Valley Voices

William Saroyan remembered in ancestral homeland as much as in his hometown of Fresno

William Saroyan is shown on a sign in downtown Yerevan, Armenia.
William Saroyan is shown on a sign in downtown Yerevan, Armenia.

Those who think Fresno is the only settlement where acclaimed author William Saroyan is remembered diligently should check Yerevan. The capital of Saroyan’s ancestral homeland — Armenia — highlights this notable writer in many significant ways.

Saroyan visited Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union, several times during his life. After passing away in 1981, a part of his ashes was transferred to Yerevan and buried in a graveyard known as Pantheon. The sculpture on Saroyan’s grave has a shape of an “Armenian Cross” with the writer’s rising figure replicating the missing puzzle of this symbol of Christianity. Pantheon is often visited by many people, as not only the Armenian American author but also eminent composer Aram Khachaturian, movie maker Sergey Paradjanov, and other notables are laid there to rest.

James Billington, the former librarian of the Library of Congress, was among these visitors. In a 2012 interview, Billington shared that he paid his respect to Saroyan during his working trip to Armenia and visited Pantheon.

In addition, Saroyan’s bust is placed in front of a school that is named after him. However, leading up to the author’s centennial of his birth (2008), Armenian journalist, researcher and public activist Rafael Hovhannisyan decided that the city needed not only a splendid gravestone or a bust, but also a presentable sculpture in the heart of Yerevan, in a busy and touristic area.

“Sculptor David Yerevantsi, when I approached him with such idea, agreed to carve the monument for no cost,” Rafael recalls. This commitment of the European-based Armenian sculptor, no matter how much appreciated, was not the only reason for assigning the job specifically to him. The sculptor met Saroyan in person in Paris back in 1962. “He depicted Saroyan’s monument exactly as the author looked like when they spent two days together in France,” Hovhannisyan continued.

The monument is so spectacular that its illustration is included in Armenia’s national currency. In 2018, the Central Bank issued the new edition of the Armenian Dram (AMD) with several notable Armenians depicted on the banknotes. Saroyan was chosen to be featured on 5,000 AMD (approx. $10), with the image of the monument as well as a description of Bitlis (the hometown of Saroyan’s parents in historic Armenia) on the back.

Armenia once had a private university named after William Saroyan, until the government suspended its license together with about a dozen other educational facilities in 2009.

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which existed between 2008 and 2018, established the William Saroyan Medal, which is granted for developing Armenia-Diaspora cultural partnership through creative activities. Among the recipients of this award was also sculptor David Yerevantsi.

In 2008 and 2018, stamps with Saroyan’s image were issued for the 100th and 110th anniversaries of his birth. These same years international conferences related to Saroyan took place in Yerevan.

As if all these are not enough, just recently a series of images of Saroyan appeared in various streets of Yerevan as part of the “Great Armenians” project. Zebra, a Yerevan-based organization that runs the project, installs large-size images of notable Armenians in public places. So, William Saroyan can be seen in the streets now alongside composer Khachaturian, artist Aivazovski, and WWII top commander Bagramian.

There is a street named after William Saroyan in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) Republic. This second Armenian statehood has not been formally recognized by international governments so far, although several American states, including California, officially recognized the independence of the Republic of Artsakh and adopted proclamations in support of the right of the people to self-determination. On a special note, Fresno County has its own formal resolution in support of Nagorno-Karabakh’s sovereignty. This region was placed under Soviet Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction by the arbitrary decision of Bolshevik dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1920s, but seceded from Azerbaijan in 1991 in the final days of disintegrating Soviet Union.

Almost any bookstore in any Armenian community sells Saroyan’s writings, with more publishing houses printing his volumes. “We have published three books: ‘Mama, I Love You,’ ‘Papa, You’re Crazy,’ and ‘My Name is Aram,’” says Arqmenik Nikoghosian, the editor of Antares publishing house. He noted that ‘The Adventures of Wesley Jackson’ are about to come out soon as well. “The sales? They are bestsellers by Armenia’s scales,” Nikoghosian added, commenting that Saroyan’s books are popular.

Back in Fresno, the Yerevan-based Intellectual-Renaissance Foundation acquired and renovated William Saroyan’s childhood home and transformed it into a museum. The transatlantic project highlights that both Yerevan and Fresno cherish the great William Saroyan’s heritage, but also cooperates in this important endeavor together to share Saroyan with the world.

Haykaram Nahapetyan is the U.S. correspondent for the First Channel of Armenia. Danielle Saroyan of Fresno contributed to this reporting.