Casting Aurora in a New Light: Genocide, Geopolitics, and Transnationalism

Geghard Arakelian

Sheet music cover art
 for “Armenian Maid Oriental Song and Fox-trot”
Sheet Music Cover Art, “Oriental Song and Fox-Trot” (source: Anthony Slide, personal collection)
Image of The Auction of Souls innerfold
	Portrait of Arshalouys with publication number above
Inner fold of The Auction of Souls (source: Anthony Slide, personal collection)

The Armenian Genocide is formally recognized as having started in 1915 and ending in 1918. It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were systematically slain. Sixteen-year-old Arshalouys Mardigian survived. Her survival story was turned into a memoir and sold by the hundreds of thousands.

Aurora and the Near East Relief

A US based international human rights relief organization, the American Committee for Relief in the Near East (Near East Relief/NER) approached her in New York City and ask her to tell her survival story. The NER then made her sign some contracts.

Portrait of Arshalouys
	Artistic concept by Howard Chandler Christy
Portrait of Arshalouys by Howard Chandler Christy
(Source: Armenian Knowledge Base Archives)

After Arshalouys recanted her survival story, Harvey and Eleanor Gates became her legal guardians and had her change her name to Aurora Mardiganian. Aurora was the choice anglicization of her name because Arshalouys in Armenian translates to “the first light of the morning." The release of her memoir then followed in 1918 in serial print. Under the titles of My Two Years of Torture in Ravished Armenia, Martyred Armenia and Ravished Armenia and My Two Years of Torture by the Turk, her story was nationally circulated in newspapers such as the The New York American, The Los Angeles Examiner, Washington Times, and Richmond Times Dispatch, to name a few, every consecutive Sunday from Aug. 18 to Nov. 24, 1918 (Slide 7-8).

My Two Years of Torture Serialized
	Washington Times, published Sept. 1918
My Two Years of Torture Serialized Washington Times, published Sept. 1918 (Source: Library of Congress)

What else did the Near East Relief (NER) do with Aurora’s Story?

Concept of Arshalouys escaping 
	Washington Times, published Sept. 1918
Serial Novel/Single Washington Times, published Sept. 1918 (Source: Library of Congress)

How was Aurora Exploited?

  • Influent and illiterate in English, she was tricked into signing a contract to star in Ravished Armenia as the lead. Aurora was paid the equivalent of an extra while her handlers amassed large sums of money.
  • Aurora initially refused to Anglicanize her name and is told that if she does not change her name from Arshalouys Mardigian to Aurora Mardiganian (for promotional purposes), the Turks will recognize her, find her, and assassinate her.
  • During screenings of her silent film, no regard was given to her PTSD, and she experienced traumatic breakdowns.
  • When she refused to continue publicizing her book and movie, she is sent to a convent. When she finds out lookalikes have been hired to replace her, she first threatens and then attempts suicide.

What Are the Aims Of My Research?

  • In the spirit of revisionist historiography, this retelling of Aurora Mardiganian's history challenges dominant narratives about her.
  • This project also works to reveal the previously hidden exploitation and suffering Aurora Mardiganian endured at the hands of her promoters and incorporators.
  • Taking a transnational feminist rhetorical approach enables us to better understand the paradoxical effects that accompany incorporation: the granting of rights under frames of limited citizenship and the creation of platforms for exploring how said frames are underwritten by hegemonic logics.

Theoretical Frames for Approaching This Developing Project

Human Rights Spectacle

by Wendy Hesford

Networked Arguments

by Rebecca Dingo
“to refer to the incorporation of subjects (individuals communities, nations) through imaging technologies and discourses of vision and violation into the normative framework of a human rights internationalism based on the United Nations (UN) documents and treaties” (7) “The network contains a collection of nodes representing the concentration of power of some countries and organizations and the limitations of it in others—some portions of this network may be dense and clustered, others more dispersed. This network, as Grewal points out, may move rhetorics from one node of power to another, some ‘get translated and transcoded,’ others are ‘unevenly connected, others are strongly connected’ (Grewal qtd in Dingo 18)
“The human rights spectacle, therefore, refers not to individual images, iconic or otherwise, but to social and rhetorical processes of incorporation and recognition mediated by visual representation and the ocular epistemology that underwrites the discourse of human rights” (7) "I argue that a transnational feminist rhetorical analysis of public policy can demonstrate the ways in which history and local and global contexts impact why and how a policy is written, consider how policy makers’ history, culture, and conceptual framework informs policy writing, and reveal the multiple motives behind policy making”(22)"
As inspired by Hesford’s work the focal verb here is incorporation. That is, how was Aurora Mardiganian incorporated into the normative frameworks of America international human rights relief discourse? Which countries were involved in the circulation of Aurora as a spectacular rhetoric and to what varying degrees?
How was she then mediated by the visual discourses, ocular epistemologies, and verbal discourses that are underwritten by a human rights relief internationalism? How does situating Aurora in a network help to reveal that her circulation was motivated by a cross-entanglement of discourses that pertained to war, nationalism, imperialism, nation building, and geopolitics? How did this cross-entanglement go on to shape the international human rights scene during the early twentieth century?

Works Cited

Dingo, Rebecca Ann. Networking Arguments: Rhetoric, Transnational Feminism, and Public Policy Writing. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh, 2012. Print.

Khandjian, Melkon Armen. The Summer of 1915. Encino, CA:   Aquarian Millennium Armenological Studies, Research and Exhibits, 2009. Print.

Hesford S. Wendy. Spectacular Rhetorics Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms. Duke University Press: London. 2011. Print.

Slide, Anthony. Ravished Armenia and the Story of Aurora Mardiganian. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2014. Print.