Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Dana Walrath: Making Art And Writing Stories About The Home of Her Ancestors

Dana Walrath in ArmeniaDana Walrath is the most unique YA author I have come across so far: a Fulbright Scholar, anthropologist and artist, blogging about her mother’s dementia and working now in Armenia, a small mountainous country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia and a former Soviet Republic. She is the author of the forthcoming Stone Pillow, a story of three siblings caught up in the Armenian genocide of 1915, to be published by Delacorte Press. I wish I could sit down with Dana and chat over tea for hours, about anthropology and writing, about her ancestral home of Armenia where she works with two different universities, and Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received an MFA in writing for children and young adults in 2010. Instead, I bring you this Q &A, which consisted of several email exchanges over the course of the last two weeks.

KR: Dana, I am ashamed to say that even though I was born and raised in the USSR, I Armenia maphad never learned, read or heard anything about the genocide that is central to your story. I do know that Armenia and its neighboring former Soviet Republic Azerbaijan had longstanding conflicts, some of which have exploded into brutal bloodshed in the twilight years of the USSR. But what happened in 1915?

DW: The same was true of kids growing up in the US as in the USSR but for different reasons. Before getting to that, here’s what happened around 1915. As the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating the head of their government planned and completed the systematic elimination of the Armenian population from the land that now makes up the eastern part of the modern state of Turkey. Many were killed outright, and others were marched into the desert to die. Altogether 1.5 million people died. Those who survived lost their homes, their land, and all their possessions. After World War I Eastern Armenia, an area that had been alternately under Russian and Persian control, became a republic within the Soviet Union.

Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916, (among others), documented these events and there was great public compassion and assistance at that time. But in the aftermath of World War I, as American foreign policy became one of isolationism, and the Ottoman Empire (who fought alongside Germany in the war) was partitioned and became the strategically important Turkish State, the Armenian cause began to fade. Indeed many scholars consider the lack of international response and sanctions after the Armenian genocide to have fed Hitler’s genocidal policy in Germany. Louis Lochner, Associated Press Bureau Chief in Berlin reported that in a 1939 speech to the Wermacht that Hitler said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Armenian massacres at ErzinjanAfter World War II, Cold War politics meant that US history books stayed away from the Armenian question as Turkey was an important NATO ally. In recent years, Turkey’s strategic importance as a secular Islamic state has shaped the political discourse. But I am far from alone in believing that the health and safety in this region depends upon recognizing the truth of the genocide and finding ways to move forward.

There are individuals in Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere, who are committed to reconciliation and peace.

As for the suppression of the history of the genocide in the former Soviet Union, it was very much in line with Stalin’s policies to separate and control ethnic groups and to suppress any notions of nationalism. The boundaries of individual republics were drawn to reinforce these policies. Historical events were suppressed.

Public recognition of the genocide by Armenians in the Soviet Union was prohibited until the 1960s.

KR: And the results of such policies, I am sad to say, lingered well into the 1990s. Even if more information became available after the 1960s, most of it never reached me (and I was born in 1977)! Why did this period interest you — and what is your connection to Armenia?

DW: Armenian is my mother’s first language. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of genocide survivors, but like many first generation immigrants, she did not learn English till she went off to kindergarten. My grandfather died when I was about 5 years old and my grandmother about 10 years before that. I only had the barest bones of their stories because many Armenian families do not talk about what happened. I only knew that after their parents and older siblings were killed that my grandmother and a younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night from their home along the headwaters of the Euphrates, to Aleppo, in present day Syria. That skeleton haunted me until I was able to flesh it out into story.

KR: On your other blog, where you talk about Armenia, a recent post about your identity as a “mongrel” really moved me. Your mother is Armenian, your father American. I felt this very same way about growing up a “half-Russian, half-Jew” in Soviet Russia, my Jewish nationality hidden also, under my light-haired Russian looks. So I get how unsettling and complex being a “mongrel” can feel. In a way, that feeling was what pushed me to write my own story.

DW: We mongrels have special strengths such as the ability to see many sides!!

KR: (smiles). Sounds to me like a lot of the themes “Stone Pillow” will be touching upon, are extremely relevant to me. Can you tell us a bit more about your story? Who are your characters, very briefly, and what do you find most endearing about them?

DW: The four main characters of my story are three of the Donabedian siblings (Shahen and Sosi, both young teens; and Mariam their five-year-old sister,) and an eagle, Ardziv, their guardian spirit. At the start of the story, Shahen dreams of joining his uncle in New York. Sosi, adores family life in their Anatolian village so much that she hopes he will never leave. Shahen is imaginative, a storyteller who invents games for little Mariam. Small for his age, he is quick to judge others and to see their flaws. Sosi is steady, hard-working, and sensitive to growing up ahead of her brother. The two of them share a streak of defiance. Mariam, like Shahan, loves imaginative play especially when she gets to be a bird flying into Shahan’s open arms. Together, these qualities along with Ardziv, help them survive the genocide.

KR: What age group is it written for — and what inspired you to write for that particular audience?

DW: I did not write with an exact age group in mind. War and genocide bring childhood to an end. They obscure things like literary categories. But as I said earlier, the skeleton of the story came from the imagined journey of my grandmother who was about ten during the genocide. I began with younger protagonists. But as I wrote and had to be true to the history of the events, the age of the reader drifted to older, as did Shahen and Sosi.

KR: I understand you’re in Armenia as part of your Fulbright Project. Please tell us more about that, and how that came about. When are you coming back to the US? Are you there with your friends — or your family?

Dana's art for her Aliceheimer's ProjectDW: My Fulbright project, “The Narrative Anthropology of Aging in Armenia” developed directly from my Aliceheimer’s series. Aliceheimer’s began as a set of white-heat drawings that I made in December of 2010 as part of the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project, shortly after we had to transition my mother from our home into a memory care unit. The response to the drawings and the overarching story prompted me to enter the blogging world to share this work with a wider community. Each image, in turn, inspired a story of its own and got me started on a separate graphic memoir.

Then as anthropologists started to find Aliceheimer’s, soliciting articles, invited lectures, and reviews, I realized that all the various threads of my life were integrated with this work. The imagery subconsciously referenced Armenian manuscripts. I had used cut text from Alice in Wonderland for my mother’s bathrobe in every picture. The work was filled with anthropological themes. This is when I decided to apply for a Fulbright to come here to make art and write stories about growing old here, in the home of my ancestors.

KR: Where in Armenia are you staying? (The only Armenian city I’ve ever heard of is Yerevan :)) Can you tell us about the place you’re at? What is it like? What is the view from your window? 🙂

DW: I am living in Yerevan the capital city. As a New Yorker who now makes my home in the mountains of Vermont, it is great fun to be in a bustling city, filled with museums, galleries, delicious foods, people, and events. I love walking everywhere! Last week I figured out a series alley ways that let me walk from my apartment right near a beautiful old Sourb Zoravor Church, past the Toumanyan Museum (a museum for the beloved writer Hovaness Toumanyan) up to the American University. From one set of windows I look out to Mother Armenia and a Ferris Wheel.

Each morning as the sun rises, I look out over the wide street tree tops and roof tops to where the colors peeking through the spaces between the “monoliths” that were recently erected. Yerevan is loaded with buildings like this: built as folly, incomplete, largely empty, and wildly unsafe in an earthquake zone. Construction standards are not regulated here…Yerewan_with_Ararat

KR: What was Armenia like the last time you were there, compared to today. What has changed?

DW: The last time I was here was 1977 the thick of the Soviet period before perestroika. I was a teenager travelling with my family supervised by the Soviet In-Tourist people. I spent a night with my relatives, who were not among the elite. A large family shared 3 rooms one of which had mattresses stacked up that were then dealt out like a deck of cards onto the floor at night-time for everyone to have a place to sleep. The country and I have both changed considerably since then. It was summer and I remember the abundant fruits and sunlight streaming into the big central market building. It has now been taken over by some business venture. We were only allowed to travel to Etchmiadzin the center of the church on that trip. This time I have been all over this small beautiful country. Mountains make for big climate changes across small spaces. I especially loved a place called Khundzoresque with a landscape reminiscent of Dr. Seuss!

KR: What about Armenian life and culture is dearest to you?

The sense of belonging here is overwhelming. People meet me with open arms. To be here now doing creative work is such an honor.

KR: What about it do you love the most? And will we see that aspect of it in your story?

I love the food, the music, the language, the stark beauty of the mountains, the flowers, the fresh fruits, and the dancing. They all make their way into my story. I’m also loving the humor here. I’ve recently connected up with the Comics/Cartoon community. We’ve started to plan a 24-hour comic event (participants gather in a place and agree to create 24 pages of comics in 24 hours) here in Yerevan with simultaneous events in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. I hope that Stone Pillow, like the 24-hour comic book event, will contribute to dialogue and peace in this region.

I am so thrilled about your important book, Dana, which will be bringing awareness of the Armenian culture and history to the world so shortly. I can’t wait to read it and tell the readers all about it, right here on the Magic Mirror. But first, look for part 2 of this interview next Friday, where Dana and I talk writing and publishing.

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December 14, 2012 - Posted by | Interviews | , , , ,

8 Comments »

  1. Thanks for introducing me to Dana. I’m forwarding your link to one of my (Armenian) writer friends!

    Comment by wendy greenley | December 14, 2012 | Reply

    • Wow, that’s fantastic! How small the world has gotten. Thanks so much, Wendy.

      Comment by Katia Raina | December 14, 2012 | Reply

  2. So interesting!!! ALL NEW infromation for me! Thanks for sharing! Will be eager to read part 2 of the interview.

    Comment by Barbara | December 15, 2012 | Reply

  3. Thank you, Barbara. There is a lot we still don’t know about our world. But it’s great to see so many of us are eager to learn more!

    Comment by Katia Raina | December 15, 2012 | Reply

  4. I’ve read about the genocide of Armenians, but would like to learn more. I’ll look out for Dana’s book. Thanks for introducing her to us.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | December 16, 2012 | Reply

    • You’re so welcome, Medeia. It’s a great pleasure. I am so glad this makes a difference. I am sure many will find her book fascinating!

      Comment by Katia Raina | December 16, 2012 | Reply

  5. I kept seeing American each time I read Armenian. Very different and yet the themes of family, love, and sorrow are universal.

    I am convinced that one war leads to the next and I see hints of that here. I am grateful that you are sharing this hidden history with us and I hope that it finds a wide readership! Stone Pillow – such a haunting title for a powerful story. I’m eager to hear when it is published.

    Comment by joycemoyerhostetter | December 17, 2012 | Reply

    • Yes, I love the title too. I think many of us have been thinking about how much violence there is around us — and within us, even. Where does it start? And more importantly, where does it end? Maybe it ends with people like you, Joyce — and Dana.

      Comment by Katia Raina | December 17, 2012 | Reply


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