JANUARY 18, 2016
DAWN MACKEEN is a Southern California writer and journalist whose debut nonfiction, The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, was just published on January 12.
Growing up in Los Angeles, with its sizable Armenian diaspora, MacKeen struggled to piece together many recollections of the events and the reasons, but nothing was clear to her until her 30s, when she read a translation of her grandfather Stepan Miskjian’s firsthand account of survival. His notebooks became a map for MacKeen, not only to his story but also to the story of the estimated 1.5 million Armenians who perished in the genocide that began in 1915. For nearly a decade, she followed the harrowing account that she found in her grandfather’s journals, as well as in newspapers and archives housed in Paris, Vienna, Istanbul, Aleppo, Bucharest, Yerevan, New York, and Los Angeles. She also retraced his steps through Turkey and the deserts of Syria.
The night before his caravan was massacred, MacKeen’s grandfather escaped, crossing the desert, disguising himself as an Arab and taking refuge with a sheikh. He lived to bear witness, and now his granddaughter does the same in her book. After reading The Hundred-Year Walk, which is part memoir, part travelogue, part historical account, I was eager to talk to MacKeen about her research and her family.
VANESSA HUA: You’ve traveled the world as a journalist, reporting from Egypt, Chile, and Greece. But you found the story that consumed you at home. What inspired you to write The Hundred-Year Walk and what did you hope to achieve?
DAWN MACKEEN: My mother always told me about what happened to her father, but I couldn’t truly understand it until I was given a translated version of his journals as an adult. When I sat down and read it, I couldn’t believe that this endangered narrator was my grandfather. I couldn’t believe how close he was to dying so many times: when he was taken to the river’s edge to be shot, when his caravan was led to be slaughtered, when he was struggling across the desert for six days with two cups of water. I had a physical reaction: I began to shake and feel sick. It also dawned on me how intimately connected my fate was to his, how close my entire family was to not existing.
By profession, I’m a reporter. At the time I first read my grandfather’s journals, I had just completed a nine-month investigation into how seniors with dementia are often poorly treated. The issues were similar to me. The elderly with severe dementia couldn’t speak for themselves, and I was giving them a voice through my stories. I wanted to do the same with those who perished during the genocide.
Above all, my grandfather believed he survived in order to tell his story. “Being a witness to that satanic pogrom, I vowed it as my duty to put to paper what I saw,” he wrote. This was my family heirloom. With it came the responsibility of telling it again.
After you found the journals, your mother’s friends in the tight-knit Armenian community in Southern California helped you translate and also provided leads and suggestions in your research. How did your background contribute to your reporting, in terms of understanding of cultural nuances and context? And what about the challenges? Was it hard to maintain journalistic objectivity?
Because I’m half-Armenian, I’ve always felt like I straddled two worlds. I’m a part of the Armenian community, but I can also see it from the outside. And I didn’t learn the history at Armenian school like many others. So I had to start at the beginning and teach myself what happened.
As far as objectivity, I did not approach this story in the typical journalistic fashion: did this happen or not? I came into it with the perspective that it definitely happened; I was driven to understand more about what my grandfather actually endured. I had initially thought there wouldn’t be a lot of media coverage of the genocide since it’s still denied by Turkey, so I was surprised by all the coverage in newspapers, including The New York Times, that reported on the events as they unfolded. Having worked as an investigative reporter, myself, I knew how to follow every detail — every clue — that my grandfather left. Lucky for me, he was extremely specific in his notebooks, leaving the full names of people in his caravans, the dates of massacres, and the exact amount of money in his pocket. That allowed me to expand on his account through targeted research.
But growing up in a household that wasn’t all Armenian also had its drawbacks. I can’t read Armenian, or speak it, either. Many of my primary sources — including my grandfather’s writings — are in Armenian, and I had to rely on translators and assistants to be my eyes. I took Armenian classes at night just to be able to distinguish one book from another, but I still mangle the pronunciation of the few words I know!
Your grandfather died before you were born. And yet, his presence cast a long shadow — over your mother, the child of survivors, and obviously over you as well. He wrote the journals so that the story of the genocide wouldn’t be forgotten by future generations. He was reaching forward in time, and you were reaching back. Through your research, did you feel you grew to know him? Or do some details remain frustratingly out of reach? If you could sit down with him now, what are the three questions you would ask him?
I definitely feel like I got to know him. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew how he’d handle and process any situation. There are still some details that elude me and will, perhaps forever. I’ve always wanted to know if he ever communicated with this other man who escaped from the same caravan, but who moved to a different country. They were two of a handful of survivors from that group, and both wrote about it, but the other man passed away in Siberia in the 1950s. And I’d ask him to tell me more about the people who died beside him on the caravan trail. What were they like?
But most of all, I’d want to know the lesson that he would like the world to learn from his story and similar stories of persecution.
Your grandfather was resourceful at every turn, peddling women’s clothes, working as a courier, selling candles after a flood hits the refugee camp, administering folk treatments to the Sheikh’s family — do you think his enterprising nature helped him survive the genocide and its aftermath? Was he haunted that he survived and so many did not, and did that drive his desire to bear witness?
I believe my grandfather’s disposition stemmed from his childhood. His father died when he was a kid, and his mother pulled him out of school to help support his family. He became a peddler with a donkey at a young age and had to figure out how to sell goods so his family could eat. All this made him extremely resourceful from an early age, and helped him outwit the gendarmes later on.
And yes, he was extremely haunted. On my parents’ wedding day, he almost didn’t show up. At the end he told my mother, “It’s too hard for me to be at joyful occasions.” He had a hard time experiencing happiness because so many people he loved and admired died senselessly and had their lives cut short, in very brutal fashion. And again and again he would say to my mother, “Anahid, I’m going to die next year.” He just couldn’t ever quite accept that he’d survived. My mother believes that today we’d call his condition post-traumatic stress disorder.
Your mother identifies as someone from Adabazar, a place she’s never been. As a child, you answered reflexively at community gatherings that you were also from Adabazar. Now that you have visited your grandfather’s hometown, how do you answer? Is the concept of homeland not only one of geography, but also of culture and imagination?
I believe that my grandparents brought Adabazar to the United States, and passed it onto their children. Like other immigrants, they carry it through their recipes, traditions, and stories. Since many others from their hometown similarly fled to Los Angeles, my mother grew up surrounded by people like them. I still feel a part of Adabazar, though not as it exists today. I belong to the town of the past, when it was diverse with multiple faiths, full of Armenians, Turks, Jews, and Greeks. I belong to the place where my grandfather peddled his wares on the streets, and shouted out in Ottoman Turkish, Greek, and Armenian to all the different residents.
Henry Morgenthau, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, spoke out frequently against the genocide. The New York Times and the international press wrote about the swelling crisis with headlines such as “Armenians Are Sent to Perish in Desert; Turks Accused of Plan to Exterminate Whole Population.” And yet, the United States government did not intervene (and still does not recognize the genocide). What lessons can we draw from the past in dealing with the current Syrian refugee crisis?
One of the most important things is to educate about past mass killings so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. If there is evidence of genocide, we must work as a world community to stop it. And afterwards the perpetrators must be brought to justice. This didn’t happen at the end of World War I, and the architects of the Armenian killings were able to escape. In the face of denial, it’s been incredibly difficult for families to move forward: generation after generation continues to feel victimized. As Pope Francis said on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
In regards to today’s refugee crisis, it’s important to remember that we are a nation of immigrants. My own family sought refuge here, and achieved the American dream. It’s reckless and wrong to label an entire people as dangerous. That’s the type of rhetoric that often precedes mass killing.
What advice can you share with writers who want to tell family stories?
It’s extremely gratifying but also very difficult. It’s like going into business with your family, with all the positives and negatives: everyone will have a stake in what you’re writing, but the reward is like none other.
Who are your literary heroes? What books did you read to help guide your reporting and shape your narrative? And whom are you reading now?
One of my favorite books is Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. I love the way he describes the desert. Of course, I loved Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and the beauty of his words. While writing this book, I immersed myself in that period, of the beginning of the 20th century. I was reading memoirs of the Ottoman Empire, of Adabazar, and newspapers of that period. Right now, I’m just reading a lot of fiction on lighter subjects, and catching up on books my friends were reading several years ago. I only read dark subjects for about a decade, and am now treating myself. It’s been so much fun. At the moment I’m tearing through Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Journalist Hrant Dink, after getting convicted of “insulting Turkishness,” was murdered in Istanbul a few months before your reporting trip to Turkey in 2007. Your mother begged you not to tell anyone about the purpose of your trip. Once there, you were followed by the police. But 2015 was the 100th-year anniversary of the genocide. In the wake of current discussion and debate, what more can be done to get the Turkish government to alter its position and make the reparations that some Armenian activists seek?
Thankfully, the issue is not as pitched as it was when I visited in 2007. People are speaking out more in the open about it. In 2008, 200 intellectuals launched the “I Apologize” campaign, and tens of thousands of people signed it.
In 2014, the 99th anniversary of the genocide, the then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his sorrow over the “inhumane consequences” of the relocation and made the closet statement to an apology. But by the following year he seemed to back away, and the denial continues. Regardless, the 100th anniversary definitely saw increased awareness worldwide on all levels, from the Kardashians’ trip to Armenia to Pope Francis’s statement.
I believe education is the key to everything. The denial is pushed from the highest levels in the Turkish government. The official position is taught to children in school. So the Turkish people are learning a warped history about the Armenians. Of course, in this information age, Turks also bear a responsibility to read for themselves firsthand accounts of what happened from different perspectives. It’s very easy to find those now. For example, The New York Times’s coverage of the events and the German government’s consular reports are all online and easily accessed.
You write about visiting the Muslim family of the Sheikh who sheltered him. They proudly offer you a feast — the head of a goat — ask about your grandfather’s life after he left them, and exclaim when you tell them about his 17 descendants. It’s such a beautiful, peaceful moment when you’re standing together in the river flowing by the oasis. And now, that region has been torn by strife. Can you tell me about the fate of the people you met in Syria, now that it’s under the grip of ISIS?
It’s been heartbreaking to watch what’s happening to Syria, and, in particular, the clan that saved my grandfather’s life. They are all struggling; it’s hard to get food, make a living, and procure medicine. One has fled and made that dangerous trek from Turkey to Greece, amid the sea of refugees. Not long after the war broke out, he told me, “We now know what your grandfather went through.” And he’s continued to make that comparison in the years since. It’s families like this who are seeking refuge in other countries. It’s their custom to take people in — they gave refuge to my grandfather when he needed it, despite the rhetoric about “dangerous” Armenians propagated by the Ottoman government at the time. I think people forget that these are families like yours and mine. But fear rules many right now, and any time fear rules it’s dangerous. Americans are scared, which I understand. But I think it’s important to remember the darkness that occurs when a whole group is vilified. That’s when holocausts happen.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a profile of two brothers from Raqqa, Syria, which is now the de facto headquarters of ISIS. The older brother is trying to bring the younger one to the US and facing a lot of difficulties. The younger brother has been sentenced to death by ISIS and has fled Raqqa. But there’s currently a 13-year wait to bring over a sibling of an American citizen. That’s not to mention the pitched political climate in the US right now because of the terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere.
Vanessa Hua’s fiction has appeared in Guernica, ZYZZYVA, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. Her short story collection will be published in September (Willow Books).