It’s a stuffy summer night in Fresno in 1953. Half-Irish Teresa, trying to grapple with her Armenian fiance Mihran’s cultural identity, asks him if he will teach their children to hate the Turks.
Surrounded by figures that he registers as ancestral ghosts, Mihran thinks for a moment.
“Hate is not a solution,” Mihran says. “But neither is forgetting.”
The conundrum of how to forgive and not forget, laid out in a condensed scene from the recently released novel “Shadows of 1915,” becomes a recurring theme in the work by Jerry Burger. It’s a contradiction that continues to haunt the contemporary Armenian community, according to Burger, a retired Santa Clara University psychology professor.
“Reasonable people would say that hate is not a solution, especially hating the children and great-grandchildren of the people who committed atrocities,” Burger said. “Yet, somehow to forget all the suffering, all the horror that went on, would make it seem like it was for naught. [They] need to keep the memories alive, and they need to move on.”
Released this past spring, “Shadows” is set into action by an interaction between Turkish college students and sons of Armenian Genocide survivors. Amid the fallout, the characters must synthesize their family and community loyalties with the legal system and personal beliefs.
It’s just one of a handful of fiction works written in English to tackle the Armenian Genocide, according to Burger. He said he’s aware of only about eight or nine other novels in existence, and almost all were written by people with Armenian backgrounds.
Increasing awareness of the tragedy — and how it reverberates today — partially inspired Burger to write “Shadows.” It’s his first novel.
Growing up in Fresno — though later than the mid-’50s when the book is set — Burger said he had plenty of Armenian friends. He knew all about the genocide and many Armenians’ negative feelings about the Turks.
To his surprise, many of his well-read, well-educated friends who lived outside of Fresno, where there is a large Armenian community, knew nothing about the Armenian Genocide that began in 1915 and claimed more than a million lives.
Its minimal representation in English-language literature and film is partially why “it has fallen out of awareness in our larger culture,” Burger said.
He was attuned to the fact that he was writing about a community he didn’t belong to, “and thought it was important to get it right,” he said.
“I was sensitive to [the idea of cultural appropriation] and didn’t rely on stereotypes,” he added.
To do that, he interviewed several people who grew up in what was once called Armenian Town in Fresno. One man he met, Berge Bulbulian, had written “The Fresno Armenians,” which is filled with details about the exact community on which Burger wanted to focus his novel.
(There is also a short scene in the novel involving Glendale.)
In particular, one story told to his wife, Marlene, many years ago haunted him and became the basis for a pivotal scene in the book. During an interview, a woman described to Marlene Burger, a former reporter, how she lost her infant daughter during the genocide.
Besides raising awareness, Jerry Burger said he hopes his novel “leaves people with more questions than answers” — which he said is the hallmark of good literature.
“These are people in a situation where there are no easy answers,” he said.
Published by Golden Antelope Press, “Shadows of 1915" is available as an e-book on Amazon and through Barnes and Noble.