Richard G. Hovannisian is a UCLA historian, chair of the Armenian Educational Foundation, and a founder and six-time president of the Society for Armenian Studies. Before participating in a panel on the challenges of stopping and preventing genocide, he chatted in the Zócalo green room about all the change he’s witnessed over a half century at UCLA and, in his opinion, whether or not Kim Kardashian is good for Armenian-Americans.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A teacher. I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I admired teachers.
What teacher or professor changed your life, if any?
I had a high school teacher in history who really got me engaged with living history, so I got involved the Junior Statesmen of America, and then onto Model United Nations. I was always interested in government, politics, and education. So I did what I set out to do.
What has changed most about UCLA since you joined the faculty?
It’s gotten huge, and we’ve lost a lot of the beautiful woods and streams that were there when I first came a half century ago. But it’s also become a world-class university. I was fortunate that there was an expansion in area studies centers, which allowed Armenian studies to be introduced for the first time at UCLA. When I did my Ph.D., there were no courses in Armenian history. I’ve taught Armenian history most of my life without taking a course in it.
What dessert do you find impossible to resist?
All desserts. I have a very sweet tooth. I love coffee ice cream. And some very delicate Armenian pastries that only grandmas can make.
What’s your favorite under-the-radar L.A. spot?
It used to be the Rose Bowl. Poly Pavilion at UCLA, where the basketball team plays.
What was the last thing that inspired you?
The canonization of the victims of the Armenian genocide at the church in Armenia. That was a very moving ceremony.
What word or phrase do you use most often?
Hachogh. I sign off my letters with that word, which is the first half of an Armenian word that means good luck or success.
What surprises you most about your life right now?
That I’ve lived this long. I did not expect to see the year 2015, the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide. I’ve been fortunate. I live I think on bonus time, and that’s fine with me.
Is Kim Kardashian good for Armenian-Americans?
You may not approve of her lifestyle, and most Armenians don’t, but when she went to Armenia just before the Armenian Genocide anniversary, she had millions of people watching her. I could write a thousand books, and they would never read them. So I would say yes.
What year, past or future, would you time travel to if you could?
Maybe 2200. Because I’m curious to know what’s going to happen in the world when I’m not here. I’ve experienced such enormous change in my lifetime, from living in a little farmhouse with no telephone and no running water into a time when I can be on the other side of the world in a few hours and can use a computer to talk to people around the world. These are things I dreamed of as a child.