I Am Nowhere Without You: Memorializing Genocides

War. Terror. Annihilation. Rape. Murder. Denial. Genocide. Emotions evoked from these words are felt for generations after the act of their occurrence. Their impact is felt through the rewritten histories that often soften the blow, through the dying survivor’s retelling of a true story, through artwork that refuses to be hidden, and memorials that mourn deaths that are denied. In Los Angeles’s Grand Park one can find such memorials dedicated to several events, the most recent being a memorial for to the Armenian Genocide. Slightly farther away from downtown, the Autry Museum of the American West dedicates multiple memorials to telling Native American history in relation to white Americans. Both these locations execute memorialization differently, however, they have more connections to each other than one might think.

Memorialization and mourning are often connected because one involves an act (memorializing) that leads to a process (mourning). Judith Butler refers to this grief, or mourning, as, “the slow process by which we develop a point of identification with suffering itself,” (Butler, p. 30). This process transforms the mourner as one who imagines themselves as independent from who or what they have lost, and develops into a person identifying themselves in relation to who or what they’ve lost. Beginning to see oneself in relation to what they’ve lost allows the mourning process to feel like a shared experience, rather than an independent, solo experience. By suggesting the process is a shared one it implies that community building plays a key role in mourning. Butler further explains this transformation when she says that, “maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us,” (Butler, p. 22). If we agree with Butler and take on the assumption that mourning is a process in which one finds themselves through what they’ve lost and this leads to a sense of belonging to a community, what does this process entail? Does memorialization of a person or event assist the mourning process?

When talking about Korean comfort women grieving the violence they’ve endured, Chungmoo Choi states that, “through the process of breaking silence, the unnamed and the misnamed in the received history can be recovered,” (Choi, p. 400). Memorials that are artwork, taking up physical space, disrupt the silence surrounding events or people. Breaking this silence allows histories to continue to be told from the perspective that has lost. For Choi, “silencing impregnates violence,” and if the silence goes undisrupted, survivors along with those left grieving, have no chance for healing and are left with wounds that are “open and bleeding,” (Choi, p. 407). This act of memorialization is necessary for healing; the disruption of silence is a key role in the process of mourning a loss. Why? Teresa Ralli recalls the choices made during the production of Antigona, as a break in silence for Peruvians recovering from civil war,

“Some might believe that to bury means to cover, forget, conceal. Maybe. However, in its most important sense, a burial is an acknowledgment that someone is there, because you put a name on the grave of the person you bury and say, he or she is there. And then both of you can rest in peace. You come and visit and you remember that person in a place where slowly, as time passes, traces of pain will be washed away, only leaving memory, now put in its proper place. Those who haven’t been able to bury their dead have been stripped of their right to determine a site, to name the absent one, to enact the necessary farewell” (Ralli, p. 363-364).

Enacting that necessary farewell, as Ralli puts it, is a step in the process of mourning that would allow one to accept the outcome of their situation, bestow upon it the rightful recognition and to look ahead without forgetting the past. This farewell can be expressed in the form of memorials for events or people.

Going to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and the Autry Museum of the West was necessary for me to take another step in my own personal grieving process, as well as connect with a history that isn’t my own—but not unlike my own. As a young Armenian woman, the more I go through life grappling with my identity in and out of my culture, the more I must face the atrocities my ancestors had to face. Facing it means understanding it, knowing it, feeling it, and grieving it. However, such a dark mark in world history isn’t an anomaly and its recognition should shed light on the past and present genocides in other nations. I am Armenian, yes—but I live in America. Simply being on American soil makes me feel ashamed for the fact that I am not actively facing the reality of the genocide that occurred in the founding of this nation, a nation I call one of my homes. Native Americans, the indigenous of this land, were brutally and systematically killed and continue to face discrimination today and I feel it’s time I face this and understand it, because who else can relate to a culture who survived annihilation more than an Armenian? This autoethnography documents my visits to both memorials and connects to ideas of memorialization and mourning.

Autoethnographical research aims to connect the author’s personal experiences to a wider, cultural experience. As a methodology, my autoethnographical research will be based on field notes taken at my chosen sites, and participant observations and connections to theoretical based claims regarding memorialization and mourning. Unlike ethnography, an autoethnography is heavily based on subjective personal experience, rather than objective, general claims. My field notes showcase my subjectivity because this research is ultimately a documentation about the process of my identification, within and outside my culture. As a young, straight, cis-gendered, Armenian woman, I’m aware my experiences differ from women and men of color, different gender and sexual orientations, and age. In addition, these claims may only inform those in cultures that have similar histories and experiences.

The Armenian Genocide, now 101 years old, has been a dark and denied mark in world history. Before the first world war began, the Ottoman Empire was trickling its way through Armenian territories, burning down villages, executing men, depriving soldiers from their arms and uniforms, attacking churches, and so on. By 1915 the extermination of the Armenians was taking the lives of thousands at a time and by April 24th, the official commemoration date for the genocide, they had gathered hundreds of Armenian intellects and leaders for their execution. The villages were systematically purged as families were split apart, women and children were sent out into the desert to march toward their deaths, men lined up for execution, and young girls were sold off into sex slavery while being raped and tortured along the way. The perpetrators of these atrocities were called the Young Turks, a political group who aimed to reform Ottoman monarchical rule to a constitutional based rule. As WW1 raged on, the Young Turks feared Armenians would side with the Russians and in response plotted the deportation and annihilation of the Armenians in Ottoman land and the Armenia Republic. 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the process, while land, historical artifacts, cities, churches, documents, political structure, and system were all lost—a whole republic with a long-standing history of overcoming foreign rule was destroyed. Documentation and recognition of these events were taken as it was happening, even in American newspapers and by American politicians, but the denial of genocide came as fast as the destruction of the nation. As the Ottoman Empire fell and Turkey emerged, the denial of the genocide grew stronger and stronger. The surviving Armenians were now a diaspora, ranging across America, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, France, Syria, Georgia and Russia. Some of course, managed to survive in Armenia.

This denial shaped the course of history for all Armenian generations proceeding it. For centuries prior, dating back to 6500 B.C., Armenia moved from kingdom to kingdom, empire to empire, always maintaining an Armenian identity and having resilience through war and foreign rule. After 1915, however, those times were forgotten and history was rewritten beginning from the destruction of it. In addition, history was being rewritten as a lie, a denial. The Ottomans’ denial spread to other nations, as their influence and control reached nations all over the world. For 101 years Armenians and humanitarians around the world write about the Armenian genocide as one of the first genocides in recent history and one that influenced the most well-known genocide, the Holocaust. The diaspora was faced to deal with a traumatized existence of displacement, identity politics, assimilation, and mourning away from their homeland. Those still in Armenia had to rebuild and revive their nation and themselves, with little chance to mourn after being put under Soviet rule soon after.

In the three Republics that followed the genocide, several acts of memorializing those who were lost were created. The earliest of these memorials was created in 1919 in Istanbul, and the most recent was created in Grand Park, Los Angeles. On September 17, 2016, the memorial was presented to the public as a permanent feature in the park. In 2015, Grand Park, known as a place dedicated to memorials for all different cultures, showcased a temporary memorial for the 100th anniversary of the Genocide and its positive reception paved the way for a permanent memorial. The goal of the memorial was to acknowledge the dark history of the genocide but also look ahead and strive for a resilient and strong future. Walking to the memorial was an emotional and healing experience…

          It’s September 25, 2016 and although it sounds like the beginning of fall, LA is still experiencing the warm, summer weather that never seems to go away. It’s humid today, the air is thick and uncomfortable but it is already past five o’clock as I am making my way up. It’s cooled down now and the heat is bearable, the air is less suffocating and the people in the park seem to have been waiting for this perfect moment to be outside and comfortably enjoy the weather.

            The park is in the middle of what looks like corporate buildings, which gives me an odd sense of being watched down by the people who probably have the finances to fund a park like this. I have never been in a park that felt nothing like a park and I can’t get the term “concrete jungle” out of my head as I am walking through the walkway, feeling the buildings tower over me, like eagles watching their prey. The walkway has multiple statues and memorials on the way up. As I pass by a statue of a man in old fashioned clothing, my mother asks who that is. I get a little closer expecting to see a name I am not familiar with and am surprised to see that it is a statue of Christopher Columbus. My natural response to this is, “the asshole who found this country,” but it makes me pause and I consider what my response, feelings and even the chance of passing by this statue means. I’m in search of a memorial that’s dedicated to a genocide committed 101 years ago, one that took the lives of millions of people, displaced millions more, devastated a nation and to this day goes unnoticed and denied. This memorial is now publically recognizing it and giving those lost lives a voice. And in this same park the man, who to most people is a symbol of the building and founding of this nation but who, for me, symbolizes the genocide of the Native American people that were here before he ever was, stand so close to each other. Those lives and that history is ignored, or changed during primary school and instead the celebration of a man who thought manifest destiny was more important than the lives of those who were living here is celebrated. This genocidal connection makes me uncomfortable. One genocide is finally getting a place for recognition to begin. And the other is being overpowered by the continued celebration of its perpetrator.

            I leave Columbus behind. As I make my way to a row of benches that are under a canape of what looks like white umbrellas I see it – the black tuff rock to my right side. It’s standing lonely and magnificent, it’s darker than anything around it. The black tuff volcanic rock stands in contrast with the grey concreate around it, green trees and bushes, ivory sand and red park benches. The memorial is in a garden of short, stout green plants. They’re organized in perfect rows and columns and around very fine, dusty sand. Looking up from any direction in that garden there are views of the park reaching far and wide towards more buildings.

            The memorial itself is shorter than I am, the highest point maybe reaching 3 and a half feet. It consists of two large very angular pieces of black tuff rock that are separated down the middle and are distinctly different in texture. One side is rough and bumping, while the other side is perfectly smooth. I’m remembering the LA Times article I read regarding the memorial- the smooth side represents the present and future of Armenia, while the bumpy side represents the struggle the Armenian people went through. It’s enclosed in a silver square and it wasn’t till I looked closely on the ground that I realized there was writing on it. From the position, I was standing the first thing I saw was the name William Saroyan, a distant grandfather like figure for Armenian Americans, whose words we have heard spoken numerous times. The quote was, “In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.” I’m confused that this quote would be the one to make it underneath the memorial, given that Saroyan has been heavily quoted saying things that are more directly related to the genocide. I walk around and around the tuff rock, reading it over and over again, out loud and to myself, and finally stand there for some time letting it sink in. In the time of my life…live, so that I should not add to the misery and sorrow of the world but instead I shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it. The traumatized, diasporaian Armenian in me wants a quote that talks about the pain of denial, silencing, and annihilation. I want to read Saroyan’s quote telling those sons of bitches to try and destroy our culture again. There’s a difficult, silenced, pain behind this memorial and I want to display it for all the deniers that don’t think my pain is justified. I’m contemplating this and wondering why not this tortured, painful expression of grief. I continue to say the written quote, now out loud, and consider what it means. I remember my professor in Armenia, a Saroyan-like figure in my life. What would he think of my diasporic reaction? Always thinking about the pain, the trauma, the tortured soul of a diasporaian Armenian. He would tell me to think of Armenians in Armenia…they are the ones smiling at the infinite delight and mystery of life. This memorial is meant to heal the diaspora in Los Angeles who can’t seem to let go of the pain displacement has caused and who need to look ahead, and look toward Armenia for strength.

            I touch the rock. The black tuff is volcanic rock bought in from the Ararat Valley in Armenia. The bumpy side is still smooth under my hands but I can feel it’s texture as I glide my hands over it. The flat side is soft to the touch, the rock itself feeling a little sandy. Both the flat and the bumpy sides reach up to a pointy end. The tuff rock from Ararat taking the form of the two pointy mountains that are a national symbol of Armenia. I’m taken back to my time in Armenia, being able to see Ararat from almost any given point in the city and country. I walk outside the elevators of my university and see the mountain in clear view across the city and valley, through the windows of the school. I look out the bus window as I’m headed back to the city from a day long excursion in the village of Tatev. The cloudy day obscuring my view of the smaller Ararat but the bigger Ararat poking through the clouds, the pink and purple sunset sky as a backdrop, while fields and fields of crops are in the foreground, leading your eye to the mountain. I sit in the airplane, waiting for liftoff and through the morning sunrise I catch my last glimpse of Ararat, I hold back tears and stare till it’s no longer in view, unsure of when I will see it again. Now, I’m looking down at the black volcanic rock in downtown Los Angeles, in a concrete jungle and I’m both taken back to Armenia and so far, removed from it. I understand it. I understand why the rock resembles Ararat and why it was bought from Ararat. I look back at the William Saroyan quote and read it. “In the time of your life – live,” is all I read to realize, once more, that this is more than just a memorial dedicated to the lives we lost during the genocide. This is also a memorial dedicated to me. It’s dedicated to human kind in general and the lives that continue to prosper and live even in the face of tragedy. 

            Next to the tuff rock is a long, thin plaque that tells the story of the genocide and how and why this memorial was put in Grand Park. I spot the name Levon Parian, an artist from CSUN who was involved in the making of the memorial. A feeling of pride rushes over me for the simple fact that I attend the school he teaches at, even though I don’t know who he is. I leave my piece of Ararat behind and head back down the walkway. Once again I must pass by Christopher Columbus, that asshole, and I conclude that the Armenian Genocide Memorial is also dedicated to the Native American Genocide, even though it is only in my head, only in my heart that this is done so.

As I made these connections between the Armenian Genocide and Native American genocide, I realize that the ways in which these events are memorialized are very different. The Native American Genocide isn’t called genocide; it’s referred to as the founding of America. Through the rewriting of history, we’re told from a young age that the natives of this land welcomed the newcomers with open arms, the newcomers came bearing gifts, and the two groups celebrated a new friendship based in a mutual occupation of the land. It is only later in life we come to realize the atrocities Native Americans had to overcome. When Christopher Columbus sailed to what he thought was India in 1492, he found a land already inhabited with people that had a rich and established culture. Through hundreds of years of wars and battles, unintentional disease bought in from the new Americans, as well as intentionally spreading small pox, paid killings, displacement, laws stripping natives away from the newly placed “rights” that controlled the land, rape, and slavery, the population of natives has decreased to a devastating low. Before the new Americans entered there were an estimated 10 million Natives living on this land, in different tribes. Today, 5.2 million Natives are left to live on reservations that don’t allow them to live a prosperous life in American economy and politics, and are still faced with racism and discrimination. Just as Armenians face deniers, Natives face a different sort of denial. Americans have admitted to the systematic killing of the Natives and offer retribution, however, the language they use in speaking of it erases the significance of what they’ve done. Simply excluding the term genocide from their vocabulary when speaking of it changes the meaning. Native culture must mourn in the language of their oppressors, a language that benefits those who killed off their ancestors. “This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you” and even more, I need it to talk about myself and my history (Rich).

The Autry Museum of the American West takes visitors through exhibits displaying the story of American life in the West, as the name suggests. The exhibits range in depictions of old Western American lifestyle to the Native American lifestyle. From old carriages, to a collection of guns, to gowns and tribal clothing, to Western film posters, to artwork of Natives, by Natives (and Americans) the visitor walks through history. As I go through the exhibits I’m happy that Natives are included in this history but disappointed all the same because it still doesn’t feel like enough is being done in honor of their history. A part of me feels like Antigone going back to bury Polynices one more time, like it needs to be done again and again till it can be properly mourned. I documented the exhibitions called, “California Impressionism: The Gardena High School Collection” and the ongoing exhibit, “Art of the West.”

            Images of cowboys and Natives are side by side, depicting a time in history after the initial annihilation of the Natives. The images are beautiful in color and style and the range of scenes being depicted but what is the narrative? Or maybe I should ask myself, where is the narrative I’m looking for? Where is Antigone burying her brother for all to see? I’m waiting for the selection of artwork that’s explicit, loud and demanding of recognition. Instead, I see Californian landscapes before it was turned into a concrete jungle. Native men on horseback, sometimes fighting. Group dances, men and women going around in circles dressed in traditional clothing. Men and women weaving baskets; those baskets on display next to paintings. American cowboys and soldiers. I check to make sure the artwork of Natives is made by Natives and am relieved to find that they are. I think of the way I wanted the Armenian Genocide Memorial to display the pain felt by our ancestors and the generations that followed. I wanted the same thing when memorializing the Native American Genocide. Instead, I’m seeing a watered-down version of Native history. A pity inclusion for the sake of inclusion.

            I’m disappointed at the images I see till I look at the words posted in between the artwork, at the entrance and exits of the exhibits. Quotes from American artists and leaders, Native tribal leaders and artists expressing the injustice faced by the Natives. Words like genocide, murder, exile pop out at me and I find what I’m looking for. The power of language is displayed all over the exhibit. The loaded words create an interesting contrast to the images that lack a sense of tragedy to what happened to Natives when the new Americans emerged.

            “the dark people, the alien dress”

            “powerful Indian type,

             deep copper color,

             wide cheek bones,

             straight nose –

            and the look of a sphinx”

          “we believed them to be friends

           and true speakers;

          they have shown us how false

           and cruel they can be”

          “show them no mercy.

          They are but few, we are many” 

         “while your rejoicings are commemorative of the free birth of this giant nation, they simply         convey to my mind the recollection of a transfer of the dependence of my race from one great power to another.”

My imagined Antigone has gone to bury Polynices once more, in hopes of giving him a rightful burial and the time to mourn. The words on the walls allow a community to recognize the true history of the Natives and who their oppressors were. However, until the dominate narrative speaks the truth from the side of the oppressed as well, the act of mourning will not feel complete.

“I am nowhere without you,” – the generations left behind after genocides exist because of the survivors will to live on, the perpetrators failure to exterminate. The Armenian and Native American strength in continuing to carry on cultural traditions and language keep the future generations tied to them, always. “I cannot muster the ‘we’ except by finding the way in which I am tied to ‘you,’ by trying to translate but finding that my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you,” – the future generations know themselves in relation to their ancestors, throughout their lives their identities change as they discover the ways we muster up the ‘we’ that ties the past and future together. “You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know,” – the knowledge and recognition of what we have all lost is what’s gained through mourning and this process is how one begins to form an identity and how that can change time and time again. (Butler, p. 49) Butler’s image of one in the process of knowing is like the images my fieldwork has shown; interacting with the memorials of one’s past puts them in the process of knowing who they are in their own history.

Works Cited

  1. Butler, J., Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.Print.
  2. Choi, C., “The Politics of War Memories Toward Healing” in Perilous Memories: The Asian-Pacific War(s). Ed. T. Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, Lisa Yoneyama. London: Duke           University Press. 2001. Print
  1. Ralli, T., “Fragments of Memory,” in Holy Terrors: Latin American Women Perform.2003
  1. Rich, A., “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”
  2. Watanabe, J., Trans. Margaret Carson., Antigona.