Journalist Meline Toumani, like two-thirds of the world's Armenian population, does not live in Armenia and had not even set foot in Armenia until she was an adult. But even though Toumani was born in Iran and has lived in the United States since she was a girl, and even though her family, as far back as she could trace, had never lived in Armenia, she writes that "as far back as anyone knows or can imagine, every last one of us has been Armenian."
In this superb narrative that weaves cultural and political history with personal experience, Toumani sets off to investigate the unquestionable doctrine of her youth: that the massacre of more than 800,000 Armenians in Ottoman Turkey from 1915 to 1923 must be termed and recognized as genocide by the international community, including Turkey.
Despite her loyalty to her extended family and their heritage, as a young adult Toumani struggled. "I wondered whether our obsession with genocide recognition was worth its emotional and psychological price. I wondered whether there was a way to honor a history without being suffocated by it, to belong to a community without conforming to it, a way to remember a genocide without perpetuating the kind of hatred that gave rise to it in the first place."
As a journalist, Toumani's natural inclination was to commit "an act of diplomacy in the form of a book." After selling her book proposal she moved to Turkey, and a planned two-month visit turned into a two-year stay. It is hard to imagine the success of this work without this bold move on Toumani's part. Her longer stay in Turkey (which included travel throughout the country and to Armenia); her day-to-day interactions with a wide scope of Turkey's population from a pedicurist to Turkey's ultranationalist head historian, and the relentless exhaustion of being Armenian in Turkey brings a depth to the memoir that would not have been possible if she had stayed for only a brief time.
Toumani, with admirable courage and the enviable skills of a more experienced historian, has written a memoir that delicately walks the line between the subjective nature of memoir and the objective details of the past. "There was and there was not" is an Armenian and Turkish phrase that often begins a story. This phrase is Toumani's "way of saying that this is where we find ourselves now … and no matter what was or was not, this is where we must begin."
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.