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The Journey Was Not Over

Jon Cocks
Jon Cocks Author Interview

Angel of Aleppo tells the heartwrenching story of a girl that survives the Armenian Genocide and finds a way to keep love in her life. What was the inspiration for the setup to your story?

The story of Angel of Aleppo was inspired by my Armenian wife Lilit’s own grandmother Anoush, who witnessed a Turkish soldier murder her own mother in 1915. When I first connected with Lilit in 2009, I quickly decided that I needed to learn more about Armenia. It did not take me long to ‘discover’ the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Few Australians know the other April 1915 story, the April 24, 1915 slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, initially smoke-screened by the Dardanelles campaign. Turkish leaders instigated a long-formulated plan to begin murdering Armenians, because the world’s attention was on the Dardanelles. Not many Australians know of Armenia, let alone the unacknowledged genocide that tortures its national soul. Once I had come to understand the Australian connection, and mindful that the 2015 centenary commemoration of the Armenian Genocide was looming, the idea to stage a play formed in my mind. The Armenian Cultural Association of SA worked with me in Adelaide to stage my 75-minute play to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015. The play’s action centred around a confrontation at the SA War Memorial on North Tce between an elderly Armenian woman and an elderly Turkish man on the fiftieth anniversary of the genocide: April 24, 1965. After the group performed the play successfully in Adelaide and to great acclaim for two performances in Sydney, Lilit and I agreed that the journey was not over.

Anoush is an intriguing and well developed character. What were some driving ideals behind her character’s development?

Anoush is inspired by Lilit’s grandmother, an indomitable woman who survived the genocide, lived into her eighties and imbued love, respect and family values into every one of her 37 grandchildren. The character is sixteen when a nightmarish day changes her life forever. She suffers alone and as a part of the greater Armenian suffering, but draws on the strength of her family background in her darkest moments to prevail. I began crafting the narrative of my literary Anoush’s youthful trials during 1915-19, beginning by fleshing out experiences alluded to in her character’s dialogue from the play. A great deal of research followed in the next year and there were numerous artistic choices made. Angel has a number of cameo appearances by characters who were real life historical figures, e.g. US President Woodrow Wilson. In those instances, I research their lives and study photos of them, looking for clues to their characters in their faces. In the case of characters who are literary constructs, like Anoush, I imbue them with character-appropriate physical qualities and personality traits from actual people I know or have known. I have an image of a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed woman in my head, which no artist can realise to my satisfaction. That is why there is no image of Anoush on the cover. Instead, I provide a few physical basics as a part of the narrative and allow my carefully edited combinations of my characters’ words and actions lead readers towards their own impressions. That is the beauty of the printed word. It allows each reader to make of it what they will.

What were some themes that were important for you to explore in this book?

One abiding theme is the outrage that was the Armenian Genocide and the lack of recognition of it by the successors of its perpetrators. The fact that the Armenian Genocide was the first Genocide of the twentieth century is an indictment upon every overly ambitious leader who ever pulled on a jackboot and donned medals before ordering his army to murder civilians. Mass killings of people because of race or colour or other ideological and/or religious obsession are a stain what constitutes civilisation. They make a mockery of what ‘civil’ means. Those who do not study history, so the truism goes, are doomed to repeat its mistakes. And there are no shortage of well-fed, middle-aged men with imperatorial ambitions not averse to throwing the weight of their armed forces about to make an ideological point. And on a less murderous scale, but no less iniquitous, are the many neo-conservative leaders abroad today who, with the financial support and particular concerns of their billionaire friends as influences, use government machinery and ideological justification to deny a decent living to large sectors of their populations. Social justice is a commodity sorely lacking in this post-modern world of materialist obsession that so often overshadows simple humanity. And this brings me to the most important theme of all, that of love, an emotion so enduring and so powerful in its purest form that it can prevail against the most appalling disasters and hateful crimes.

What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?

My next book exists only as a set of random ideas written haphazardly in notebooks. I continue to be subsumed with the promotion of Angel, so there is very little I can report on my next project. It is likely to be historical fiction and continue themes from Angel, such as social justice, and may well revisit the thoughts of St Paul, who opined that three things were most important: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.

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Soldiers murder her mother. They force her from the family home.

Anoush must endure a death march through unforgiving desert, as Armenian refugees perish all about her, some of the million-plus whose blood forever stains the hands of the Ottoman Turks and the souls of their descendants. 

Courageously keeping her small group of neighbourhood women together, Anoush endures the brutish guards driving a massive column of women, children, and old men south from Anatolia through Aleppo to the Mesopotamian desert. She learns to nurse against all odds in a city overflowing with diseased and starving refugees. She becomes the Angel of Aleppo.

In the years that follow, can she find the will to be the woman her mama raised her to be? Can she summon the strength to care?

From Anatolia to Aleppo and beyond, through the outrages and injustices of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, Angel of Aleppo, a Story of the Armenian Genocide is about losing everything but the healing power of love.
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