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At the Genocide Memorial in Armenia, I knelt and placed my red carnation at the edge of the eternal flame and stood silently with throngs of people who had come from all over the world at the end of May for the Aurora Prize award.

Its full name is the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, and it will be awarded for eight years, from 2015 to 2023, in commemoration of the eight years of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago, spanning 1915 to 1923, when 1.5 million Armenians were killed. The prize is given in gratitude for acts of humanity that helped to save Armenians and now recognizes heroes saving lives today in dangerous circumstances around the world. We had come to the Genocide Memorial to pay our respects and would soon head to the award ceremony, where my brother David would be master of ceremonies.

After placing my flower, I stood next to a friend with our backs to one of the huge basalt slabs of the Genocide Memorial, which lean inward in a circle around the eternal flame. I watched other people lay down their red and white carnations, cross themselves, and stand, lost in thought or prayer.

I thought about my father’s cousins, aunts, and uncles who were caught up in the genocide. One of my father’s uncles, a businessman, was imprisoned and disappeared with nearly all the men in their town. One of my father’s aunts perished with her little daughter on the death march that followed the disappearance and murder of all those men. One of my father’s teenaged cousins was taken for the Labor Battalion to build roads for the Ottoman Army where unarmed Armenian men worked as slave laborers in places so remote they either died of exposure or starvation or were murdered outright. Another teenaged cousin survived for weeks on the forced march across the desert only to disappear when they neared Ras al Ayn, a notorious death camp for Armenians in Syria. I said the names of all those relatives in my head.

And I said the names of relatives who survived. One cousin of my father’s was a little boy, barely alive, left with nomadic people in the desert to care for him and raise him, probably without ever knowing he was Armenian. Two other boy cousins were kept in a Turkish household while their mother was forced to march across the desert to Aleppo, where the U.S. Consul found the women nearly naked, their skin burned “to the color of a green olive.” She was able to reunite with her sons and come live with them in the U.S., rarely smiling in photos and nearly always wearing black, baggy dresses. Another one of my father’s cousins I met at a family gathering in southern California. A great aunt pointed him out to me, saying only, “He’s an orphan.” I nodded, not fully understanding what she was telling me. She added, “He married an orphan.” I thought it was sad for orphans to marry each other, not realizing she was telling me they were genocide survivors.

I said their names too at the Genocide Memorial.

I had come here once before, in 2006. That time, I felt the spirits of my relatives moving in waves through the basalt slabs, as if they were there, finally finding a final resting place where they could be honored, cherished, and mourned. This time I didn’t feel anything occupying the rock walls towering over me. The walls didn’t even look impressive. They looked squat and insignificant.

It was only later, looking at the Aurora photographer’s photos, which included the moment I placed my carnation beside the eternal flame, that I realized those slabs were as immense as I had thought the first time in 2006.

But this time, all I felt was loss, and maybe a sense of confusion, as if my ancestors and everyone else’s were saying, “We don’t want your tears or your flowers, we want our lives back.”

GenocideMemorialGroupThe Aurora Prize this year was awarded a few hours later in a spectacular ceremony to Dr. Tom Catena, the only doctor permanently working in the Nuba Mountains of southern Sudan, treating 500 patients each day while warplanes bomb the region in a deadly civil war. The award was justly deserved and aptly named, to awaken humanity before it is too late.

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“Maybe the next time I see you, you’ll play better.Tennis-kids-pail

That was Alexandrina, my tennis instructor, at the end of my third day of adult tennis camp in Florida last week. Blond, strong, charming really, in her 20s, and originally from Bulgaria, she had patiently been hitting balls to me in the exact right spot for me to blast top-spin forehands and backhands back at her in the hot sun. I had really wanted to come to tennis camp and work on my game, but I hadn’t exactly been blasting anything. “You just need to learn the basics,” she added.

She didn’t need to say that. I’ve been playing tennis since I was eleven when my mother was the one on the other side of the net arcing balls over to me at the public courts near our house in Washington, D.C. I went on to compete as a junior and even played on the Stanford Varsity freshman year. Granted it was before Title 9 turned women’s sports into serious business, but still, I’m not a beginner.

Then again, Alex, who majored in coaching at college, now teaches teenagers from all over the world at this Florida tennis academy where I’d come for a few days. These kids play several hours each day and attend school on the side in a building overlooking the courts. So, of course, my tennis level is basic.

Still, it hurt my feelings. And it also made me want to get better and come back next year.

Why do I even care? Unlike these teenagers, I don’t have an international tennis career ahead of me. But I do have an image in my mind of the tennis player I want to be and an image of the tennis player I am. I want them to be the same.

In a way, that’s how I learned to telemark ski. Several years ago, I was cross-country skiing on gently rolling terrain at the base of Mt. Rainier in Washington state with friends and looked up to see two guys floating down a lower flank of the mountain, deep powder flying around them as they made their telemark turns on bended knee, and I thought that’s what I want to do.

Never mind that I was afraid of heights at the time, did not alpine ski, and had hyperventilated a third of the way up a green (basically flat) beginner’s slope during a group cross-country ski lesson at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington. I wanted to learn to telemark ski. After years of working at it, I can now probably get down that slope at Mt. Rainier, although I’ve always actually wondered.

And so with tennis, it’s somewhat the same. I don’t look at Venus or Serena and say, “That’s what I want to do,” since I know I never could. But I do want to hit hard and accurately the way they do.

Surprisingly, that’s not what Alex had me practice during our session. Instead, she told me to get further behind the ball and transfer my weight forward as I hit it. “That’s the easiest place to be,” she said. “Hit effortlessly. No matter where the ball lands.” She had me running way back to get behind a deep ball, and then racing forward (and stopping) before hitting a short one. The same stroke, the same position, no matter where the ball landed. That one drill for over an hour.

At one point, I told her I lacked confidence. She didn’t ask me why or speak about confidence like it was a character trait that you either had or you didn’t. Instead, she said, “It’s different for each person how many times you have to do something until you feel confident.” Like it was something someone could learn, that I could learn. And she told me to move my opponent around on the court and wait until they are off to one side before coming to net. “That way, you don’t have to put pressure on yourself to hit the perfect shot.”

That advice alone was worth the trip to tennis camp — building confidence through steady practice and setting things up to make it easy on yourself.

At the end of our final drill, she said, “After all the balls we hit, look how few are on your side of the net. You have beaten your first opponent – the net.”

Maybe one day I will actually master the basics and move on.

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stock-photo-latin-american-teen-great-glance-portrait-from-a-young-boy-in-the-southern-border-of-mexico-144738685Nearly every week, when terrorists blow themselves up in crowds to kill civilians, or people like the marathon bombers in Boston leave backpacks behind to kill and main the very kids and families they walk among as they leave the scene, it’s hard to maintain faith in humanity. The amazing Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini restores our hope. She’s the teenage Olympic competitor, who previously swam for three hours helping to pull a sinking boat to safety to save 20 lives. And there are millions of others whose names we will never know, often not on such an epic scale but, even when they have little themselves, selflessly helping strangers.

One was a skinny boy, probably no more than 16, who stood opposite me, as I got off a bus in Acapulco early one morning, and asked if I needed help. I remember his clear dark eyes and not much else. I had just traveled from somewhere, Cuernavaca, I think, but my memory is vague years later.

I was exhausted and had nowhere to go for hours until my parents arrived. They were flying in from Washington, D.C. to meet me. I hadn’t seen them in five months. After graduating from college, I’d left the U.S. for Latin America with no desire to return. Ever. This was the 1970s, with fury over the war in Vietnam and over the hypocrisy of U.S. government officials who preached democracy at home and overthrew governments abroad. But now, I was making my way back north.

I don’t remember a bus station in Acapulco, maybe there was one or maybe the bus driver unloaded us onto the street. I only remember this boy. “Tienes hambre?” he asked. I nodded. I hadn’t eaten since sometime the day before.

He led the way. I’d been traveling like this for months. Wandering. No maps or real knowledge of where I was or where I was going, a little money and a little Spanish and hardly any luggage. It had gotten me from southern Colombia, almost at the border with Ecuador, to here. And now this boy wanted to buy me breakfast.

I’m sure I was older than he was, probably 21 to his 16. I’ve always looked young. When I was 17, I was mistaken for 13, so he probably thought we were the same age.

He took me through the cluttered market, the smell of left-over grime and garbage from days before wafting through. I don’t remember seeing the ocean or feeling a salt-air breeze. I wasn’t in a resort.

He sat me on a stool at a counter in a market stall and spoke to a middle-aged woman on the other side of the counter. Soon a plate mounded with scrambled eggs appeared with tiny fish fried up into them. The minnows crunched in my mouth, head and all. He watched and smiled. This must be his favorite dish. I tried to get him to eat some, but he refused. While I crunched away, he kept smiling, like he was happy seeing me eat, like I was his sister or his best friend.

Then he asked if I was tired. I nodded. He led me through some alleys and into a building where we walked through a couple of open rooms with no furniture, past people sleeping on the floor on blankets. I had no idea what this was. In the third room, he motioned for me to lie down and handed me a blanket from the corner. He lay down next to me and draped his arm over me. We went to sleep. No kissing, no groping, just sleeping.

A few hours later, I woke up, headachy and hot. The sun had made the room feel sweaty and crowded. It was time to go. I was meeting my parents soon. And I felt guilty. I had wandered into his world and was wandering out, just like that, but he wasn’t. This perfect smiling boy, asking nothing of me, wanting nothing in return except to feed me and take care of me, was staying behind.

And before long, I was riding in a pink cart up to a cliff-side cottage overlooking the ocean at Las Brisas with my parents. Transported a world away, effortlessly. I thought about the one below us, the one I had just left. It didn’t seem possible that other world existed only minutes away — where eating a full meal was so special it made someone happy just to watch. And it didn’t seem at all fair.

I don’t know why that boy helped me or what I meant to him or what he might have wanted from me had I stayed. All I know is that morning he was generosity and love. And all I can do is try to pass it on.

 

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In a word yes. The agent I was hoping would be the one said yes. She actually did. It’s too wish-come-true to be believable. Butraditional-dreamcatchert that’s what happened. And now I’m represented by the wonderful, talented, and amazing Valerie Noble at Donaghy Literary.

I still can’t believe it.

Last February, when she’d asked to see the manuscript again, after I’d revised it following her initial rejection, she’d put my manuscript in her queue. It would take three months before she’d get back to me. I was trying not to get my hopes up, but of course I did. At least I wasn’t checking my email obsessively. I had to wait until May.

One evening in early April, I was sitting on the armchair at home in the living room, while my husband sat on the couch, both of us working on our lap tops and ignoring the TV in the background. I checked my work email and then my personal email, the way I usually do before going to bed. I had an email from Valerie. Why write me? It’s too soon. Still April. Before I let myself imagine how terrible the news might be, I opened it.

“What a moving, beautiful story,” she wrote. “Would you be willing to have a phone meeting with me?” I burst out laughing. My husband looked over.

“That agent loves the manuscript. She just emailed me. She wants to have a phone call tomorrow.”

I was thrilled and scared and worried. I couldn’t blow it now. Should I address her as Valerie or Val? Should I wait a day before responding? Should I say I’m busy tomorrow, but the following day would work?

“I’d love to have a phone meeting,” I wrote back. “Anytime tomorrow after 1:30 is fine.” No point trying to act cool.

We spoke the next day, mid-afternoon for 30 or 40 minutes. It was easy, especially since she opened by telling me how much she loved the manuscript. She asked me questions about it and actually knew my characters. Then, she asked why I thought we’d be a good match. I wasn’t expecting that, but I knew why. “Because your profile on the website says you studied chemistry. I thought you’d be a serious person. I’m trying to write a story that teenagers will want to read, but it’s a serious topic.”

She ended our call by offering to represent me. She urged me to think about it and make sure this was the right decision for me. I stayed calm, thanked her, and said I’d get back to her soon. I barged out of my office and out the front door, walking around in the windy sunshine, and called or emailed everyone I knew.

I accepted the offer the next day, and signed the contract the next week. And now my manuscript is on submission. Valerie considered it “submission ready.” I guess there is an up-side to revising umpteen times.

I’d gone from waiting 12 weeks or longer, after querying some agent only to receive no response and list the outcome as “no-from inaction” on my agent tracking list, to having an enthusiastic agent in my corner, who apologizes if she doesn’t get back to me the same afternoon. Suddenly, it feels as if this whole process happened overnight.

All I can say is what people have said to me: Don’t give up. Keep writing. Keep revising. Use criticism constructively. Keep telling the story that only you can tell. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get that call too.

Now for a publisher.

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Recently, I finished the latest revisions to my young adult manuscript after spending all fall putting it off even though I’d reduced my time at work to 25% specifically to have more hours for writing. The energy and motivation came to woman-writing-1898me only after I was hired for a very demanding, new job, starting January 1.

I guess I’d been discouraged. The hardest part about writing this story, and the reason I’m doing it, is that it’s true, not word-for-word true, but all of the events actually happened. It’s the story of a fictional, 14-year-old Armenian boy, named Arakel, caught up in the genocide 100 years ago in the Ottoman Empire. It’s not about any member of my family, but I feel I owe it to all of the people who suffered or died in the genocide to convey what they went through.

Arakel’s nearly dying voice in the desert came to me clearly years ago. At public readings in San Francisco and Somerville, after receiving awards for the manuscript, I’ve read from a chapter in the middle of the book where a camel caravan master picks Arakel up in the desert after he’s spent the night in a cave filled with bones. I’ve hardly revised that section since I first wrote it.

But how did Arakel feel before that, before he knew nearly all of his family, nearly all of the people in his town, nearly all of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were going to die? And where should I start the story so teenagers with no knowledge of the genocide or the Ottoman Empire could relate? I’ve tried at least five different points in time, but none worked well.

If you write a book about the Holocaust, everyone knows what happened to Anne Frank. You don’t have to explain who Hitler was. But the Armenian genocide is different. And it’s not just teenagers who might not know. I received a query response from a literary agent on April 24, 2015 — the same day as the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian genocide, after the Pope had recognized the genocide, and the Armenian Church had canonized 1.5 million Armenian martyrs — and this agent suggested I rework the manuscript as a middle grade adventure. For the first and I hope the only time, I lost it with an agent and fired back an angry email. A lot of people died. This wasn’t an adventure.

But there I was, still revising Chapter One, still trying to create an instant connection with readers. My wonderful Critique Group stood by me with helpful suggestions, but by then they knew Arakel nearly as well as I did. I even hired Miss Snark’s First Victim to comment on the first 30 pages. She was brutal: “I’m confused and not in a good way.” And that was just her opening salvo. I won’t repeat the rest, but she ended her critique by saying, “I know you can do this.”

So I had to try. When I reduced my time to 25% at the beginning of September, and my son went off to college, which I instantly wrote about and the Washington Post picked it up for its “On Parenting” Blog (“My college freshman and the very delayed first call home”), I did not get right to work on my manuscript. Instead, I volunteered for added duties at a non-profit, worked out at my health club every day, even cleaned the house — anything other than write.

Then in December, when I got hired for a full-time job to start January 1, that’s what did it. It was now or never. I had to finish. On an unusually warm December morning, I sat on a bench outside my favorite coffee shop in Cambridge, and the first line came to me. It was so obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. The rest fell into place.

The other day, I re-queried an agent, whom I’d thought would be perfect, and right away, she requested the full manuscript. It’s in her queue. Three months to wait. I can’t get my hopes up. I’ve been here before. I can’t get too excited, but of course I am. I’m hoping this time will really be it. I’ll let you know.

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Ballerina-in-BoxingGloves-Stock-PhotoAs a kid, I was never a ballerina in a fluffy tutu. I hated dresses. I played with stuffed animals, not dolls. I grew up being called a Tom-Boy. But recently, I stumbled into a Ballet Barre Workout class at my health club, when I was late for the class I meant to attend, and now ballet barre is my favorite thing.

Our teacher is tough. “Pull in those abs, Sarah. Harder. Tuck in your bottom, Sarah. Turn your feet out.” And I love it. When she tells us “to look straight toward the horizon and plié with dignity,” we do and beam. Our inner five-year-olds are very happy. We don’t care the mirrors lining the walls are trying to remind us of a different reality. We check our positions, tuck in our butts, and “gaze at the people in the loge box seats.”

Our teacher treats us like ballerinas. Maybe it’s her piano music tape, or her careful corrections: “Lift your arms over your head, slightly in front of you, so you could just see your fingers if you looked up” (which you are not allowed to do). Maybe it’s the delight she expresses when for a brief moment we are all balancing on our toes, arms curved overhead, without wobbling or holding onto the barre.

Whatever it is, the class casts a spell. If I were actually five, I’d probably hate it. In fact, at the only ballet class my mother ever took me to when I was about five, the teacher suggested to my mother that I not come back, “She’s definitely athletic but not a dancer.”

I was never the girly type. We have a photograph of a family gathering with my great grandmother in the center and my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins. I’m about four years old, wearing a pink party dress and a long-sleeve flannel shirt underneath. Years later, I asked my mother about it. “You refused to put on your dress. That was the compromise.”

I was upset in third grade when my father made my older brother and his friend Brad stop playing tackle football with me. Flag football only. When I was in sixth grade, my father lectured my brother about not throwing the baseball too hard at me after dinner when we played catch in our yard. So we waited until Pop went back indoors and resumed.

I played tons of sports in high school and played tennis competitively in the 18-and- Unders. People finally stopped calling me a Tom-Boy, but that hardly helped. When I tottered downstairs to our front hall one evening in the 11th grade, wearing a red chiffon dress and black heels for ballroom dancing/etiquette class, which I attended with my older brother, he yelled, “Look, it’s Minnie Mouse!”

I always thought there were boys and there were girls and then there was me, somewhere in the middle. Is that because everyone called me a Tom-Boy? Or something deeper? I was always attracted to guys, so that was that. What was there to think about? I just felt different.

When I was living in Montana in my twenties, I stayed once with two friends my age at their ranch. They were married and their uncle was visiting. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and had my hair pulled up under a cap. Their uncle, who had recently retired from a lifetime career as a prison guard and wore the steel-toed shoes to prove it, looked at me, looked away and looked back again. He turned to them, “Is that your boy?” I’m not exactly shapely, but still. Did that make me a twelve-year-old boy?

What was this all about? A question of gender identity? Or just a girl who loved sports as a kid and hated dresses?

Does it matter? I don’t know. All I know is for the first time ever I want to be a ballerina. Oh, and I also want to learn how to box. Something else I’ve never done.

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Washington-Post-Logo

On Parenting
By Sarah B. Ignatius | November 6


Photo courtesy of iStock

When the college president stood before my husband and me, and hundreds of other parents assembled in the chapel after dropping our freshmen off, he told us we shouldn’t text our sons and daughters but use e-mail instead. And that we should wait before responding if they texted us. I understood.

“What the world needs is problem-solvers,” he had said to drive his point home.

That makes sense, I thought as I sat there. My husband has been on a campaign to foster independence since our son was 6 and we first started arguing over whether he was too young to ride the public bus alone. My husband swears he was taking public transportation in New York City himself by that age. And I went nearly 3,000 miles away for college in California at 17, calling home collect from a pay phone in the hall. And here we were, feeling grief-stricken that our only child was leaving us for college, hoping he wouldn’t hear it in our voices.

See the full essay here.

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