Sarkis Vahakn: “The spirit and pride of Armenians give me wings to create”

Hayern Aysor’s interlocutor is U.S.-based Beirut-Armenian writer, translator and editor Sarkis Vahakn (Sarkis Patapoutian), who has helped preserve and disseminate Armenian culture in the Diaspora and enhance the Armenia-Diaspora partnership through his unwavering efforts throughout the years.

The artist/writer recently participated in the 6th Pan-Armenian Conference of Diaspora Armenian Writers Composing in Armenian and Foreign Languages held under the title “Contemporary Armenian Writers and Literature Amid the Challenges of the 21st Century”.

As a beginning

The following are Sarkis Vahakn’s publications: “Rings” (1969, Beirut), “Roots” 1981, Yerevan) and “Panic” (2000, Los Angeles) collections of poems, the plays “Sorrow of Nairi” (1982, Beirut), “Ashot Voghormats” (1991, Los Angeles), the novel “Arshile Gorky” (2004, Los Angeles), etc. In 2007, he translated and published the French versions of Shahan Shahnour’s poems under the title “Nothing Around”.

In 2008, Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II awarded Sarkis Vahakn with the Saint Sahak-Saint Mesrop Order of Honor. In 2017, RA Minister of Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan awarded him with the William Saroyan Medal.

Alongside publications, Vahakn has also been active in the film industry and performing arts. Between 1958 and 1959, he published the New Cinema art book, which was unprecedented in the history of the Armenian Diaspora.

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Vahakn, where do your roots trace back to?

Sarkis Vahakn: I was born on October 7, 1927 in Beirut. My father was from Nor Hatchn. My mother was from Shapin-Garahisar. I received my primary education at Abgarian and Sahagian Seminaries and continued my secondary education at Lise French Seminary in Beirut, which I graduated from in 1945 with a degree in trade and accounting.

I lived in the Armenian Bourj Hammoud District of Lebanon until I turned 60 and started my career in literature in Bourj Hammoud. In the 1950s, I joined various literary and cultural unions and participated in the establishment and future activities of the “Literary Circle” in Beirut where I was a board member and delivered lectures.

Within the framework of the “Literary Circle”, my friends and I published the “Culture” magazine and acquired skills in editing.

My works were gradually published in the “Mshakuyt”, “Lousaber”, “Nor Gir”, “Ani”, “Shirak”, “Garoun”, “Navasard”, “Hamaynapatker” and “Aragast” literary magazines. In the mid-1960s, I was a correspondent for “Shirak” magazine from time to time. Later, I served as an editor of the magazine for nearly a decade, managing the foreign literature section.

Hayern Aysor: You have rich experience in literature, translation and editing. How did you come onto the scene?

Sarkis Vahakn: The homeland was a dream for my family and my friends who shared my ideas. Happiness was supposed to begin from and end with Armenia for us. All of us have always been concerned about the defense and development of Armenia.

After my father passed away, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to repatriate. I was about 20 when I spent a night in front of the immigration office so that I could receive permission to leave for the homeland, but all my efforts were in vain. One of the employees of the office asked where my parents were, and when he learned that my father had passed away, he told me to return and not leave my mother alone and that it was still early for me to repatriate.

After all this, a thought occurred to me. I thought literature was also one of the best ways of defending the Homeland and awakening the spirit of patriotism.

The idea became the first and major driving force for me. In the beginning, I wrote poems devoted to patriotism and moved on to prose, which provides a writer with a wider opportunity to dig deep into the inner world of a person.

Hayern Aysor: When did you visit Armenia for the first time? What was the purpose?

Sarkis Vahakn: The first time I visited Armenia was when I released my book “Rings” in 1970, and the second time was when I participated in the congress of the Union of Writers in 1989. I started visiting Armenia often to see my daughter, who was studying at the National Polytechnic University of Armenia at the time. This is my third visit to Armenia following Armenia’s declaration of independence.

Due to the war in Lebanon, we were compelled to move to the United States of America. No matter how much we tried to endure, we had to take a decisive step. Until then, I had managed to write the play “Pain of Nairi” in Beirut. After settling in the USA, I wrote the second play called “Ashot Voghormats”, but unfortunately, it has yet to be performed on stage. However, I have heard words of appraisal. I have also published the third volume of my short stories under the title “Panic”.

In that period, I was always thinking about well-known Armenian American painter Arshile Gorky (Vostanik Adoyan). I started gathering information about the painter and visiting the cities he had visited, including New York and San Francisco. I even visited the place where he had committed suicide. Gathering many materials, I wrote the novel “Arshile Gorky”, which received the Literary Prize of Tekeyan Cultural Association of Armenia and the Haikashen Uzunyan Award.

Hayern Aysor: What gives you wings and inspires you to create?

Sarkis Vahakn: The spirit and pride of Armenians; basically, the Homeland. We loved the Homeland without preconditions because it is ours and a part of our essence. The axis of my works is praising Armenians, preserving the Armenian identity and seeking the roots of Armenians.

My wife, Haikuhi also plays a major role in my life. She has always been by my side with her advice and encouragement. In fact, she is a teacher and has been the director of a school for many years.

Hayern Aysor: After your brief response, I would like to ask you another question. Please, tell us what you think the role of Armenians in the world is.

Sarkis Vahakn: The role of Armenians in this world is to disseminate the light in all the places where Armenians have settled, created and built. All us Armenians know that there are many remarkable Armenians who have become famous in the fields of arts, literature and other fields.

When I meet young and smart Armenians, I immediately feel that the future of the Armenians is in good hands. My wife also shares my opinion. She always says young Armenians will change the future of Armenia.

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Vahakn, who are your favorite poets?

Sarkis Vahakn: I can definitely say that my favorite poets are Yeghishe Charents, Paruyr Sevak, Vahan Teryan, Vahagn Tekeyan, Misak Metsarents, Daniel Varoujan and Siamanto. I always read the works of Yeghishe Charents and Vahan Tekeyan.

I deem it necessary to say that Vahan Tekeyan was the first to clearly describe the establishment of the Soviet regime in Armenia, while Yeghishe Charents is like a storm. Each of the lines in his poem “My Sweet Armenia” touches my heart.

Hayern Aysor: What is the best way for you to relax and take a load off after a long day of working? Do you have preferences?

Sarkis Vahakn: I love painting since it makes me feel totally relaxed. I paint flowers and landscapes.

One of my preferences is also cooking. I make tasty Lebanese and Armenian dishes that my family and friends really like.

Interview by Gevorg Chichyan


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