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Pain: Journeys Around My Parents

by Keith Garebian
170 pages,
ISBN: 0889627096


Post Your Opinion
For Family and the Written Word
by Lorne Shirinian

Keith Garebian's memoir, Pain: Journeys Around My Parents, confronts and provokes the reader with its frank portrayal of growing up in a family marked by marginality in a society where race and status are important factors. It also challenges the reader through its eclectic style that on the surface, at least, appears to be postmodern. But it is so much more.

The title refers to Garebian's journey around his parents for the sake of seeing them from all angles. Garebian's intention is to explore and understand, not to deflect. The book's dedication to Garebian's son Michael is an attempt to create links of family history despite the fractures and discontinuities that mark the text.

Garebian's intimate memoir is non-linear and broken as it traces lives and journeys from Armenia to India to Canada. These locations and the arrivals and departures are key poles in Garebian's family (his)story. Like all memoirs, his is a journey of self-discovery. "This book is my attempt to keep faith with my parents and their joys and pains. It is also an attempt to keep faith with the written word." Garebian is very aware of the redemptive power of the word. He writes, "there is an implicit conviction that writing is a redemption of exile, estrangement, grief, anger, loss, and deathÓ.This is a son's memoir, but it is also about that son's writing of one." The first words of the memoir are about the death of his mother in January 1991. His memories of her are loving and respectful. He describes her as being a small and delicate person in contrast to his father, who "shored up violent resentments and paranoid suspicions." He calls his mother's decision to leave him "heroic."

Throughout the book Garebian collapses time, moving from the far past to the present within paragraphs. To compensate, he often separates his paragraphs by leaving larger than normal spaces between them, allowing the reader to focus on each in the same way one studies a snapshot. These various pieces are like parts of a mosaic which offer a means of understanding that which is complex. There is no attempt to weave together a unified and coherent explanation. Rather, Garebian has written his text to highlight the fractures, the gaps and cracks among the family members. Much of the tension comes from his attempt to make sense of these very fissures.

The first section deals with growing up in Bombay, where Garebian's mother came from and where he was born. The second section relates to Armenia, his father's homeland. Canada, where the family immigrated, is mentioned throughout, but ultimately it is the place where both his parents died. Garebian is always acutely aware of his mixed heritage.

I am a divided river beneath a bizarre zodiac. My father was Armenian¨a traumatized survivor of this century's first holocaust¨and my mother was Anglo-Indian, the tributaries of her blood flowing from two directions.

Being part Armenian, Indian, and English, he knows that rootlessness is his legacy. "Even in Bombay, where I was born, I was never fully of a single place."

In addition to his own narrative, Garebian introduces fragments of history, poetry, and diaries to explore his parents' lives. The inclusion of such material enables him to explore his family from different angles by creating a larger context for them. These various discourses offer a growing comprehension of his mother and other members of the Alimo family, and of his father, a lone survivor of the Armenian Genocide. The poetry he brings to his memoir allows him to encapsulate in a few lines the truth of their lives as in the following poem that relates to his mother's heritage.

these brittle memsahibs¨
masters' wives¨
untouchable in the dark loneliness.

Garebian does not shy from self-criticism. He realizes that he did not try to understand India. He also knows that his parents were guilty of not listening to the other. His father was a person who had reinvented himself after the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and never had a chance to share his pain with anyone. His mother was a colonial product but did not rebel against her background. In addition, she was not particularly interested in her husband's heritage.

In 1961, his family immigrated to Canada; however, he writes, "Canada came to me in disjointed images and stereotypesÓI wanted India to fall away like dead skin." Canada proved to be problematic for him, and there was no way back to India. He was trapped.

The second part of the memoir, titled "Armenia," deals with the many departures his father made out of and away from his homeland after the Genocide. As in the first section, this one also begins with death, that of his father. Garebian confesses that he did not weep for him as he had done for his mother. This is a very raw section in which Garebian faces his troubled relationship with his father.

My father had been marked for life and so helplessly entangled in a laocoon of Turkish atrocity that he could not recognize my boyhood needs. There was no bonding between us except in times of pain and mourning.

Garebian presents a history of Armenia again through a variety of discourses not only to understand his father but also to help him recover a lost part of his own heritage. "My father forgot how to read ArmenianÓ.My father never taught his three children Armenian. So his language is a barren orchard I have never walked in, a ruined palace whose corridors I have never traversed, a vast country whose storms I have not weathered." In the end, Garebian writes that like most Armenians, his father died an exile, a part of someone else's story. "Suckled on atrocity, my father accepted violence and the shadow of death as elemental forces, and because I was his son, I, too, was forced into the dark pain." Growing up, the gulf between father and son grew wider and deeper. Their relationship was marked by reciprocal refusals of each other's needs, desires, and expectations. But Garebian accepts part of the blame: "We did not know how to share his pain, how to make it as intimate as love."

Despite the pain, Garebian knows that his father willed for him a survival against despair. In writing his memoir, he learned that "Memory is a soft thudding of clubs." Nevertheless, he did discover the possibility of redemption.

survival's, too, the circle in which the young
will set their fathers free.

Some critics have called Garebian's memoir postmodern because of the broken and fractured nature of the narrative. Postmodern texts call attention to their artifice and construction as an overt refusal of authoritative realism. Truth is problematized and reduced to points of view. Not so in this memoir. Inherent in the painful journeys Garebian has undertaken is the belief that words can explore and reveal truth. ˛

Lorne Shirinian is a writer, poet, and professor of English literature at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, where he is head of the Department of English. His last book of stories is History of Armenia and Other Fiction. His most recent collection of poetry is Rough Landing.

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