Debut Author Snapshot: Dawn Anahid MacKeen

January, 2016
Dawn Anahid MacKeen

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Journalist Dawn Anahid MacKeen has chased down many a story for Salon, Newsday, and other outlets, but it was a kernel of family history that launched her most revelatory investigative journey. Although she grew up knowing that her grandfather, Stepan Miskjian, had survived the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide against terrifying odds, it wasn't until she read his translated personal journals that she understood the breadth of horror he had witnessed and the feats of endurance his survival had required. She knew she had to dig deeper. MacKeen spent ten years researching her grandfather's life and eventually retraced his death march herself through Turkey and Syria. The result is her first book, The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, which brings together her grandfather's story and her own, two narratives no longer divided by time and language.

MacKeen shares family photos and the inspiration for what became a decade-long labor of love.

A page from Stepan Miskjian's journal.
Goodreads: Writing this book was such an odyssey! Tell us about your first steps. When did you know this was a project you had to undertake?

Dawn Anahid MacKeen: My mother always told me what happened to her father during World War I. But I could never read his firsthand account because it was in Armenian. It wasn't until I was in my thirties and working as an investigative reporter in New York that a relative finally translated it into English. Reading it, I couldn't believe that the endangered protagonist was my own grandfather. He believed he survived to bear witness, since so many had died before his eyes and were never able to tell their own stories. It wasn't a choice for me. I had to give voice to the voiceless. I quit my magazine job and moved back to Los Angeles to begin the long process of bringing his story to life.

Back in Los Angeles, we unearthed more of his notebooks. One had holes and fell apart each time we turned the page. It was devastating to read the unspeakable horrors he faced. It was all there in its raw, heartbreaking form. His journals were my road map to his life, but I still didn't know much about his town, his friends, or the landscape of his journey.

School girls in Adabazar.
MacKeen's advertisement.
So I began to read everything I could about the subject, including an old book about grandfather's hometown that was written by the surviving residents. I also found a photo of some schoolgirls from the town right before the war, dressed in their fine white dresses. I made it my screensaver to always remember why I was doing this. I'd spend endless hours staring into their hopeful faces, knowing that their lives would be upturned soon, but they didn't know it yet. It broke my heart. Next I culled all the names of those mentioned in my grandfather's journals and placed an advertisement in Armenian newspapers, looking for the families of survivors. Luckily I found one of them and amassed even more material. A visual was beginning to take shape.

But the most important step was to see the land where he walked, which is present-day Turkey and Syria. I sketched out his nearly 1,000-mile route and left on a two-month trip to the region in 2007. Along the way, I stopped in Adabazar, which is now called Adapazarı, holding an old map that we copied from a 1939 book; my mother and her friend translated the various landmarks into cartoon balloons. Still, the place was unrecognizable to me from the journals and stories.

Map of Adabazar.
GR: You write in the first chapter: "I hadn't thought of him—or anyone else who endured a genocide—as having a personality, as being funny and knocking back stiff drinks with pals." What are some of your favorite things you discovered about your grandfather?

Nearly widowed, the 85-year-old Stepan stands beside his daughter, Anahid, and granddaughter, Dawn, in 1971.
MacKeen at a monastery in Vienna.
DM: Since he died when I was young, I didn't know much about him, besides what my mother had told me. And, of course, her stories were very sad, detailing the days he'd forgone food and shelter and endured that primal thirst of having to drink his own urine. But after we found the additional journals, describing his life before the war, a different picture emerged. He was extremely mischievous, a prankster. He was also incredibly resourceful. He didn't let any situation stop him from trying to persevere, which is inspiring to me. On his death march, whenever he'd consider giving up, he just kept telling himself: There must be a way out, and he just had to find it.

I learned my grandfather paid attention to even the smallest detail. After many years of researching his account, and cross-checking it against other survivor memoirs from his town, newspapers, and consular documents, I learned he was extremely accurate and had an elephant-like memory. For this research I drew on collections from six countries, including a monastery in Vienna, which I'd visited in the dead of winter to look at its remarkable collection of old Armenian newspapers and periodicals. Each document I collected was another piece in the puzzle of his life.

GR: In retracing your grandfather's steps, what were the high and low points of your remarkable journey?

DM: The high was traveling to the Syrian desert and finding the Muslim family who saved my Christian grandfather's life. After he'd escaped from his doomed caravan, an Arab sheikh had taken in my grandfather and accepted him for who he was, regardless of ethnicity or religion, ignoring the rhetoric of the time that Armenians were dangerous. The chieftain fed him, clothed him, and treated him like a son. In 2007, I followed my grandfather's route and met the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of this incredible man. When I arrived in their small village along the Euphrates, 300 people greeted me, and the women soon whisked me away. It was a Cinderella moment; off went my dusty travel clothes, as they decked me out in beautiful traditional dress, with a hijab. They even held a feast in my honor, with a slaughtered goat. I was able to thank them for saving his life, and what resonates with me most is the ripple effect of just one kind act. Four generations of my family are now alive because of it.

MacKeen's visit to the massacre site where her grandfather escaped.
The lows were being followed in Syria by the secret police. They followed me all the way to the massacre site where my grandfather escaped, and back to Aleppo. For many foreigners visiting Syria under President Bashar al-Assad, it was routine to be followed. But my surveillance escalated to the point that I worried whether or not I could leave the country. I learned later that they believed I was an Israeli spy. As an American, it's a very strange experience to be followed 24/7 and questioned despite doing nothing wrong. In Syria the people would say that the walls had ears; they were very careful about what they talked about. Some of that discontent spilled into the uprising that led to the civil war. I've watched with great sadness Syria deteriorate into war and the Islamic State take over the area where I visited.

What was most surprising to me is that I had expected to find a greater sense of home in Adapazarı but instead I found it in Syria, almost 1,000 miles from there, with this clan.

GR: Acknowledgement of the genocide still falls short in Turkey and around the world. What are your hopes for the future, and what, if anything, do you think could change this sad fact?

On April 24, 2015, the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide, MacKeen and her mother, Anahid (pictured), marched alongside 160,000 others to raise awareness of the killings. It was one of the largest demonstrations in Los Angeles history.
DM: I believe that education is the key to almost everything in life. In Turkey the denial is sponsored by the state. So consequently Turkish children grow up believing that the Armenians were the aggressors during the war and that their deaths were an unfortunate byproduct of their own actions. But the good news is that the digital age has ushered in access to different perspectives. That includes Germany's consular reports during the war, which documented the decimation of the Armenians, and even newspapers like The New York Times, which ran headlines like "800,000 Armenians Counted Destroyed" on October 7, 1915. The sources and resources are out there. It's also important for Armenians to remember that the Turks today aren't the ones who perpetrated the killings.

On the 100th-year anniversary of the killings last April, there seemed to be a tipping point in world opinion. Even the Kardashian family traveled to Armenia and introduced the issue to a new generation. But Pope Francis's acknowledgment was the most important milestone. He summed up exactly how many Armenians feel when he remarked, "Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it."

That day my mother and I marched through Los Angeles, with an estimated 160,000 others, to commemorate the dead. It was a historic march. She felt very emotional and said that her father would be so happy to see the people finally paying tribute to this forgotten chapter of history.

Stepan Miskjian.
GR: What's next for you as a writer?

DM: With my family history, I'm empathetic to the plight of the refugees right now and would like to write about it. My grandfather was so desperate to leave Turkey that he forged papers to begin a new life in the United States. In a case of history repeating itself, the Syrian family who gave my family shelter are now seeking refuge elsewhere. One recently left the Islamic State-occupied territory and was part of the sea of refugees who made it to Europe. He's beginning a new life there, much like my grandfather had in the United States. But after living with and thinking about these serious issues for so long, I also want to try my hand at some lighter subjects, too!


All photographs © Miskjian family


Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Gallagher What an amazing story. This is going to the top of my "to buy" list! Thank you for sharing your grandfather's brave story!


message 2: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer As an Armenian American who had both sets of grandparents experience and survive the genocide, it gives me great pleasure when journalists share the story of our people. I can't wait to read your story! Thank you for sharing your family's story.


message 3: by Penny (new)

Penny Schmuecker I cannot wait to read this book. Thank you for your diligence and perseverance in researching this mostly untold story.


message 4: by Kay (new)

Kay Mouradian I, too, am one anxious to read this well researched story.


message 5: by Janelle (new)

Janelle This is an incredible book. I was fortunate to read it early and it has really stayed with me.


message 6: by Krikor (new)

Krikor A The picture "A page from Stepan Miskjian's journal" gave me goosebumps.


message 7: by Asdeghik (new)

Asdeghik Your mom among the crowd walking to raise awareness for the Armenian Genocide......wow!


message 8: by Haigaram (new)

Haigaram Very interesting


message 9: by Beryl (new)

Beryl Anderson Looking forward to reading this great story of survival.


message 10: by Audrey (new)

Audrey Beasley plan to buy ad read the drama of your armenian grandfather good to know people are interested in the truth of history and their own history , painful as it is life is such. god bless and continue takes strength to look at life directly. Audrey beasley from brazil


message 11: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Williams I can't wait to read this book. My son-in-law served an LDS mission for a couple of years in Armenia. He has mentioned the genocide that nobody knows about. I also love family history and biographies. Should be very informative and educational.


message 12: by Much (new)

Much Anwar Very interesting. I and my friends very... very like this story.


message 13: by Adrienne (new)

Adrienne Baksa What a riveting read. I'm also Armenian, and I look forward to getting a copy of this book. I'll read it first and then send it to my brother.


message 14: by Penny (new)

Penny Schmuecker Adrienne wrote: "What a riveting read. I'm also Armenian, and I look forward to getting a copy of this book. I'll read it first and then send it to my brother."

Do you also have relatives that were a part of this genocide? I am just beginning to read the few books about it that I can find so I'm very intrigued by these stories.


message 15: by Asdeghik (new)

Asdeghik Penny wrote: "Adrienne wrote: "What a riveting read. I'm also Armenian, and I look forward to getting a copy of this book. I'll read it first and then send it to my brother."

Do you also have relatives that wer..."


Penny, allow me to tell you that my mother was two and my father was eleven when they were marching from Turkey to Syria.


message 16: by Penny (new)

Penny Schmuecker Asdeghik wrote: "Penny wrote: "Adrienne wrote: "What a riveting read. I'm also Armenian, and I look forward to getting a copy of this book. I'll read it first and then send it to my brother."

Do you also have rela..."


Oh, my. I am so sorry to hear. Until recently, I knew very little about this genocide. It's disturbing to me that there hasn't been more written on the subject. I wonder why that is. I'm sure your parents had many stories. I can't begin to imagine the terrible things they must have gone through.


sujit chakraborty I had through a search of Wikipedia had known a little of the genocide,and then during the 100th anniversary of the massacre felt obliged to know more about it. Now I must read the book to get a authentic narration


message 18: by Shahe (new)

Shahe Kazarian Simply moving, inspiring!


message 19: by Penny (new)

Penny Schmuecker sujit chakraborty wrote: "I had through a search of Wikipedia had known a little of the genocide,and then during the 100th anniversary of the massacre felt obliged to know more about it. Now I must read the book to get a au..."

Try Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian and The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Both are historical fiction. Happy reading!


message 20: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Blanchard I look forward to reading this book. I had no idea about this genocide.


message 21: by Litty (new)

Litty Mathew Amazing, Dawn! I married into an Armenian family here in Glendale, Calif. After listening to so many family stories, I was compelled to write The Musician's Secret because so few people know what happened. So proud you did this! Can't wait to get my copy.


message 22: by Penny (new)

Penny Schmuecker Litty wrote: "Amazing, Dawn! I married into an Armenian family here in Glendale, Calif. After listening to so many family stories, I was compelled to write The Musician's Secret because so few people know what h..."

I've added this to my list. Thanks for posting about your book.


message 23: by Haigaram (new)

Haigaram Thank you Litty for letting us know about your book and your respect for your husband' s side.


message 24: by Miralda (new)

Miralda Muchall The Duduk and National Identity in Armenia
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...


message 25: by Julie (last edited Jan 11, 2016 06:16AM) (new)

Julie Mourad Thank you for your effort. Humanity appreciates it. I will definitely read your treasure. i have to thank
asdeghik arabian for bringing my attention to you and all the beautiful armenian gems out there! thank you asdeghik!


message 26: by Asdeghik (new)

Asdeghik Juliemourad wrote: "Thank you for your effort. Humanity appreciates it. I will definitely read your treasure. i have to thank
asdeghik arabian for bringing my attention to you and all the beautiful armenian gems out ..."


Julie, I' m glad you do appreciate.


message 27: by Vera (new)

Vera The Hundred-Year Walk: Tenement Museum Talk, January, 2016

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BSQd...


message 28: by Inis (new)

Inis Fal What a truly amazing story! I would find it an absolute honor to read the story of your grandfather! Thank you for sharing your family's history with others!


message 29: by Susan (new)

Susan Masid Dawn - I am reading your grandfather's story and find it much like my father's who escaped the Ottoman Turks as a Syrian Christian at about the time your grandfather's journey began. My sister is writing his story. However, I am writing my mother's story - she was much younger than my dad and grew up in a little Syrian village, where I was born. I have never returned, but would like to see my birthplace when this war ends - en shallah.
I, too, am a retired journalist, and it is important that I write this story. Thank you for doing yours! Susan Masid Kerss


message 30: by Ban (new)

Ban Tiến Triệu chứng này cũng thường xuyên gặp phải ở nam giới nhưng có người lại không biết đó chính là nguy cơ gây bệnh liệt dương
dongyhuynhtantrieu.com/thang-ruou-thuoc-cuong-duong-viet-nam-tot-nhat/


message 31: by Ban (new)

Ban Tiến cho thue may photocopy gia re Nếu bạn có nhu cầu cần được tư vấn và hỗ trợ hãy gọi ngay cho chúng tôi, với đội ngũ nhân viên chuyên nghiệp giàu kinh nghiệm, chúng tôi sẽ mang đến sự hài lòng nhất


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