Current Summer Reading Guide

Luther College 2017 Summer Reading There Was and There Was Not

     There was and there was not—this should not be taken to mean that all stories
      are equally true, but that all stories are imperfect. (276)

The campus-wide summer reading for the 2017-2018 academic year is Meline Toumani’s There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond. 

In both Turkish and Armenian, a story begins with the phrase “there was and there was not,” not unlike the familiar English phrase “once upon a time.” Meline Toumani (me-leh-NA tu-MA-nee) takes this phrase as the title of a book that explores the questions surrounding what happened in Armenia in 1915, that searches for the truth behind the drive for recognition and denial. How can we know what really happened?

At the same time, Toumani’s book reveals many surprising contradictions in the lives of remaining Armenians and Turkish neighbors in the Caucasus region at the border of Europe and Asia. In part, Toumani goes to Turkey to meet Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Kurds face to face; in part, she goes there to wonder what would happen if we could look beyond those labels and national identities.

Toumani herself is an Armenian-American who, although born in Iran, was raised in New Jersey. Her memoir is about Toumani’s experiences growing up in the Armenian diaspora.1 At some point, Toumani grew to question what she perceived as a singular agenda in her Armenian-American community—hatred for the Turks—and eventually moved to Turkey to confront that hatred. During her two years in Turkey, Toumani began to write a book that humanizes Turks while also encouraging them to acknowledge the genocide. At the same time, she raised questions for Armenians about the ultimate value of genocide recognition in relation to other political and economic priorities.

As you read Toumani’s memoir, think about the communities that you belong to, and also the communities that you don’t belong to. How does the author challenge all of us to see humanity in those with whom we are at odds? How might we claim and value our identities in community and yet move thoughtfully to new understandings as individuals? These are questions that you will face, both as you begin your college journey and throughout your life in a diverse global community.

As a journalist, Toumani’s work has appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Harper’s, The Nation, Salon, The Boston Globe, and Newsday, among other publications. In 2014, There Was and There Was Not was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize—a literary award that recognizes “the power of the written word to promote peace.”

Our conversation about Toumani’s book will begin during New Student Orientation. Right from the start, you’ll be developing your ability to read carefully, think critically, and write persuasively. Because the Orientation schedule will involve many events, you will need to complete your reading of There Was and There Was Not before you arrive on campus on Saturday, August 26th.

Your first step will be to purchase the book: copies will be available for purchase at the Luther Book Shop during Summer Registration. You’ll write your first Paideia paper about There Was and There Was Not and, as with each of our readings, it will be important to have your own copy at hand for discussion.

Paideia is fundamentally a course in reading and writing. We’ve provided questions below to help you read closely and thoughtfully. Please think about these questions as you read the entire book, making notes as you go. Writing down answers to some or all of the questions will without a doubt better prepare you to participate in class discussions of the book.

Writing notes in the margins as you read may be the best way to enhance your comprehension—and those annotations will prove to be extremely useful when it’s time to write about the book! When you have finished a section, stop to review what you’ve read and capture in a few notes what the chapter was about.

Diaspora”

  1. As you begin to read Toumani’s story, what—in your understanding—does “recognition” mean to Armenians? Why does Toumani feel uneasy about the authenticity of oral narratives being told about the events of 1915?
  2. Paying particular attention to chapter 4, what is a real Armenian? In what specific ways does Toumani illustrate the diverse identities and fragmentation amongst Armenians? What, on the other hand, unifies Armenians?
  3. What experiences lead Toumani to questioning the one dominant story of the Armenian genocide and begin to ask, “How do you know what you know?”

“Alternative Realities”

  1. During her first trip to Turkey, a new acquaintance says to Toumani, “So you’re a bit mixed up now.” How is the author’s understanding complicated by her experiences and observations of Southeast Turkey and Armenians in Istanbul? Try to organize (or think carefully about) the new information and new contradictions Toumani encounters in the Turkish response to Armenians.
  2. As you read about the assassination of Hrant Dink on January 19, 2007, go back to review pp. 91-93. What does Hrant Dink stand for? Why might a particular network of people perceive that he represents a threat to the Turkish nation?

“Turkey”

  1. What paradoxes are revealed in Toumani’s exploration of Istanbul: paradoxes of civility versus chaos and of communal obligation with the shared weight of liability? What paradoxes of identity are presented by Toumani’s interpreters Ertan and Denzi? Why have they and several others taken up the Armenian issue?
  2. How does learning the Turkish language give Toumani greater access to the culture of Istanbul? Are there ways that language is also used to reinforce Turkish dominance?
  3. Is the opening ceremony of the restored cathedral at Akhtamar merely a surreal effort to ignore the Armenian past, or does it plant a seed of possibility for Armenian-Turkish engagement? As an Armenian, would you have boycotted or attended the event?
  4. Is there more than one way to be a Turk? Compare Ramazon, Tunç, and Krikor’s personal responses to their Turkish identity.2 How do Ramazon and Tunç make sense of Turkish history? After being raised as a Kurd, why does Krikor embrace his Armenian roots?
  5. What obstacles exist in the study of Turkish history and allegations of a 1915 massacre, bringing the conversation to the impasse of “there was or there was not”? In response to those challenges, what has been the goal of WATS: Workshop for Armenian-Turkish Scholarship (176)?

“Armenia”

  1. How do Toumani’s visits to the city of Yerevan give her a more realistic view of Armenia? What are the primary concerns of the people of Yerevan?
  2. In the events of the Pan-Armenian Games, where Armenians from several countries meet in solidarity, how does Toumani illustrate that varied experiences and distinct identities can sometimes lead to conflict within the diaspora?
  3. When the author is reunited with one of her favorite relatives, Aunt Nora, why is her aunt unable to give Toumani the understanding she desperately wants? How does Toumani navigate the value she places on her family story with the need to question and evaluate that story for herself? How does the author work to define herself within her community?

“Power”

  1. Is it necessary to be able to identify with someone—to see that the other is the same as you—in order to show them tolerance (236)?
  2. The author goes to Turkey because, as she says, “I was trying to understand how history, identity, my clan, and my feeling of obligation to it, had defined, me” (279). Who is Toumani outside of that obligation to her community identity?

We are pleased to announce that Meline Toumani, author of There Was and There Was Not, will join us on campus for the Opening Convocation as well as a Question and Answer event with a book signing.  


1. The group of people who share an Armenian heritage and homeland who since have dispersed to other places. Study the map on p. xiv to see places discussed in the story.

2. Consult the notes on language on p. xvii of the book.  The guide to Turkish pronunciation, for example, will tell you that Tunç is pronounced “toonch.”