The Rumpus Interview with Meline Toumani
Some books can make the eyes blink a little bit differently. They change the way you see your surroundings, look at yourself, engage with others, understand the past, experience the present, and approach the future. They are the kind of books that, when you set them down, walk away with you because they do not go away, for what they are addressing is never-ending. For me, Meline Toumani’s There Was and There Was Not was one of these books.
A finalist for the National Books Critics Circle Award and, more recently, The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, There Was and There Was Not is a memoir of Toumani’s experiences growing up in the Armenian diaspora, but ultimately moving to Turkey to confront the place she’d been raised to view as enemy territory. It is a deeply intellectual, political book, looking critically at the intersection between the Armenians’ campaign for recognition and Turkey’s denial of the 1915 genocide. It is an intimate and absorbing journey filled with hope, pain, and possibility.
While it informed me of a history I previously knew little about, its handling of national narratives and attitude toward conflict resolution spoke loudly to things we are witnessing everyday: the Syrian refugee crisis, free speech that is costing our country its integrity, Black Lives Matter, and the global climate clash. There Was and There Was Not is a timely and timeless quest, and one we desperately need today. I recently sat down with Toumani to talk about these matters from the vantage point of craft, charting the creation, evolution, and reception of her book.
The Rumpus: I thought we could start in the present, and so congratulations on your book’s nomination to The Dayton Literary Peace Prize. This is wonderful news. I’m curious, what does this nomination mean, with its timing coming after the centennial of the Armenian genocide, to you and your book?
Meline Toumani: The Dayton Prize nomination was a really special honor for me, because of what it represents: it was created in the name of the Dayton peace talks that brought a settlement to the Balkan Wars, and it honors books that might help reduce ethnic conflict and contribute to peace in the world. And as lofty as it may sound, when I set out to write this book, that was more or less my goal: to write a book that would humanize Armenians and Turks for one another, and to do it in a way that would have universal relevance. I wanted to find a way into this story that would ultimately nudge Turks toward acknowledging the genocide but that would also encourage some self-criticism among Armenians about their own politics and behavior around this issue. And I wanted to make it personal and absorbing so that outsiders could enter into it and see themselves in it—to think about who their own version of “the Turk” or “the Armenian” had been, in other words to think about the issues they had been raised with strong biases on, the groups they had always seen as “the other.”
The reason the Dayton Prize is particularly satisfying isn’t just because it acknowledges my best intentions: it’s because a cohort of angry, ignorant men in specific Armenian diaspora circles have spent the past year trying to depict me in precisely the opposite light: as immoral, dangerous, unethical. By the time the Dayton prize nomination came up, I felt soul-sick about the amount of distortion and misunderstanding that these people had generated. So this nomination, a direct rejection of all of that, feels like a salve.
Rumpus: In what ways did the project not turn out how you wanted it to?
Toumani: Well, going back to the previous question, it turned out to be more suited to the non-Armenian, non-Turkish reader, but that was a result of a lot of deeper changes. Back in the innocent, optimistic days of writing my book proposal, I said my book was going to be “a literary act of diplomacy.” And a key part of this vision was that I, as the narrator and reporter, was going to put myself in difficult situations—sitting down to talk with a Turkish ultra-nationalist leader, for example—and I was going to find a way through. I wasn’t sure how, but that was going to be the riddle I would solve throughout the book. I had big ideas about empathy and connection and how it could all lead to nodes of “soft reconciliation” that would slowly add up to a larger shift in this conflict.
But just when I was heading to Turkey for the main stretch of work on the book, a Turkey-born Armenian journalist in Istanbul named Hrant Dink was murdered by a Turkish teenager backed by a gang of ultranationalists. Hrant had been one of my inspirations after I met him on my first trip in 2005. He had been trying to raise Turks’ consciousness about the problems Armenians faced, but he did it with a lot of patience, humor, and hopefulness, which was rare in this landscape. He tried to appeal to people’s best selves while also being true to himself. The fact that he, of all people, was killed made me question what I, or anyone, could or should possibly do. The assassination and its fallout was one major reason why things started to take a different course for me.
The other reason was even more fundamental to my project: I didn’t have the ten-million-mile-long fuse I thought I would have. I started to realize that what I had been calling empathy was, at times, an inability to deal with conflict; and what I had considered patience, on my part, was sometimes a kind of denial of how I was actually feeling. So after I repeatedly found myself in situations in which I was more angry, frustrated, and confused that I had expected to be, I started to unravel how my own delusions about myself had played a part in my ideas. Once I was able to admit this stuff to myself, and to write my way through it, the most interesting parts of the book began to take shape. It took years of thinking and rethinking. If I had delivered the book anywhere near my original deadline, I never would have gotten to the real truth of it.
The book ends up charting the rise and failure of that original dream of mine, but when I say failure, I have to clarify that what resulted instead was something a lot more complex, something I feel much more proud of.
Rumpus: What are the risks of crafting a book this way, and in particular, about a topic as emotional as the genocide?
Toumani: Right, it’s a big risk because it’s a question of sequence and structure, where you end up in a very different place than where you began. That’s all well and good when you’re writing a novel. On some level, this kind of change is essential for any story. But when you’re talking about a still-volatile political issue, as I was, every creative leap has immediate real-world stakes attached to it, because of how you might affect people’s understanding of what’s going on—even lawmakers’ opinions, say, on policy decisions. But I didn’t want to write a policy brief. I wanted to write literature. The latter requires the kinds of ambiguities that are dangerous when a political decision is at stake. If people don’t read the entire thing from beginning to end, they might walk away at a point in the arc where everything is about to change. I worked a lot with scenes where something seemed a certain way up until the very last minute, but then one new detail would force me, and the reader, to completely recast our understanding of what had come before. This was intentional, a kind of meta-take on the confusion that has developed as a result of Turkey denying what happened in 1915.
But the people who have a direct stake in this subject—Armenians and Turks—have gotten used to there being only one axis on which you can talk about this issue: it’s the axis of “whether.” Whether the genocide happened. Either you’re Armenian and you’re persuading people that it did, or you’re Turkish and you’re arguing for why it didn’t. This is really limiting, and it’s a direct outcome of Turkey’s decades-long project of historical revisionism.
Anyway, I make it crystal clear in the first few pages of the book that I’m not questioning what happened. Starting in 1915, the Ottoman Turkish government carried out genocidal massacres and deportations against the Ottoman Armenian population. And I give a brief summary of the circumstances. But then I move on, as that isn’t my main concern in this book. I’m trying to work out these more abstract questions about how we learn the things we learn, why some of us are more open to self-questioning than others, what are the relative merits and weaknesses of certainty versus doubt, stuff like that. For the unaffiliated reader, this all works great. My self-questioning makes them trust me more, and that’s by design, of course. But for the Armenian reader in particular, it’s very challenging, because they have to get through a lot of scenes where I’m criticizing some of the cherished ideas and institutions of the Armenian diaspora community, which I grew up in. I do this not only because I believe what I’m saying, but also so that I’ll have credibility, later in the book, to criticize Turkey.
In order for the book to work, and for anyone to understand what I was trying to do—well, every author believes this—you have to read the entire thing. But in this case, I really do end up in a very different place than where I started—not in terms of any particular policy conclusion, but emotionally and psychologically. My conclusion even surprised me the first twenty times I read it. I didn’t see it coming until it was there.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about what you did see coming, or envision, for the book. You were nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. Did you set out to write a memoir? Form and content can be a chicken-or-the-egg situation. For you, which came first and did this ever change?
Toumani: I definitely didn’t set out to write a memoir, and the label “autobiography,” which sounds like an extra hefty memoir by a person with some kind of world-historical importance, feels even more grandiose. But there’s nothing like a major award nomination to make you feel comfortable with a label you weren’t planning on! In fact, all along I wanted to make sure that nobody thought I was writing a memoir because, first of all, it sounded solipsistic. I am writing about one of the greatest unresolved ethnic conflicts of modern history, so why on earth should it be a memoir? Not only did I not experience the genocide, neither did my parents or grandparents, so in no way was it going to be a memoir. So I thought.
What I always knew was that I needed to use some of my personal experiences growing up within the Armenia diaspora to show what that looks like, how much the genocide recognition issue has become intertwined with every aspect of Armenian community life, and how that would shape me as the narrator and why that led me to Turkey. But there were so many other elements I wanted to talk about, so in my mind, on a question of scale, there simply wasn’t room for all this personal stuff. Only the bare minimum to make things make sense.
Besides that, I was allergic to the idea that I would be writing an “ethnic identity memoir.” I was an English major at UC Berkeley in the 1990s, and I imbibed every ethnic identity memoir I could find, as it was the time and place when such books were ripe. But as I got older and developed a better grasp on my critical instincts, I was really annoyed by the tendency toward soft psychology in this genre—memoirs about fleeing ethnic conflicts, or growing up as an immigrant, that felt either melodramatic or overly neat. It’s not that I thought I would write something that fell into these pitfalls; it’s that I was afraid my book would be dismissed as such without being read, because the more serious literary community would assume it must be one of those books.
When I started concretely envisioning the book—writing the proposal—I really thought of it as pure narrative nonfiction that was going to involve a lot of different characters moving through time. And I thought I was going to spend just a couple months in Turkey, interviewing people and gathering scenic material and so on. Writing about a two- to three-month span of time would’ve been more manageable because you can keep the day-to-day narrative moving without giant gaps. But I ended up staying in Turkey for two and a half years, which is far too long a time to contain in a day-to-day or week-to-week narrative. Making matters more complicated, this two and a half year stretch was riddled with recesses where I would come back to New York or California for a few weeks or a couple of months. As a result, one of the most structurally coherent elements of travel narrative—the arrival and the departure—was repeated ad nauseum, and each sally through the airport, coming or going, brought new anecdotes and reflections. The timeline of events and scenes became unbearably bulky.
On top of that, there was a reporting problem: I’m extremely shy. I don’t like being invasive. Many of the people I was interested in exploring as “characters” were understandably nervous about speaking openly. The Armenian community in Istanbul, in particular, was living under enormous pressure, especially after Hrant Dink’s murder, and they dealt with that by circling the wagons and keeping a low profile. I was welcomed in, but only up to a point, and I found that I wasn’t entirely willing to push past that point. In fact, that point—that community’s resistance to over-exposure—became an essential part of the story.
Besides, as time passed and my book deadlines passed, material that had once been current events started to seem stale—unless I found a different way to treat it.
Eventually I realized that the only thing I had total control over—the only character I could fully and freely exploit—was myself, the narrator. And the only timeline that I had a total grasp of, without awkward interruptions, was the timeline of what I was going through internally. My own shifting psychology about Turkey, about diaspora politics, and about my reasons for writing the book, turned into the most revealing lens for the larger issue. It wasn’t easy, though. First it took years for me to accept that I was going to make it so much about myself. And then it took additional years for me to figure out how to convey this to a reader.
There remained a moral calculation, getting back to the solipsism thing: how much can I talk about myself, in light of a tragic genocide and its unresolved legacy, before it risks becoming morally problematic to privilege my own experience so much? So finally, mining that very question—the tension between individual experience and communal obligation—becomes the whole point of the book. That’s why I always tell people that it’s not really about Armenia or Turkey or the genocide, in the end.
Rumpus: At what point did it become a memoir, in your mind or on paper?
Toumani: Even with everything I just said, when I was making the final changes to the manuscript I still didn’t want to call it a memoir. It came down to the production process, a crazy time that any first-time author can you tell about. Suddenly you’re getting cover designs by email, or finding out from your aunt that your book is already up on Amazon, and you haven’t even finished writing it yet!
On your first go-around in publishing, you don’t even know what you don’t know. And one of the things I didn’t know was that when I received the galley, there would be this fine print on the back of the book, the stuff you see on a real book, like an ISBN number and a retail price and page count and all that, and in this fine print information, there was also the book’s category: and it said Memoir! I looked at the galley and thought: Memoir? But then, after a moment, a kind of peace came over me and I thought, oh, yes. Memoir. I don’t even know whose decision this was, but this was how I discovered it.
By then, I had already started to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of describing the book in a way that opened it to the biggest possible audience. It’s a difficult book to describe, because of the way it blends the typical nonfiction genres. Besides that, it’s so personal and readable, yet the subject sounds like it should be daunting: who wants to read about genocide or about these obscure countries? From the cover design to the subtitle to the jacket copy, it was never clear whether we wanted to appeal to the Council on Foreign Relations fellow, the Armenian or Turkish reader, or the benevolent female book club member in Iowa who likes to read about profound personal quests by exotic ethnic authors. So with all this in mind, the word “memoir” suddenly felt safe, easy, even protective; I could say “this is my story, and nobody can tell me it wasn’t like this for me.”
Rumpus: Labels and labeling is another line you walk in your book. In fact, there is a line in your book where, when speaking of a Turkish character who doesn’t want to call himself Turkish, you reflect that he felt that the label was “so narrowly defined that his only option was to refuse it entirely.” As for you, you are ethnically Armenian, born in Iran, and raised in America. What lines have you walked when it comes to having your identity labeled?
Toumani: All my life, people have asked me: do you consider yourself American, Armenian, or Iranian? They ask this question with a certain amount of self-satisfaction, like, look at me, I’m interested in and embracing of your otherness! But I don’t relate to the question. I don’t feel the need to choose one of those labels, except when one of these people asks me this question. There are the facts: I was born in Iran, raised in the United States, Armenian is my first language, but I am now an American citizen, have been speaking fluent English since the age of three, and feel both American and Armenian. Who cares? There’s a lot to say about it— I mean, it’s actually super complex, and I’ve now written a whole book about it— but it’s not something that can be answered in a multiple choice format. The people who ask this “What are you?” question generally don’t come from a bicultural background.
Rumpus: It seems like the people who are asking those questions are frantic to find the right label to use—wait, is it this one or this one—like they’re unsettled by the uncertainty of artificial, cemented mentalities.
Toumani: Yes, exactly. First of all, they may be afraid that there’s a part of you—an “ethnic” part of you—that they don’t have access to. And second, they want to organize the world, which resists organization.
Labels can be important, though, because sometimes when people try to get rid of them they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Case in point, in Turkey, Ataturk declared that everyone in Turkey was a Turk; Turkishness for everyone! Yay. But the problem was that not everyone in Turkey was Turkish. Almost a quarter of the people were Kurds, and then there were Armenians and Greeks and Jews and all sorts of other groups who didn’t want their unique labels—and languages, religions, norms, histories—erased. Ataturk’s vision was heralded as inclusive when in fact it was a way to squash differences that could be destabilizing to the republic. So was it the creation of a label (Turkish) or the removal of a label (Kurdish, Greek, etc.) that mattered? The legacy of this kind of social engineering is one of the central problems plaguing Turkey today.
Rumpus: Tiptoeing another line—that of time—it seems like we are stuck: either some people want to avoid the past, or others won’t leave it until something changes in the present. What’s interesting about your book, to me, is that it’s not talking about the past, in the sense of doubting it, but it is resisting the future, in the sense of questioning how to approach it.
Toumani: I had never consciously thought about it that way but I love that point. The concept of the future is powerful, maybe even threatening, for people who grow up in an ethnic diaspora, for two reasons: marriage and children. There’s always this looming fear about what will happen to your ethnicity—by which I mean your pure line, your tribe, your entire posterity, the entire history of your people!— when you marry and procreate outside of your group. Even if you manage it for one generation—say, send the kids to Armenian summer camp like my parents did, or, like a half-Lithuanian American woman I met, force your kids to go to Lithuanian language classes from age five to eighteen even though they profess to hate every second of it—the system will eventually break down. That’s the definition of diaspora: from the same root as the word “spore,” something that disperses, scatters, and sometimes plants new seeds to keep propagating the original thing. It’s a lot of pressure to be one of those seeds. And it’s all for this imaginary, unknowable future that you yourself may not even be around to witness.
On a deep level my book was about finding a way through all of this. It was about taking apart the ways in which our attachment to telling the world about the Armenian genocide was connected to the psychological condition of being a diaspora, of feeling insecure about where we belong in the world, and where we will be in the future. I wanted to make space for something else, questions like: What do you, yourself, actually value? What’s the right way to interact with people? What’s the right way to teach your children?
In the Armenian community, certain kinds of intolerance and clannishness have been tolerated because they feel like a safeguard against the insecurity of being a diaspora. So these are the kinds of hard questions I wanted to really push both for myself and for my community. Yes, we’re all worried about this unknown future and our future as “Armenians” disappearing because we’re assimilating into mainstream society, but in the meantime, is it really ok to teach our kids to hate a certain group of people, or that certain people (ahem, meaning Turks) have violence in their blood, simply because it helps hold us together to have these common notions? So making space for the harder questions is, in a way, a reclaiming of the present moment. What matters to you right now, every day of your actual life?
Rumpus: But that is a matter of perception, and opinion, right? The mind is malleable, but just how plastic are our opinions, and what might be the key ingredients to changing one’s opinion?
Toumani: Your question is really interesting because in a certain way, I asked myself this constantly. Ten years ago, when I was early in my work on this topic, I became fascinated by Turks who had gone against the official narrative on the Armenian genocide that most people in Turkey are raised with; people who were openly saying yes, it was genocide. What made these people distinct, to see that or be open to that? Plenty of seemingly brilliant, well-travelled, and open-minded people can’t break out of the official narrative. All along the way, I wondered what makes this person different or more able to see clearly?
At some point, one of my editors turned that question on me. He was saying, we need to know how you became the person who looks at this issue the way you do, and I was annoyed. It’s like, well, why are you a person who likes strawberry ice cream? We can spin all kinds of stories retroactively about why we are the way we are—and I’ve done my time in therapy and have lots of practice in that art. But on some level, we just don’t know! The best answer I can give has to do with empathy. I still remember the day I learned that word, in elementary school; it was a vocabulary word of the week, and at first I felt certain that the teacher had made a mistake, and that surely she meant “sympathy,” which I already knew. But then she described empathy as distinct from sympathy, and I was fascinated by it. All these years later, though, I’ve come to understand that empathy isn’t a static condition or virtue; it’s something that sometimes grows only after a person experiences some kind of suffering or alienation, feels a kind of pain that they can’t ignore, then they become a lot more open to things they wouldn’t have been open to before, whether that’s to bear witness to another person’s suffering or be open to the fact that another person had an experience that is unfamiliar and might be instructive. We are all capable of incredible denial on a personal level and on a political, societal level. But I think people are most open to others’ truths when they are forced out of their own denial on any other topic. It’s as if denial is a body-armor, and when there are cracks, even if it’s a crack in the leg, say, the shoulder might benefit.
Then again, so much is just about exposure. Seeing for yourself that something that seemed scary isn’t actually so scary.