Twenty years after his death, the ashes of writer William Saroyan were laid to rest in the town that inspired his stories. The burial Sunday came amid Fresno’s first Saroyan Festival – held to honor the author, playwright and the city’s most famous native son.
Half of Saroyan’s ashes were sent to Armenia after he died in 1981 at age 72, and the other half had been sitting in obscurity on a Fresno chapel’s shelf.
Saroyan’s son, Aram, and daughter, Lucy, attended the burial service at a grave near railroad tracks on the outskirts of town. His children, who have spent years trying to reconcile their father’s life and legend, listened with a handful of his old friends and dignitaries as a priest from the First Armenian Presbyterian Church prayed over a black granite headstone.
Saroyan, of course, had written his own epitaph:
“In the time of your life, live – so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world but shall smile at the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
The ongoing festival, which will last two months, includes theater productions, philharmonic concerts, museum exhibits and literary talks about Saroyan, who rose to literary heights in the 1930s and ’40s, but has since fallen out of critical favor.
Saroyan, who won a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar, was part of an Armenian family that came to Fresno in 1908 to escape the persecution of Ottoman Turkey. His father, Armenak, was a minister and frustrated poet who died whenWilliam was 3.
Death became a central theme in Saroyan’s work.
“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really sleep,” he once wrote to aspiring writers. “Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
Saroyan was a struggling writer before getting a break in 1934 with the publication of his story “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”
He won the Pulitzer Prize for his play “The Time of Your Life,” but rejected it because the play was “no more great than anything else I have ever written.”
In 1943, he was awarded a writing Oscar for “The Human Comedy.”
“Saroyan was a lot more than a short story writer,” said Robert Setrakian, head of the William Saroyan Foundation in San Francisco. “He worked in all the art forms and drew and painted almost every day.”
Setrakian enlisted local producer Larry Balakian to put on the Saroyan Festival after realizing that much of Saroyan’s life and work was unknown in his hometown.
Aram Saroyan said it was fitting that his father’s remains come to rest in Ararat Cemetery,where he used to wander in the rain, talking to the headstones.
“Welcome home, dear friend, dear writer,” said Kevin Starr, author and California state librarian. “Welcome home to the place that haunted and nurtured you across a lifetime. Be at peace, Bill. Be at peace.”