In his talk — the first speaker of the 2015 Human Rights and Genocide Symposium — best-selling poet and prose writer Peter Balakian read from his memoir, “Black Dog of Fate,” and reflected on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the mass killings and deportations by the Ottoman government.
As a teenager, Balakian said, he wondered where Armenia had gone, as the country wasn’t memorialized in his house.
“Whatever the ‘old country’ was, meant his grandmother. Whatever it was, she was,” Balakian read from “Black Dog of Fate,” which was recently issued in a 10th anniversary edition.
Recalling his grandmother, a survivor of the mass killings, who bewildered him with folktales of the “old country.” Balakian recounted when he inadvertently caught his grandmother in some sort of a strange ritual, smoking a pipe and making the sign of the cross as she watched news coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later, when he asked his mother about his grandmother’s habits, her answer unfurled more questions at talk of the “old country.” Balakian discovered the events of the genocide, inspired by his love for reading, with a copy of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s recount of the events under the cover of World War I.
“This was Peter Balakian’s second visit to the Colleges, the first in 1999 as one of the inaugural speakers of the Genocide and Human Rights Series,” says Professor of Religious Studies Michael Dobkowski. “His talk was a passionate reminder and call for the importance of memory and witnessing of the crimes of the past, not only for the victims and their relatives, but for the causes of truth and justice. If we don’t have interest and empathy for the genocides of the past, we will not be able to fully respond to the genocidal events of the present and the future.”
A former Guggenheim fellow and New York Times and national best-selling author, Balakian has written seven books of poems and five books of prose, including “The Burning Tigris,” which charts America’s response to various crises in Armenia at the turn of the 20th century. In 2009, he published “Armenian Golgotha,“ a collaborative translation of his ancestor Grigoris Balakian’s memoir. In exploring the subject of genocide, Balakian’s work engages with his grandmother and her presence in his upbringing as well as the complexity of the landscape of the history of genocide.
Now the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities and director of creative writing at Colgate University, Balakian said he has explored through his teaching and writing what his family would not talk about.
Following the lecture, he addressed questions from the audience of students, faculty and community members regarding his work as well as the repression and denial of the Armenian genocide.
The 2015 Human Rights and Genocide Symposium will continue on Thursday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m., with at talk on forensic justice from Father Patrick Desbois, who will offer the Max and Marian Farash Community Lecture in the Geneva Room.
The Human Rights and Genocide Symposium was initiated and has been sustained by generous grants from Dr. Edward Franks ’72. The Symposium seeks to improve understanding of all life-annihilation processes present in our world and to help participants learn more about the circumstances in which genocide is perpetrated.