IN “REFLECTIONS ON EXILE” (1984), Edward Said described exile as a rift between the self and its true home, an essential sadness that can never be surmounted. Fifteen years later, Ann Cheng proposed, in The Melancholy of Race — written in a world still ignorant of the global sea change that would emerge in the wake of 2001 — loss and compensation as the language of exile: grievance is the social and legal articulation of grief, she argued, but it remains incapable of addressing those aspects of grief that speak in a different language. Aline Ohanesian’s stunning debut novel, Orhan’s Inheritance, traces the history of two families thrust into chaos by the massacre and violent expulsion of over one million Armenians from Ottoman Turkey, reconfiguring the language of grief to feature not only its existential sadness, but the gaps where words fail, and the spirit of resilience that lives in survivors.
In the dramatic opening scene, an exiled photographer-turned-businessman returns to his childhood home to retrieve his fortune. Kemal Türkoğlu, found dead in a vat of indigo dye, has left his grandson, Orhan, a lucrative prayer rug business and has inexplicably bequeathed the ancestral house in Anatolia to an elderly stranger who lives in Los Angeles. As the Türkoğlus bicker in a room of dusty furniture and hand-stitched doilies, Orhan sets his sights on California and the central figure from which he will receive his true inheritance.
At the Ararat Home, an assisted-living complex in Los Angeles, Orhan locates feisty 90-year-old Seda Melkonian, impeccably dressed, smelling of jasmine, sole heir to the Türkoğlu family home, an insult Orhan hopes to reverse. He finds the esteemed residents of the nursing home preparing for an art exhibition — Bearing Witness: National Genocide Remembrance Day. Seda wants nothing to do with it. For her, the past is a “lexicon of horrific memories” and her fellow residents are “ancient tea bags steeping in [its] murky waters.”
Orhan wants to look away, too. Despite the exile once imposed on him — the national security apparatus deported him as a young man barely capable of using a camera, let alone making a political statement — Orhan has assimilated his government’s ceaseless denial. Why call it genocide, he wonders; Turkey is not the only country with a history of massacres. When Seda offers to sign papers releasing the house, it is Orhan who hesitates: the old woman before him is an “ancient tapestry whose tightly woven threads could tell quite a tale, if only he knew how to unravel them,” and he wants to hear it.
Moving between war-torn Anatolia and 1990 Los Angeles, Orhan’s Inheritance is a braided tale uttered in four voices. In one frame, we cross the threshold into Ottoman Turkey circa 1915, and encounter a world as magical as it is treacherous. Once a stop on the ancient silk road, the Anatolian heartland is a place of divided loyalties, teetering on the brink of war. Inside the Melkonian home 15-year-old Lucine is braiding her sister’s hair and talking about boys, trying to live a “normal” life as the men in her village disappear. When her beloved uncle is dragged away by soldiers, the young Kemal Türkoğlu consoles her. On the banks of the Red River he places an arm over her shoulder, and in that one shy gesture, the scenes of a Shakespearean tragedy begin to unfold.
Parallel narratives follow the ill-fated lovers as Kemal, a Turkish Muslim, is conscripted into the Ottoman Army, and Lucine, an upper class Armenian Christian, is ordered to march into the Syrian desert with her mother and three siblings. Seventy-five years later, Kemal’s grandson, Orhan, searches for identity and redemption much like the narrator of Khaled Housseini’s international bestseller, The Kite Runner. The inquisitive Orhan stands in stark contrast to the reluctant Seda, whose steadfast silence has been her only defense against the unspeakable horrors of the past. In her story and that of the resourceful Aunt Fatma, humor and courage are wielded as weapons of resistance, reminiscent of novels from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club to Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle.
Orhan’s Inheritance skillfully plays on the tension between voice and perspective in its references to art, photography, and oral history. In one of the more emotional chapters, Orhan returns to the Ararat family home to photograph survivors speaking in their own language. In the past his photographs, like his vision, had been obscured by the official story, the one the state tells to hide the truth, and the faces in his compositions were intentionally blurred, all eyes turned away from the camera. Now, he sees the people for who they really are — living relics of an unresolved past.
He brings the camera back up to his eye, clicking the shutter every time that life, in all its lovely and miserable guises, shows up in the frame. He takes picture after picture of the residents as they share their stories. Though he cannot understand their words, Orhan is able to capture the emotion in their faces, the vibrations of their sorrow, and their need for solace.
Critics will note the seamless articulation of history in the pages of Orhan’s Inheritance: at no point is the thread of the past disentangled from the stories of the people. But beyond the elegant economy of Ohanesian’s writing, the retelling of the story of state-sanctioned violence against Armenians, a story the Turkish government still disputes, comes at a critical moment for American readers. After 15 solid years of war, history offers another way of seeing.
In 2015, American televisions and computer screens are flooded with images of terrorism and violence, but information about our own actions on the global stage is more tightly controlled than at any moment in our history. If civilians know relatively little about the experience of American soldiers, we know effectively nothing about the plight of millions of noncombatant civilians living in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, raising a question about the degree to which our vision as free citizens of a democratic nation has collapsed with or diverged from that of the state. Orhan’s Inheritance offers a view from outside that occluded front. It shows us how the exile sees.
In an essay for the Algonquin Reader, Ohanesian recounts the story of her own great-grandmother’s deportation, a horror she endured at age three, after the greater horror of witnessing her father’s public hanging. At turns both subtle and transcendent, Orhan’s Inheritance will speak to those familiar with this dark chapter of history, and will be equally appealing readers who want to linger quietly in unfamiliar places and hidden stories of love and family. At the heart of the novel is a woman who refuses to be denied, whose courage is reflected in every survivor and every descendant. Like all life, writes Ohanesian, hers is “story within a story; how we choose to listen and which words we choose to speak makes all the difference.” Instead of ideology, she offers precisely the opposite: outside our own culture and our own insular moment, she shows us the view from the ground, what it means to see through the eyes of victims and survivors on both sides of the conflict.
Lisa Sanchez Powers is the literary director of Dorland Mountain Arts Colony and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Nomos Review. Find her at Facebook or on her website at www.thelisasanchez.com.