A VIEW OF FRESNO ARMENIANS FROM THE PAST:
EXCERPTS FROM SAROYAN’S
“SHOUT ARMENIA WHEREVER YOU GO”
In 1964 author and Fresno native William Saroyan wrote one in a long line of short stories about his ethnic heritage for the November 21st issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Titled “Shout Armenia Wherever You Go”, the fictionalized essay takes place just after World War I, at a time when the young Saroyan beat the streets of downtown Fresno as a newspaper boy. The setting—a very familiar one to Armenians even to this day—is the agoump or coffee house where men gathered to talk, argue, and otherwise express themselves in between games of backgammon and pinocle. The prose is classic Saroyan, with a heavy dose of the dark humor that all Armenians—in both the homeland and diaspora—seem to share. The narrator is, of course, Saroyan himself, but speaking through his youthful twelve-year old voice. What is particularly compelling about the piece is that Saroyan serves not only as the venerable storyteller but as a historical informant (a “witness” as he puts it), giving the reader a brief glimpse of what it was like to be a Fresno Armenian nearly a century ago. The following excerpts (in orange print) are taken from that short story, supplemented with commentary as appropriate.
R. Baloian, December 2014.
Well, peace makes people cheap, but I’ve got to sell twenty copies of the Evening Herald every day in order to keep my corner. Now, though, selling only ten papers is hard work, because people just don’t come up and buy one, they have to be sold one. The paper carries news of every country in the world, including a couple new ones like Lithuania and Albania, but there is almost never any news about Armenia.
There were three coffee houses in Fresno, and after the War I made it a point to visit each of them for two or three minutes every day, because almost nobody was buying paper on my corner in any case, and I was willing to risk having the corner taken away from me. I had to see the old men again, and to hear more about their county. Our country. My country.
Along the right wall (of the coffee house) they had installed twelve tables at which backgammon and cards were played, and twelve along the left for sitting, coffee, cigarettes, and talk. Each table for sitting had a large pitcher of water on it and four glasses. Soft, shredded, golden tobacco from Izmir in large boxes was sold, for rolling, which everybody who went there preferred to do. Also for sale were waterpipes, or nargilehs, to take home, and smoke.
Much of the essay involves passionate exchanges between the denizens of the club, like this one which involves three Armenian immigrants discussing the practical problems of integrating into American society, including, among other things, moustaches.
…Why don’t you trim your moustache? (Armenian #1)
Are you saying you are an American, to ask me to trim my moustache? Why don’t you wear a moustache? (Armenian #2)
…Gentlemen, it is not a question of moustaches. If we are not accepted by the Americans with love, it is desirable for us to ask ourselves why? (Armenian #3)
What is your theory? (Armenian #1)
On the whole, I think we must acknowlegde that most of our people in Fresno are not from the upper classes of Armenia. (Armenian #3)
There is only one class of Armenians in Armenia, in Fresno, in the world—a live Armenian. Upper, middle, or lower is so much nonsense. We have two classes—the living, and the dead. If we are hated by the Americans because we belong to the living class, and this hatred is too much for us to bear, we can do one of two things—kill ourselves, or ignore the hatred. (Armenian #2)
Here’s another dialogue on the topic that is still very much current among Armenian—assimilation and how to remain Armenian in the diaspora.
Is it not possible for us to be Armenians unless we go back to Armenia? Is that what you’re saying (Armenian #1)
I’m saying my three sons are not even able to speak understandable Armenian. They neither read nor write. They do not like their names—Vartan, Dikran, Haig. They call one another Walt, Dick, Ike. Furthermore, they do not want their family name, either. It is too great a burden for them to carry. Karadenizian. My name. At Emerson School an imbecile teacher has changed Karadenizian to Gardner because her little dainty mouth couldn’t pronounce Karadenzian. And so now their name is Gardner. (Armenian #2).
Indeed, like the very best of America’s ethnic authors, Saroyan expresses all the feelings—the push and pull, the betwix and between, and the plain anger—that goes with being an immigrant. Nevertheless, in typical Saroyan fashion, he concludes the piece with a optimistic and resounding crescendo.
Now and then I would see a member of my own family, or he would call out to me, and we would laugh at the sight of one another, my mother’s cousin Hovagim at backgammon, for instance, and me with eighteen papers to sell. Or her kid brother Aram. Or Aram’s uncle, Aram’s father’s kid brother, Garapet, whose great black moustache was now white, who, if we happened to be face to face , would say in his slow, clear speech, “Boy, Willie, why do you come to a place for useless old men? You cannot earn a nickel among these poor homeless souls—these bankrupt vineyardists, idle packing-house workers, dentists with no rotten teeth to fill, lawyers with no clients, editor with nothing new to put in their sad editorials…, every one of them a soldier without a rifle, without a country, without a real enemy even, excepting at last himself.”
But I couldn’t forget them, and I couldn’t forget what they couldn’t forget—Armenia, or in our own language Hayastan, the land of the Hais—a faraway highland place I had never seen. How could I forget a country like that just because I happened to have been born in a town like Fresno, in a place like California, in a nation like America? The old men were myself, whether I liked it or not. And whatever else Armenia might be, Armenia was also myself. At the age of twelve I wasn’t ready even to try to forget myself. I was too busy trying to find out who I was—an Armenian, a Saroyan, a newsboy, a witness, and all the rest of it.
Back in the street shouting the headline, wasn’t I actually shouting Armenia, and my own name?
Damned if I would forget. Damned if I could—ever.