Rise the Euphrates

It’s been twenty years since the publication of Rise the Euphrates, and thirty-odd years since my journey with these characters began. This, my first novel, grew out of a feverish dream. I was twenty at the time, living abroad on my long-hoped-for, saved-for semester in Tours, France. I arrived in autumn, a particularly icy gray season that year. I’d gone thinking I would improve my French and in the process become sophisticated; instead, upon arrival, I discovered that I didn’t know how to speak the language at all. The garçons in the cafés laughed at me, and my French teacher rolled her eyes every time I dared speak. Then, in my third week in Tours, I succumbed to la plague, a wretched flu that shook me with a soaring temperature and wracking cough. All I could do, day into night, was lie on my grim dorm cot and realize that the glory of France was outside my door.

The one reprieve I had was falling deep, deep down into dreams. There an old woman named Casard found me. Her voice, intimate, childlike, ancient, broken, utterly defiant, was unlike anything I’d ever heard. She was nothing like my real grandmother, Araxie Edgarian (to whom the book is dedicated), who, in my youth, was my best mother, my safe haven, my joy. My grandmother began and ended her days in the kitchen, her own or the one at church, and in both places she welcomed me and let me be, such profound gifts for a young writer.

Now, this Casard, she was something else. The fever passed but she remained, broken and haunted as ever. In other words, Rise the Euphrates grew out of a dream, yes, but really it was out of my own feelings of being a displaced person. And aren’t we all in some way displaced? So I named her after the French word Cafard, “melancholy.” And from that renaming, the course of the novel was set, for this old woman had lost the thing most precious to her: her Armenian name, Garod. Yearning.

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