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In 'The Musician's Secret,' blackmail, music, all haunted by the Armenian genocide

Musician Ruben Haroutunian (Left) performs a song on the duduk with Litty Mathew, whose debut novel
Musician Ruben Haroutunian (Left) performs a song on the duduk with Litty Mathew, whose debut novel "The Musician's Secret" tells the story of a duduk player who survived the Armenian genocide.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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Writer Litty Mathew set her debut novel — “The Musician’s Secret” — in Glendale, the heart of the nation's Armenian American population. It tells the story of Rupen Najarian, an aging musician who was his family’s sole survivor of the Armenian genocide in 1915. Rupen plays the duduk, a traditionally Armenian wind instrument with a 5,000 year history.

As Rupen slides gracefully intro retirement, he’s confronted by a young Armenian immigrant who blackmails Ruben, threatening to expose a decades-old secret. KPCC’s Patt Morrison talked with Mathew about the book, Armenian traditions, and the 5,000 year old instrument that plays a central role in “The Musician’s Secret.”

On setting the novel in Glendale:

I think of Glendale as being really exotic. It's a destination. It's also my home — I've lived in Glendale for more than 20 years, and I've actually married into the fold. 

In very old cultures, like the Armenian culture, sometimes you don't understand. Or you don't think about where the actions, or why you follow certain cultural rules. But they've been there for thousands of years. And there are all these myths and traditions that are attached to it. And I was just fascinated by it, because of my own culture. I'm South Indian — I'm Syrian Christian — we have also those tendencies where, you know, it's so a part of our daily routine. But you don't stop to ask yourself: why do we do the things that we do?

On learning about the duduk — the instrument played by the novel's protagonist:

There are some things you just can't forget. And for me it's the sound of the duduk. In 2005, I wrote a story for the LA Times calendar section. My husband, Melkon, was noticing the sound showing up in all these Hollywood scores. And every time it would come on, he'd say "Hey, listen to this. That's an Armenian instrument!" 

So I asked my editor at the Times "Hey, there's this musical instrument, it's taking over all these scores, I'd love to find out more." I interviewed some very famous duduk players, including Djivan Gasparian, who is the most notable duduk player. And I interviewed several composers in Hollywood, who wrote these great compositions.

After the story was done, I just kept thinking about the instrument. I couldn't get it out of my head. It got to be such an obsession that I wrote a whole book about it!

On weaving culture and the immigrant experience into the novel's plot:

I think when we're talking about an old culture, like the Armenians, you can't get away with it: why you do certain things. Every time a piece of bread falls, an Armenian relative will be like "Hey! Don't feed the spirits. Pick it up!"

Or if a child misbehaves, the thing to say is "Hey! Do you want the Turks to be happy with your bad behavior?"

I think Los Angeles, more than any other big city in the U.S., is such an interesting place to be when you're from somewhere else. Because Los Angeles doesn't judge you. That's what I love about the city, is that you can actually come here and choose your future, as opposed to your past.