Not many writers muster enough courage to admit that their novel is more an autobiography than fiction. John D Balian, though, goes a step further. His debut novel, Gray Wolves and White Doves, a gripping coming-of-age tale of an Armenian boy who faces relentless persecution in Turkey and Jerusalem, is a deeply personal account. Writing it, he says, was liberating in many ways. “For decades, I planned or thought or wished to write this book. And eventually, when I became determined to write it, I sat down and it all poured out like a flood.”
Balian was born in a remote Assyrian village in Turkey. His grandparents were victims of the Armenian genocide, and his parents and relatives lived in constant fear of a Turkish crackdown.
Displaced from the village in childhood after his mother was killed in front his eyes, nearly every day was a struggle for survival for him until he escaped to the United States of America when 17 years old. His initial challenge was to learn English, a language he barely knew. He was at an age when he should’ve been in the final grades of high school. He had to learn the new language, get an education and do well enough to go to a good university. He did all that, studied at Columbia University to became a doctor and a corporate executive before he wrote his novel-cum-memoirs.
Gray Wolves and White Doves takes you through his traumatic and dangerous growing up years as an Armenian Christian in Turkey and Jerusalem—as Balian remembers it.
Though written from recall, the events in book are very detailed. How?
As I was growing up, I did not keep a diary or notes. Whatever I wrote is all from my memories. To confirm that those memories were accurate, I spoke to my older siblings, relatives and friends who experienced the events I wrote about. Everything in the book is actual and factual. All the events have happened. And most of them, to me personally, the rest to family members, friends and acquaintances.
How long did it take to write it?
It took me eight-and-a-half years to complete the book. That was because I also have other commitments. I am a husband, father, doctor and also a corporate executive.
What was the most difficult part about writing? And what was the easiest?
The easy part was putting down the events, the stories. That happened within a few months. The difficult part was making sure that this was worthy of literature. For a very long time I edited and rewrote the book, over and over again. I went through dozens of drafts and versions to make sure that in a literary sense, it is something that I can be very proud of. That took most of the time, and it was the challenge. At times, I would struggle on a single word for hours, and I would put something down. Then I would come back to it a week later and change it again. And struggle further to write the right word that would portray the event or scene in a way that the reader would feel the same as I did while experiencing it.
Are there any fictional elements in the book?
I have omitted certain events and characters, and in some situations I have created a character to make the story flow. That’s where the fictional components of the book lay. I also had to reduce the evil in some of the real-life characters.
When did you discover that you can write?
I always was a good writer. In high school, teachers used to encourage me to become a writer. Instead I took the scientific route and became a physician. But I continued to write for scientific journals and magazines. And then this book came. Like my father, I am a storyteller, I guess.
Was it easy to find a publisher?
Everybody liked the story but in the US it is extremely difficult to get published if you are not a well-known entity and if you go through the traditional route. The easiest and most compelling route which more and more writers take these days is to go through the way I went—through Amazon’s publishing arm. They provide you with all the services of publishing yet you retain all the rights to the book.
Armenian persecution is a dangerous subject. Were you afraid of a backlash when the book came out?
I wasn’t scared of criticism, but I was afraid of backlash of some sorts. But it hasn’t happened. I had a few Turks who read the book. They had mixed emotions, but really liked the even-handed approach where I didn’t say all the Turks are bad or all Armenians are good. It shows good and bad in all people. The historical aspects bothered them, but they acknowledge it happened. I haven’t heard from any Turkish authorities.
Did you ever go back to Turkey and Jerusalem?
I left both Turkey and Jerusalem in 1976, and have never been back. I intend to visit Jerusalem, I want to go back and see the school and the seminary I grew up in. But Turkey, no. Unless there will be some sort of guarantees that I will be left alone.
Are Armenians still being persecuted in your village?
Things have improved from the perspective of persecution. However, it still exists. I still have relatives there, aunts and cousins. They can’t acknowledge their heritage and nationality. Also the village is right on the Syrian border, so there is turmoil in the region. And there is the Kurdish independence movement that is ongoing.
Will there be a sequel to the book?
Yes. Not right now, though. The book is being translated into Chinese and Armenian. My next goal actually is to turn it into a movie. Like Life of Pi, a book I love.