Guest Post & Giveaway: Lyn Miller-Lachmann on Presenting Contested Histories in Fiction

Dana on Writing from the Marrow

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Last spring I interviewed Dana Walrath about her debut YA novel Like Water on Stone (Delacorte, 2014), a story of the Armenian genocide told from the perspective of three child survivors and an eagle that observes all.

The comments that I received on my review of this novel revealed that this is still a contested history, especially among some Turkish Muslims who continue to deny the genocide.

My own novel Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015) addresses a contested history as well, that of the Pinochet regime in Chile. By the time the Chilean people voted General Pinochet out in a 1988 plebiscite, he’d been favored to win, his name had become synonymous worldwide with assassination, torture, and censorship.

Yet nearly ten years after his death, many Chileans continue to see the seventeen years of his rule as a time of stability and prosperity. They see the human rights violations as a necessary cost of a radical economic restructuring that has made Chile a prosperous nation. My husband’s uncle in Santiago happens to be one of those people.

Tina’s family has a different point of view. Pinochet’s forces imprisoned and tortured her father, a human rights activist and socialist, and left him disabled. But I could not write this novel without thoroughly researching and taking into account the other side.

Just as Like Water on Stone shows through the father’s musical trio that not all Turkish Muslims supported the genocide, Surviving Santiago offers a character, Tina’s aunt, who appreciates the country’s economic growth under the dictatorship while condemning oppression in all its forms.

Cynsational Giveaway

Moonbeam Award Gold Medalist

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015). From the promotional copy: 

To sixteen-year-old Tina Aguilar, love is the center of her world with its warmth and ability to make a place into a home. Thus, Tina is less than thrilled to return to her birthplace of Santiago, Chile, for the first time in eight years to visit her father, the man who betrayed her and her mother’s love through his political obsession and alcoholism. 

Tina is not surprised to find Papá physically disabled from his time as a political prisoner, but she is disappointed and confused by his constant avoidance of her company. So when Frankie, a mysterious, crush-worthy boy, shows interest in her, Tina does not hesitate to embrace his affection.


However, Frankie’s reason for being in Tina’s neighborhood is far from incidental or innocent, and the web of deception surrounding Tina begins to spin out of control. Tina’s heart is already in turmoil, but adding her and her family’s survival into the mix brings her to the edge of truth and discovery.


Romance and intrigue intertwine in Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s coming-of-age story set amidst the tense anticipation at the end of the Pinochet regime in 1989. Fans of Gringolandia will recognize the Aguilar family as they continue their story of survival and redemption.

Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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Guest Interview: Dana Walrath on Like Water on Stone

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. In 1984, Dana Walrath journeyed to Palu, in Western Armenia (now part of Turkey), where she saw the mill and farmlands that once belonged to her maternal ancestors, who were forced to flee the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

Her family story became the basis of her acclaimed novel in verse Like Water on Stone (Delacorte, 2014).

Dana Walrath is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and the author of the graphic memoir Aliceheimer’s (Harvest, 2013).

See also the companion post Writing from the Marrow from Dana Walrath from Cynsations.

Much of the story is narrated from the point of view of Ardziv, the eagle who suffers, witnesses, and ultimately intervenes. What role do eagles play in the Armenian culture and folklore?

In the last stages of writing Like Water on Stone, Ardziv appeared in the story to protect the young ones as they traveled, to make it safe for readers, and also to protect me as I wrote. This fits with the eagle’s place as a symbol of strength and power in Armenia, both ancient and modern. Eagles grace the currency, the coat of arms, and the architecture of contemporary Yerevan.

The earliest Armenian eagles predate Christianity as on the flag of the Artaxiad Dynasty (189 BC-1 AD) that has two eagles facing each other with a flower between them. When Armenia adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD, eagles were incorporated into the designs of their churches.

Eagles’ ability to soar fits well as this brings them close to heaven. Because the genocide often involves religious divisions, Ardziv gave me the opportunity to connect the story with a symbol that predated religions to underline our common humanity.

Throughout the novel, thirteen-year-old Shahen refers to his father and his older brothers as “fools.” Would you consider his questioning of them anomalous within his culture?

More than anything, Shahen wanted to go to New York to be with his maternal uncle. You are right that respect for elders counts in Armenian culture. But a mother’s brothers have a special place in the family. They select husbands for their sisters and often these husbands go through life being called “pesah” or groom. Shahen behaves respectfully towards his father and brothers; it is only with an inner angst and voice that he calls them fools. This intensifies after violence comes to their home as Shahen struggles to make sense of the horrible events that have transpired. In the face of horror, we all do or think things that don’t completely make sense, or wouldn’t fit in with normal life.

As well, Shahen’s small size and his place as the youngest boy in the family, who had not yet hit puberty, also accounts for some of his internal struggles. He felt impotent. Like no one listened to him when he saw the trouble coming. While researching the biology of eagles, I learned that male eagles are all smaller than females. This in a way brought Shahen and Ardziv even closer.

Shahen is the bold one while the girls and women are more cautious and submissive. Are these gender relationships specific to this one family, or is it more typical of their culture?

I have to admit that the gender roles in Armenia are definitely of a pre-feminist sort! My mother said that her Armenian father did not speak to her or her sister because they were girls.

It is also important to place the Armenians in the larger Ottoman cultural framework. Many of the Muslim women with whom they co-existed were veiled, making Armenian women quite daring in comparison. Marriages were arranged, but this is the dominant pattern throughout the globe.

The United States is unusual in leaving such an important economic decision, the union of two families, to the whims of young people in love. Against this backdrop, however, I think the female characters in Like Water on Stone have tremendous strength. Mariam shows her tenacity and determination with her writing. Mama always had her own opinions and, like a good mother, insisted that Sosi behave according to acceptable norms. I see Sosi and Shahen as equals. Sosi never wanted to leave her beloved home, but she finds the strength to support and honor Shahen during the hardest parts of their journey.

Because this is loosely based on my grandmother, Oghidar’s story—she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night from Palu in today’s Eastern Turkey to Aleppo, Syria—I was very conscious of Sosi’s strength. For me going back to Palu in 1984 was such a powerful experience, to walk that land, to stand inside the ruined church, to find a mill that may have belonged to my family.

You don’t shy away from portraying the violence and devastation of the Armenian Genocide. How do you handle this in a way appropriate for middle grade readers? How can the novel-in-verse format contribute to making difficult material easier for young readers to process?

The white space of verse absolutely gives readers (and writers!) space to process the violence and devastation of the Armenian Genocide. We do not speak or think in full sentences when something terrible happens. Often words disappear altogether. Free verse allowed for that fragmentation. I could write in rhythmic patterns that captured the fear and panic without leaning into the goriest details.

Ardziv’s role as protector was also important in terms of the violence. He narrates some of the most brutal scenes, following as adults who lovingly cope with the consequences of the brutality. Late in the book, Sosi narrates one terrible scene instead of Ardziv. This is because I see Ardziv as the strength and power that lives inside of each of us. She found her own strength—her inner Ardziv—and used this tough moment to pull her family together and to face the truth about what had happened.

I thought that I had handled the violence delicately enough that it could work for middle grade readers. As a parent, I shared similar works with my children when they were that age. Some of the gatekeepers do not agree and feel that that the book is appropriate only at a high school level and above. I was so honored to have Like Water on Stone be named a book of outstanding merit in poetry and historical fiction yet the mature content 14-16 age range was there again. I suppose this might mean that I have to figure out a way to tell the story of the Armenian genocide for some younger readers.

You received a Fulbright grant to travel to Armenia. Was the grant specifically for the research of this book? What advice would you give other writers seeking funding for international research? 

My Fulbright application, “The Narrative Anthropology of Aging in Armenia” was related to Aliceheimer’s, my graphic memoir series about my mother and dementia, and was not specifically written for Like Water on Stone. I was gathering stories and making art about growing old in Armenia.

It was just amazing good luck that Random House acquired Like Water on Stone during my first few months in Armenia. This meant that in addition to the Fulbright project, I was completing the final revisions of the novel while totally immersed in Armenian culture.

Anthropologists often work through participant observation, so every minute of every day, I was soaking in details that were relevant to both pieces of work. The elders I worked with spontaneously shared their family’s genocide stories with me. I had genocide scholars and the Genocide Museum and Institute right there for fact checking. Regular folk dancing refined the music and dance threads of the story. I had countless maps to draw upon to try and sort out the young ones’ journey and got connected to primary sources about life in Palu.

The two projects naturally became connected. Armenia is consumed by memory of the genocide, something that is especially important in the face of Turkish denial. When I told people here about my mother’s memory loss, they immediately asked if she were a genocide survivor, linking trauma to memory loss.

The year in Yerevan also let me reconnect with relatives who landed on the other side of Mount Ararat after the genocide, among them my cousin, Shushanik Droshakiryan. Her great-grandfather and my grandmother Oghidar were brother and sister in Palu. Shushanik has led the direction of a stunning animation of Like Water on Stone that premiered at the Tumo Center for Creative Technology this week. It has been wonderful to be back here in Yerevan for this.

In terms of practicalities, because it is an academic program, you have to have the highest degree in your field in order to be able to apply. In the case of writers, the MFA will do it. I know many writers create beautiful works without this degree. For me, getting an MFA from Vermont was the best present that I ever gave myself. The mentoring the inspiration from stellar lectures and readings pushed me farther in two years than I ever could have managed on my own. Being able to apply for a Fulbright would be an added bonus.

You mention in your author’s note seeing the Turkish family that now lives on the land once owned by your ancestors. What did that woman say when you told her this?

This moment of truth was when she decided to tell me that the mill had been owned by Armenians before it came into her family. I think she had already put it together that I might be an Armenian because it was so out of the ordinary for two American tourists to end up in the woods outside of town. She shared that fact and then I told her my story. Then together we shared a moment of silent respect.

I imagine that many families in Turkey who benefited materially from the Armenian genocide feel guilt about the material gain they received. Armenians were forced from their homes, and forced to leave all their possessions behind. The people who remained just took them over.

Charity or Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. To benefit by taking the property of others stands in stark contrast to this notion. I like to think that this woman recognized our common humanity and that she told me the truth out of a desire to make amends for the breaches of the past.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Dana Walrath on Writing from the Marrow

By Dana Walrath
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My first novel, Like Water on Stone, just came out (Delacorte, Nov. 2014). Of course, I’m smiling. The cover and interior of the book are beautifully produced. I’ve poured my soul into it.

“What’s it about?” people ask me.

When I tell them, “It’s the story of three siblings who survive the Armenian genocide of 1915 with the help of the guardian spirit of an eagle,” I’ve learned that I better get my smile under control.

Genocide and smiles do not go together.

And yet I know that “smile-worthy” hope and the power of the imagination fill this story, even as it minces no words about the violence. The three young siblings not only survive, but they survive intact, because their imaginations protect them. Ardziv, the eagle, embodies imagination. Just as he protects the young ones as they journey, he protects the readers.

Ardziv also protected me as I wrote this story.

Like Water on Stone, grew out of one the very few things my mother told me about her own mother’s life: “After her parents were killed, she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night from their home in Palu to the orphanage in Aleppo.”

I was in elementary school when I learned this, and it took me decades to fill in the flesh around those bare bones. I knew this story had to be told, especially in the face of global politics that allow for continued denial of this first genocide of the 20th century. But I knew it had to be told in a way that would pull readers along, instead of punishing them.

The story flowed out in lyrical free verse instead of prose, the abundant white space providing safety for the reader, just as Ardziv does. The crumbling Ottoman Empire, whose leaders orchestrated the genocide, is distant in time, space, and experience for readers. Free verse evokes the feeling of foods, music, dances, and ritual from another land. Because it works through metaphor and magic, free verse also shows all that was physically lost, and how it persists in the imaginations of survivors.

Palu roof

Keeping my Armenian identity hidden, I had traveled to my grandparents’ homeland the summer of 1984. With the hospitality characteristic of the region, I was welcomed into people’s homes and fed foods I had known my whole life. In Palu, I asked locals if they knew of any mills—my great grandfather had been a miller. I was sent across the eastern branch of the Euphrates River on a modern bridge next to a crumbling one built of stone, and into the woods when I found a mill, set along the banks of a stream. On the rooftop the woman of the house served me tea, a half dozen children watching us, mounds of apricots drying in the sun.

Palu Mill Wheel

When I asked about the mill’s history she told me that it had been in her family for sixty years, but before that it had belonged to Armenians. Joy and pain converged as I thought this could perhaps have been my family’s home.

Psychologist Paul Ekman—who has spent a lifetime analyzing the connection between emotion and facial expression— shows us that when we remember the death of a loved one, our faces reflect a blend of strong sadness, moderate anger and moderate joy.

When a book touches me, it passes the “tear test”– bringing tears to my eyes not because of sadness but because of connection.

We write to connect. We read to connect. Connecting is complicated. Our faces reflect that.

This human capacity for hope, magical thinking, and imagination in the face of the deepest pain, builds a bridge from the dark places to joy. We know this complexity and connection in the marrow of our bones, that place where our bodies make our blood and keep us flowing.

Human connection deserves our widest smiles.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath (Delacorte, 2014). Author sponsored. U.S. only.

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