Hovsep Nalbandian: “For me, my Homeland is the backbone for my work and the source of my energy”

Hayern Aysor’s correspondent sat down for an interview with Armenian American philologist and literary critic, public figure, bibliographer, translator and publicist Hovsep Nalbandian, who is currently in Armenia.

Hayern Aysor Mr. Nalbandian, I would like to congratulate you on the release and presentation of your 13th book and your 14th book. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the presentation. Could you please share your impressions of the event?

Hovsep Nalbandian: I have dedicated my entire life to literature and have written about 14 books. Recently, I presented my two books at the National Library. It was quite successful. I thank the library’s director Tigran Zargaryan and all the employees who helped organize the event properly and at a high level. There were many interesting speeches by well-known writers, linguists and literary critics, who properly appreciated my work and the importance of my books. On that day, I received the Hakob Meghapart Medal and memorandum of the National Library. Two years ago, I was granted the “Ambassador of the Mother Language” Medal by the RA Minister of Diaspora for my book “Mesrop Mashtots the Marvelous”. I have written books even without those medals, and continue to do so. Those medals are simply binding. I thank the Ministry of Diaspora, as well as the staff and administration of the National Library. In April, I released the book “Trails in Life”, and on April 30, I released the bibliography entitled “Armenian Literature in America”, which contains the works created by 1,127 writers between the years of 1857 and 2015.

Hayern Aysor: Are the writers Diaspora Armenians, Western Armenians, or Armenians from Armenia?

H. N.: The book contains the works by authors of all three generations. It contains the works of writers having survived the Armenian Genocide, including Beniamin Nurikyan, Vahe Haik, Hakob Asatryan, as well as writers of the second and third generations. Unfortunately, there are no works by young writers since they only compose in English, and I personally don’t consider a young Armenian composing in English an Armenian writer since for me, language and thinking in the language come first. My book includes the works of writers of 3-5 different generations. My book provides detailed information about the particular work, including the name and last name of the writer, the title of the given book, the date and place of publication, the genre and the number of pages.

Hayern Aysor: How long did it take you to write the latest books?

H. N.: My first book represents the work that I have done as a publicist for the past 20 years, and the other is a bibliographical book that also presents the work that I have been doing for many years. It is a sequel to the book “Story of Armenian American Literature” released in 2011, but this one is different from the previous one. The previous book was in alphabetical order, while this one is chronological, and the flaws have been fixed. It took me a minimum of 4-5 years to write the book.

Hayern Aysor: Who is your audience?

H. N.: My books are for everyone, including experts, students and professors, but my latest book is designed for special experts. Nevertheless, anyone can read it.

Hayern Aysor: Do you sell or donate your books?

H. N.: About two years ago, I was able to sell my books, but this past year, it has become much more difficult for me to sell my books. It has often made me sad. In order to not focus on that (of course, if they are sold, I’ll be very happy because I’ll use the money to release another book), I’m focusing more on my future plans. Of course, I have made donations. In 2005, I created a series of books entitled “Hovsep an Caroline” (Caroline is my wife), and the first book of that series was released in 2006. This year marks the 10th anniversary of that series. Throughout the past 12 years, I have donated 7,230 books to 1,762 daily schools, Sunday schools and educational institutions in Armenia, Artsakh and the Armenian Diaspora, as well as the National Library of Yerevan, Avetik Isahakyan Library, the Museum of Arts and Literature and the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (Matenadaran). I have donated not only my books, but the duplicates of books from my library. The authors of the latter are with us today, but they have never donated their books. I also help save books. Most of our books aren’t online. Therefore, people have to buy, get and read books.

Hayern Aysor: Mr. Nalbandian, now let’s touch upon a painful issue. The youth of today don’t read books. I would like to know how you would solve this problem.

H. N.: Yes, it’s a painful and troubling issue, but it’s not only an issue concerning Armenians. Large international organizations, the European Union and its subcommittees are already involved in this. Today, people in France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany are working consistently to have children and youth read books. There are special programs for that. Parents and teachers in Armenia and abroad must also be consistent with having children read books and stay away from the computer for a while. Throughout the past decade, 7,200,000 books have been published, but only 5% of them can be found online. This means that people have to go to the library. The feeling of reading a book, just the unique scent of the page and flipping through the pages is enough…

Hayern Aysor: Are your 14 books only in Western Armenian? Are there translated versions?

H. N: They are in Western Armenian with classic orthography, but very user-friendly. Over the past years, Western Armenian has been declining. We need to encourage Armenians to speak that wonderful language and write in Western Armenian so that people will read and get used to it slowly. As far as translations are concerned, none of my books has been translated to this day since I can’t find translators. I personally translated a remarkable Arab poet’s poem devoted to Artsakh into Armenian and published it in my 13th book.

Hayern Aysor: You have dedicated your entire life to writing 14 books…

H. N.: Yes, they are my world, my life, my dedication. The six volumes of my encyclopedias published between 2000 and 2009 have been published and sold 13 times in 16,800 copies. “History of Armenian American Literature”, “Brief History of Armenian Dictionaries”, Hovhannes Shiraz’s “Armenian Dante” (still with the unique 62 lines, in classic orthography), “Armenian Language”, “Collection of Orthographical Materials: Dictionary”, “Mesrop Mashtots the Marvelous”, “Trail of Life” and “Armenian Literature in America”, the modified version of which is the “History of Armenian American Literature”-these are all my “children” who took a tremendous amount of time from me, but I don’t regret it.

Hayern Aysor: You were born in Aleppo, received higher education in Yerevan and settled in the USA…

H. N.: Yes, I was born in Aleppo and haven’t been there for the past 22 years. I went to elementary school in Aleppo, received my higher education in Yerevan, worked as a teacher in Egypt for two years and returned to Aleppo where I was the director of the Mesropian School. Afterwards, I left for the United States of America where I teach at Beverly Hills Lingual Institute. Students learn 17 languages, but unfortunately, there are only two classrooms for Armenian language instruction. It’s a great pain for me to see that the local Armenians don’t want to learn their native language. I live in Los Angeles where there are 14 Armenian schools, of which two are on the verge of being closed down due to the lack of students. Only 4% attend Armenian schools, and the remaining 96% go to American schools.

Hayern Aysor: Nevertheless, does a graduate of an Armenian school have the opportunity to continue his or her studies at a university?

H. N.: USL has the Narek Center, but students can only participate in auxiliary courses in Armenian. It’s not considered a profession, and there is on certificate of higher education.

Hayern Aysor: Besides academic books, haven’t you ever written poems?

H. N.: Of course. When I was 15 or 16, I would only write poems, but later I started writing prose and worked on writing encyclopedias. In 1987, I had my plan ready. My professor, and I think your professor, renowned Armenologist, the late Rafael Ishkhanyan liked it so much that he hugged me and advised me to carry it out. Then, he joked and said that if I didn’t carry out the plan, he would even know about it from the heavens above and would damn me.

Hayern Aysor: You said you came to this interview after giving a lecture. Do you give lectures at any university in Armenia?

H. N.: No, I was invited to give a lecture on “The Current State of the Armenian Diaspora” at the Armenian State Pedagogical University. I explained to the students that life in the Armenian Diaspora is not as easy as they imagine it to be. Armenians abroad face many problems, and preservation of the Armenian identity is an extremely major problem. Over the past 30-35 years, 110 Armenian schools have been closed down, except for the 40 schools in Tbilisi. It’s hard to open an Armenian school in Glendale today. You need $15 million dollars to open a school. All Armenians are indifferent. With my books and appearances on television, I always try to instill in youth awareness of the nation.

Hayern Aysor: You write and are very devoted to literature. From whom did you inherit that talent?

H. N.: That’s a good question. I inherited it from the Nalbandian family of musicians. My grandfather, his two brothers and their children settled in Ethiopia. They composed the national anthem for Ethiopia. My grandfather, Senior Priest Karapet Nalbandian was a very remarkable priest in Aleppo. He was an expert in rituals and the leader of five different organizations. My father was a remarkable typographer. Our “Aleppo” Printing Home was similar to Tumanyan’s “Vernatun” where writers, editors and educators would gather. I was raised in this kind of an environment.

Hayern Aysor: Continue the phrase: “When I say Armenia…” (Hayastan Aselis…)

H. N.: When I say “Armenia”, my heart starts pounding. I get strong and excited. For me, the homeland is my life, the backbone for my work and the endless source of energy. It’s also Artsakh, the courage of an Armenian, Mount Ararat and the Armenian language.

Karine Avagyan

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