On Monday, May 16, His Eminence Archbishop Anoushavan received the visit of Italian Armenian writer and scholar Antonia Arslan at the Prelacy offices. Ms. Arslan, the author of the best seller novel “The Skylark Farm” and other works, was accompanied by Prof. Siobhan Nash-Marshall, Mary T. Clark Chair of Christian Philosophy at Manhatanville College and translator of her novel “Silent Angel.” Dr. Vartan Matiossian, Executive Director of the Prelacy, was also present at the cordial meeting. Issues of common interest related to life in Armenia, Artsakh, and the Diaspora were discussed.
In a conversation with Crossroads, Ms. Arslan discussed her literary career and how her bestselling novels raised awareness about Armenia and its history among her Italian readers.
CROSSROADS: After a lengthy career as professor and scholar of Italian literature at the University of Padova, you translated Taniel Varoujan’s poetry into Italian and then entered fiction with your novel La masseria delle allodole (The Skylark Farm), which Armenian readers also know through its English and Armenian translations, as well as the cinematographic version by the Taviani brothers. It is now in its 44th printing in Italy after 18 years. How was the genesis of the novel? What compelled you to delve into that subject?
ANTONIA ARSLAN: Thank you for the interesting question. Entering the world of fiction—becoming a novelist—was, I believe, inevitable. When you spend much of your life reading novels, teaching literary criticism, and developing the tools with which to analyze that wondrous thing which is literature, you feel the need to write your own story and the story of your family.
In my case, the pieces came together with Taniel Varoujan. I am Armenian. My family is Armenian. We have always maintained our Armenian identity at home. But our careers had nothing, really nothing to do with our Armenian identity. My grandfather founded the Italian school of otorhinolaryngology and my father was a world-famous surgeon. In other words, our public lives were split from our private lives. This was especially true for me—and my uncle Yetwart, the art historian—because we became experts in Italian culture.
Varoujan linked my private world and my public one. Translating his work gave me the path to tell the stories my grandfather Yerwant told me about our family in Kharpert, about the genocide, about the aftermath of the genocide.
CROSSROADS: Did you expect that your novel would have had such a resonance in Italy? How do you feel about the fact that Italians opened their eyes to Armenian history and literature thanks to your novel?
ANTONIA ARSLAN: No, I did not expect my success — or the wonderful reception of my work that the Italians have given. To be honest, I knew that I had written something good. I knew it was in some sense daring — the Masseria does not have chapters. I knew that I was forcing the Italian language to do what it never had: accommodate the strong colors of the Armenian soul.
What I feel towards my Italian readers is gratitude.
CROSSROADS: Armenian scholars and critics have debated for a long time whether writers of Armenian origin who express themselves in a foreign language belong to Armenian literature or not. It may be helpful to pose the question from a different angle: Do you consider your work part of Armenian literature?
ANTONIA ARSLAN: As Charles Aznavour used to say of himself and France, today I can say that I feel one hundred percent Armenian and one hundred percent Italian. I have achieved an internal equilibrium between my parts. Nevertheless, I cannot but write in Italian. It is my mother tongue.