Introduction to AIWA's Zabel Yessayan Project
One evening in March, 2011, after watching the documentary, Finding Zabel Yessayan, a group of women from AIWA decided to band together to introduce Yessayan’s writing to a wider audience. When we began our project to translate Zabel Yessayan’s books from Armenian into English, we had little idea where our journey would take us. We spent months researching Yessayan’s life and literary contributions. She wrote prodigiously, and during her lifetime she published several works in a variety of literary formats including novel, memoir, essays, plays, and testimony. We decided to start with one of her great psychological novels, My Soul in Exile, which confronted the themes of alienation and isolation. We then turned to her lyrical memoir, The Gardens of Silihdar, which she wrote in Soviet Armenia and published in 1935. Our third book was an earlier work, which we chose to highlight the 2015 centenary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. In the Ruins was Yessayan’s first-hand account of the aftermath of massacres in Adana, Turkey – often considered a key historic event in the lead-up to the Armenian Genocide.
Zabel Yessayan’s Turbulent Life
Armenia's foremost novelist, short story writer and essayist, Zabel Hovanesian Yessayan, was born in 1878 in the district of Silihdar, in the tumultuous, multiethnic world of late 19th Century Constantinople (Istanbul). By the time Yessayan was a young girl, the Sultan had unleashed his fury on both Christian minorities and the progressive elements of Ottoman society. Despite being surrounded by family members beset with mental illness and alcoholism, she learned about the importance of human dignity and respect from her father, a progressive and worldly thinker. At the age of 17, she published her earliest works and, after graduating from the Holy Cross Armenian school in Scutari, she traveled to Paris to study literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1895.
Yessayan was one of the first Ottoman women to get a higher education and to study overseas. She wrote her first novel, The Waiting Room, about an émigré North African Jewish woman who was married to a man with a terminal illness. Yessayan examines the themes of exile, isolation and “the other” – ideas she would return to again in her later works. While at the Sorbonne, she met and married Armenian painter, Dikran Yessayan (1874-1921).
In 1902 Yessayan returned to Constantinople, and refusing the only career path for literary women as public educators, she began publishing essays on French literature, edited the women's pages of a literary journal, and continued to write essays and novels. She created a furor in the Armenian community when she published Phony Geniuses, a satire about fellow Armenian writers.
During the next few years, she tried to start an Ottoman Women's peace organization in which all religions and ethnic groups in the empire would be represented. Her influential voice brought her to the attention of the Armenian religious leadership of Constantinople who asked her to join a delegation to provide relief for the victims of the 1909 massacres of Adana. She traveled to Adana and upon her return wrote her most powerful appeal for human rights, In the Ruins. Her experience in Adana and the uprising in the Balkans shaped her views of war, and in 1912-1913 she wrote Enough! which decried the horror of war on the innocent of both sides.
It is unclear whether the Turkish government had read any of her work, but nonetheless she was considered a potential danger. She was on the list of approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals who were targeted for arrest and murder at the early stages of the Armenian Genocide. Yessayan eluded arrest and went into hiding in the city until she was able to escape to Bulgaria using a false identity.
A few months later when Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Germans and Turks, she escaped again, this time to Tiflis and then Baku where she feverishly recorded testimony from survivors of the Genocide. She served as a spokesperson and missionary for the Armenian refugees and orphans, traveling through the Caucuses, Iran, Iraq and Egypt, helping set up orphanages. She wrote and published numerous articles on the plight of the Armenian people and the survivors of the Genocide, including, The Agony of a People (1917) and Le Role de la Femme Armenienne pendant la Guerre (1921).The work exhausted her, and she envisioned a new novel in order to find a mental space of peace and beauty in the midst of war.
Soon after, Yessayan penned her psychological novel, My Soul in Exile about an artist who returns to her native city of Constantinople. The story is set in a time before World War I, before the erasure of the Armenians from their Western Armenian homeland.
With her husband’s death in 1922, Yessayan settled in Paris, with her mother and two children, where she lectured and continued writing.
After writing several more novels including one about a Turkish woman Meliha Nuri Hanim (which was recently translated into Turkish and published in Turkey), she became disillusioned with life in France, and responded to the invitation of the Soviet Armenian government and the campaigns to “return to the land,” and decided to emigrate to Soviet Armenia in 1933. There she found a brief period of stability, reading lectures on French literature at Yerevan State University and writing important new works including Shirt of Flame (1934), the lyrical memoir of her childhood, The Gardens of Silihdar, and her last book, Uncle Khachik (1966), which appeared only posthumously. This time, her outspoken support for fellow writers caught the attention of Stalin's henchmen.
Marked as an antirevolutionary and a nationalist, Yessyan was heavily criticized and hounded by Stalin’s people. During the height of the Great Terror involving the 1936-37 “show trials” and the mass arrests of “people’s enemies,” Yessayan was arrested along with Yeghishe Charents, Aksel Bakounts and Vahan Totovents, and deported to Siberia. According to the official death certificate, Zabel Yessayan died in 1937, the year of her arrest, but her daughter, Sophie, recorded that her mother’s death occurred sometime in 1942-3, place unknown. In her appeal to the Soviet government, Sophie wrote: “I would have liked to bury her in the Pantheon, in her dear homeland, among her people. That would have been her most desired final home, “at the foot of Mount Ararat” as she liked to say.”
Autobiography [Inknakensagrutiun]. Yerevan: Sovetakan grakanutiun, 1979. Out of Print.
In the Ruins
[Averaknerun mej, 1911]. Translated into English, available through AIWA.
Civilized People [Shnorkov mardik]. Constantinople: Sagsian, 1907. Out of Print.
Hours of Solitude [Andzkutian zhamer, 1924]. Out of Print.
Phony Geniuses [Keghts hancharner]. Constantinople: Biuzandian Gratun, 1909. Out of Print.
The Gardens of Silihdar
[Silihtari parteznere]. Yerevan: PetHrat, 1935. Translated into English, available through AIWA.
The Waiting Room [Spasman srahin mej]. Tsaghik, 1903. Out of Print.
The Last Chalice [Verjin bazhake]. Constantinople: Cilicia, 1924. Out of Print.
The Man [Marde] Masis, (March 26, 1905): 68. Out of Print.
Meliha Nuri Hanem Paris: Taron, 1928. Out of Print.
Murat’s Journey [Murati chambordutiune, 1920]. Out of Print.
My Soul in Exile
[Hogis akslorial]. Translated into English, available through AIWA.
Retreating Forces [Nahanjogh uzhere, 1923]. Out of Print.
Shirt of Flame [Airvogh shapik, 1934]. Out of Print.
Uncle Khachik [Barpa Khachik, 1966]. Out of Print.
When They Don’t Love Anymore [Yerb ailevs chen sirer, 1914]. Out of Print.