A National Book Award Finalist.
In 1915 Vahan Kenderian is living a life of privilege as the youngest son of a wealthy Armenian family in Turkey. This secure world is shattered when some family members are whisked away while others are murdered before his eyes.
Vahan loses his home and family, and is forced to live a life he would never have dreamed of in order to survive. Somehow Vahan’s incredible strength and spirit help him endure, even knowing that each day could be his last.
My name is Vahan Kenderian. I was born in Bitlis, a province of Turkey, at the base of the Musguneyi Mountains of the East. It was a beautiful city of cobbled streets and horse-drawn wagons, brilliant springs and blighting winters, strolling peddlers and snake charmers. Beyond sunbaked mud-brick houses were fields of tall grass, rolling hills, and orchards of avocado, apricot, olive, and fig trees. Steep valleys of stone climbed sharply to grassy plains and pastures, and higher still to the slopes of snowcapped mountains where every summer evening the sun set in deepening shades of red and blue.
On your way into town, you would walk on crooked sidewalks past houses so close together that a small boy could easily jump from one roof to another. Weaving your way through a tangle of pedestrians, you passed veiled women sitting on stools selling madzoon, and in shop windows you would see merchants dressed in baggy pants and vests, sipping small cups of black coffee. You smelled the lavosh bread from the bakery and stood aside as the cab driver in his two-wheeled horse-drawn cart drove by. Walking home at sunset, you would see the lamplighter carrying a torch in his hand and a ladder on his back. And as darkness fell, all the flat-roofed, tightly packed houses would become one great house where a thousand small lights burned.
As far as an Armenian from Bitlis was concerned, Bitlis was the center of the world: Her mountains were the highest, her soil the most fertile, her women the loveliest, her men the bravest, her leaders the wisest. Of course, not every Armenian from Bitlis was praise-worthy. Some drank, some begged in the street, some swindled their employers, some were vain, careless, licentious, or lazy. But, for the most part, they were a hardworking and honorable people. At least the ones I knew.
In 1915, I was twelve years old, the youngest child of one of the richest and most respected Armenians in Turkey. I was small for my age, stocky and strongly built, with curly brown hair, excellent posture, a firm handshake, and a brisk, determined stride. I walked with the confidence of a boy who has grown up in luxury and knows that he will always be comfortable, always well fed, always warm in winter and cool in summer.
My father was afraid that I lacked character and discipline. And he was right. As far as I was concerned, character and discipline were consolation prizes given to the meek, the unadventurous, and the unlucky. Mrs. Gulbankian needed character because she was a widow and lived alone. Mr. Aberjanian needed discipline because he worked twelve hours a day selling groceries. Most adults, it seemed, needed character and discipline because their lives had long ago ceased to either amuse or fulfill them. "You'll see," they would say to me with knowing smiles, as though disillusion were a law as inevitable as gravity. But I knew better. I knew that time and destiny were my allies, the twin magicians of my fate: Time would transform me into the tallest, strongest man in Bitlis, and destiny would transform me into one of the wealthiest, most admired men in Turkey. I did not know if I would be a lawyer, like my father, or a doctor or a businessman, but I knew that I would be a man of consequence. When I walked down the street, people would say, "There goes Vahan Kenderian," and I would smile or not smile, depending on my mood that day.
Unfortunately, I was an unlikely candidate for greatness--at least by conventional standards: In school I threw wads of paper at my friends Manoosh and Pattoo, spoke out of turn, fell asleep at my desk, and was generally the first one suspected whenever anything out of the ordinary happened anywhere on the grounds. Twice I had been sent home for wrestling in the halls, twelve times for skipping school, once for falling out of my chair, and once because I had given one of my teachers "a look."
"What kind of look?" my mother asked me.
"I don't know. I just looked at him."
"How did you look at him?"
"I don't know. Like this. Like I'm looking at you."
Father Ossian said I had a poor attitude.
Father Nahnikian said I was looking for attention.
Father Asadourian said I should be disciplined as often as possible, preferably with a stick.
My father gave me chores to build my character. When I forgot to do them, he would take me into the living room, sit me down, look me in the eye, and say, "What kind of man do you think you are going to be?" My father had black hair, a black mustache, and black eyes that could see through anyone or anything. He was the disciplinarian of the family, who, by example, tried to teach his children the laws of honor, integrity, and self-reliance. He was a man to whom others often turned for money or support, and he was always trying, in vain, to draw my consciousness beyond the long white wall that surrounded our property, to open my eyes to the challenges of the real world. The real world, as far as I could tell, was a terrifying place where half-dead men and women labored, bore children, grew old, grew ill, and died--a drab, inhospitable place where the grim and bitter read to one another from a book of woe. Naturally, I had no interest in that world, and no intention of ever becoming one of its citizens. In my real world, cold would always be answered with warmth, hunger with food, thirst with water, loneliness with love. In my real world, there would always be this house I loved, the laughter of brothers and sisters, uncles and cousins. In my real world, I would always belong, and I would always be happy.
Excerpted from Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian. Copyright © 2002 by Adam Bagdasarian. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Guide
In 1915, Vahan Kenderian is living a life of privilege when his world is shattered by the Turkish-Armenian War.
'The reader is swept inescapably into the once beautiful, now shattered world of the Turkish Armenians. Adam Bagdasarian’s remarkable accomplishment is to seamlessly join history, autobiography, and art in a singular story that seizes the imagination and refuses to let go."–National Book Awards Judges’ Citation
About the Author
A CONVERSATION WITH ADAM BAGDASARIAN
Q. When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
A. When I was fifteen, I was given a writing assignment for my sophomore English class. We were told to write a short story about any experience in our past. It was the first time I had ever tried to write a short story, but I knew even before I sat down to write it that it was something I would be able to do well. It was the first time I had ever felt that way about anything. And as I started to write the story, I found myself actually enjoying the experience of creating and improvising.
Q. What inspired you to write this story?
A. When my great-uncle, Vahridj Kenderian, was dying, he made a tape of his experiences as a child during the Armenian genocide. I always thought of that tape as a kind of note a marooned man will place in a bottle and throw out to sea, hoping that someone will find the bottle and tell the story he had lived with his whole life. Ten years after his death, his son Richard gave me the tape. As I listened to it, I became so affected by what I was hearing that I knew that I had to write this book.
Q. Why did you decide to write this story as fiction? Did you ever consider another approach?
A. Well, I was always a fiction writer, so it was natural for me to do it that way. Nonfiction tends to be more detached and analytical, and I felt that the most important thing I could do was involve the reader emotionally in Vahan’s experiences so that he could feel them, rather than just read them.
Q. How did you approach the research for the book?
A. There is not very much material about the Armenian genocide, so I had to go to several libraries–UCLA research libraries, Armenian bookstores, the New York Public Library. The Zohrab Center, an Armenian library in Manhattan, was very helpful. But I always thought of the research as a tool, not an end in itself.
Q. How long did it take you to write Forgotten Fire?
A. It took about ten years, on and off. I was used to writing shorter pieces, so, in the beginning, I was a little intimidated by the prospect of working on a much larger canvas. For a while, I really felt like the wrong man for the job. I chose to write the book because I knew it would be a challenge, but I had no idea how challenging it would be, emotionally and technically, and sometimes I had to take a step back from it to recharge and regain some perspective. I think that the writing is stronger and more effective because the material was difficult for me emotionally. In order to bring Vahan to life, I had to find his emotions inside myself; I had to feel what he felt, moment by moment, so that the reader could feel it and experience it as well. That was a challenge, but a very worthwhile one.
Q. What is the significance of the title?
A. The Hitler quote at the beginning of the book is meant to convey that the Armenian genocide was a forgotten chapter in world history, and also show the connection between the genocide of the Armenians and the later genocide of the Jews. In other words, if we forget the past, we imperil our future. The “fire” part of the title refers to the part where Vahan’s father tells his children that steel is made strong by fire. The experiences in the book represent Vahan’s fire, the fire for all Armenians–the fire of adversity that either consumes us or makes us stronger. So “Forgotten Fire” stands for this fire of adversity for the Armenian people that was forgotten by the world.
Q. How aware of Armenian history were you as a young boy?
A. I didn’t grow up really connected to the Armenian community in an organizational way. I was certainly proud of being an Armenian, but I didn’t know very much about our history. During the writing of the book, however, I realized that what had happened to the Kenderian family, my grandmother, and great-uncles and great-aunts had somehow been inside of me my whole life, that the trauma of those events had been passed through the seed from one generation of Armenians to another. Writing the book freed me of that, in a way. That said, I think of this story, aside from being specifically about the genocide, as being a metaphor for life. The book is about loss and adversity of any kind, and who we
become as a result of that.
Q. This story is based on the early life of your great-uncle. What happened to him after he emigrated? In the words of his father, “what kind of man did he become?”
A. He had a very good life. He married, had children, a wonderful home in New Jersey. He had his own business, as a photoengraver, but he was also a fine painter and sculptor, a very cultured man. And a man of great warmth and humor, which is extraordinary, considering all he saw and suffered. I think he lived with the genocide his whole life, but he wasn’t destroyed by it–he was strengthened by it, and he had the courage to live beyond it. I think his father would have been very proud of the man he became.
Q. Was there a part of the book that was particularly difficult to write?
A. There were a lot of difficult parts–the march to the river, the death of his brother in the empty house, especially at the very end, just before he died. But each experience presented its own challenges. I think I started to relax a little when he got on the boat to Constantinople, because I knew that he was finally safe and no one else was going to die.
Q. What has been the reaction of Armenians to the book? Non-Armenians?
A. Armenians and non-Armenians have responded to the book with great enthusiasm. First, because it’s a strong story, and also because, as I was saying earlier, it’s about a human being facing adversity and becoming something more because of it. It’s about all of us.
Q. You have said, “Forgotten Fire was not written for children, young adults, or even adults, it was written for people everywhere.” What did you mean by that?
A. If something happens to one of us, young or old, it happens to all of us, so I think people relate to Vahan as a human being. Everyone experiences loss, everyone knows what it’s like to feel alone, everyone has to find the survivor inside himself or herself. So I think people of all ages can identify with Vahan.
Q. This book contains a number of violent scenes that relate the atrocities committed by the Turks against the Armenians. What was your purpose in depicting these difficult incidents?
A. Forgotten Fire is based on a true story and every one of those events happened, not just to Vahan, but to countless other Armenians. In order to appreciate the man Vahan eventually becomes, you have to know what he has experienced, and how those experiences forged him. Also, in a society that sometimes glamorizes or trivializes violence, I think it is a good thing to tell young adults what violence really is, and the effect it has.
Q. Can you explain the significance of home and family to your main character, Vahan?
A. They represent love, security, a place where he belongs and is safe. Like most of us, I think he took those things for granted. Only after they are gone does he realize how much he’s lost. I think all of us, no matter what age, are looking for a place where we are safe and loved. Ultimately, however, as the coppersmith said, I think that the most secure home is the one we build inside ourselves.
Q. What did you read as a child? Did you have any favorite authors growing up?
A. I loved Edgar Allan Poe–I loved the rhythms in his poetry. I loved The Phantom Tollbooth and Dr. Seuss. As I got a little older I loved Hemingway and Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot. The book that had the biggest influence on me when I was growing up was My Name Is Aram, by William Saroyan. Even now, I think it’s one of the most wonderful books ever written.
Q. How has your life changed since the publication of Forgotten Fire?
A. The most wonderful development is people telling me how much they liked the book, and what it meant to them. To know that the story is reaching people and affecting them deeply means more to me than I can say.
1. Why do you think the author included the quote from Hitler as the epigraph? Did your ideas change after reading Forgotten Fire?
2. Vahan Kenderian has never known fear until the Turks come to take his father away. He says, “I wished I could go to [my mother’s] room and tell her I was afraid. But somehow I knew that I couldn’t.” (p. 22) Discuss why Vahan doesn’t feel that he can share his fear with his mother.
3. How did the attitude of the Armenian community change once the Turks took possession of the town and began the genocide?
4. Describe the Kenderian family before the Turks shatter their lives. Cite evidence from the novel that Vahan greatly admires his father. Why is Vahan considered the “black sheep” of the family? How does the memory of his father give him the courage he needs to survive?
5. Were you aware of the Armenian genocide before reading this book? What other ethnic wars have occurred since World War II?
6. How does Vahan react when he witnesses the murders of his brothers by the Turkish soldiers?
7. Vahan has several violent experiences during his journey to Constantinople. Discuss his behavior afterward. Did the graphic descriptions disturb your reading?
8. Vahan says that loneliness “transforms the heartiest of souls into a living ash of spiritual doubt and despair.” (p. 130) How does Vahan reveal his “spiritual doubt”?
9. What is Vahan’s first impression of Selim Bey? How does Vahan discover Selim Bey’s true nature?
10. Discuss what Vahan means when he says, “I knew that I was free, and that I would never be free.” (p. 270) Are there other countries today that deny freedom to certain citizens based on their ethnicity?
11. How do Dr. and Mrs. Tashian help Vahan on his journey toward a new life?
12. Think about all of the people in Vahan’s past. How does each of them contribute to his “freedom”? How does each give him courage, even in the smallest way?
13. What is the meaning of the title Forgotten Fire?
14. How does the quote from Hitler relate to the Armenian genocide?
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Related Web Sites
Armenian National Institute
Official site dedicated to the study, research, and affirmation of the Armenian genocide.
Map of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in the Turkish Empire
A color map of the provinces with detailed routes of deportation.
Armenian Genocide Survivor Accounts
Devoted to eyewitness accounts and family histories of the ordeal.