A GREAT WRITER, HOMETOWN, YEARNING
By Nevin Ulusoy
William Saroyan. A writer who wrote more than sixty stories, novels and plays. He was an American originally from Bitlis, Turkey. He was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1939 but he rejected the prize. He was the pioneer of absurd theatre. He was the source of inspiration for Beatniks that Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were representatives of. The novel he wrote in 1943 “The Human Comedy” was adapted to cinema. He wrote the scenario himself and it was awarded the Oscar. The Best Story, The Best Actor in a Leading Role (Mickey Rooney), The Best Cinematography, The Best Director and The Best Picture. According to Tennessee Williams Saroyan was the greatest playwright in the world. It is as if the human heart itself tells the stories in his books, so warm, so sincere, so humanistic. He was one of us with his warm look, sweet smile, a great writer that we would like to hug as his sentences hug us.
He was born on 31 August 1908, in Fresno, California He was the first member of his family born in the U.S.A. But he always said that his hometown was Bitlis, both his parents were from Bitlis. Like most Armenians he had two hometowns, but Bitlis was his home, he felt that way. Bitlis that his parents had to leave and he had listened about since he was a baby, his hometown he dreamed of night and day. His dream turned into reality when he was 56 and he breathed his hometown, drank its water. “They told me this water was good”, he said, he wandered, wandered and thought. It was the beginning of May, in 1964. Saroyan arrived in İstanbul. On his journey a journalist, Fikret Otyam and the editor of Marmara newspaper, Bedri Zobyan accompanied him. Aras Publishing House published a wonderful reference book “William Saroyan from America to Bitlis” on the anniversary of his hundredth birthday. It is as if we are with Saroyan as we read the book, near Lake Van shore, we inhale the cool odour of the lake, we touch the stones along the mountains and we are in secret dreams, the breeze of the past is on our faces, an indescribable sorrow in our hearts, but also an insatiable mirth. We look at him in the face, he smiles at us and says: “The day started well, it continued that way… If the day starts well, it continues that way… What is important for me is to start life.”
Mountains were always in him, they were his home, the meaning of his being, sad but alive, the source of life of his veins, so the source of his art and with the touch of his eyes and hands to his homeland everything found its meaning in the full sense. Saroyan is one of us, our relative, we belong to each other, happy to us.
They set off from İstanbul. Saroyan mentioned a taxi as the vehicle. Bedros Zobyan thought that it was very astonishing. They visited lots of cities, also Ararat Mountain, Akhtamar Island and Snake Castle. Of course Bitlis was very different. For Saroyan, “the wish to see and find Bitlis was very much like looking for his father which went on all through his life.” He lost his father when he was three, this visit was finding Armenak, after so many years, in the land he was broken away from. He was so excited on the way to Bitlis. With the sentences he uttered as he entered the city, in the city, the burning yearning is reflected in our hearts as well. “I know all the trees at the entrance of the city… They told me.” He said that he did not need a guide, the city was in his heart, it was engraved in his consciousness like the memories of childhood. The city, homeland that could only be dreamed of, that was breath at the tide of life like a magical place of a tale. “I am in Bitlis now… Today is the most meaningful day of my life…” A turtle passed by, he stopped the car, got off and said “oh! It is from Bitlis, too.” Oh, Saroyan! Our eyes are wet and there is something, there are lots of things in our throats.
New frames are added to Lusin Dink’s “Saroyan Land” film’s squares that was directed in 2013 from the pages of the book. Belonging to one’s ancestors’ land as far as one can remember. “That was a strong tie, in a way a source of pride for him.”
Saroyan was heartily welcomed in his hometown, he was wandering in a miracle. Most of all, he was interested in children, they were the guarantee of the future for him. He had stopped smoking for six months, but he inhaled the cigarette rolled with Bitlis tobacco saying “ohh… Very nice… Very nice…” with an indescribable joy, a smile on his lips, we feel the smoke of the cigarette. An astonishing physical likeness, the people of the same land, same water, same air, same mountains. Lives that had been shared for thousands of years, days that pain, happiness shared for thousands of years, days that had taken centuries embellished with pain, happiness. These lands are multilingual, Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian. He was in the district where Armenians mostly lived with his heart searching for his home, Sapkor (Dzabırgor). There was only one Armenian , ninety years old. He did not know about Saroyans, he wanted to go to Beirut and die among Armenians. The old Armenian district, now it was a collapsed place. Stones, stones, destroyed walls, the past, they carry the burden of the days that would not come back, a sorrowful elegy. The place that they guessed was his home. He collected lots of stones, it was as if he materialized the things he was told, took with him whatever was left from the past, lives of thousands of years. The marks of the past on the stones, the touch that could not be wiped on the air, sky, trees, water, the touch of his people, had come and gone, but are ongoing. Some people say “what if they are looking for the gold they left as they were going?” for the writer who was in an intense emotional state with these marks. Is home gold? Can gold be home? How much gold is home, hometown, the place you belong to? It is like seeing the matter just as an issue of inheritance when you state the wish to see the land of your ancestors, talk about the desire to have a look at the opportunities to meet the unknown relatives. Are not the relatives of your grandfather whom you have never known, who are in your hometown the sweetest inheritance?
What about going back? Forever, but how? Bitlis was not old Bitlis, but Bitlis was Bitlis. He stated that they did not need the support of a geographical place to know who they were in his play “Bitlis”. He wrote this play in 1975. He waited eleven years to write about his journey to Bitlis, but Bitlis was always in his work as it was always in his mind and heart. Mountains were always in him, they were his home, the meaning of his being, sad but alive, the source of life of his veins, so the source of his art and with the touch of his eyes and hands to his homeland everything found its meaning in the full sense. Saroyan is one of us, our relative, we belong to each other, happy to us.