When I was a boy and trying desperately to give a wide berth to the latest culinary travesty my Swedish mother had scooped onto my dinner plate—my mother was a well-intentioned cook, but far too interested in conversation to squirrel herself away in the kitchen and become a good one—she occasionally said, “Eat. You of all people should think of the starving Armenians.”
At least once I recall my Armenian father sitting back in his chair after my mother had said that and asking rhetorically, “Why is it that no one ever says, ‘Eat. Think of the starving Bangladeshis?’ Or the starving Cambodians? Honestly, I don’t know of any starving Armenians.”
He was the son of Armenian immigrants and he grew up in the impressive brick monolith his father had built in a suburb of New York City. Even as a child, when I thought of my grandparents’ house, instantly I would think of food: The platters of warm cheese boregs, the filo dough oozing butter. The rice pilaf rich with the aroma of chicken broth. The grape leaves stuffed with vegetables. And, of course, the lamb, marinated and tender. I have been a vegetarian for well over a quarter-century, but I know I would be in danger of backsliding if I were transported back to my Armenian grandmother’s kitchen. I had a sense that the phrase had something to do with genocide, but my family never discussed the systematic slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
The expression, I’d learn much later, was most likely coined by Clara Barton. Although the genocide had faded into history for most of the world by the early 1970s, the massacres (and, yes, the starving Armenian orphans) had once been common knowledge among Americans and Europeans. During the genocide, the New York Times published 145 stories about the atrocities. Among the most poignant images for Westerners were the photographs and the stories of the children. The orphans. In 1915, first the men and then the women were killed; as a result, thousands and thousands of orphans were scattered across what is now Syria and Lebanon and Egypt.
Consequently, when I decided that it was time to write a novel about the genocide—what my novel’s narrator calls glibly, “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About”—I found myself focused on children and food. Because of the Proustian madeleines from my own childhood, this seemed a viable entry into a story that might otherwise be one mind-numbing horror after another. The novel moves back and forth in time between an Armenian-American novelist at midlife—a female version of me—and a sweeping love story set against the cataclysm of 1915 in the eastern edges of the Ottoman Empire. It is, in part, the tale of Elizabeth Endicott, a 1922 graduate of Mount Holyoke College who travels to the Syrian desert as part of an American relief mission, and her love affair with Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer who has already lost his young wife and infant daughter.
There is also a lot of my childhood in the book—and a lot of my grandparents’ house. And, yes, there are orphans in the scenes set in 1915, including one of my favorite characters ever: a quiet, watchful, intense little girl named Hatoun.
Was there a real Hatoun? There were tens of thousands of real Hatouns. (The Near East Relief organization cared for more than 100,000 children between 1915 and 1930.) When I visited Lebanon and Armenia earlier this year, trying to ground myself emotionally as the publication ofThe Sandcastle Girls neared, among the places I went was an orphanage in the Lebanese city of Byblos. The town sits on a hillside above the Mediterranean and is known best for its remarkable Phoenician ruins, including a citadel and an amphitheater at the edge of the cliff. Also there, however, is the Bird’s Nest, the orphanage founded after WWI by Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen. Jacobsen saved no fewer than 3,600 children herself when she converted a villa into an emergency shelter.
And how did the orphanage get its name? One afternoon when she was handing out candy to the children, they surrounded her, calling out “Mama, Mama!” Jacobsen looked at the hungry throng and imagined the orphans were like baby birds and she was their mother.
When a nun at the orphanage told me this story, I thought of Hatoun and I felt a tremor of sadness ripple across my skin. But I thought also of the structure of my novel and experienced a small swell of relief. There it was, once again: Children and food.
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This essay appeared originally in the June issue of Bookpage. "The Sandcastle Girls" arrives on July 17.