Launch: Victoria Waterman’s Who She Left Behind
INTERVIEW BY ANNE EASTER SMITH
Victoria Atamian Waterman works to prepare women and girls for leadership roles. This commitment is vividly demonstrated in both her compelling TEDx talk, Today’s Girls are Tomorrow’s Leaders, and in her novel, Who She Left Behind. Her experiences growing up in a trilingual immigrant household, alongside her family’s history as survivors of the Armenian Genocide, contribute to the rich tapestry of her storytelling.
What would your elevator pitch be?
Who She Left Behind is historical fiction based on my own family’s history of surviving the Armenian Genocide and journeying to the United States. It positions survivors from the perspective of resilience rather than victims. It is the untold story of brave women leaders and is about hope – not hate.
What was the Armenian Genocide?
The 1915 Armenian Genocide was the killing and deportation of Armenians by the Turks in the Ottoman Empire for the intentional purpose of ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. Over 1.5 million Armenians perished and Turkey took over 90% of what was Armenia’s ancestral land. Hitler famously said, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’
When did you first hear about it? (In your book you say the immigrant women lucky enough to get to America didn’t like talking about it.)
I grew up with three generations. My grandmother is one of the sisters in the book. Armenian was my first language. I was told about my family’s history and the journey to America. With my grandparents as survivors, I likely learned about it in the same vein as learning about Christmas! However, it began to make sense when I started attending Sunday School as a young child and became an active participant in the Armenian community. My grandparents were vocal about their experiences and were comfortable sharing.
This is your debut novel and it is based on your own family’s history. Why did you decide to write an historical novel? Why not narrative non-fiction, biography or memoir?
I had three major thought processes during the writing. The first was the truth as I heard it straight from the survivors – my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and general recollection of stories heard over the years. The second was researching history to fill in the blanks of time periods and horrors they didn’t speak of. Third, was to create fictional characters and scenarios, from my voice, of the stories I wanted to tell.
How much of Vicky’s story is real?
Vicky was my aunt and I wish I had known her. I came to write this fictional version of her story after my husband and I went to the cemetery to visit her—we are the only family members who do that anymore—and we found flowers by her grave. We didn’t know who had left them, but it made me wonder who that was. And an idea was born. Vicky’s story mirrors my aunt’s in many instances but, for example, she did not have a child of a rape that she had to leave behind.
What was it about the Armenian character (of the immigrants) that inspired and moved you most?
Their resilience, perseverance and unwavering faith and pride in their ethnicity. They were the first Christian nation in the world—formed in 301 AD, and their long history means so much to them. I wanted to tell a story based on my family’s history to document a legacy for my family and to help tell the world about this little-known era and lesser-known stories of women heroes. As the last generation to have heard these stories first-hand from survivors, I felt a deep responsibility and privilege to preserve the stories of their lives.
Tell us about living in a city where the Armenian culture still survives, and how it helped in your research. Did any of it surprise or shock you?
Yes! There was an abundance of joy from the people who helped me, which surprised me. Worcester, Massachusetts, where I worked for many years, is the home of the first Armenian Church in the Western hemisphere and a treasure for research. There were two people who really surprised me in their helpfulness. A Columbia professor with a PhD in genocide studies, interested in women’s role in history, loved what I was doing. In the midst of moving to a job at the Library of Congress and commuting back and forth, he invited me to call him in his car. The second was a genealogist, who gave me so much time, like delving into manifests trying to find the ships that transported my family, and giving me Google coordinates of my grandparents’ house through a grainy image in an Armenian census.
You have a stellar career in advocating for women and women’s leadership, including a Ted Talk. Tell us about that work and how it influenced your writing of this book?
I started off in banking in the male-dominated 1980s, but I was pretty savvy and created banking products and loans to help women. I moved to non-profit and headed the Leading Women organization in Massachusetts, and was CEO, until recently, of Girls Inc., a non-profit organization headquartered in Worcester that helped girls to be strong, smart, and bold. I have worked all my career as an advocate for women.
Tell us about your publishing process.
I wanted to write this story for many years. It took three years of putting it together, including hiring professionals editors. During COVID, my schedule changed drastically and from a 50-hour-week job, it all came to a halt. It wasn’t about the money, it was a passion project. But I was persuaded to send the MS out with no success. So I went the hybrid route. Historium Press ended up creating the hardcover for me, but the process of launching a book is all-consuming so I am not expecting to make my money back!
What’s next for you?
I will launch a paperback and audio version of Who She Left Behind in the spring. Then I do have another story in mind to write, based on my grandfather who was separated from his parents during the genocide and sent to an orphanage in Greece with other Armenian children. Thanks to publicity through the Near East Relief foundation, he was reunited with his father in the United States.
What is the best book you’ve read lately?
Kathleen Rooney’s Lilian Foxfish Takes A Walk. It was a meatier read than I was expecting.