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A Forgotten Genocide Recalled

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Author Adam Bagdasarian's novel Forgotten Fire recalls the horrors of the Armenian holocaust in Turkey that began in 1915. Based on the life of Bagdasarian's great-uncle, Forgotten Fire recounts the struggle for survival of Vahan Kenderian, a 12-year-old Armenian boy. Included: Ideas for using Forgotten Fire in the classroom.



Adam Bagdasarian
Imagine being 12 years old, the youngest child in a wealthy family, with no concerns beyond plotting mischief. One day, soldiers arrive at your door, ending your idyllic existence. Within a week, you are transformed from a carefree child into a homeless, starving orphan in constant fear of execution.

That is the story of Forgotten Fire, by Adam Bagdasarian. The novel relates the experiences of Vahan Kenderian, an Armenian boy displaced by the Armenian genocide that took place in Turkey from 1915 to 1923. A tape of a great-uncle's boyhood memories prompted Bagdasarian to write this gripping young-adult novel.

Almost everyone knows of the Holocaust, which claimed 6 million Jewish lives during World War II. Few people, however, are aware of the earlier Armenian holocaust, called by some "the first genocide of the 20th century."

Turkish troops of the former Ottoman Empire slaughtered 1.5 million Armenians. The campaign began when government officials in Turkey, predominately a Muslim country, began to view the mostly Christian Armenian population as a threat to the weakening empire.

While most of Europe was distracted by World War I, the Turkish government began a systemic, brutal campaign to eliminate Armenians from its borders. Men and teenaged boys were rounded up and executed, and their families were driven from their homes. Those not killed outright frequently died of starvation, thirst, or disease during forced deportations. Armenians observe April 24, the date in 1915 when the roundups began, as a day of remembrance.

Forgotten Fire is not just the story of Vahan's struggle to survive; it is also a graphic depiction of the consequences of violence spawned by ethnic hatred.

Education World: Why did you decide to write Forgotten Fire?

Adam Bagdasarian: It took ten years to write. It is based on a tape my great-uncle made when he was dying, telling about his experiences as a 12-year-old boy during that time. His son gave the tape to me. I was so moved by it, I had to write this book. The story is about his family and my family as well.

EW: How did you research the book?

Bagdasarian: Information or pictures about the Armenian genocide is hard to find. I went to several libraries, including the New York Public Library and one at UCLA, and to some Armenian bookstores.

EW: What was the hardest part of writing the book?

Bagdasarian: The whole book was a very difficult undertaking. Even though it didn't happen to me, I wrote it in the first person, so I had to make it seem as though it was happening to me. I had to personalize it. I had to stop and think about each situation, about how I would feel if it were happening to me. I had to feel what Vahan was feeling every step of the way. That was the most challenging and interesting part of writing the book. By the end, I felt as though I had been there; as though I had walked a few feet in his shoes.

EW: Do you think current world events make Vahan's story even more relevant?

Bagdasarian: I think so. Part of what the book is about is how character is forged through adversity there also is a plea for understanding among all races and nationalities. Maybe the book will open some minds to the suffering around the world and right next door.

EW: Why, do you think, is it important for young people to know Vahan's story?

Bagdasarian: Partly because it was an event in world history that has been largely forgotten -- I want people to know it happened. Partly because the book shows violence as it really is. Society glamorizes and trivializes violence. This book takes the mask off. You can see how awful violence is and the effect it has on a person and on the people around him.

EW: How might teachers use Forgotten Fire in the classroom?

Bagdasarian: This is a human-interest story. It also is a coming-of-age story that talks about the importance of family. I think that is a valuable lesson. Reading it will deepen young people's understanding of themselves and of the world around them. The book is about how going through adversity makes a person stronger. Young people need to know that they can survive adversity and become stronger for it. The book also will broaden young people's view of the world beyond the city or town they live in and connect them to other people. Finally, the story engenders strong emotions -- there is a lot to discuss.

The important thing for me is, if one or three or five kids read the book and develop intolerance for the type of behavior they read about, that's good. You see Vahan and you like this boy. You see how intolerance affects him. Any one of the students who read this book could be Vahan. Reading it can help young people realize that they don't want this to happen to anyone else or that they want to prevent it from happening again. That would be an extraordinary reward for me.

This e-interview with Adam Bagdasarian is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.