In a recent episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown, the late Anthony Bourdain travels with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian to Armenia. Throughout the episode, Bourdain did what he does best. He sat at the dining table, engaged with locals, and indulged in a cornucopia of the country’s food, drink, and culture. In wake of the tragedy of his passing, many friends and fans have pointed to Bourdain’s curiosity and kindness in exploring the world, free of judgment, and his time in Armenia is no different. He is there to show his audience an unfamiliar country with a little-known history. What time remains in the hourlong tour he spends outlining Armenia’s history of geopolitical turmoil, primarily the genocide, the collapse of the USSR, and disputes with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
With limited time, Bourdain’s scattered Cliffs Notes on the genocide generally come to the same conclusion—that Armenians and the diaspora are still primarily characterized by the erasure of the country’s greatest catastrophe. Within the first minute of the episode, he opines, “Turkey, and relations with Turkey, and the Armenian people’s terrible history with that country being the central and defining issue of Armenian identity.”
Bourdain is not wrong, but this suggestion is one reason that My Name Is Aram, perhaps the best-known collection of short stories by the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan, is so refreshing. Originally published in 1940, Saroyan’s book of short fiction is full of humor and subtle insights on ethnic culture. The loosely connected stories follow the exploits of Aram Garoghlanian, a poor Armenian-American adolescent living in Fresno, California, among his extended family. Born in the United States, Saroyan avoids mention of the genocide in his stories altogether and instead focuses on issues of socioeconomic class, family influences, assimilation, and the dilution of ethnic culture.
For example, the collection’s opening story, “The Beautiful White Horse,” follows the moral dilemma Aram faces when his cousin borrows a horse for an extended period of time. Aram has always desired to ride a horse, but he also recognizes that his cousin (no matter the shades of gray) is stealing, an act that goes against their familial DNA all the way back to when their ancestors lived in the old country. Of the Garoghlanians, Aram narrates:
Most important of all, though, we were famous for our honesty. We had been famous for our honesty for something like eleven centuries, even when we had been the wealthiest family in what we liked to think was the world. We were proud first, honest next, and after that we believed in right and wrong.
Though his family now lives in poverty on the other side of the globe, Aram understands the value of these inherited traits. His moral lineage is tied to a more distant sense of ethnic identity. Thus he’s conflicted over following his personal desires—to ride the horse—or to adhere to the Garoghlanian reputation. His evolving adolescent understanding of what’s right and wrong—based on personal, familial, and cultural compasses—becomes a central theme.
However, Aram’s moral quandaries don’t stifle the stories. While Saroyan’s prose often emphasizes unadorned sentences similar to those of contemporaries like Ernest Hemingway, it has a much more lighthearted and comical quality. The bare-bones nature of the writing isn’t meant to exude austerity but instead reinforces the straightforward thoughts and plights of Aram and his family. The simple constructions—though Saroyan does occasionally interject complex, luminous sentences—are designed to project a sort of unembellished, working-class intellectualism. Saroyan’s style also allows jokes to build throughout each story, especially when the punch line is in regard to Aram’s class or ethnicity.
In “The Presbyterian Choir Singers,” an old woman convinces Aram and his cousin to help her move an organ and forces them into singing psalms, but she keeps messing up their names. During this flub, Aram mentions that the name his cousin offers the woman is already incorrect anyway. Of his cousin, Aram explains, “As a matter of fact Pandro’s name was Pantalo, which in Armenian means pants. When he had started to school his teacher hadn’t cared for, or hadn’t liked the sound of, the name, so she had written down on his card Pandro. As for his cousin’s name, it was Bedros, with the b soft, which in turn had been changed at school to Pedro. It was all quite all right of course, and no harm to anybody.”
For Aram, the name change is all part of the frivolous nature of formal education and being American. No harm is done because the change is necessary to fit in. Saroyan’s humor is most acute when navigating these moments of otherness. He makes the ethnic ambiguity of Armenian Americans a relatable experience much because he avoids outright didacticism. This collection strays away from the tragedies that befell Armenians and the diaspora rather than bearing down on them as focal points and in doing so filters cultural confusion through a different lens entirely.
Some moments take on a more contemporary resonance. When a store clerk asks Aram, his cousin, and a friend where they’re from, his friend defends them by dodging the true underlying inquiry. Aram relays the speech, “We’re all Californians, Joe said. I was born on G Street in Fresno. Mourad here was born on Walnut Avenue or someplace on the other side of the Southern Pacific tracks, I guess, and his cousin somewhere around in that neighborhood, too.”
Yet even in his defense, Joe again points to class. Aram and his family are from the wrong side of the tracks, where it’s suggested a poorer, more ethnically diverse population resides. It’s clear Aram understands his family’s poverty when he is a young boy, but by also linking these stories over Aram’s adolescent years, Saroyan creates an abstract coming of age as well. Aram not only learns more about his family and ethnic identity but also about the different people around him in Fresno and beyond.
The collection’s closing story, “A Word to Scoffers,” signals Aram’s departure into the wider world. While en route to New York, he talks with a religious man who assures Aram travel won’t change his point of view. “You won’t find any truth there. I been there six times in the last thirty years. You can go hopping around all over the world and never find anything because that ain’t the way you find out anything. All you got to do is change your attitude.”
It’s an optimistic ending, one that points to the permanent aspects of Aram’s identity. He can leave his family behind for larger adventures, but he can’t shed the cultural upbringing that defines him. In these short stories, Saroyan subverts many of the commercial expectations of Armenian-American literature by leaving the trauma of the genocide at the periphery. Yet My Name Is Aram, through the collection’s open-minded narrator, pushes for a more tolerant future. Likewise, the Garoghlanian family is eclectic enough to capture many recognizable moments of being Armenian-American and the complexities of ethnic enclaves that continue to exist today.