Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Q&A with Iris Haigaz Chekenian


Aram Haigaz
Iris Haigaz Chekenian is the translator of Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan 1915-1919: An Armenian Boy's Memoir of Survival, written by her late father, Aram Haigaz. An editorial consultant and writer, Iris Haigaz Chekenian lives in Manhattan.

Q: Why did you decide to translate your father’s book about his experiences? 

A: I didn’t read Armenian until my father died in 1986. There I was with his huge library, with hundreds of books in English and Armenian. I knew he had written 10 books, but I couldn’t even read the titles. I had to study—it took many years.

It became fascinating—I discovered that he did not write fiction, though most of the books were short stories. It was autobiographical.

When I got to Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan, I realized that not only was it about him, but I knew enough about Armenian history to know that it was completely different from other accounts of the Armenian genocide.

They are about slaughter and killings. It’s been documented in so many languages all over the place. But this book of my father’s takes somebody to a different world—how he survived with the nomadic Kurds. I don’t even know if anything like it has ever been told.

That was the incentive—it was personal, about my own father. People who have read it say some parts are like an adventure story. He knew very well about the killing—he had walked knee-deep in blood—but he didn’t talk about it…. 

Q: As your father’s daughter, what was it like for you personally to translate his book and read about how he managed to survive? 

A: I had to struggle so much to translate the words. I knew the spoken language, but I didn’t know how to read. I really didn’t have too much time for feelings—it was a struggle to get through the words.

Then as I went over it, six, eight, 10, 12, 14 times, then I started to feel—there were parts that I read where tears would roll down my face. It was a very moving experience.

Also, because his writing in the original language is so beautiful. He was very well known, he was one of the top two well known writers in his time in the Armenian literary community. There are parts that are poetic in the original Armenian—that got to me, too. 

Q: One hundred years after the events described in the book, what do you think are the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Armenian history? 

A: The biggest misperception is that nobody knows what happened 100 years ago. Even most intelligent readers asked about it, and say, I didn’t know. The Turkish lobbies have spent billions of dollars denying what happened. It’s important for it to be more widely known as a part of history…. 

Q: What can you tell us about your father’s life once he moved to the United States, after the events that take place in the book? 

A: When he moved to the United States, he was 21. He started writing when he was 22, and he took a pen name. That was the style of Armenian writers at the time. He took the name of the brother closest to him.

A few years later, he got married, and had two children, my brother and I. He earned his living as a photoengraver working for the Daily Mirror…he went to work every day and was home at 7:00. The one unbreakable rule for us was that we had to be around the dinner table every night.

He was a typical father—he helped the neighbors, he made repairs around the house, he watered the lawn, he was there for us always. He did his writing at night at the dining room table…writing, answering letters from all over the world. He wrote by hand...

I had important things to think about—school…my girlfriends. We didn’t ask him about it. Learning Armenian and going through the books, I was learning about his life. He never told us anything. Once [in a while] I would say, Papa, tell us something scary. He would say no. 

Q: So you really didn’t know anything about what he had been through. 

A: Zero. We had visitors—my mother was a very good hostess. People would come to see him. His writing meant so much to people. He was known as a humorist. [He wrote] three long books about the genocide. The other seven books were short stories—the humor appealed to people; they had had enough of the litany of pain.

I overheard a little of it, but children weren’t invited [into the conversation]; we were separate… 

Q: How long did it take you to translate the book? 

A: I worked on it for eight years. I had some dictionaries. It was very slow, and how I started was, I took the book and photocopied every page and enlarged it so I could write in between the lines and in the margins.

In the beginning it took half an hour to get through each page. So I carried the pages around with me every place in my handbag—I did nothing but try and practice the reading. Armenian spelling is phonetic....he wrote in very simple language, with a lot of dialogue….

Then, as I gained speed, [I found that] the narrative is hard, and the dialogue relatively easy. The descriptive passages are hard—I struggled. Part of translation is being a writer, and I worked as a writer and in editing.

The research online was endless because even though I was translating someone else's words, I knew they had to be verified. I had a book that was set in Turkey 100 years ago, a place I knew absolutely nothing about, nothing.

So if I came to a date in history, or something about a dog, or harvesting wheat or millet (I did not know what millet was), an article of clothing, a rooftop, I had to see those things for myself. An Islamic prayer had to be checked with a reliable source.

So the research was endless, the job was not just translation, it was translate and verify and the research took a huge amount of time.   

Q: What will you be working on next? 

A: …Once this is published, I will do something a little easier. Some of his short stories are charming—there’s one about New Year’s Eve…I like it very much. 

Q: Is there anything else we should know about the book, or about yourself or your father? 

A: If anything, it’s a matter of what good old Winston Churchill [said]—Never give up. After [my father’s] town was destroyed…anyone he ever knew, every street he ever walked on, his family…so here he is in a different life [with the Kurds]…

He advanced [to become] a trusted aide--first because of his behavior; he was brought up in a disciplined, educated way; he was taught to be polite—and also, the main thing is that he was the only one in the vicinity who could read and write besides his Turkish master. That helped him escape.

If there’s anything to learn, it’s the resilience, the possibility that anything is possible….to have started as an orphan, with everything in his life up in cinders, then from age 21-22 in a [new] country, becoming a writer in his time known worldwide by the Armenian community of scholars, that’s quite a jump. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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