No Ordinary Family
By Jack Feuer
Published Jan 1, 2011 8:00 AM
Garin Hovannisian '06 has three favorite places to write. One is a small apartment in Yerevan, Armenia, with "a small window view of Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark landed." Another is Butler Library at Columbia University, where he attended journalism school.
The third is "the top floor of Powell Library."
A Family of Shadows
Grandfather Richard (Ph.D. '66) pioneered a new field field of scholarship and just celebrated his 50th year as an acclaimed member of the UCLA faculty. Dad Raffi ('80) was a pivotal player in the rebirth of his homeland and its first foreign minister. Now Garin Hovannisian '06 has written "Family of Shadows"--part Armenian history, part family memoir, it's a story of tragedy, memory and redemption. UCLA Magazine talks with three generations of a remarkable Bruin family.
Video by Aaron Proctor '05
"This is our turf. This is where generations of our family have come to school and grown up and received our political and social — and romantic — education."
Hovannisian, after all, is part of a multigenerational Bruin lineage that includes his brother, father, mother, grandfather, two uncles and an aunt. Garin's relatives, in fact, are the subject of his new book, Family of Shadows, which intertwines the tragic and triumphant recent history of the Armenian people with his remarkable family.
The harrowing journey begins with Garin's great-grandfather Kaspar's escape from genocide in 1915 and subsequent success as a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley, to his grandfather Richard's evolution from fully assimilated American kid to pioneering Armenian-American scholar and father Raffi's transformation from L.A. lawyer to history-making politician in his native Armenia. And all this while Armenia rose, phoenix-like, from destruction and diaspora to rejoin the community of nations in 1992.
Garin's father, Raffi Hovannisian '80, was the first foreign minister of the new Armenia and is now head of the country's Heritage party. His grandfather is Richard Hovannisian Ph.D. '66, the first holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA who, in 2010, celebrated his 50th year of teaching for the university.
"I thought of the individuals in my family in isolation," Garin explains. "Then I saw that the story of my great-grandfather was the story of the destruction of my homeland. And the story of my grandfather is the story of the Armenian-American experience. Then my father writes the sequel to the American Dream — in Armenia."
Small wonder that in praising Family of Shadows, author Christopher Hitchens said that "one swiftly learns to appreciate the true meaning of the word 'indestructible.'"
Richard Hovannisian's favorite spot on campus is Royce Hall. It's a long way from the small California farming community in which he grew up — thoroughly Americanized. "I was the most improbable person to introduce Armenian studies," he laughs. But as a young adult, the voices of his heritage called to him.
"When I first started teaching, I'd look for books in English about Armenia or Armenian culture," he recalls. "There was a handful. Now there are hundreds."
Raffi Hovannisian's favorite campus spot is the Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden, because it is in the Bunche Hall breezeway leading to the garden "that the plaque commemorating the Armenian studies program is embedded." But he and his family "always dreamt of the day when Armenia would once again be free."
In 1989, Raffi returned to Armenia to make it happen. Three years later, he returned to the U.S. — to raise the Republic of Armenia flag at the United Nations.