COMMENTS AND REVIEWS ON MY LITERARY PROFILE: A MEMOIR
From Kirkus Reviews
In this debut memoir, an Armenian-American woman details her family background, health issues, and literary education and craft.
Pilibosian was born in 1933 to survivors of the Armenian genocide. Her memoir leads off with “the background our lives were played against, the Armenian lives of my parents before they had immigrated, and our Armenian or American lives here.” She then largely shifts to her saga of growing up in an Armenian-American community in Watertown, Massachusetts. Since she was shy and “lacked ambition to go to college though my marks in school were very good,” Pilibosian went to secretarial school but soon also took humanities courses through Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, ultimately earning a “bachelor equivalent” degree. Early in adulthood, Pilibosian also experienced depression that required psychotherapy and shock treatments. She married an Armenian man, whom her parents recommended and who worked as a typesetter, and she traveled abroad with him as part of trips to visit his family in Lebanon. She gave birth to two children, got editorial work at an Armenian-American newspaper and the Harvard University Printing Office, and wrote poetry that got published. As a young mother, she experienced cardiac arrest during routine surgery, resulting in four days of lost consciousness. Later, in middle age, while walking in a cemetery, she experienced a mystical lifting of mood. Now in retirement, she and her husband run the small press they founded, and her memoir concludes with a discussion of poetry and other writing. Pilibosian sets out to cover a lot of ground in this expansive memoir. Her overview of Armenian cultural history and descriptions of literary studies hold some interest, though at times they also sit rather awkwardly alongside the underlying drama of her medical and mental health issues, which remain a bit mysterious. Pilibosian clearly loves poetry, and her discussions in this area represent some of the more heartfelt expressions in this book. Indeed, there’s something rather haunting about this somewhat stilted memoir, with Pilibosian acknowledging that only later in life did she learn the value of humor, “because my upbringing had been humorless.”
Ambitious amalgam of ethnic and personal history.
From Writer's Digest – Feb. 2012
What an interesting combination of history, memoir and poetry/writing! I appreciate all of the detail that you include in your book, which helps to bring to life people and place far from any place that I've ever been. You also make real the experience of the immigrant in the late 19th/early 20th century. You bring to life some of the most horrific actions that people can take (genocide) in a way that effectively describes the horror. I loved the writing guidelines that you've included! I'm also glad that you've included photos and wish that there were more. The cover is fine but, if you end up being able to do something a bit more when you reprint, that would add even more value to the book.
Dr. Mary A. Papazian, newly appointed President of Southern Connecticut State University, wrote the following review of this book in the recent Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, Volume 19:2.
In My Literary Profile: A Memoir, Helene Pilibosian, long-time editor of The Armenian Mirror-Spectator , has written a personal and intimate memoir in which she charts her own literary development over the course of a full and active lifetime. Some of what she tells will be familiar to her readers; other details of her personal experiences and development will surprise all but her closest friends.
The daughter of genocide survivors and of the first generation born in America, Pilibosian looks back on her life growing up in Watertown, Massachusetts. Coming of age in the middle of the last century, she expresses multiple threads of influence, from the emerging Armenian community in Watertown to her experiences as a student in the Harvard Extension School, her mature years as a wife and mother, and finally to her evolution in her later years as a writer and poet who is constantly seeking her voice, which is another word for her own self-identity. Pilibosian’s “literary memoir,” which she publishes through a micro-press, Ohan Press, that she established with her husband Hagop, is the story of her life, and in it her attempt to understand the influences that led to her growing identification as a poet and writer. This story of self-discovery and growth is clear, direct and honest . . . and it is a story that reminds us that we need never stop learning and developing.
Narrating her story more or less chronologically, Pilibosian begins with her early years as “the second daughter of Khachadoor or Archie and Yeghsa or Elizabeth Pilibosian” (p. 1). In the very way she represents her parents through their dual Armenian and American names, Pilibosian underscores her own duality as a representative of the first generation of hyphenated Armenian-Americans growing up under the influence of the stories of the generation of genocide survivors. Her efforts to understand and interpret this duality underlie the entire narrative, as do her efforts to place her experiences within the American cultural development of the twentieth century. The tension between the two strands is more acute in the years before her long and seemingly fulfilling marriage to Hagop Sarkissian, an immigrant from the vibrant Armenian community in Beirut, Lebanon, who enabled Helene to bridge the gap between her two worlds.
Pilibosian’s early years were typical of that of many immigrant Armenians—and indeed many immigrant Americans from many other cultures and countries—in the first half of the twentieth century. And thus in its particulars, her memoir exudes a kind of universality. She tells the story of her father’s survival during the Armenian Genocide, where “On the death march he had been taken from his mother, his brother and his two sisters by a Kurd who sold him to another Kurd for a goat” (p. 4). He escaped this captivity four years later and fled to an orphanage in Aleppo, Syria. Ultimately, he came to America, joining his father in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, and set out to make a life for himself. An important step in establishing himself in the new world was his marriage following a “courtship by mail” to Yeghsa Haboian, a young Armenian woman who had settled in Gardannes, France.
Although she spends some time telling her parents’ moving stories of survival and renewal, Pilibosian’s story is not primarily a story of the Armenian Genocide, nor of the experiences of those who would survive the tragedy. In fact, while the book contributes to the growing body of survivor literature, it is primarily the story of the next generation. She, a child of survivors, provides the details of the genocide to lay the foundation to explain her own experiences and those of other members of the next generation and the communities they built. In this way, this essay more aptly shares in the tradition of Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate (1997), among others.
While many figures wander in and out of the narrative . . . from friends and family members, to teachers, professors, and even intellectual figures whom Pilibosian came to know not in person but through their writings, the story really is about Pilibosian herself. The many quotations from authors, artists, writers, teachers and thinkers, such as Arshile Gorky, Professor Howard Mumford Jones, the poet Paul Engle, that she presents provide a taste of those who influenced her intellectual and artistic life. Pilibosian came to know many of these individuals while she was a student studying humanities at the Harvard Extension School. Others were leading Armenian intellectual figures whom she met while traveling with her husband to his native Lebanon or in Europe to visit family members and fellow Armenians. Still others were caregivers, psychologists, and physicians who supported her through a nervous breakdown in her twenties and through other health issues later in her life.
In writing this memoir, Pilibosian bares her deepest secrets. She tells the story of her struggles with depression, as well as the shock treatments she underwent, her weeks in hospitals under the care of a psychiatrist, her cardiac arrest and near death, with honesty and forthrightness. These are stories that many would want to keep hidden, and, I would bet, many of her Armenian readers never knew of them. Yet Pilibosian sees them as critical to her intellectual and emotional development as a person and a poet. And thus she shares them in an honest, direct, and unapologetic style. These things happened to her—and thus they shaped her.
What strikes the reader throughout the narrative is the love and support Pilibosian received throughout her life—especially from her husband—that enabled her to overcome these challenges and lead a productive and prosperous life, one in which she never ceased exploring the world of ideas and emotions, and one in which she never stopped giving. While this memoir is clearly her story, it is in no way self-centered or narcissistic. Rather, it strikes this reader as an honest attempt at self-understanding, and one that she hopes will provide strength, comfort, and encouragement to those who read her work . . . whether in the form of this personal narrative or through her several volumes of poetry. It is, ultimately, a story of survival and healing made possible by love and the transformative quality of poetry.
Mary A. Papazian
Bronx, New York
Orignally posted at http://www.wickedlocal.com/watertown/news/x35353424/Memoir-explores-Armenian-heritage-and-early-life-in-Watertown
Memoir explores Armenian heritage and early life in Watertown
By Jeremy C. Fox
Wicked Local Watertown
Posted Aug 21, 2010 @ 03:28 PM
(CLICK ON PICTURES FOR FULL SIZE)
After many years of writing both poetry and prose about various aspects of her experiences as an Armenian-American and longtime Watertown resident, local author Helene Pilibosian has written a memoir that fully explores her remarkable life.
Despite the title, “My Literary Profile” is very much about her personal as well as the professional. In intimate, matter-of-fact language, Pilibosian discusses a life that has been full and rich but often difficult.
In her youth, Pilibosian struggled with depression, a condition that led to electroshock therapy and a brief stay in the state hospital. At 30, gallbladder disease necessitated surgery, and she nearly died when she went into cardiac arrest on the operating table. Throughout her life, health problems would continue to plague her.
In a recent interview at her home on Maplewood Street, Pilibosian said the shock treatments were helpful in bringing her out of the depression, but 1950s attitudes toward mental illness made recovery more difficult.
“It was the lack of understanding that was harmful,” Pilibosian said.
The pain of looking back on that difficult time in her life was one of the reasons she had waited so long to write this book.
Her love of literature and her ability to write helped see her through the difficult times. Though she didn’t start writing seriously until she was 19, Pilibosian was always a reader.
One of her favorite memories of her youth was a high school job at the east branch of the Watertown Public Library, next to St. James Armenian Apostolic Church on Mt. Auburn Street.
“I loved it,” she said. “I was working putting books away and working with books, and I would take a few minutes here and there to look through them and see what I liked and what I didn’t like.”
Pilibosian overcame her challenges to become the first female editor of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator and a poet published widely in literary journals and anthologies. In 1983, she formed her own small press to publish her first book of poetry and has since published five books she authored or co-authored, as well as several others by family members.
She and her husband, Hagop Sarkissian, who have two grown children and two grandchildren, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next month.
“We both feel very happy that we have made it, especially seeing people all around us getting divorced,” she said. “It’s really sad.”
Pilibosian said one of her major concerns, as editor of an Armenian-American newspaper, was to shed light on the Armenian Genocide, which wasn’t widely discussed at the time she became editor.
“Armenians themselves couldn’t talk about it for about 50 years,” she said. “They sort of tried to avoid the pain of thinking about it, I guess.”
Over time, Pilibosian would dig deeply into Armenian history and the worldwide Armenian Diaspora, recording oral histories and visiting the large Armenian communities in her husband’s native Lebanon and in California and Montréal.
Though she’s traveled around the world and lived for five years in Cambridge when she and Sarkissian were first married, Pilibosian has always returned home to Watertown.
“I like the feeling of familiarity here,” she said. “The memories of working at the library and of going to the high school. I always liked Watertown.”
Quotes from “My Literary Profile”
“In 1915 … the deportations wiped out all of the family except my father, who was kidnapped and enslaved by Kurds until the end of World War I, when he escaped by walking and by train to Aleppo, Syria. On the death march he had been taken from his mother, his brother and two sisters by a Kurd sold him to another Kurd for a goat.”
“The Armenians were gathered into a close-knit community like other immigrant groups by mutual understanding and by customs and attitudes that differed from those of better-established Americans. The food was the same in all Armenian kitchens, adding a sort of unity to Armenian homes. The music at the picnics, which was the old country village music for dancing, was well appreciated.”
“Few cars populated the streets, and the trolley ran on its tracks in the middle of Mt. Auburn Street. One could almost feel America’s heartbeat in all the hard work that was going on.”
“We took it for granted that social life, what little there was in our family, would be with relatives or other Armenian families we were acquaintance with. Most of them had children about our age, so we always seemed to have companions when we visited them.”
“It took me a while to be able to perceive the poems I wrote with the clarity of meaning a literary reader would. Often I misjudged my own work, throwing away the better poem and sending out the worse poem to magazines or conversely destroying the good version and having it accepted by a magazine it had been sent to, dismayed that I didn’t keep a copy.”
“We took the challenges and demands of parenthood very seriously because of our deep love for our children. I thought it was an honor and a privilege to do so.”
“These days people are decrying the lack of contact of family members especially at mealtimes to solidify a feeling of oneness. In my family we always had meals together, and to this day we get together often for meals at home or in restaurants for birthdays and other celebrations.”
Copyright 2010 Watertown TAB & Press. Some rights reserved.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Armenian Woman, July 6, 2010, Amazon.com
For those who have fallen under the spell of Helene Pilibosian's edgy, probing, honest poetry this book will 1) come as no surprise, and 2) will come as a very big surprise - that a poet so fine as this lady can write history, particularly an autobiographical book, as cogent as MY LITERARY PROFILE: A MEMOIR. To try to cover the events related in this book would take a review far too long to hold the attention of the reader: a review should only inform the reader of the nature of a book. But in Helene Piliboisan's case we are talking about almost a lifetime of experiences that molded the poet she became ('almost', because she is still very much with us!), and skipping over lightly any portion of this conversation with the writer would seem negligent.
Suffice it to say that it is Pilibosian's style to avoid clangorous prose, but instead to soften her written memoirs with a front porch swing conversational style that makes her heroic life and background and history and the events of her survival all the more radiant. We are invited to know her family - not just her parents but the cast of Armenians who have struggled in the old country for many years, including the near decimation of a people in the horrors of the early part of the last century. She discusses this, but while commenting on a past history that held such gore she embroiders her history with ethnic traditions, songs and secrets and rituals that cast a broad flavor of the plight of the immigrant known to every citizen of this immigrant collection of forefathers. She dwells on her childhood in Massachusetts and again without beating her chest in agony she lets us understand her position as a minority in the years before the word Tolerance was spoken. She follows her heart (and at one point suffers a cardiac arrest) and is able to glean from every experience she encounters a strength to be true to herself. She achieves a Harvard education, she enters the mystical spaces of Jungian thought, and blends ALL of this to become the writer of note she has become.
Helene Pilibosian is a true American Armenian: she wears the riches and the bruises of both descriptors well - and we are the better for her gifts. Recommendation: first read her poetry, then welcome her into your space as the person who rose to the height to write such poetry. She is an amazing artist. Grady Harp, July 10
INTERVIEW WITH FRANK NAHIGIAN in THE ARMENIAN REPORTER
Belmont, Mass. - You've heard this cliché and you've never doubted the veracity of it: "Happiness isn't a destination, it's a journey". This article is a reminder that the journey isn't a Sunday afternoon sojourn in a Model-T Ford, it's more like a roller coaster ride with endless twists and turns. From infancy we're taught about respect for authority and the virtues of honesty, courtesy and obedience and then from K-12 our schoolteachers pour in all the standard study about the three R's while reinforcing the lessons concerning the intangibles.
I graduated from Watertown High School in 1951 with some 300 other kids full of expectations and promise. My class, just like every other one everywhere had a pecking order of 18 year olds, some from whom much was expected, others, not so much, and the vast majority of us a total mystery. Had I been asked, I'd have put Helene Pilibosian and Kay Mouradian in the third category because although they were wonderfully competent, they were also relatively quiet and reserved, just as we were told to be as children: "Seen but not heard". To my recollection they were two of the quieter girls in the class.
Our adult life begins after high school; we have more freedom and our lives are less structured as the tug of war between nature and nurture ratchets up and we're impacted by current events and sometimes, as in the case of Helene and Kay, by events in their parents' lives. They were well behaved young ladies so they didn't attract a lot of attention outside their respective social cliques, but they've certainly found their public voices recently; they found them in their word processors or Word programs.
Helene wrote about herself in "My Literary Profile: A Memoir"; Kay wrote about her mom's genocide experience in a book that's in its second printing: "A Gift of Sunlight". Each book tells the tale of a journey and how and what their author thinks, and each bears fascinating, informative elements. First, my interview of Helene:
Q - Why did you write My Literary Profile and when did you begin?
A – I had always felt misunderstood and so wanted to write about some of the happenings in order to make myself more clear. For always having had trouble communicating, I thought writing would explain what I was thinking. I began what I called a novel in my early 20s, submitted it to a writing course, and subsequently felt that I had failed. That was the very beginning, but through the years I was thinking out the subject matter.
Q - The memoir deals with some heavy and intriguing subject matter such as the Armenian Genocide and psychiatric theory. Why did you want to write about it?
A – I and the majority of Armenians in the world now feel that the details of the Armenian Genocide must be recorded as history and as eyewitness proof that such a Genocide occurred. The Turkish government has tried to overturn the truth of this history in a very dangerous way. Reading these details may be difficult, but it is the only way to teach the public what has happened and why. It also explains why Armenians came to America or went to other countries after 1915. In my book this is necessary background information for the Armenian community I write about.
As for psychiatric theories, I present some differences between Freud and Jung for the purpose of understanding the creative mind and interpretations of poetry. Understanding these has greatly helped me to understand myself. And of course my memoir is about myself and all the people I have come into contact with.
Q - Who are your intended readers, Armenians or Americans?
A - Both, including anyone who is interested in Armenian history and even American history of the more recent period. The events I present in the book gain meaning only in the context of facts about what is going on in the country or in the world at that time.
Q - Do you feel that you were trained to write about this subject matter and how so?
A – My training consisted of the courses I took in college, which were mostly literature, psychology, philosophy and art. In the process of taking these courses which all ended in essay examinations, I felt I was getting training in the process of writing about these subjects. And I wrote research papers. A couple of writing courses added to the mix. So after many years of practice writing, here I am.
Q - What part of the book do you feel is the most important, the part about your childhood and your family, the part about your education, the part about your self-education after graduation, the part about editing the newspaper or the medical aspects of the book?
A – All of the parts of the book are important because they worked together to form the entire picture. I did a great deal of reliving while writing about these subjects. I reorganized my thoughts about my parents. I relearned my education. I rehashed my editing experiences. I further educated myself by research for this book. And I realized more than ever my gratitude to certain doctors for their outstanding work. Some people might think in reading about my difficult experiences that I am s very unhappy person. Quite the opposite is true. I have triumphed over any difficulties, and I am very happy with my family, my friends and my work.
Q - You seem to think some people greatly influenced you to write this. Who were they?
A – My early writing teacher at Harvard had suggested that I write more about the Armenian family. Some letters of encouragement I incorporated into the book led me in that direction. And a couple of doctors I wrote about wanted me to continue writing either poetry or prose, but prose seemed more logical at this point.
Q - This seems like quite an eventful life. What part did you enjoy the most?
A– I always enjoyed the writing even though at times it was quite a strain and led me into some discouragements. But there were the high moments of achievement also. I enjoyed being with my family, my husband, my children and their spouses and my grandchildren the most. Visiting relatives and friends also has been fun.
Q - You mentioned travels. Where did you go and what was the most fascinating country or city that you visited?
A – My traveling began on my honeymoon in 1960 with my husband Hagop through Europe to Lebanon and back by ship. This trip took six months, and the memories are still with me. We took another trip to Lebanon in 1966 with stops in Germany. We took many trips in the US after that, all of them detailed in the book.
Q - What do you consider has been of the most value to you?
A – Of the literary values, the books I wrote and published with my own company called Ohan Press have certainly given me gratification. My current memoir has the most value as far as information is concerned. Details on all my publication are recorded on my website at http://home.comcast.net/~hsarkiss.
Q – If given the opportunity, what in your life would you like to do over again?
A - I would like to take that honeymoon trip over again without some of the quirky things that happened to us on the way. But the world has become a more dangerous place than it was then, and I would think carefully about travel before I undertake any trip.