams of his grandmother transform over time into body counts, government documents, eyewitness reports quoted at length and family narratives at last given to the curious Balakian. In the book's crowning structural feat, they become the property of Balakian himself. At last, the horrid story is in the words of the poet, and, in this quarter, the genocide becomes real and permanent. "Black Dog of Fate" is neither a grim book nor a polemic, however. It is a memoir about growing up in a wonderfully colorful family filled with artists and scholars. Balakian's evocation of growing up in the New York metropolitan area of the 1950s and '60s will, for many, ring fond bells (Whip 'n' Chill, pajamas with plastic feet, Woodstock, the drone of Allen Ginsberg's harmonium). This story of daring and triumph is at once warm and chilling, a testament to lives lived and lives tragically lost. FYI: Balakian's aunt Nona Balakian was a longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review; Nona's sister Anna is a renowned scholar of surrealism. Both figure prominently in his memoir as figures of encouragement to the young poet-to-be.
Library Journal
In this remarkable memoir, teacher and poet Balakian (Colgate Univ.; "Dyer's Thistle", LJ 2/1/96) recounts his experiences growing up in suburban New Jersey amid a family of 1915 Armenian genocide survivors. The tensions of the old-world ways vs. the new causes more than the usual teenage angst for Balakian. He tells of family gatherings, replete with the delicious smells and tastes of native dishes and with heated discussions of literature and the problems of suburban Americabut not of his relatives' past in Armenia. He gradually breaks through this silence, however, and learns the horror of their treatment at the hands of the Turks, a revelation that has profoundly influenced his life and poetry. Balakian writes with power and poignancy, confronting his past with justified outrage and transforming that outrage into art. An exceptional work; strongly recommended for all libraries. Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
School Library Journal
A poetic reminiscence of growing up in the `60s takes a sharp turn as the author discovers and explores his family's painful memories of the Armenian genocide in the early years of this century. Nov.
USA Today
One of the best memoirs [of the season]....Leaps from the babybooming suburbs of the '50s and '60s to the killing fields of Armenia.
The New Yorker
Richly imagined and carefully documented...asks painful questions of all of us.
Kirkus Reviews
An essential American story of the author's upbringing as the child of Armenian immigrants—and of his gradual discovery of an entire culture's genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915.

For poet Balakian (Colgate Univ.; "Dyer's Thistle", etc.), a Tenafly, New Jersey, childhood circa 1960 revolved around food-centered rituals with relatives, some vividly characterized here, including his grandmother, Nafina Aroosian. While together they baked a sweet bread called choereg, she told him odd, parable- like stories, including one involving the black dog of the book's title. Similarly puzzling were his family's occasional references to the "old country." As a student and young poet the author began to glean bits of this past, but his education in Armenia's sad history didn't really begin until after college, when, in a watershed moment, he picked up the memoir of the US ambassador to Turkey on the eve of the Great War. That text is extensively quoted to re-create Balakian's experience of reading, in rushing, energetic blasts, this difficult-to-fathom saga of persecution, brutality, and murder. Revelation of his own family's experience of the genocide came next. In dreamlike, novelistic prose, Balakian tells of his relative Dovey's suffering on the forced "deportation march" from her Anatolian homeland. The author encounters a "Bishop Balakian's" memoir of the atrocities, which he describes as "like reading a skeleton," the words "like pieces of bone." This and the other excerpted primary sources through which the dead speak provide dramatic perspective, authenticating the nightmare. In light of what Balakian calls the Turkish authorities' "paper trail of denial extend[ing] to the present," he insists that commemoration is an essential process for survivors; and he comes to understand his family's numbed response as a necessary coping mechanism.

A rare work of seasoned introspection, haunting beauty, and high moral seriousness. Includes a chilling genealogy of Balakian's parents' families.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465010196
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 2/4/2009
  • Edition description: Revised Edition
  • Edition number: 10
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 230,824
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University. He is the author of June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974–2000 and The Burning Tigris, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize and a New York Times bestseller. He lives in Hamilton, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter II: Mother
An Armenian Jew in Suburbia

We always lingered over dinner after church on Sunday afternoon. In summer we dined on the brick patio in the backyard under the shade of the maple. A plastic tablecloth over the picnic table. The smell of charred lamb. A silver serving dish with some leftover shish kebab and seared vegetables for those whose appetite might reemerge after a while of talking. The pink-and-white azaleas and the little lavender bouquets of rhododendron petals lushly hemming us in. Sunday was family day. On Sunday we seemed more Armenian. Some assortment of relatives -- my grandmother, aunts, cousins, uncles -- always would be there.

On Sundays I felt like I watched my family as if I were watching a play. My mother passes a tray of bereks, triangles of filo filled with sharp cheese and parsley, and Auntie Gladys passes a large bowl of ice in which float black olives and radishes cut into rose shapes. Everyone sits on lawn chairs and chaise lounges. A moment later, my mother opens the sliding glass door carrying a tray of highball glasses filled with tahn, a drink of yogurt and water poured over ice and mint leaves. In a white silk blouse and a dark skirt with an apron tied around her waist, my mother is formal and informal, at once decorous and casually suburban, with dark wavy hair cut short against her fair, freckled skin. She is never sitting down but poking and prodding at the food, passing around plates and silverware, and delegating small responsibilities to everyone to make sure we are all within earshot of her voice. At the grill built into the side of the brick chimney my father is fanning the coals, and in the kitchen my mother is seeing the lamb through its last stages.

Since Saturday night the shish kebab has been marinating in a large terra-cotta bowl with slices of onion, coriander, paprika, some crude olive oil, some red wine. As the oil soaks into the paprika, making a rosy hue on the lamb and the pearly crescents of onions and flecks of black pepper and allspice, the whole bowl glistens. Cubed and trimmed of fat, spring lamb is soft and a deep brick color as you glide it up the skewer with chunks of green pepper, Spanish onions, and Jersey Beefsteak tomatoes before it goes over the white coals.

When the vegetables are charred and the lamb slides off the skewers, my father fills the large silver bowl. In a blue-and-white painted dish is a pyramid of pilaf decorated with dried fruits and nuts; there is a basket of bakery rolls and small glass dishes piled with pickled vegetables called tourshi. I sit with my hands on my cheeks, scowling and hungry. The only thing that pleases me is the food -- its wonderful colors and many fragrances. From around the block I can hear cap guns and my friends playing ball and tag. All I want is to eat in a simple five minutes and get the hell out of this extended ring of adults, but the very idea is impossible because this is an immovable feast, an unquestioned reality of our Balakian Sunday ritual. And I might as well have tar on my butt because I'm stuck here for the day. After the tahn and bereks and shish kebab, there will be paklava or kadayif, some melon and grapes and a soft hunk of fresh white cheese, and finally, some cardamom sweet coffee in small porcelain cups; and for the venturesome members of the family, a sip of French cognac.

If Auntie Anna was with us (as she often was), she would proclaim, not too long after tahn was served, that suburbia would be the ruin of America, and she was not subtle about letting us know that it would be the ruin of us, too. My aunt Anna Balakian was my father's oldest sister, and although she was married, she used her maiden name professionally, which was unusual for a woman in the 1950s. She was a professor at NYU and her books on French poetry bore the name Balakian on the book jacket.

Auntie Anna spoke with such opinionated emotion that she could cast fallout on the conviviality of the moment "The whole idea of su-burr-bi-aa is wrong" -- she liked to linger on a vowel so that the depth of her opinion was inseparable from each word. "This is how the bourgeoisie will triumph," she said, as my mother grew indignant. "There's more community and goodwill here than anywhere in America, Anna, or anywhere in the world, for that matter," she glowered back. "You're lost here," Auntie Anna said, and made it clear that we had sold our souls to a barbarous society that didn't know the difference between Monet and Donald Duck, Mallarmé and Michener. We would become just like everybody else -- a thin slice of yellow plastic cheese in the long, soft loaf of Velveeta that was America. Before my mother could erupt, my father interrupted with some comment about how well the kebabs had come out, and members of each side of the family tried to disentangle the two women by urging them to get the dishes and platters and bowls of food around the table. "Peter needs some more 7-Up," my grandmother said loudly to my mother, "come on, hurry up, hurry up."

I remember a lot of conversation in the family about the suburbs in those days, especially in 1960, after we had moved to Tenafly. A book called The Split-Level Trap had come out that year written by Dick Gordon, a psychiatrist, and his wife, Kitty, who lived a few blocks away and were friends of my parents. The Split-Level Trap, which bore the dedication "To the people of Bergen County, New Jersey," was an insider's guide to the moral decay of suburban life -- divorce, alcoholism, adultery, juvenile delinquency -- and it prophesied doom. Because my parents knew that the Gordons' field work had been done in Tenafly and other neighboring towns I began to wonder, as I listened to my aunt and mother fight it out, why my parents settled here. My aunt's rants against the suburbs were unsettling. I would watch my mother bristle with anger at Auntie Anna, and my aunt staring with fierce disapproval at my father, seeming to me to say, Why did you marry her and come to these suburbs?

Almost every part of Bergen County was an easy commute to Manhattan, but not every part was new suburbia. Our first house was a two-story brick and clapboard built in the thirties. It straddled the sloped corner of West Englewood Avenue and Dickerson Road in Teaneck. Our part of Teaneck was mostly brick and clapboard or stucco and plank, Tudor revival, dating from the decades between the wars when Teaneck had become a fashionable suburb. In 1953 my father set an iron lamppost into the front lawn and hung a sign announcing his medical practice.

The lawns of Teaneck were well manicured, thick and green and edged with privet, forsythia, or hydrangea. My father and our neighbors compulsively yanked and dug and pulled and poisoned weeds out of the cracks between the large concrete blocks that made up the sidewalks. In the driveways of Dickerson Road were Fords and Chevys, some Buicks and Oldsmobiles. I remember Mr. Goldfischer's Caddy, a white '56 with chrome that shined like the bullet noses of the rockets I gazed at in LIFE magazine. Every morning I stared out my bedroom window at the driveways separated by a strip of grass and at the Goldfischer Cadillac, which dwarfed the gray '54 Olds my father and mother shared, the seats of which gave off the sour residue of regurgitated milk and infant formula and "a faint uriniferous odor," as my father called it.

Dickerson Road was Jewish, and our neighbors were Blumenthal, Cohen, Berg, Berkowitz, Goldfischer, Oshinski, and Liebowitz -- Jews who had moved up from Union City or Brooklyn after World War II. I spent half of my early childhood wanting to be Jewish, in Mark Blumenthal's finished basement with its paneled walls, fluorescent ceiling lights, and Ping-Pong table. On that dank floor with its loose linoleum tiles we flipped baseball cards and sat in front of a small RCA television to watch the Yankees. We played with toys made by Remco and Ideal. A miniature Cape Canaveral, with rockets and missiles, launching pads, and beautifully drawn control panels, was our favorite.

Around four o'clock Mrs. Blumenthal would call us to the kitchen for a rugulach or a cheese Danish and cream soda. Sitting at the red linoleum counter with its chrome edging, I smelled the kitchen filling up with the richness of corned beef boiling in a big aluminum pot on the stove, where it seemed to float in a strange gray scum of fat and bay leaves. I stared at the piled-high white bags from the bakery and the small brown ones from the A & P, oil-stained paper bags of bagels, salt sticks, Danish. I thought the jars of herring and sour cream were jars of marshmallow candy, until I asked for some one day and found myself forcing the slimy fish hunks down my throat. I gazed at the mason jars of yellowish jelly full of gefilte fish and the almost patriotic stack of red, white, and blue boxes of matzoh on which Hebrew letters seemed to climb like spiders. Once a week a Beverages By Hammer truck pulled up to Mark's house and a man in a white uniform disappeared into the Blumenthals' basement with a crate of twelve turquoise spritzer bottles and came out with a crate of empties.

On Saturday mornings I watched from our window with envy as my friends walked with their parents in procession, family by family, down Dickerson Road on their way to schul. I wanted to join the men and boys in their black and white yarmulkes and their silk talliths. A brocade of silver and gold thread on Mr. Blumenthal's yarmulke glittered in the sun. The talliths were decorated with tassels called tzitzits, and Mark used to brag that Jews wore talliths so they could feel closer to God. "Wrapped in a robe of light: Psalm 104," he quoted. Talliths were like shawls and were adorned with gold and blue thread and tiny pearls sewn into the shapes of stars and boxes. "Tzitzits are reminders of obedience to the Almighty." Mark sounded like a Talmudic scholar when he said things like this.

I longed to be walking solemnly and confidently with my friends as they moved toward the Beth Israel Temple. I imagined the mystery of being in temple was more wonderful than anything our new, makeshift Armenian church could offer, set up on Sundays at the Teaneck Women's Club. It was strange to be Armenian on Dickerson Road, because we seemed like we should be Jews. We shared a similar feeling about family, a habit of being in the kitchen, a slower, more deliberate sense of time that was part of something I didn't understand at age seven. Dark and scrawny, with my shaggy crew cut and slightly almond-shaped eyes, I even looked Jewish.

One Saturday as I was lounging in front of the TV in my red pajamas with gray plastic feet, after The Little Rascals and Sky King and Roy Rogers were over and the procession of families had disappeared down West Englewood Avenue, I turned down the sound of the television and asked my mother why we weren't Jewish. The fact that it was December and the candles of the brass menorahs in all the living room windows of Dickerson Road were lit had goaded me on. They were more alive to me than Christmas trees.

"Because we're Christians," she answered.

"Why are we Christians?"

"Our people decided to follow the teachings of Jesus." She paused. "There's a legend that Noah's Ark landed on Mt. Ararat in Armenia. That makes Jews and Armenians cousins."

"What's Mt. Ararat?"

My mother exhaled as if she wished I would go away. "Mt. Ararat is one of the highest mountains in the world; it's snowcapped; it's our national symbol."

"The symbol of America?"

"No. Of Armenia."

"Where's Armenia?"

As long as I had known language the word Armenia had existed; it was synonymous with the rooms of my house. An assumption. Ar. Meen. Ya. Armenia. Like ma-ma, da-da. Like hurt and horse. Arm. You. Me. Eat. The word rolled to the back of my mouth and just as I almost swallowed it, I caught it back near the epiglottis and unrolled it, pushing it forward as my jaw dropped open to the Ya and the word spilled into the air. Armenia. It was such an unconscious part of my life that I had never even thought to ask: Where is it? What is it?

My mother exhaled again. "It's in another country."

"Armenia's in another country?"

"No, Mt. Ararat . . . well, both. Armenia and Mt. Ararat are in other countries. But, we're American. That's the main thing. We're not like other Armenians. They're too ethnic."

I was more confused now. How could our national symbol be in another country, and if Armenia was where my grandparents had come from, why wasn't it its own country, and why wasn't Mt. Ararat there? My mother went on to explain that Mt. Ararat was in Turkey and Armenia was in the Soviet Union. Then she looked at her watch and told me to change and brush my teeth and meet her in the car in two minutes for our trip to the A & P.

I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. If only we were Jewish, I thought, things would be better. I would walk to schul in the morning with my parents, wear a yarmulke like Mark's. There would be eight candles in December and Hebrew letters on boxes of matzoh. I would light a candle each night, get a present each night. My eyes looked back at me from the mirror, dark, deep brown, like my grandmother's eyes. They were more Jewish than Mark's. And I thought, Jesus, God, did it matter, really? Like my mother said, we were American. We didn't go to church bazaars or Armenian gatherings. We didn't talk about Armenia. I couldn't even speak the language.

Excerpted from BLACK DOG OF FATE: A MEMOIR BY PETER BALAKIAN. Copyright © 1997 by Peter Balakian. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, April 28th, poet and author Peter Balakian joined barnesandnoble.com to chat about BLACK DOG OF FATE, his memoir about discovering his family's Armenian history as survivors of this century's first genocide.



Moderator: Welcome to the barnesandnoble.com Live Events Auditorium, Peter Balakian. We are looking forward to discussing BLACK DOG OF FATE with you. How are you this evening?

Peter Balakian: I'm great, it's good to be here.


Gareth from Boston, MA: Hello Peter. Where does the title come from? Who or what is a "black dog of fate"?

Peter Balakian: The title comes from a parable my grandmother tells me very early on in the memoir. It's an Armenian folkloric parable, and I'm not going to explicate it, because what I want the reader to do is take the parable and pull it through the whole story. But as you know if you've read the book, it is a parable about a rich woman and a poor woman, who, as Armenian folklore would have it, must make their one visit to Fate in their lives. And the rich woman is turned away, and the poor woman is greeted warmly and invited in. And at age eight, I don't get any of it, and when I ask my grandmother to explain this parable, she is a little irritated with me because she expects me to understand it all right away. But what she does tell me is that it has a lot to do with reality and appearance, mystery and fate. And then it's left for the reader to wrestle with and pull through the rest of the story.


Anna from Newark, NJ: Have you found that your grandmother's way of dealing with her own history is similar to that of other survivors of the genocide? Have other survivors been so silent?

Peter Balakian: Well, I think there are a couple of ways of answering that. The first part of the question, I would say that to some degree, all survivors go into a latency period after trauma. That is, there is a period psychiatrists call psychic numbing, after trauma and catastrophe. And so, you can expect to see in many survivors a period of some withdrawal and numbing after such events, and then, perhaps, an opening up. I think that in the Armenian case, we are dealing with what may be a rather unique aftermath, in this sense: that, for a variety of reasons, the Armenian survivor period of latency and numbing was protracted. It was protracted because the genocide happened to the Armenians in 1915, and it wasn't until after World War II that an international human rights concept was developed. And then, even beyond that, it wasn't until the '60s and '70s, when the civil rights movement in the United States, and the emergence of a Holocast studies discourse, helped to create a social and civic forum for bearing witness. Without social and public movement, victims of genocide and other catastrophes are not empowered, and so for my grandmother's generation, and for the Armenian genocide survivors, the period for public articulation came later for these reasons. And the other huge factor in this was also the perverseness and evil of the Turkish government's denial of the Armenian genocide, and the Turkish government's attempts to silence the history of this event in the United States. The Turks had power in the international arena that the Armenians didn't in those years, because they had a large, strategically placed country, and the Armenians were a Soviet republic without an international state voice. So, I think those were some contributing factors to the silence, but I would also add to that that not all Armenian Americans were as repressed as my family. Some were, but not all were. I think there is a split through the culture: The Armenian Americans who were more nationalist tended to be more vocal about the genocide, and those who were more assimilationist seemed to be less public about the genocide.


Thomas D. from Greenwich, CT: In your memoir, you write of the poem "The History of Armenia," "The poem can be a headstone in a world of unmarked graves" and that it "let me into the past, and allowed me to feel my grandmother again." Could you tell us more about this, how the way the poetry addresses the subject matter reflects or creates what your grandmother, "in her encoded way," as you write, told you about the history of Armenia?

Peter Balakian: That particular poem is about the presentness of the past. It's my invention of what my grandmother felt and what her life was, in that she carried the trauma of the genocide experience and of the survivor experience inside her forever as she lived her life as an American citizen. And the poem, which is a sort of surrealistic poem, embodies the essential situation of trauma being lived out again in the peaceful post-World War II Eisenhower America of the 1950s, when I knew my grandmother.


Wallace Bradley from New Rochelle, NY: What are the most common misinterpretations or misunderstandings Americans have about the Armenian genocide?

Peter Balakian: Well first, I think many Americans don't know this history, so misunderstanding isn't the first concept I would come to. I would say that it is simply an unknown history, and I find everywhere I go now, on my book tour, Americans are excited to learn about this history, and I am happy my book has been a vehicle for this. Like the history of women, or the history of black people 30 years ago, the history of the Armenian genocide has been a forgotten history, an unwritten history. I want to emphasize that what is ironic and stirring is that the Armenian genocide and the entire plight of Armenia from 1894 to 1923 was the first major international human rights crisis that the United States got involved in and bore witness to. It preoccupied America. America's greatest moral reformers were involved passionately in trying to save Armenia. From Julia Ward Howe, who was president of the Friends of Armenia Society, to President Teddy Roosevelt, who gave half of his Nobel Peace Prize money to help save Armenians. Later, between 1915 and 1916, the Armenian genocide was covered everywhere in the major American press, and in bold headlines in The New York Times week in and week out. What's ironic is that it was covered much more thoroughly than the Holocaust. I say all this because the genocide was once a very visible American history, and it was forgotten, and now it is being seen again for its importance in American social history as well as in American diplomatic and political history. If there are any misunderstandings about the Armenian genocide in American life, they would stem from the corruption of Turkish government distortion, and the Turks have tried very hard to make a counterfeit version of this history in order to diminish it and undermine it, and the places that that has happened are probably in the State Department. But I think even in the State Department, everybody knows that the genocide of the Armenians was the first modern genocide, and that Turkey has tried to turn this into a political bargaining chip with the State Department.


Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: Did you ever consider telling this story in a form other than memoir or poetry? Have you written anything less personal about it? I assume that you have written articles, but will you write a full-length history?

Peter Balakian: I've written two big articles about it. One is called "Arshile Gorky and the Armenian Genocide" (Art in America, February 1996). The other is "Charents: The Rise and Fall of a Revolutionary Poet" (American Poetry Review, 1989). Both deal with Armenian artists and the genocide. I may write a history at some point, but no promises right now.


Hannah from Newton, MA: A sense of Armenia is so rich and sensual in your poetry, that even though I haven't visited, I feel I have a believable sense of what it is like. Have you visited the land where your grandmother once lived, and where the genocide took place? If so, how does it compare with your images of it drawn from your grandmother's descriptions?

Peter Balakian: No, I have not visited Anatolia, Turkey, or Western Armenia. I don't feel that I've been able to go there. I've been to the Republic of Armenia, which was then a Soviet Republic, and being in the Caucasus, it's a bit of a different feel from the eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Anatolia, where my two families are from -- my father's from Constantinople and my mother's from Diyarbakir -- but the closest I've been to Anatolia is Jerusalem and Israel, and that allowed me to feel the presence of the eastern Mediterranean. I'd like to go to the Der Sur desert in northern Syria -- that of course was the epicenter of the genocide killings.


Pete S. from Boston, MA: I have not yet read your memoir, but I have heard much about it and am very interested in learning more about my own Armenian history. My living relatives have not been able to tell me much. Could you recommend a good way to begin?

Peter Balakian: Yes, I'd say start with my book. I promise you'll love it.


Sara from Indiana: Could you describe for us how you identify yourself in Armenian culture?

Peter Balakian: Well nothing does that better than my book, than my memoir, and I don't know how to summarize that. I want to tell you to go and read the memoir, and you'll understand my complex identity. I'm an American writer, and an Armenian of the diaspora.


Ruth from Chicago, IL: Hello, Peter. Thank you for your book and for bringing this story to Armenians and non-Armenians. I was surprised and distressed to read a story in The New York Times recently about Armenians living in Istanbul who had little awareness of or interest in the genocide because most of the atrocities were committed outside of the city. A common attitude was, "Why dwell on the past?" What is your reaction to this?

Peter Balakian: Thank you for that question. That article was a piece of Turkish government propaganda full of lies. The facts about Armenians in Constantinople, now a city called Istanbul, as an emblem of Turkish erasure of history are the following: About 40 percent of the Armenians of Constantinople were deported and killed. On the evening of April 23, 1915, 250 of the major Armenian intellectuals and political leaders were arrested and taken by train to Ankara, where they were then tortured and murdered, so that Constantinople was the beginning of the genocide in a very bureaucratically planned way. The extent to which everything in that article was genocide denial and counterfeit history might be suggested by my own family in Istanbul's reaction to me. My remaining cousins in Istanbul told me when they saw my books never to write them, never to call them, never to try to visit them, because they were so afraid of having anything about Armenian culture and Armenian history connected to them. The Armenians of Istanbul today know very well what happened in 1915, but they are terrified to be public, because they know that they will be met with violence. Turkey's treatment of all its minority peoples -- the Kurds, the Greeks, the Armenians, etc. -- is the same: There are no rights, these people are not real people. The New York Times is greatly remiss for allowing such a piece of propaganda to be published in its pages.


Iris Massey from College Park, MD: How has your immediate family, or those who also have relatives who have survived the genocide, received your book?

Peter Balakian: For the most part, my family's been very excited about my book, although some people in the family felt uncomfortable because they weren't portrayed in a way they wanted to be, but that's always the way it is when you write a family memoir.


Samuel A. from Jackson Hole, WY: In general, do the attitudes of the Turkish people reflect the reported stance of their government? How aware are they of the genocide, and how is it in large part perceived?

Peter Balakian: It is tragic that Turkish people in general seem to be the products of a virulent and xenophobic nationalism. They are not allowed to criticize their country or their society. Critical inquiry in Turkey is outlawed. I mean this literally: It is illegal, and people are tortured and imprisoned for it. So, the Turkish people that I hear and encounter for the most part -- not all, there are some people who are willing to stand up and acknowledge the past -- but 99 percent of them show not even a shred of concern for the Armenian people whom their government destroyed, but actually reflect a vicious kind of hatred and racism for the Armenian people. They have been trained by their government to demonize the victims in order to rehabilitate their own national identity. This is tragic, as I've said, because the denial of genocide, as Eli Wiesel has said, is a double killing. I think it is important to know that Turkey leads the world in imprisoned writers, ahead of Syria and China. That it is targeted by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for practices of torture, and now the practice of torturing children. There are many thought crimes in Turkey, and books are banned all the time if they are critical of the Turkish version of history. And this is all part of the tragic misinformation that many Turkish people have been socialized by. The exiled Turkish historian Tanar Octum has pointed out to his own government and his own fellow scholars that when the Armenian genocide comes up as a subject in Turkey, the response is hysteria, and that the hysteria itself reveals a tragic sense of guilt and inability of the Turkish people to come to terms with this dark crime of their past. I think that says a great deal.


Jen from Washington, DC: I know that your book not only describes how you learned about your family's history but is also about your development as a poet. Could you tell us more about how these two interacted?

Peter Balakian: My discovery of family history was completely personal. I really didn't have any sense of politics or history. I was just feeling my way backward through the people that had nurtured me -- through my father, my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, my family -- and so I began writing poems that had to do with my connections to them, which became, inadvertantly, my connections to this larger history, and this provided me with an imaginative richness -- a world of symbols and images, of places and events. It seemed to me epic and cosmopolitan. It was good for the imagination. As a young poet, that's really what mattered, and I just kept following it, and it led me to places I didn't know I knew.


Halley from Brooklyn, NY: You were quoted in an article about the debate at UC Berkley over establishing a Turkish academic chair with funds contributed by the Turkish government. Could you tell us more about this debate, and where it stands now?

Peter Balakian: The Turkish government is trying to sanitize its history and its image by funding chairs at American universities. I, and many major American writers and scholars, find this unethical, immoral, and counter to the precepts of democratic society and democratic education. A government that despises intellectual freedom, and I refer again to the statistics I mentioned a few minutes ago -- the Turkish government has more writers in jail than any country in the world, has thought crimes, banned books, and tortures and rapes women and children in prison -- that a country with a human rights record like this has no business trying to own a piece of the American academic curriculum. Everybody knows that any holder of such a Turkish chair could not teach the true history of the Armenian genocide, the true history of the Kurds in Turkey, the true history of the Greeks in Turkey. What is even more outrageous is that in many of these instances, these Turkish chairs are tied to stipulations that the chair holders must do work in Turkish archives in Turkey and must have friendly relations with the Turkish academic community. This is corrupt beyond belief, almost to the point of being absurd -- how any American university could accept such a contract is bewildering. But I come back to the fundamental principle that no country with a human rights record like Turkey should be involved in the American academy.


Moderator: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Peter Balakian. Do you have any final words for the online audience?

Peter Balakian: I've enjoyed it. Thank you. I'm glad the new age is doing this.


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Reading Group Guide

1. Peter’s grandmother Nafina tells him cryptic tales throughout his childhood. He recounts one of the most memorable, which bears the book’s namesake, on pages 9-10. Why is the rich woman offering the spring lamb turned away by Fate, and the poor woman bearing the dead black dog taken in? What do you think the story means in the larger context of Nafina’s past?

2. Peter recalls helping his grandmother cook as a child, and contrasts the extravagant, painstaking meals his family prepares with the quick frozen dinners of his suburban American neighbors. How else is food represented throughout the book? What is the significance of food in the framework of the larger story of Black Dog of Fate?

3. Why are aesthetic ideals so important to the Aroosians, especially concerting clothing, houses, and food? Discuss some examples of their very high standards.

4. Why is baseball so important to Peter’s grandmother? Why is she so passionate about this particular game, and why does she connect so strongly with the Yankees?

5. In what ways are poetry and literature a part of Peter’s family heritage? How does his Aunt Anna’s love of surrealistic poetry and his own preference for a poetry that can incorporate history and more realistic dimensions of the world reflect who they are as people, and the worlds in which they were raised?

6. What does Peter learn from Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s memoir? How does it affect him?

7. Peter’s grandfather is conscripted to serve as a physician in the Turkish army in the First World War, nursing back to health soldiers he knows will likely go back onto the killing fields to rob and kill his own people (pages 240-241). What do you think of the way he handled this difficult situation? How would you feel if you were placed in a similar position?

8. Do you think the Turkish groups protesting the genocide commemoration in Times Square were entitled to their protest? Why or why not? Do you think you would hold the same opinion of Holocaust deniers protesting at a Holocaust commemoration?

9. While contemplating the Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian Genocide (page 269), Peter articulates how important it is to have “grown up in a society that believes in the ceaseless process of critical evaluation.” Do you agree that our modern U.S. society believes in the “ceaseless process of critical evaluation?” Why or why not?

10. On page 279, Peter quotes writer and historian Deborah Lipstadt as saying, “Free speech does not guarantee the deniers the right to be treated as the other side of a legitimate debate when there is no other side.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

11. In your own high school history classes, what, if anything, did you learn about the Armenian genocide? What impact did this prior knowledge have on your experience of reading Black Dog of Fate

12. How do Peter’s feelings about his father change over the years? In what ways do his perceptions of his father shift as he learns more about his family’s history?

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 5, 2010

    A young man discovers his heritage and the terrible tragedy Turkey wants everyone to forget

    In Black Dog of Fate, Peter Balakian describes his life growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey and slowly discovering the horrible event that his family tries to protect him from: the Armenian genocide conducted by the Turkish government of 1915.


    The memoir relates many of the adolescent experiences that American readers are familiar with: high school football, teenage rebellion, girlfriends, etc. However, Balakian also describes the rich Armenian cultural heritage he grew up with, particularly the language and the cuisine of his people.


    In college, Balakian became aware of the massacre that his grandparents and parents had escaped from before coming to America and struggles to understand why this important event in the history of his people was never spoken of amongst his immediate and extended family.


    This book is a great read for anyone who is interested in learning about Armenian culture or simply in reading about the lives of Armenians who managed to assimilate in American society while retaining most of their cultural heritage. More importantly, this book is a great starting point for learning about the Armenian genocide and the subsequent denial by the Turkish government that it ever occurred. Balakian's memoir deserves a place next to the witness testimonies of the Holocaust and other state-sponsored mass murders; the purpose of a book like this is to make sure that genocide is never forgotten.


    [This review also appears on FingerFlow.com, a site for review and discussion of creative works.]

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2009

    A chilling remembrance

    Being part Armenian, I am very familiar with what was one of the saddest events in modern history. My maternal great-grandparents escaped Turkey in 1896; according to one of their sons, my great-grandfather dressed as a woman because the Turks were not allowing men to leave the country.

    Still, Peter Balakian's journey into his family's past brought the horrors of those events into even more intense focus. His book reminds us of the ever-present capacity for human cruelty, which has been sadly often repeated since.

    Garabed's great-grandson

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  • Posted March 24, 2009

    A story about growing up, love and awakening. But most of all, this is a story that is shared by three generations of Armenians. A grandmother telling mysterious stories to her grandson, who gradually unravels the hidden and awful truth.

    I read this book ten years ago when it was published for the first time. I recently purchased the newly published version, which includes two additional chapters. I began to read and I felt as if I am reading it for the first time. Peter Balakian is an awesome writer. He tells the story in such a manner that helps the reader visualize every scene on every page.
    This is a story of one woman's survival from the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and her subsequent triumph as a mother and grandmother. This woman is Balakian's grandmother and through her we learn much more about Peter's life in the 1960s. In fact, we learn much more than that. We learn the story of thousands of Armenians whose parents and grandparents survived the tragic horrors of the Genocide. We have lived this story in its variations of multitude. Those who survived the Genocide as young adults, small children of every age, orphans, women, etc. told of the same horrors experienced in the Armenian homeland of 1915 and the following years in the Syrian desert of Der Zor. This wasteland became the graveyard of thousands of people who were forced to march, who were tortured and raped, and starved to death. We all know the story, and Balakian tells it poignantly.
    This is a highly recommended book. I wish one day to see the movie version and as a selection on Oprah's bookclub. I also recommend it as reading and research material for high school and college students.
    Thank you prof. Balakian for the new edition and for your tribute to the fallen at Der Zor.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2001

    Confession of an Inheritor of Trauma

    When I began reading this book, I expected something historical and political in an objective sense. As I read through this book, my expectation was shattered. As a political analysis, this book is a poor one. This book is more about psychology than history, which is more touching to me. As a son of immigrants from Armenia the author describes how he grew up and how his grandmother(a survivor of Armenian Genocide in 1915)'s trauma influenced him. It looks like that he had received contradictory signals from his parents. On the one hand, his parents did not want him to know about Genocide which was too much for a young child. On the other hand, his father snubbed him for his ignorance of the Genocide though he never taught his son about it. Hence his confusion and hatred. He must have felt excluded from family. When he was a child he went to a football stadium with his father who was a physician. There he saw a small bald man who collapsed in the path of a passing football player's spikes. His father dropped a program and ran to the severely wounded man and did everything to save his life. During this process the author could do nothing but hold the program his father slipped. I know what this means. He must have felt guilty. Mysteriously or understandably, his guilty feeling seems to have been imposed on the program. Years later when the brochures for private schools arrived his house, the brochures must have triggered something in his brain. After that he behaved like a stray sheep. After he became an adult, he came to learn his family's history and the history of Genocide. And he, as a poet, participated in the political campaign against Turkish government's denial campaign. He shows how the Turkish government corrupted Princeton University in an effort to deny the Genocide. This book, however, does not look like a political propaganda. Rather it looks like a confession to heal his own soul.

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