Finding Love Amid War: On Shahé Mankerian’s “History of Forgetfulness” and Vahe Berberian’s “Diary of a Dead Man”

Raffi Joe Wartanian reviews new books by two Armenian American writers, Shahé Mankerian and Vahe Berberian.

Finding Love Amid War: On Shahé Mankerian’s “History of Forgetfulness” and Vahe Berberian’s “Diary of a Dead Man”

Diary of a Dead Man by Vahe Berberian. Wet Paint Publishing. 257 pages.

History of Forgetfulness by Shahé Mankerian. Fly on the Wall Press. 86 pages.

THE RECENT RELEASE of Shahé Mankerian’s debut poetry collection History of Forgetfulness, and Vahe Berberian’s new novel Diary of a Dead Man, marks an important occasion for a literary culture stretching from the foothills of California to the shores of Lebanon. Both Mankerian and Berberian hail from Beirut, a city once known for its economic, social, and cultural dynamism. In that vibrant Lebanese metropolis, the two writers were raised within the local Armenian community, which emphasized education, arts, and commerce while rebuilding itself from the ashes of the Armenian Genocide (1915–23). Progress for that community, and for Lebanon as a whole, halted when the Lebanese Civil War commenced in 1975.

Alongside hundreds of thousands of Armenians who migrated to Southern California, Mankerian and Berberian relocated to Los Angeles as teenagers and have contributed to the region’s cultural tapestry through writings, performances, and collaborations. Both have also published innovative texts at a critical time when tensions surrounding truth, trauma, and tyranny shake the United States in ways that have shaken the ancestral lands that inform Mankerian’s and Berberian’s projects. In History of Forgetfulness, Mankerian pens a stunning remembrance of youth upended by war in Lebanon. In Diary of a Dead Man, Berberian explores memory and identity via a narrative setting that intertwines Syria during the current civil war with the Balkan theater during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). Considering these texts in conversation with each other — as the authors themselves so frequently are — presents a singular opportunity to grasp the cultural and historical contours underpinning each book, and the space between them.


Silence, memory, and mortality drive Mankerian’s History of Forgetfulness. Through 58 poems across three sections, the poet explores his early adolescence during the Lebanese Civil War, using vivid vignettes that capture whimsy, weight, and wonder.

To say that Mankerian’s poetry strictly concerns war would reduce the complex world he depicts. Yes, bombs detonate. Snipers murder innocent children. Smoke billows from the Karantina camp where Palestinian refugees are being massacred. But Mankerian’s verse does not stop at these traumatic moments. Rather, he uses these violent fissures as openings toward deeper insights that reclaim meaning from a world and a collective memory destabilized by mass violence. By pushing beyond, Mankerian amplifies voices muted by war. His project is not youth silenced by war; it is war silenced by youth, its foolhardy logic exposed by the truth of youth’s vigorous hunger for life.

The collection’s title suggests a monument to amnesia, memorializing a process whereby burdensome memories must first be firmly grasped before being released. Writing a history of forgetfulness thus involves an active choice that returns agency to the writer, who preserves memory and overcomes forgetting as an imposition. Mankerian plays with this subtle distinction between memory and amnesia near the end of the collection. The poems “History of Forgetfulness” and “14” depict his elderly mother’s memory loss: she is caught in the throes of forgetting, but Mankerian’s verse recovers her experience, suggesting that, through writing, we may recapture fleeting collective memories. This is the place where a history of forgetfulness can be forged.

Mankerian’s collection also illuminates how life in a war zone can transcend trauma. As death and destruction abound, quotidian joys take on greater significance. In the poem “Books,” Mankerian describes learning that school was canceled because a bomb was discovered near the cafeteria. “We were euphoric — wild,” he writes, emphasizing the glee children enjoy when school is called off, regardless of cause. “Who said war didn’t love / the children?” This surprising question subverts war by repurposing it as an instrument of love. This is not the noble notion of an honorable war driven by soldiers fighting for higher ideals; rather, it is war as a destructive terror that, being a human creation, is still capable of love, even in something as banal as a school dismissal.

To see love in war is to see light in darkness, and history in forgetfulness. Such a gesture redefines war as one aspect of an adolescent’s coming of age, exploring relationships, and discovering his sexuality. “When we heard the whistle,” Mankerian writes of a warning siren in “The City of Lost Children,” “we hid under / the staircase, or behind the trashcan, / or the column that held the church dome. / I hid behind a skirt, unshaven, staring / at a pair of dirty ankle socks, completely safe.” As with the euphoria of school cancellation, the poet uses the schoolyard duck-and-cover drill to explore the safety found in desire, as represented by the legs he must hide behind. The unshaven legs symbolize the promise and power of physical presence. No matter what society tells us to believe about hair and skin, we can always choose to see beauty, even if the world around us is jagged. Rather than objectify the female form, the unshaven legs elevate desire itself. It is desire for the sake of desire — agalma — that surpasses war’s barbarism, underscoring the possibilities of love that can be found in war. 


In his introduction to the collection Bloody News from My Friend by the Armenian poet Siamanto (1878–1915), poet and scholar Peter Balakian described how “Siamanto’s encounter with evil disclosed how political violence can alter the poetic imagination.” The political violence to which Balakian refers was the decades of anti-Armenian mass murder perpetrated by ruling regimes and their loyalists who led Turkey from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of the current republic. One of those bloody massacres occurred in 1909 when some 20,000–25,000 Armenians were murdered in the southern coastal district of Adana. Bearing witness to these events, Siamanto harnessed his altered poetic imagination to convey the horror of virgins raped, elders butchered, and streets soaked with blood. “How can I dig out my eyes?” a German woman asks in Siamanto’s iconic poem “The Dance,” suggesting self-mutilation as a path to salvation from the torturous memories of witness — Turkish captors forcing 20 naked brides to dance in a field before covering them in kerosene and burning them alive.

Just as the Adana Massacres of 1909 altered Siamanto’s poetic imagination, so too did the Lebanese Civil War alter Mankerian’s. And in turn, Mankerian’s use of vivid imagery becomes a tool to reimagine the war through tangible objects — books, buildings, bodies — that serve as narrative pillars across which threads of culture, memory, and identity are strung.

In “That Summer,” the writer discovers a female classmate’s body: “We found the bullet holes. / A sniper had a field day / locating her spine.” But it is the spine of a book that captures Mankerian’s attention: flung a considerable distance from the girl’s lifeless corpse and tattered backpack is a copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, still intact. Literature lives as souls vanish, yet the book’s presence summons the girl’s absence: “Torn / to pieces — not the book, / but pages from her life, / unread, incomplete, cold.” Here, Mankerian uses the physical material of Gibran’s text to revive a young life that ended too soon, an untold story summoned in a forgotten history finally told. Poetry revives what war destroys.

In “The Last Mosque,” a children’s game of hide and seek in a mosque is interrupted by the roar of fighter jets. Suddenly, the game’s stakes escalate. The children hide from exploding artillery. After the jets depart, the children who hid now search for the seeker, Avo, to ensure he survived. “The search party went / to find pieces of Avo: his threadbare socks, / shorts the shade of the Mediterranean, / brown belt with tiny cowboys on it.” Like the girl in “That Summer,” Avo is another youthful life cut short, another soul memorialized, another void to stare into and reckon with the senseless brutality. What remains are the words that compel reflection. What remains are the unanswerable questions that become rhetorical memorials to rekindle the lost.

As Mankerian details the human toll of war through tangible objects, so too does he explore the promise and perils of religion. In “The Last Mosque,” he writes, “The mosque was our hiding place / even though I was a good / Christian boy.” While bombs rain from the sky, a Christian child finds refuge inside a mosque during a civil war where religious groups fight for territory. The poem thus recalls religion’s spirit, represented by houses of worship as sacred spaces of protection, no matter one’s background. This refuge is reclaimed by the poem as the true essence of religion, while the bombers flying overhead represent the ideologues who distort religion to serve insatiable appetites for power, plunder, and wealth.

The dynamics of political violence alter the poetic imagination, and Mankerian harnesses that altered state to reconceptualize war by bearing witness, subverting assumptions, and using objects to write a history of that which we might otherwise seek to forget. When trauma threatens to erase the human imagination, we are summoned to lift ourselves above the darkness and seek a new frontier that returns us to simple pleasures, to insights discovered in something as simple as taking a walk, eating a meal, or reading the dusty pages of a forgotten book.


In Berberian’s novel Diary of a Dead Man, a forgotten book becomes a crucial memory object. As in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, sudden ruptures confront the characters at the heart of the novel. For young Armen, that rupture is the discovery of his grandfather Armenak’s lost diary telling of his experiences during the Russo-Turkish War. For Armenak, the rupture occurs upon awakening in a dungeon and realizing he may have transformed into a moroi (a ghost or vampire of Romanian folklore). Before the rupture, both Armen and Armenak struggled with despondency — Armen because he is losing his will to live, and Armenak because of forced separation from his love, Aurora. These ruptures push both characters toward a greater personal truth. Armenak approaches this rupture with a curiosity that overcomes the narrow attitudes of those around him. Despite his changed circumstances, he realizes through silent reflection that he is still himself, and it is his love for Aurora that allows him to make that identification.

Love likewise helps Armen overcome a destabilizing internal numbness. Armen begins to see the network of family, friends, and colleagues who surround him as representing what Kierkegaard called society’s “tranquilizing hum.” For Armen, this hum exacerbates a sense of isolation so troubling that he accepts an audacious invitation to travel halfway across the world to Aleppo, Syria, in 2012. Despite Syria’s escalating civil war, Armen goes, desperately seeking relief from his own chaotic inner turmoil. The vibrancy of life he encounters in Aleppo is colored by ancient cultures and current conflict. This warfare is more bearable than the opaque inner conflicts that troubled him back home. Amid the civil war, Armen finds relief reading his grandfather’s diary, demonstrating that some of our deepest existential questions may require a quest toward something that is — like Aleppo, or Beirut for Mankerian — ancient, rooted, and complex. 

Diary of a Dead Man alternates between Armenak’s compelling journal and Armen’s trance as he reads it, hypnotized by what he learns, especially the obstacles Armenak overcame. No amount of surrounding chaos — looming war, suicidal ideations, a young love interest — can interrupt that trance. It is the trance of a well-told story and an inheritance that situates him to understand those who came before and what they endured so that he might craft his own story. Knowing our history can help us engage the genealogy of human experience to which we belong: it provides a beacon to navigate present challenges. Conversely, the absence of personal and collective history can isolate us in a nihilistic void.

For Armen, the trance of his grandfather’s diary abruptly concludes when Armenak describes the final scene of his wagon heading west to Geneva with his love Aurora. The experience of reading the diary compels Armen to confront a revelation about himself that transforms his self-conception. He confesses, “All I need is the wisdom to be able to cope with this charade called life. Today, I am not the person I once pretended to be. Today, I am a truly fictitious character, an escapee from some deranged writer’s imagination.” Becoming a figment of fiction forces Armen to confront the facts of his life. To see that he is not the person he thought himself to be might lead him to finally see, and embrace, who he is.


Berberian’s novel evokes Mankerian’s poetic reveries, including an echo of his descriptions of Beirut in Armen’s descriptions of Aleppo. “The streets already seem to have lost their vitality,” Armen writes, amid “the alarming sound of muffled gunfire from far in the distance.” For Armen, the distant gunfire heightens his urge to keep reading, to escape into the world of his grandfather’s diary whose narrative offers reprieve from the chaos of a country mired in war. Similarly, Mankerian turns to poetic narrative to process the sensory deluge of wartime Beirut. Mankerian describes in “La Quarantine” how his father, during the Karantina massacre, tried to use Mozart’s Requiem as a distraction. “The timpani competed with the rat- / a-tat-tat of Kalashnikovs. / I feel lightheaded from the mazout / fumes of the generator. ‘Son, listen!’ / Kyrie eleison. Christe, eleison. / I preferred the sirens over the harrowing / howl of the angels concocted by Wolfgang.” As music and murder collide, the poem illustrates how external chaos comes to infiltrate the poet’s inner world.

Mankerian’s poetry and Berberian’s novel likewise share an exploration of the relationship between inner and outer conflicts. The inner turmoil of characters navigating their life circumstances is mirrored by the encompassing social struggles. For Armenak, his unnerving transformation into a moroi parallels the chaotic dynamics of the Russo-Turkish War. For Armen, contemplation of suicide occurs amid the violence of the Syrian Civil War. For Mankerian, the deteriorating life he had known merges with the chaos of Lebanon coming to terms with its own destruction. In each case, the outer conflict contextualizes the inner conflict, making it no longer an isolating burden. The self in turmoil sees itself in the country at war, and the glimpse of that reflection reveals something clarifying.


Mankerian and Berberian represent a noteworthy group of Lebanese Armenians who left wartime Lebanon for Southern California. These migrations paved the way for important California cultural institutions, from the heavy-metal band System of a Down to Carousel Restaurant to Abril Bookstore and more. The open-mindedness and entrepreneurial spirit of Southern California reflects what Lebanon had offered to preceding generations who had survived the Armenian Genocide. The work of Mankerian and Berberian specifically, and Armenian creative resilience more broadly, helps us transcend reductive narratives of Armenians as victims, capturing instead the essence of a people driven to build, create, love, and outshine imposing shadows. This frame helps us situate Mankerian and Berberian in a broader Lebanese tradition embodied by the likes of Etel Adnan and Khalil Gibran, and within a more specific Armenian aesthetic trajectory embodied by Siamanto, Zabel Yesayan, and countless others.

In Diary of a Dead Man’s final scene, Armen is sent YouTube clips of the fighting in Aleppo. “There is devastation everywhere,” he writes, “demolished structures, blocks and blocks of perforated buildings, entire neighborhoods turned into heaps of rubble.” One of the clips shows a captive pleading for his life before he is killed by a menacing gunman who turns to face the camera and reveals himself to be an acquaintance of Armen’s from Aleppo. This scene captures an essential element of modern life: the fact that we are all now witnesses to war’s barbarity.

Our society’s gamble that constant access to content, media, and stories would manifest the utopian spirit of Silicon Valley technocrats has spiraled into a miasma where misinformation, overconsumption, and war disconnect humans from reality. On the horizon looms the expansion of a virtual reality that proposes to streamline an analog world we struggle to preserve. In order to reclaim our focus and attention, we must push beyond quickly scrolling from one story to the next; we must push toward understanding how those narratives shape our inner and outer worlds. To do so requires patience and tenacity. Patience means we must do more reflection with less material. Tenacity means endurance and the faith to emerge from darkness. In other words, we must find more in less. We must see how seemingly contradictory elements can reveal truths. We must find presence in absence, history in forgetfulness, love in war. We must find life in death.


Raffi Joe Wartanian’s essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun, Outside, Lapham’s Quarterly, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at UCLA.

LARB Contributor

Raffi Joe Wartanian’s essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun, Outside, Lapham’s Quarterly, and elsewhere. In 2017, he founded Letters for Peace. He teaches writing at UCLA. 


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