As a boy in the Central Valley, Richard Hovannisian was discouraged from learning to read, write or even speak his parents' native language, Armenian. He made up for lost time, becoming a preeminent Armenian scholar, founding the Armenian studies program at UCLA (where he is professor emeritus) and, across town, advising the USC Shoah Foundation on the Armenian genocide, whose 100th anniversary will be marked this week. It's a family affair: His son Raffi became a politician in the nation of Armenia and its first foreign minister, and his grandson Garin is a filmmaker and writer on Armenian themes. There's plenty of material at hand; Los Angeles is home to the biggest Armenian population outside Yerevan — including, Hovannisian says, a small number of Armenian Chinese.
The pope used the word "genocide." How big a deal is that?
It's a very big deal. It makes it easier for others, as the European Union parliament did [urging Turkey to acknowledge the genocide], as candidate Obama made it clear he would when he became president. I don't think he knew what kind of pressures he was going to be subjected to, by the Pentagon, the State Department, by commerce. We'll see what he will do in his statement on April 24. [The White House announced after this interview that the president would not use the term.]
There are California Armenians from many countries. Is the genocide the unifying element of their identity?
It is in a way, but I consider that a negative factor, because Armenians have always re-created themselves by looking to the future and rebuilding, not mourning the past. It's taken 100 years to achieve [the same population numbers as before 1915]. The resources Armenians have been forced to commit to gain [genocide] recognition have prevented them from [doing more] in arts, culture, music.
How have Armenian Americans changed over time?
My generation wanted to be accepted by the Anglo community. We were encouraged to shed our Old World ways. We were nervous about being immigrants and the children of immigrants. I attended a Baptist church. I eventually discovered myself and my culture. I dreamed about being an ambassador of Armenia to the United Nations, and my son [Raffi] became the foreign minister of Armenia, and did raise the flag at the U.N. [The next generations] may not speak Armenian, but they're aware of the tradition, the culture; they love the dance, the food.
In places like Fresno, where they're fourth or fifth generation, external marriage is probably [the case for] 70% or 80%. We have one-half, one-quarter, one-eighth Armenians. It comes down to how they feel. We have one-eighth Armenians who are probably better Armenians than those who are full-blooded.
In Los Angeles, we've had a huge influx [of immigrants] since the 1990s. They're confident their children will retain their ethnicity, but they find out after 20 years that acculturation does take place. And they shouldn't be surprised if their children marry someone [non-Armenian].
"Marrying out" has been sensitive. Your son told a friend who was marrying a Mexican that he'd be out of the circle of Armenian family and friends.
For which my son's now sorry. The burden of history is very heavy. Marrying outside the community has a sense of continuing the genocide, because of the gradual melting away of the descendants of survivors. Some choose to escape it: "Enough already, I don't want this burden, so I'm going to just live my own way." That's another form of victimization because you're going to feel guilty turning away from your people.
Many Jews have moved to Israel; why haven't more Armenian Americans returned to the Armenian nation?
First, the country went through total economic collapse with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Second, there was a cultural divide. The post-Soviet mentality made the leadership of Armenia quite different from those abroad who romanticized an Armenia that never really was. Some leaders in Armenia had the sense that diaspora Armenians wanted to take over, so there was tension and suspicion. And the country was not large enough to encourage massive emigration — there was nothing for [emigrants] to do.
While [diaspora Armenians] are willing to support Armenia, they're not willing to live like the people in Armenia, who to a large degree live at the poverty level. There are also issues of corruption and mismanagement. You find many good people on the lower echelons; it's the people at the top, these oligarchs in Russia and all over, who give the bad reputation.
How do you re-create personal Armenian histories? You can't just go to ancestry.com.
I was one of the few Armenians in my generation who had grandparents, my mother's father and mother [who came to the U.S. before World War I]. Most grandparents had been killed. But I don't know who my great-grandparents were. Those people were destroyed, Bibles in which they recorded births are destroyed. It was a total break in the lineage of 3,000 years of Armenian history.
There are some hopeful signs. One [Kurdish] mayor reconstructed the Armenian church that was in ruins. In another area they've renamed towns and villages whose names were changed by the Turkish government. A growing number of intellectuals in Turkey are challenging the state narrative. These are signs I wouldn't expect to see happening in my lifetime.
Is the demand for official Turkish acknowledgment of the genocide still paramount?
Recognition is still essential, but one reason for denial is the fear of the second R, restitution, because Turkey took over a whole civilization, wealth today that would amount to billions. If the Turkish government accepted it, they'd be expected to make some kind of compensatory acts.
The Turkish government would have been much wiser if years ago it had faced its history and said, "If you have property deeds, if you have claims, or people died, let's try to resolve it," as Germany has done. It's going to take a significant chunk of our GNP, but in the end we're better off for it."
At a conference in Dusseldorf, a Turkish leader said, "I want to apologize to the Armenian people." I had goose bumps. In Germany, I find Holocaust memorial monuments and museums. While it doesn't bring back victims, it is assuaging emotions.
You think acknowledgment holds benefits for Turkey too.
Denial is preventing Armenians from acknowledging the good Turks, and there were a lot of good Turks at the time. I've done about 800 oral history interviews [with survivors and families] and, in most cases, a good Muslim tried to help. It may have lasted one day, it may have lasted a month, or the entire war, but that meant this [Armenian] individual survived. The denial prevents recognition of these people on both sides.
There are still World War II Holocaust deniers, and in some countries that's a crime. Should it be for the Armenian genocide?
I don't think it's the right thing to do. But when you face what goes on, my intellectual side says no, my emotional side says yes. Denial contributes to the continuation of the trauma and pain.
The world's most famous Armenian Americans are not writer William Saroyan, director Rouben Mamoulian, or former Gov. George Deukmejian. They're the Kardashians. And they just visited Armenia to a huge welcome. What do you make of that?
[Laughs.] Whether you like it or not, whether you approve of them or not, they gain attention. People following them therefore become educated [about Armenia]. The rock band System of a Down has huge concerts in which they're screaming, "Armenian genocide!" They are all reaching an audience that I could never reach if I wrote a hundred books. The best form of education and knowledge? No. Maybe an opening of awareness for people? Yes. I think that the Kardashians are such that they would have a huge response in Turkey!
This interview has been edited and condensed.