Author Litty Mathew on Music, Memory, and the Armenian Experience

Author Litty Mathew
Author Litty Mathew.

The duduk, an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument carved from the trunk of an apricot tree, serves as the main character for Litty Mathew’s debut novel "The Musician’s Secret" by Third Floor Publishing. Mathew, who is of south Indian descent, first wrote about the instrument a decade ago for an L.A. Times piece after hearing its emotive melancholic timbre in film scores and becoming captivated by its rich symbolism within the Armenian culture she married into.

"The Musician’s Secret" is a work of fiction that tells a soulful tale of Rupen Najarian, an 83-year-old duduk maestro living comfortably within the confines of his celebrity in 1990s Glendale, home to the largest population of Armenians outside of Yerevan. Rupen’s life is suddenly disrupted by dire health news and a ne’er-do-well 20-something artist named Haik who threatens to expose a deep secret Rupen has been hiding for decades. We join Rupen on an odyssey of self discovery that lays open the Armenian experience pre and post diaspora -- a culture that has been sustained through generations by its ancient traditions, such as the music of the duduk.

Mathew’s book grapples with the complicated issues of generational and cultural identity by exposing the wounds -- still fresh a century later -- created by atrocities of the Armenian genocide in Turkey and the refugees’ death march through the Syrian desert. Through her characters, we come to understand how the genocide has served to tighten the grip on long-held customs and beliefs through time so the tragic piece of Armenian history doesn’t fade from global consciousness.

As we come upon the 101st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, and as Glendale opens its first museum exhibit commemorating the event, Artbound sat down with Mathew to discuss her experience as a cultural outsider living in a community with such an unwavering sense of identity, and how she came to develop the character of a Middle Eastern man from another era with such clarity.

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Tell us a bit about the exhibition “Armenia: An Open Wound” in Glendale which opened April 9 and why it’s so meaningful to you and your novel?

Before I moved to Glendale, I knew very little about the Armenian Genocide. I didn't know that Glendale was home to the largest population of Armenians outside of Yerevan (the capital and largest city of Armenia with 1.06 million). Twenty-one years later, I meet people in town, like me, who don't know that more than half of all Armenians died in the first genocide of the 20th century. That their neighbors live with this terrible history.

This exhibition, in partnership with the Armenian American Museum and the Brand Library & Art Center, is really the first of its kind for Glendale because the city's public library doesn't typically get museum quality shows. More than that, it's important because it bridges the knowledge gap between Armenians and non Armenians.

The show comes to the Southland from the Museo Memoria Y Tolerancia in Mexico. In April 2015, they created it to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. 

The exhibition has a 360-degree desert memorial of barren dunes and relentless sky. The desert has a strong hold on my protagonist, the soon-to be-retired duduk player, Rupen, who spent his childhood wandering the Syrian desert. But not to his artist side-kick/blackmailer, Haik, who is more than 60 years his junior. Haik, would probably have relished dumping sand on Rupen's expensive floors just to torture his nemesis.

The 101th year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide is April 24. What is that day like living in Glendale and for your family?

Although, it's been more than a century, the pain the genocide caused is still alive. In Glendale, Armenian business generally close for the day. On a personal level, it’s also my birthday. Awkward, is how I would describe the first couple of years married to Melkon, my Armenian husband. But my birthday is also an occasion to talk about the family and friends we're starting to forget. The grandparents' stories of daring escapes and unrequited loves. Their village recipes, songs and dances. And yes, to eat some chocolate cake.

The ancient Armenian instrument, the duduk, is really the star of your novel. Is the instrument still passed down in the Armenian culture or is it losing its strong symbolism?

The duduk is as popular as ever. You'll hear it at most Armenian celebrations. It is traditionally made out of apricot wood -- prunus armeniaca in Latin. The Latin gives us clues to the heritage of this instrument. For Armenians, there is no stronger symbol than the duduk except maybe Mount Ararat.

Why is the book set in the 1990s?

I chose that decade because the last of the genocide survivors are still lucid. It's a moment when they have to tell their stories or take them to the grave. That's pretty good motivation.

In your book, there’s a thread of deep-seated hatred for Turks that comes up again and again. Do generations of Armenians harbor this from one to the next?

The hatred can be passed down like a tarnished heirloom. As a curious outsider and a former inquisitive journalist, I would poke at this sensitive spot not out of any malice but because I wanted to learn more about the culture. I have asked: why do you still hate Turks? It's been 100 years. [I'm usually cringing when I ask.] The response I most often get is the Turks have never acknowledged the genocide. The wound has never closed.

"Armenia: An Open Wound" exhibition
Exhibition "Armenia: An Open Wound" is on view April 16 - June 11, 2016.

The book is so full of interesting history and characters, in particular maestro Rupen. Who was your inspiration for him?

Rupen is every person who has felt like an outsider. That no one truly sees him for who he really is. But why I became obsessed with the duduk is a whole different story.

A decade ago I wrote a story for the Los Angeles Times Calendar section on the duduk because my husband and I kept hearing it in many Hollywood scores and wondered why. The one I remember most strongly was the score for the new "Battlestar Galactica" series. Whenever there was a sad scene, we’d hear the duduk. At the time I didn’t know what it was -- just that it made me feel something. Melkon, who recognized it right away, made me listen to a CD of Jivan Gasparyan who, before he retired, was the most famous duduk player in the world. 

For the story, I interview Gasparyan and composers like Bear McCreary ("Battlestar Galactica"). I remember someone telling me he was drawn to how the instrument could evoke the human voice without words. Back then, a synthesizer could not capture this character -- it was the one sound that you couldn’t fake.

As it turned out, one of Melkon’s distant relatives was the “Stradivarius” of the duduk world, all from the comfort of his garage in North Hollywood. As an instrument maker, Karlen Smabti Matevosyan changed the duduk and how people play it today. 

After my story ran in the paper, I couldn’t stop thinking of the instrument and its haunting sound -- like a voice carried across the mountaintops. I didn't even realize I was writing a novel when I created character sketches and wrote short stories about various people connected to this instrument and its Armenian identity. That’s how the book started -- from this question of identity and the feeling of not belonging. In some ways it could be what I felt like as an outsider in the Armenian community.

I never imagined writing from the perspective of an 83-year-old Armenian man. But he really wouldn't shut up in my head.

How accepting has the Armenian community been of you and your marriage and what’s it like living within the Armenian community?

We're “besties” now. But it was difficult in the beginning. Melkon and I are both from unique cultures and our parents hoped we'd marry within our respective communities. 

Armenian culture is so old yet it feels strangely familiar to me because of my own ancient south Indian heritage. Armenia is one of the oldest Christian nations -- 1,715 years old! St. Thomas Christians, like me, have been in India since 52 AD. Two small communities buffeted within a larger population defines the boundaries very well. Your religion, even if you're not religious, makes you who you are.   

Litty Mathew, "The Musician's Secret"
Litty Mathew, "The Musician's Secret" book cover.

Did the community embrace the book?

The verdict is still out. At the end of the day, my novel is about the deep relationships we have with each other. It isn't about politics. Why do the main characters in my story, Rupen and Haik, hang out? After all, Haik is blackmailing Rupen! I think it’s because Haik is the only one who can see Rupen for who he really is, terrible secrets and all. That is worth something. 

Melkon was the first Armenian to read it. And we're still married. I had several Armenians read the draft. Some loved it, others were shocked. But I was most worried about my father-in-law who ended up enjoying the story. Either that or he's being nice. We do have my birthday to commemorate soon.

Food plays a big part in your book. Why is that and how do you think Armenian food has influenced the culinary landscape here?

If my stomach had fingers, all my novels would be about food. I divide my day up in increments of food. When I wrote for Saveur magazine, I really enjoyed their approach of looking at a culture through what it eats. I'm sure that influenced how I describe food in the novel and Rupen's obsession with his meals. The culture of food is so strong for Armenians. Every dish has a story. Every person has a version of the story. In Glendale, with its plethora of bakeries, banquet halls and specialty meat markets, you should just give in. That's my advice.

What is your favorite Armenian dish?

I love ker u sus which is a half stewed, then fried, dish of tender beef loin with onions, tomatoes and potatoes. Chopped fresh parsley, salt, black pepper and red pepper [like cayenne] to finish. Everyone has their own variation. 

On our honeymoon in Yerevan, we visited my husband’s family and Melkon's aunt Serpouhi put a big old fashioned enamel pot of ker u sus in front of us. I asked what it was, and my husband said, “eat and shut up!” I thought it was a little harsh coming from him but I learned that's what ker u sus translates to in English. It was a memorable version, not only because it was delicious but it was served as part of my first meal with the family there.

What is your favorite Armenian restaurant?

Maran in Glendale is my favorite of the ubiquitous Armenian banquet hall/restaurants. If you go, you must take at least six of your closest friends and prepare to get up and dance. This is good because you'll want a small workout before the next course.


To learn more about Litty Mathew and "The Musician’s Secret" visit her website.

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