William Saroyan, the Armenian-American Writer, Honored on his 100th Birthday, and his Trip to Bitlis in Eastern Anatolia

William Saroyan
William Saroyan

UNESCO has declared 2008 as the Willam Saroyan Year in honour of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author on his 100th birthday which is being celebrated in California and other cities across the USA.

The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has announced plans to open a museum in Bitlis where his family lived before migrating to the United States in 1907. An article in the Turkish Daily News (Oct. 4/5, 2008) states that search is continuing to find the house that belonged to his parents, which was still existing when I visited Bitlis in 1999.

Saroyan was born in Fresno, California in 1908 and rose from poverty to riches, living in San Francisco and New York and in his later years, making Paris his second home. He never stopped writing, his prose depending on family and his roots, especially after his visit to Turkey. He did not get along with his wife, whom he divorced and married a second time, and divorced again. His relationship with his son, Aram, was not good either, who wrote a book about his estranged father (1). His fall began when he could not stop drinking and gambling and died in 1980 at the age of 72.

Saroyan wrote well over 70 novels, memoirs, plays and stories. Some of these reflect numerous stories that he was told about Anatolia when he was a child. One of his stories is about Antranik whom he met but did not like very much, supposedly a General who boasted on how many Moslems he had killed (2). In his story, “Antranik”, Saroyan writes that the enemy of the Armenians were the Russians, not the Turks. To this one needs to add the British and the French also.

One of his favourite books is, Here Comes, There Goes, You Know Who? an autobiographical memoir. Here are some excerpts from the book:

“I am an estranged man, said the liar: estranged from myself, from my family, my fellow man, my country, my world, my time, and my culture. I am enormously wise and also ignorant. I am also downright stupid. I care so much about everything that I care about nothing”.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, ??The Human Comedy??, about the life of a family in California during the Second World War, which he promptly rejected in 1943.
Saroyan came to Turkey in 1963 and visited Bitlis together with Fikret Otyam, a living legend and a true Anatolian. His one day visit to Bitlis is told in an essay by Aziz Gokdemir, published in 1964. Fikret Otyam’s essays on the trip were published in Cumhuriyet newspaper.
A collection of memorabilia full of his books, publications and the stuff that he picked in different cities that he lived in is archived at the “William Saroyan Curator for American and British Literatuıre at Stanford?.

Yuksel Oktay
5 October 2008