Misquotation of Saroyan's Genocide commemoration words

23 Apr 2020

Today marks the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the day of recognition for the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians. William Saroyan's parents - Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan were among the thousands who came to America during the first wave of the massacres. William was the only American Saroyan; his two sisters were born in Bitlis, and his brother in Erzeroum, Armenia. In California's San Joaquin Valley, Saroyan's parents found a region similar to their native land, where apricots, figs, pomegranates, grapefruits, peaches, and walnut trees were growing.

The last two paragraphs of "The Armenian and the Armenian," the final piece in Saroyan's second book, Inhale & Exhale, are the most quoted words today: 

"I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered. Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them."

William Saroyan in Armenian Genocide Memorial, Yerevan. Photo by Boghos Boghossian.

The first thing to notice here is the absence of the phrase "see if they will not create a New Armenia." These are words that Saroyan never wrote. The famous misquotation began from 1982 poster and continues till today. Many Armenians know it by heart, but quite a few are aware of what Saroyan actually wrote in the original paragraph. And now, the pseudo-Saroyan version has displaced this genuine article. Marc A. Mamigonian in his article for Creative Armenia writes: "The famous version does not merely sanitize the original passage for family ears or compress it for space: it substantially rewrites Saroyan to include new phrases and concepts. I cannot defend this kind of bowdlerization, even if it was done with the best of intentions. Quietly deleting "you sons of bitches" in order to create a family-friendly poster — well, okay. But it took a lot of chutzpah for somebody to look at Saroyan's published text and see it as a rough draft that he or she had license to work over. "See if they will not pray again": an entirely new concept introduced by Saroyan's uncredited co-author! Quite a far cry from the earthiness of two Armenians meeting in a beer parlor and cursing. Speaking of prayers, in the original they are "no longer uttered," while in the rewrite they are "no longer answered"— as if the tragically significant idea that post-genocide Armenians no longer bother praying was too shocking and had to be reversed.

And what a difference between the sentimental nationalism of "For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia," on one hand, and "See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them," on the other. C. K. Garabed calls the "New Armenia" sentence "completely gratuitous," and I agree. 

So, we can cozy up to the Saroyan who sounds like a worldly post-nationalist, a man beyond the nation-state, a citizen of the world. Or we can embrace Saroyan the Armenian patriot who celebrates the Armenian nation and longs for its revival. And in both instances, we’ll be dead wrong. And, also, partly correct. Strip Saroyan of his contradictions and he’s no longer Saroyan, and no longer worth our time. I think you either embrace Saroyan in all his contradictions — his greatness and his mediocrity, his love of people and his misanthropy, his ethnicity and his cosmopolitanism, his art-for-art’s-sake integrity and his pursuit of commercial success, his self-destructible individualism, his Christian anarchy (in the words of — or you don’t. Unfortunately, for the most part, it appears that people don’t."

The William Saroyan House Museum asks you this year in your words of remembrance and grief; to quote the original, powerful Saroyanesque paragraph.