"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Palm Beach Post shares the story behind my book Stories with its readers

I was quite proud and a bit humbled this morning as The Palm Beach Post published an excerpt from Stories My Father Never Finished Telling Me

The book sample was accompanied by a first-person story about the book, along with several photographs of my father and the rest of the family.

With luck, you'll be able to see it by clicking here

I qualified that because I'm still sharpening my tech skills while trying to find my way through the maze of public-access and subscriber-only pathways on most modern news sites. I'm very much old school in such matters: I remember the day when you could simply pick up a paper and read it.

I even remember the day when people actually did just that.

Nostalgia aside, my friends at the Post did a beautiful  job of presenting the story and were extremely generous in giving it such space. Thanks to all!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

In Montgomery, Alabama, history is so close you can touch it but you can't always see it clearly

That's me and Denny outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.

My friend and co-author Denny Abbott lived the story behind his memoir They Had No Voice: My Fight For Alabama's Forgotten Children. I got the easy end of the deal when he asked me to write the book.

Denny's legal war with the State of Alabama on behalf of poor, black children more than 40 years ago fascinated me, in part because it turned on a series of decisions that showed great courage as well as unusual moral clarity.

But hearing Denny's tale also opened a window to a time and place that signaled a significant change in our country over the past century.

Denny grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. For a guy like me from New Jersey, that seemed as exotic as Bangkok and just about as difficult to imagine.

Denny's childhood in the 1940s and '50s traced the decline of the Old South and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Montgomery was at the center of both, and Denny got a close-up view of this seismic shift in culture and law.

As a young man, Denny listened nightly to his father's racist rants. As a young adult, Denny watched from his office window as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched along the street below.

Denny respected his father, but he followed Dr. King's example.

Listening to Denny, I was struck by the pride he showed in his Southern identity despite his break from traditions we Yankees associate so closely with The South. I asked him why he still felt such attachment to a place that had caused him real anguish.

Denny said I'd just have to go back to Montgomery with him to understand.

Meeting our publication deadline kept that from happening until earlier this year when Denny and I were invited to speak about the book at several campuses of Troy University.

I'm going to write about that in some detail soon, because the experience was emotional, even inspirational. So was our tour of Montgomery, a city where the past and present meet head-on but never quite connect.

Our walk began at stately Union Station, an old red-brick rail terminal that now houses a visitor center where reminders of the city's economic and historical importance are showcased.

The narrator of the city's welcome video boasted of Montgomery's "two" rich histories as the original capital of the Confederacy and as a pivotal Civil Rights battleground. We encountered reminders of both everywhere we went.

Among the most striking was a statue of Jefferson Davis atop the steps of the state capitol, which is a white-columned monument to the city's antebellum grandeur. Denny led me up the stairs to stand over the gold star that marks the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath as president of the confederacy on March 9, 1861.

In March 1965, Dr. King led thousands of men, women and children to those very steps after a 54-mile march from Selma. The event is recognized as a landark of the Civil Rights Era.

That march took five days, but Dr. King's march through Montgomery's history had begun years before. Among his notable achievements there: he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ended segregated seating in 1956.

There was no statue of Dr. King at the capitol, however, nor anywhere else we stopped.

Our most informative stop was at the Southern Poverty Law Center's civil rights memorial, but I also learned a lot just walking through downtown where historical markers illustrate the city's long and deep racial divide.

You can follow the trail if you read them all and read them carefully. If you don't, you might not realize there is a trail at all.

As Denny and I left Union Station, we walked through a short tunnel under the old train tracks to the waterfront along the Alabama River. It was a pleasant stroll on a bright, cool morning.

Reading the markers, I learned that same waterfront served as the arrival port for countless slaves, who were marched to holding pens to await auction at Court Square a few blocks away.

Our short tour nearly overwhelmed me with images from Montgomery's past. Over the next few days, I learned much more. I met a great many people who were all gracious and helpful, and who shared Denny's obvious pride in their heritage.

I left with a better understanding of that pride, but what I understood most clearly was that I'd been misinformed by the narrator of the video we watched at the beginning of our tour.

Like the rest of America, Montgomery does not have two histories. It has one history that is rich but also complicated. Some of it is glorious and some of it is awful, and that seems too much for many people to acknowledge.

Our nation's buses and coffee shops were integrated long ago. Why is our history still segregated?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Silence was my father's only shield, and it worked for both of us better than I ever understood


The photo at left was shot in the late 1940s, a few years before I was born.

That's my father, Nishan Kalajian, standing in front of the dry cleaning store he and my mother bought when he came home from the Army after the Second World War.

I don't know anything about the picture beyond what I can see, but I see enough—and know enough—to understand that Dad was mighty proud. His name stenciled on the window next to the word "proprietor" is a sure sign that he was feeling good about being his own boss for the first time in his life.

Even better, nobody was trying to kill him.

Understanding my father's tortuous and tortured journey from Diyarbakir, Turkey to New Jersey would have been less challenging if he'd been willing to talk directly and plainly about what he'd seen and experienced. Instead, I had to settle for the occasional revelation that would appear in a flash and disappear just as quickly.

I pieced together as much of my father's life as I could in my book Stories My Father Never Finished Telling Me. But understanding his experience proved to be even more difficult than reconstructing it.

I'm always wary of lapsing into solipsism, but nothing in my childhood in America prepared me to relate to what he'd known in a far more dangerous and desperate part of the world.

Dad watched as his homeland was consumed by genocide and famine. I watched Hopalong Cassidy and ate Twinkies.

By the time I came along in 1952, my parents were on solid footing as small-business owners. They'd bought a bigger store that came with a house, and Dad even rented a garage down the street to park his big, new station wagon. That Plymouth was a fitting metaphor for my smooth ride down life's highway.

I was reminiscing about all this with my father's cousin Gloria Allum the other night. Although Gloria also grew up in New Jersey, she's older than I am by enough years to have experienced a time when life for our family and other Armenians was far less settled and secure.

Her father, like mine, rarely talked about his youth and left even fewer clues about how or when he made the leap to America. But Gloria saw the lingering effects of trauma all around her in a community of immigrants struggling to adapt to America while also struggling to surive economically.

Some struggled harder than others. She recalled one close relative whose alcoholism affected the entire the family. As a child, she was embarrassed and angered. Looking back she understood much more and she empathized.

"It was all from the massacres," she said. "They had to deal with so much."

I wish my father had told me more about his life but now I understand that silence was his way of dealing with the pain. I also understand that he was doing his best to protect me from the effects.

I wish I'd understood that in time to thank him.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Lessons learned about publishing a book

I'd already been in the news business for more years than I care to remember when I started working on my first book in 1990.

The idea for Snow Blind grew out of a front-page story I'd written for the Miami Herald about Howard Finkelstein, a brilliant young public defender who lost his priniciples and nearly his life to cocaine.

I met Howard in a courthouse hallway in Fort Lauderdale soon after he recovered both his health and his ideals. He demonstrated his sincerity in spectacular fashion by saving a man falsely accused of murder.

The newspaper story provoked a powerful and positive reaction from readers.

Among the letters Howard received were several from writers who proposed to turn his story into a book, or perhaps a movie. Neither of us saw any reason to let someone else steal the moment.

So I eagerly accepted the challenge of digging far deeper into Howard's history of triumph and tragedy, confident I could sell the story to a major publisher. As a young man, I'd try to sell Ford automobiles. The results were disappointingly similar.

I invested a couple of years in the manuscript, including an extended break from newspaper work. The reaction I got from agents and publishers was eye-opening.

They didn't bother criticizing or even mentioning the writing or reporting. Their concern was with target markets: my book didn't come close to striking any of them.

It was non-fiction but it wasn't self-help. It had criminals but it wasn't a crime story. It had love and even a hint of sex but it wasn't a romance. In short, it just didn't fit into any neat, pre-sold categories with a guaranteed audience.

Worse, nobody wanted a story about cocaine. I pointed to a long list of recent, fact-based books and movies such as Blow and Rush. The publishers countered that the main characters in those tales wound up in prison.

Where I saw hope and redemption in Howard's story, they saw a guy who got away with using drugs for pleasure. One publisher told me point-blank that Howard's story would be a much better example for kids if he died.

I eventually got lucky, thanks to a friend who was helping a start-up publisher get off the ground. He called one day to ask if I knew anyone with a good manuscript sitting in a drawer.

I knew exactly which drawer to look in.

So that's how I finally got a book into print. It took 10 years to find a publisher (or, really, to be found by one) and two more years to get through the editing, design and production. I was still excited, but more than a bit of momentum and timeliness had been lost.

Sadly, the publisher is no longer in business but Snow Blind lives on: I published an updated Kindle version on my own not long ago. I didn't have to sell the idea to anyone, and I didn't have to wait more than 48 hours from the time I clicked the "publish" link until it showed up on Amazon.com.

I learned a number of important lessons from my first book venture, among them that I never have been much of a salesman. That's still a drawback for anyone with a book to promote, but at least it's no longer a barrier to getting published.