Barlow Der Mugrdechian, William Saroyan and American-Armenian Writers

Barlow Der Mugrdechian, William Saroyan and American-Armenian Writers 05 July 2012

London, July 5, 2012. Today Barlow Der Mugrdechian was guest lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London). He gave a fascinating talk on William Saroyan and his generation of American-Armenian writers. Starting from a general background on Armenian emigration to the United States, Der Mugrdechian outlined the evolution of American Armenian communities and discussed some of the difficulties they faced integrating into American society.

As the new communities developed, a new generation of English language writers emerged. These writers addressed Armenian issues that straddled life in a modern United States and their lost communities in Ottoman Turkey. By the 1930s, as emigration to the United States was curtailed, the older immigrants increasingly preferred English as their main language of communication—at least in print. The most successful of these writers was William Saroyan, who was increasingly read by non-Armenian audiences. Der Mugrdechian discussed Saroyan’s plays, short stories, and journalistic pieces, as well as his his peculiar humour and style, for a memorable London lecture.


Where were you born, and where did your family come from originally?
I was born in Fresno as were my parents. On my father's side we are from Van, and from my mother's side we are from Tokat.

Could you say a few things about the Armenian community of Fresno? How do they compare to other Armenian communities in the USA?
The Armenian community of Fresno was the first in California and the Western United States. There are approximately 50-60,000 Armenians in the greater San Joaquin Valley. There are seven churches in the region, and a number of organizations. It compares with other Diasporan communities in its activities.

How long has there been an Armenian Studies Programme in Fresno?
The first Armenian courses were offered in 1960-1962 by Dr. Richard Hovannisian as extension courses from UCLA. Later in the mid 1960's Dr. Louise Nalbandian began to teach Armenian history courses and a program began to develop. After her untimely death in 1974, Dr. Dickran Kouymjian was brought to Fresno State to establish a more permanent Program. I was hired in 1985 to teach in the Program, and after Kouymjian's retirement in 2008, became the Program director. Dr. Sergio La Porta joined the Program in 2009.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the programme?
Armenian Studies is an undergraduate Program at Fresno State. The strengths are the diversity of courses offered, the large number of students enrolled in courses, and the quality of the faculty. Our Program is nationally and internationally recognized for scholarship, teaching, and service. We have a strong outreach program to the community with a lecture series and other events.
We seek to improve on opportunities for students to conduct research at the graduate level and to provide financial support through scholarships.

How does the programme relate to the Armenian community around it? What role does it play in the community and its sense of itself?
The Program is integral part of the community and the intellectual leader of the community. Through the ASP lecture series community members have the opportunity to interact with many different scholars. Our Program is closely identified with Fresno and often we are the first connection that people have when they mention Fresno.

In what ways is William Saroyan remembered by Armenians and non-Armenians in Fresno today?
There are a variety of ways that Saroyan is remembered. There is a Saroyan Society that sponsors annual activities, the local Theatre building is named after Saroyan and their are various other areas of town associated with his name.

What was the impact, if any, of William Saroyan and his generation of writers? Did they influence how Armenians and others saw Armenians?
I think that Saroyan introduced the Armenians to a broader American audience. His generation was able to highlight the challenges facing immigrants to the United States and the unique challenges of the Armenians. There needs to be more study on the question of how Saroyan may have influenced the Armenians and how others saw Armenians. He was unquestioningly a source of pride in the community.

Do you think these early writers reflected the social realities of American Armenians? If so, in what ways?
The early writers often did reflect on the social realities of the time-in particular in Fresno on prejudice and discrimination and the problems facing the Armenians. They addressed questions about how to stay Armenian in a larger culture.

Do you see a difference between these early American-Armenian writers and more modern ones?
There are certainly some differences between the generations. The current (1980-now) generation has often included the Genocide as a theme in their writing. They often utilize the role of the grandparent in cultural transmission and as a means to make contact with the past.

Is William Saroyan still read in the United States?
Saroyan is read in the United States, but on a more popular level, rather than as required reading in say university literature courses. I feel his work is still contemporary in what it has to say. Saroyan's literary voice is unique and is worth reading.

This interview was conducted for Gomidas Institute, London. If you would like to be informed of the Institute’s activities, please send your name and contact details to


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