My Name is Aram
(1940) is a collection of short stories by William Saroyan that follow the life of Aram Garoghlanian, who grows up in California with his Armenian family. It’s a semi-fictional account of Saroyan’s own experiences as an Armenian immigrant in the United States. It received the silver ranking for the 1940 California Book Award for Nonfiction Memoir. Saroyan is an international bestseller who’s best known for his short stories. He grew up in Fresno, California, where the stories are set.
The short stories work together as a single narrative told in mostly chronological order. In the first story, “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse,” Aram is nine years old; by the final story, he’s leaving his hometown for the time as a young adult. In each story, we see Aram’s relationship with a different member of his family and his friends in Fresno.
Each short story captures a snapshot of the immigrant experience, as told by Aram looking back at his childhood as a grown man. Aram is, in some ways, a typical young boy whose curiosity sometimes gets him into trouble with his elders. He has a generally good relationship with his family and tries to keep them happy. In fact, Aram devotes a lot of time to making those he loves happy—he likes to impress them.
For example, in the first story, Aram’s cousin, Mourad, wants to borrow—or steal—the neighbor’s prized horse for the day. He doesn’t mean it any harm; he simply wants to ride it. He wakes Aram up very early to get the horse before the neighbor wakes up. Aram isn’t sure, but he’ll do anything to keep Mourad happy, so he goes along with it. They return the horse to its owner unharmed.
The second story, “Journey to Hanford,” is about his uncle Jorgi. His uncle works in the fields, but he spends more time playing his music in secret than doing his job. Aram is charmed by this and loves how his uncle does his best to enjoy life. This teaches Aram to find a balance between work and play.
The third story, “The Pomegranate Trees,” teaches Aram another life lesson. His other uncle, Melik, wants to be a great pomegranate grower. He thinks they’re a beautiful fruit and he admires them. Melik’s plan is to grow an orchard in the desert—Aram thinks this is strange, but he goes along with it. However, Melik’s trees fail, and the pomegranates don’t look good even if they taste fine. From this, Aram learns that quality comes from within, no matter what the outside looks like. He also learns that it’s good to have dreams and goals to pursue, even if you don’t succeed in the end.
Throughout the stories, it’s not clear how much Aram changes as a character. It’s more about how each memory Saroyan has of his childhood taught him different lessons—every member of his family taught him something different, and he tells us these stories through Aram. Taken individually, the stories don’t offer much plot development, they’re best appreciated as a narrative whole. For example, the fourth story, “One of Our Future Poets, You Might Say,” is about Aram’s first physical check-up at school and the difference between physical and mental strength, but this story is better-appreciated read alongside “The Fifty-Yard Dash” about Aram’s admiration for bodybuilding advertisements.
Many years later, Aram still thinks about people he met as a child. In “The Three Swimmers and the Educated Grocer,” he and his friends compete in friendly ways to see who is the strongest. Each wants to prove that he’s the bravest in the group: they swim in Thompson’s Ditch in very cold weather. They encounter a Yale-educated grocery store owner who’s surprised by their bravery and their willingness to take chances. This conversation sticks with Aram for years, and he recalls the grocer fondly as an adult.
Another poignant story is “The Poor and Burning Arab.” Aram’s uncle Khosrove knows an Arab man who’s always sad and quiet. The man comes over for dinner one night, and Aram’s curiosity leads him to ask too many questions. He eventually understands the man suffers from depression. Aram learns to hear what isn’t said. He learns that people have a lot going on we may not know about.
By the end of My Name is Aram
, Aram is ready to leave the family home to try to make it on his own. He has been shaped by all these interactions with his family members, which are at the same time unique to the immigrant experience but also distinctly American and easily appreciated by a wider audience. For this reason, My Name is Aram
is commonly found in school classrooms.