By Taleen Babayan
For years, the stories were told in hushed voices. The tragic true-life tales would escape the lips of the survivors in the privacy of their homes as they revealed their struggles to family members, not only to ease the burdens of their harrowing pasts, but to make sure one of the most mournful chapters in the history of their people would never be forgotten.
For too long, it had been a story only for Armenians. With the emergence of a new generation of writers, however, came a new approach. They believed that the stories previously told in secrecy should now be told to the world. The latest of these is New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian’s critically acclaimed novel The Sandcastle Girls. Bohjalian will lead a book discussion at Columbia University on Thursday evening, April 18, in an event hosted by the Armenian Center at Columbia University.
A love story that takes place during the Armenian Genocide between an Armenian engineer and an American nurse, The Sandcastle Girls follows a genocide survivor’s granddaughter as she tries to uncover her family’s history and the sorrows of the Armenian massacres that she learns about along the way.
Bohjalian, who is the author of 16 books, has received high praise and accolades from literary critics and readers since his first novel was published 25 years ago. His novel, Midwives, was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, and Winfrey also selected The Sandcastle Girls as her Book of the Week. Literary praise for Bohjalian’s writing and for the accurate historical portrayal of the Armenian Genocide in The Sandcastle Girls have been recognized by major news outlets including USA Today, Washington Post and The Boston Globe.
Although the lamentable premise of The Sandcastle Girls is familiar to Armenians, it has been a moment of pride for a people to have such a book published, as they continue to seek justice and worldwide acceptance for the atrocities committed against their ancestors.
“I have been overwhelmed by the support for this novel by the Armenian community around the world. I am deeply and profoundly grateful,” said Bohjalian, whose Armenian grandparents on his father’s side were survivors of the Armenian Genocide. “Whenever I’ve spoken to audiences that are predominantly Armenian, I have left moved beyond words,” said Bohjalian.
The reaction from non-Armenians towards The Sandcastle Girls has been equally positive, especially in terms of readers learning about the Armenian Genocide, which has time and again, been attempted to be effaced from the annals of history.
“Consistently non-Armenians have asked me the same sort of question: Why did no one teach me this? Why does no one know this story? They are appalled and, sometimes, aghast,” said Bohjalian. “This is a part of our story that too few people know — and we all hope this novel will help open people’s eyes to a cataclysmic injustice.”
Mark Momjian, Chair of the Armenian Center, expressed the significance of Chris Bohjalian’s appearance on campus. ”The enormous power of Chris Bohjalian’s literary art has been recognized worldwide, and his masterful novel, The Sandcastle Girls is of particular interest to the area’s Armenian-American community, who in just two years will be commemorating the centennial of the Armenian Genocide,” said Momjian. “I know the Center’s friends and supporters are eager to hear this distinguished writer, whose originality and brilliance have touched so many hearts.”
Vice Chair of the Armenian Center, Dr. Nicole Vartanian, said the Armenian Center is excited to be hosting Bohjalian upon the paperback release of The Sandcastle Girls.
“His passionate portrayal of love and loss set amidst the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide has rightly earned him widespread praise from all corners of the literary community,” said Dr. Vartanian. “It seems particularly fitting that our event will take place at Teachers College, given the rich and robust educational content which forms the foundation of Chris’ novels. The Sandcastle Girls is an especially poignant example of this, as the story has educated masses of Chris’ loyal readers who learned the horrific events of the Genocide through the quality of his research and the power of his prose.”
“My sense is that this may be the most important book I ever write,” said Bohjalian, who first attempted to write about the Armenian Genocide 15 years ago. “I hope with all my heart that this time I have gotten it right.”
The book discussion of The Sandcastle Girls will take place on Thursday, April 18, at 7 p.m. in the Cowin Conference Center (147 Horace Mann Hall) at Columbia University Teachers College, 525 W. 120th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. A question and answer session and a book signing will take place after the presentation. Reception to follow.