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Learning Matters: New novel focuses on Armenian Genocide’s aftermath

I received an email recently from a publicist asking if I intended to write a column about the Armenian Genocide. If so, would I be interested in meeting an author who was coming to town on a book tour?

Welcoming the opportunity to gain more perspective on a matter of global and local significance — the 100th anniversary of the loss of 1.5 million Armenian lives — I said, “yes.” So they sent me the book, and soon thereafter, I sat down with author Aida Zilelian to discuss her new novel, “Legacy of Lost Things.”

By way of introduction, I shared with her my role as an observer of education in a broad sense, not a literary critic or historian. She replied that her story, following the lives of three generations in an Armenian family, is not so much about the genocide itself as about families in its aftermath. It focuses on the choices made by and for the children of their long-reaching consequences.

She explained the “lost things” were different for each member of the fictional family, but all of her characters experienced some sort of loss. With just a glimpse of the enormous upheaval of the genocide and the immigrations that ensued, Zilelian weaves a story of husbands and wives balancing new roles, fathers struggling to provide for their families and mothers covering for the misbehavior of sons.

Most of all, she writes of the marriages of individuals and cultures, and of families adjusting to the growing independence of their children. “Once again,” she writes of one character, “she asked herself what would have happened had she not listened to her grandmother’s strong urging that she get married.”

Zilelian’s book conveys both the Armenian story and a universal one. Her attention to family and generational struggles made me think of the local community organizations trying to meet the needs of families like the ones in her book.

So, with apologies for departing from the richness of her text, I’ll share some information about the services her characters could have used — such as English-language classes, career and mental health counseling and parenting classes.

The frustration portrayed by Zilelian’s characters is experienced by many of the underemployed men and women — immigrants of all cultures and native Californians as well — whose careers languish for lack of the language or other skills required for meaningful work.

Describing the eldest of the men in her story, she writes, “Uprooting himself and his family during a time in which he thought he should have been profiting from his years of toil… he no longer felt himself to be a strong, capable man in his late 40s… He had to leave everything behind in order to come to America.”

There are many, I’m sure, who feel similarly uprooted, whether they left a country or lost a job in the Great Recession, and don’t know where to turn for help.

Zilelian’s book points to the need to expand access to English language and other class offerings. The Garfield campus of Glendale Community College, the Central Library, the Burbank Adult School and local organizations such as the Armenian Relief Society, Catholic Charities, and the International Rescue Committee all offer classes, but they could be more effective with more funding and better publicity.

Many families in or on the edge of crisis are unaware of the services offered by organizations such as the Verdugo Job Center, the Glendale Youth Alliance, and GCC’s career placement office. Few have heard of a new nonprofit in town: the Glendale Communitas Initiative (www.glendalecommunitasinitiative.org).

As a tale of young people struggling for independence, the book serves as an advertisement for the need for more counselors in schools, colleges and elsewhere. Like Zilelian’s runaway teen Araxi and her mother, Tamar, the generation before, young people and their parents continually signal their need for help, yet remain unaware of the services available through schools and community organizations like the CV Alliance, Didi Hirsch, and others.

“She had made her parents happy, but her daily existence felt like punishment she didn’t deserve.”

“Legacy of Lost Things” is a compelling story, more than the framework for a public service announcement I’ve rendered it here. Told from one family’s perspective, it speaks to the history of one culture and all cultures. It reminds us of why we read.

“The story of his father’s past had managed to follow [their family] to where they lived now,” Zilelian writes.

Understanding the story makes it somewhat easier to bear.

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JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School Board. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.


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