The story behind The Moon Ran After Her
This novel began with a crime. More accurately, a striation of crimes, like upended layers of sediment. The top layer was a purse snatching.
Nobody knew Grandma Aghavni’s exact age, since her family records were among hundreds of thousands destroyed in the tumult that devastated her people. But she was well into her eighties when, on a visit to relatives in Fresno, a man tried to steal her purse. Grandma was not one to let go of useful things — cast-off plant cuttings, chipped but functional dishes, fruit that was perfectly fine as long as you cut away the moldy parts — and she certainly wasn’t about to let go of her purse.
She kept the handbag, but at the cost of cuts, bruises, and a broken ankle. Her family was horrified and howling for justice. What kind of fiend robs a defenseless old lady?
Grandma Aghavni was as uninterested in punishing the thief as she was philosophical about the event. He must be a very poor, very desperate man, she reasoned. What upset her more was the restriction on her activity while her leg healed: no gardening, no volunteering in the church kitchen, and no visiting the sick or elderly members of her community, many of whom were considerably younger than she.
As she said, she’d been through worse.
I’d married her grandson the previous autumn. Until I’d become involved with him — and enfolded into his extended Armenian-American family with a warmth and generosity that moves me still — I knew exactly nothing about the Armenian Genocide. By the time of what Grandma called her “accident,” I’d heard some of the stories — hers, and those told by and about other survivors of what the Armenians call the Medz Yeghern, the Great Crime. I was astounded to learn what these unassuming elders, sweet or crotchety old Armenian grandmothers and a few ancient great-uncles, had survived and overcome.
And that to me seemed another crime: that I could emerge from what was considered a good American education as a summa cum laude college graduate, and be utterly ignorant of an episode in history that provided a template for the Holocaust that followed less than 30 years later.
Since Grandma’s broken ankle forced her to rest, my husband — her grandson, Richard — and I sensed an opportunity. We asked if she would share her story with us, and she agreed. During her convalescence, we arrived one evening a week at her small house in Monterey Park, California with a cassette recorder and a notebook. Hesitantly at first and then with building momentum, she unspooled her memories in her gravelly, heavily accented voice. Grandma’s anklebone healed with the speed of a much younger person’s, so our time was limited to six weeks. I transcribed each session at home, compiled them, wrote an introduction, and had copies made and bound for the extended family.
Somehow, though, the last page got left off of all but the original copy. We didn’t catch the error until the copies had already been sent out.
That Grandma’s story project remained unfinished was oddly fitting. The account felt uncompleted, an attempt rather than an accomplishment. I thought someone should someday go through the tapes, do some corroborating research, check out some maps, write an actual book.
Her story, along with those I heard or read from other survivors, refused to leave me. When I spoke to survivors, or read first-hand accounts, I reeled at the atrocities they described. Their stories were open wounds, brutal to the point where they felt unapproachable. It was too easy to self-protectively distance myself, to shut down my emotional responses. “This is unbelievable,” I would think. And that, I thought, was another crime.
What struck me about the accounts was not just the horrors that had taken place, but that these apparently ordinary people had somehow lived through them, triumphing by surviving. True, they were the lucky ones, the ones who became part of the Armenian diaspora. Some made it to the United States, where, starting with nothing, they rapidly established new lives, new communities, and often, new businesses or farms. They raised hardworking, patriotic children who took their places in America’s Greatest Generation.
As an example, my father-in-law Harold, Aghavni’s oldest surviving son, earned a Silver Star for his service in World War II. Landing on Omaha Beach on the fourth day of the Allied Invasion, he was running up the beach toward the German guns when he felt a tug on his boot. He looked down to see the tripwire of a land mine. I remember him telling me, many years later, what he’d thought at the time: There’s the last thing I’ll ever see.
The mine didn’t go off. He kept running. He survived the war, recovered from his physical and psychic injuries, and went on to work at California’s Jet Propulsion Labs. He earned an honorary doctorate in engineering, became an inventor — the world has him to thank for the pneumatic dental drill — and raised three children with his beloved wife Marie, who, during the war, had been the first female radio DJ in California.
The eldest of Harold and Marie’s children became my first husband. We raised two sons of our own together until Richard’s untimely death from sudden cardiac arrest in 2002. In true Armenian fashion, the family’s embrace of me, the odar hars (non-Armenian daughter-in-law) has never wavered, even after my remarriage. That, for me, has been one of the great gifts in a fortunate life.
It strikes me as all the more meaningful because this grace arose from the destruction caused by the Great Crime that began in 1915.
The crumbling Ottoman Empire’s campaign against its Armenian population was the first genocide of the 20th Century. Since the dawn of civilization, human history has been stained with bloodbaths and massacres, efforts of one group in power to exterminate another group with lesser power but whom it fears and scapegoats. But the Armenian Genocide was the first time a regime had had at its disposal the technology — railroads, the telegraph, and radio — as well as the will to attempt to annihilate an entire people. Perhaps the collective failure of the world to pay sufficient attention to this calamitous chapter of history is what has doomed us to repeat it.
The accounts of Grandma Aghavni and others were certainly full of the worst of human nature. But they were also testaments to hope and to the indomitability of the human spirit. The desire to convey their story in a way that reflected its polarities, both the light and the dark, and that ultimately spoke of resilience, never left me.
I am no historian. But I am a storyteller, and that, at last, became the path I took to write this book. I hoped to tell a story that might take root in the hearts and minds of others. This book is a work of fiction, and although it’s based on the captured memories of Grandma Aghavni and other women in my extended family, it is not a precise history. Some of the characters are conflations of two or more individuals, while some are entirely my invention; some of the events described took place in other parts of the region. There were some incidents that I chose to leave out, simply because they were so horrific as to derail the narrative. And, this being fiction, some parts of the story arise purely from my imagination, grounded in what I thought, as any novelist does, what these particular characters would think or feel or do in a particular circumstance.
Mark Twain’s Puddin’head Wilson character famously remarked, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” This becomes even trickier when writing historical fiction. The truth is that some of the most improbable-sounding episodes of this story are the ones I heard passionately attested to by those who had lived them, or whose mothers or sisters had. Later research and combing through old photos of the time corroborated some of the more public of these incidents; but for the more personal, such as a desperate woman being guided to freedom by following a bird, I chose to trust both my sources and the reader. After all, surviving a calamity like the Armenian Genocide requires more than grit, resolve, and luck: sometimes it demands the mysterious or even the miraculous.
Grandma Aghavni was probably in her upper nineties when she died. There are precious few survivors of the Medz Yeghern alive today, and those that are were very, very young when it happened and are very, very old now. My hope is that Grandma’s story and others like it, while they will inevitably be filtered through the veil of time, will live on in our awareness. I hope this book might play a role, however small, in bringing that about.