Zabel Yessayan is one of the most prominent and important writers of Armenian literature of the 20th century, our greatest female writer, who is totally abandoned in Armenia and is widely unknown to the public. Her works are not included in school books, nor have they been subjected to serious academic studies, and none of the writer’s works have been published in Armenia.
Zabel Yessayan was also a public figure, a human rights defender, and one of the most educated and liberal personalities of her time. She was one of the few women living in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century who received her higher education abroad, and the only woman who the Young Turks had included in the “black list” of Armenian intelligentsia targeted for deportation and death. She published one of the first eyewitness accounts of both the 1909 massacres of Adana and the 1915 Genocide.

Recognizing Zabel. life, language, literature, feminist discourse, socialism

Zabel Yessayan has left a rich literary heritage, which thus far has not been studied – novels, novellas, short stories, narratives, literary criticisms, articles, translations and letters. As Hagop Oshagan writes, Zabel Yessayan’s literary heritage is more extensive than all the works of our female writers put together. Until now, we do not have a female writer who could compare with Zabel Yessayan.

Zabel Yessayan was born (1878) and grew up in the gardens of Silihdar in Constantinople. The memoirs of her childhood in Constantinople are presented in the autobiographical novel, “The Gardens of Silihdar.” The creation of the autobiographical novel was considered a novelty during those years, and Zabel Yessayan was one of the first writers to compose in this genre.

“I learned to read during the winter before my fourth birthday. My father used to return home in the evening, wash up, change his clothes, sit on the divan, and wrap himself in a sable fur robe. In front of him would be a copper mangal, and water would be boiling for tea on a tripod in the fireplace. At that time, drinking tea was not common in Constantinople. My father had brought back the custom from the Caucasus. Following all the proper rules for making tea, he would prepare it and fill the cups himself. While he waited for the water to boil, he would open “Arevelk” and start reading. As he read, I would climb into his lap, and he would cover me with the skirt of his robe. Snug in that warm nest, I spent many blissful hours following the letters on the pages with my eyes.” (Excerpt from the English translation of “The Gardens of Silihdar” AIWA Press, 2014)
The autobiographical novel “The Gardens of Silihdar” is valuable not only for its literary significance and exquisite language, but also for how the writer presents in vivid details the description of 19th century Constantinople, the psychology of the people and the value system in society.

“There were no pictures on the walls, or any vases in any of the rooms. In Doudou’s eyes, my aunts were defiling the house any time they brought flowers from the garden and put them in jars. Only when the roses were in bloom did flowers fill the house in large numbers. Doudou could only tolerate the scent of roses, which she said smelled fresh. To her, other scents — both natural and artificial–were simply unacceptable for virtuous people. ” (Excerpt from the English translation of “The Gardens of Silihdar” AIWA Press, 2014)

In 1895 Zabel Yessayan left for Paris to continue her education. At that time, she was only 17 years old, and for the conservative society of Constantinople in those years, it was an unprecedented phenomenon to send a young woman for an education abroad alone.
In Paris, Zabel Yessayan pursued literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne and Collège de France. She studied medieval and contemporary French literature, Greek philosophy, Latin literature, as well as Middle Eastern history and literature. She liked to read the works of Georges Sand, Henri Barbusse, Rene Ghil, Maurice Maeterlinck, Arthur Rimbaud, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Edgar Allan Poe and Fyodor Dostoevsky and etc.

Being “One of the most literate people in the Western Armenian literature if not the most ” (by Hagop Oshagan), Zabel Yessayan was writing in an indescribably beautiful, melodious and rich Western Armenian language. Her works reveal all the beauty of the Armenian language in a completely new way. Unlike other famous female writers of Western Armenia, Srpouhi Dussap (1841- 1901) and Sibil (1863- 1934), Zabel Yessayan had never written in a romantic style. Even the “women’s novellas” of the writer are distinguished as a profound manifestation of realism and naturalism. Possibly back in her school years (ages 11-14), Zabel Yessayan realized that the language of literature should stay away from unnecessary lyric and templet descriptions, seeking absolute beauty and harmony.

“Those essays trained the students to write in a kind of false Romantic style filled with “ahs” and “ohs”, with stereotypical descriptions of nature and superlative adjectives. Nothing about that style appealed to me, and very little of it influenced me. The other unruly girl, Hranoush, and I would sometimes openly ridicule the teacher’s assignment and the student who received the highest grade. We often paid dearly for our defiance and mockery of that aesthetic style, but we continued despite the consequences.” Excerpt from the English translation of “The Gardens of Silihdar” AIWA Press, 2014)
In Zabel Yessayan’s works, aesthetically unique values are stylized descriptions of nature that the writer delivers in her exquisite language, with the precision and subtlety of the painter and the poet.
“It has been snowing for three or four days. The blue sky was shining and seemed to have fallen on wooden and old house, that were already covered with whiteness, the narrow streets were almost deserted by the sluggish and stubborn snowfall, where barely a few stray dogs trembled and frozen in the cold, and at night they sank into the cold sky. In the morning and in the evening the snow was frozen by the northern winds, and only on the windows were molded from the internal heat of the house, whimsical forms, and snowy lace. From time to time, a dreadful and wretched face was seen in the frame of one or the other window, and sometimes the baby’s dark or blonde curls, but in general people were gathered around the fireplace, and almost everywhere, without exception, were talking about idleness and on the other hand about difficulty of life. (Excerpt from “When They No Longer Love”)

Zabel Yessayan was the first writer in Armenian literature, who was writing in a “philosophical novel” genre. The most valuable works written in this genre are “My Soul in Exile”, “The Last Cup”, and “Hour of Despair”. The writer rarely discloses all of her heroes’ characteristics but instead uses the storyline to reveal their nuances and psychological traits.

“Hrant Cherkezian has aged, but that initial impression once past, I gradually discover traces of the man who had so profound an influence on my childhood and even after, when I learned the story of his tragic life. By ordinary standards, he might be considered ugly. I, however, detect a mysterious, singular beauty in that wrinkled countenance that wears an expression attesting concentrated thought and force of character. His unkempt salt-and-pepper beard covers his cheeks, while his thick lips create an impression of boundless kindness, spiritual kindness. Yet he is not kind in the ordinary sense of the word; his is not the sort of emotional, sentimental kindness triggered only by immediate, superficial impressions or nervous agitation. Indeed, when I tell people that Hrant Cherkezian is kind, they think I’m joking. He carefully hides his noble, tormented feelings of judicious kindness, which embarrass him. It is, perhaps, the better to hide such feelings that he can sometimes be extremely intolerant. ” (Excerpt from the English translation of “My Soul in Exile” AIWA Press, 2014)
In 1898-1919, Zabel was a literary legend in Armenian circles. All the newspapers were writing about her. She was considered one of the most educated and well-versed personalities, and was engaged and involved in various political discourses alongside men. Zabel Yessayan differs from her contemporaries by her progressive thinking vividly expressed not only in her works and letters, but in everyday life as well. She was travelling to Europe and the Middle East alone. After her marriage, she continues to travel alone, living in Paris, Constantinople, Tbilisi, Bulgaria and Baku. In her letters Zabel Yessayan describes “continual barriers, often not getting paid for a job from the Armenian newspapers, in constant struggle to establish, to prove her name, and to defend her ideas, to fight, to shake a sword against enemies, and to cut ties from her previous circle.” (Marc Nichanian, extract from “Image, Narration, and History”)
Zabel Yessayan’s heroes always strive for the truth, and are intolerant to falsehood and fraud even in daily life. Through her heroes, she presents personal aspirations and dreams, tries to build the writer’s own unique reality, where all people recapture the awe and beauty of being loved deeply, and to experience the innocent joys similar to the spirit of a naive child. It’s what keeps the souls alive.

“When the human soul is brought to the world, and it becomes disfigured in childhood, even though the soul does not die, it fears and hides in the corner and never dares to appear. There are people in similar situations that find their soul and live with consciousness, but there are people who sometimes numb their soul and keep it forever dormant. In life, if an unusual event happens, be it a great feeling, an intense emotion, or specifically a deep pain that disturbs the soul, even though the soul has been awakened, they turn away from it, suppressing it, because the act of awakening their souls is horrifying to them. They are unfamiliar with their true selves, and the inability to have the courage to look inside and at their immortality, they resolve to live with borrowed feelings, principles, and forms, manners that are emulated, but nothing comes from their inner world, their essence, from their soul.” (Excerpt from “The Last Cup”)

Zabel Yessayan, along with Srpouhi Dussap and Sibil, was one of the first writers to raise women’s issues in the print media and literature. For the first time in the Armenian reality, the word “feminism” was used in an article by Zabel Yessayan, published in “Tsaghik” magazine in 1903. She believed that “woman came to the world not only for pleasure but to develop their mental, moral, and physical qualities. The ideal self-respecting woman should not strive to be only pleasing, but to become a benevolent human being.” However, on many occasions, the writer has openly stated that she does not consider herself a feminist.

“Zabel Yessayan’s feminism should be considered in the context of the given period. With her own example, ideas and lifestyle, and with the help of characters of her female heroes, she showed that women have the right to choose and protect their own thoughts, emotions and beliefs equally to men. In this context, Zabel Yessayan is, of course, a feminist writer.” – comments Lara Aharonyan, co-author of “Finding Zabel Yesayan” documentary.

At that time, the feeling of hatred was strong in me, and everywhere, I saw in people, contradictions, disharmony in speech and deed, and I deeply suffered. […] Even though in the “Homeland” newspaper, Hovh. Sh. defended women’s rights, he contradicts himself in a conversation by criticizing an unaccompanied girl visiting the office and finds this as inappropriate behaviour. The newspaper, which served as the cradle of liberals, wrote about divorce rights, war, and on the other hand, they gossiped about recently divorced or widowed women, who married again or had meetings with men. Sibil was a valued contributor, but they did not hesitate to criticize her morals with the strictest judgments, even with mockery, after her unsuccessful marriage, when her husband went to Ankara to work, she developed a love relationship with Hrant Asatur in Istanbul.

All of this and many other things made me rebel, and I thought that if I could imagine these contradictions, if I could tear the masks off, then I could have an impact. I would have loved to finally meet people who lived up to their beautiful words. (Zabel Yessayan, excerpt from the autobiographical pages)

Zabel Yessayan was the only woman whom the Young Turks had included on the “black list” of Armenian intelligentsia. However, the writer was able to escape from the Turkish police. In those years, she published a book called “Agony of the People”, where she describes the testimonies of the survivors of the genocide, which she diligently collected in order to preserve history and to present the truth to the world. According to Marc Nichanian, Zabel Yessayan made a huge contribution to almost all of the French-language publications on genocide in those years.

Zabel Yessayan also wrote “In the Ruins” dedicated to the Adana massacres of 1909, which as Marc Nichanian notes, is a very important work, the first testimonial in this style published in world literature.

“I saw mothers there who had strangled their babies so that their infant cries would not betray them in their hiding places. I saw women there who, paralyzed, their tongues lolling on their chins, were unable to cry out their heart’s grief. I saw madwomen who, rather than forgetting, endlessly relived the terrible moment: they were haunted by memories of their loved ones falling one after the other, and did not know which one to mourn…They lined them up over there, one next to the other, and they fired and they fired and they fired, and all of them tottered for a moment, like this, and then they toppled to the ground. It was my father and my husband and my sons, and now I’m all alone, like an owl amid the ruins.” (Excerpt from the English translation of “In the Ruins” AIWA Press, 2016)

Zabel Yessayan is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century who is forgotten and widely unknown to the public. She is one of our repatriated writers. During the years of the Soviet Union, only one volume of Zabel Yessayan’s works were published, up to 1990 no one told the truth and to this day there is a strange silence around Zabel Yessayan. It’s time to publish a complete collection of this writers’ works in Armenia – says Marc Nichanian.

In 1933, Zabel Yessayan is finally summoned by Soviet Armenia at the invitation of the government, to teach the History of Western Literature at Yerevan State University.

Zabel Yessayan was essentially a socialist. Growing up in Constantinople, she was surrounded by people of different classes, and since childhood has witnessed all manifestations of social injustice. For example, in her “Dreams of People” she describes the unacceptable and spoiled lifestyle and morals of the bourgeoisie in all its details.

“She always believed in the idea of socialism, and even wrote in French newspapers about social injustice and class differences” – says Lara Aharonian.
Zabel Yessayan observed the Soviet Union as the home of her soul, where she could reunite with her family after such a long struggle and establish harmony and peace.

“I have been in Yerevan for 2 years and I’m extremely happy and calm. I can say that there was never such a period in my life. In Armenia, I live fully in harmony with my desires and emotions. My daughter is with me and she works in the public library in the division of Foreign Literature. My son joined us last year, working as an industrial chemist. We are all happy and look forward to the future with faith and enthusiasm. Please do not think that I am writing these words for the sake of propaganda. (from the letter written to Hagop Oshagan, 1935)

“We all know that the extensive novels written after 1916 are a failure. The Flawless Barrage (which is available in the second volume of Antelias edition prepared by Shushan Dasnapetian) were also a failure, 1922 Returning Forces (which protects a political order), 1934 The Burning Shirt (which implies the imperatives of socialist radicalism), and finally, Parpah Khachik (where Yessayan follows the same principles and wants to present the Armenian life based on her personal experience). The four novels were failures, but that did not mean that they were of no interest. It is true, however, that the political novels of Yessayan were unknown, and were the results of party censorship.” (Excerpt from Marc Nichanian “Image, Narration, and History”)

Zabel Yessayan lived in Soviet Armenia from 1933-1937, without knowing that the Soviet reality was far from her utopian dreams of socialism. She was one of the martyrs of Stalin’s dictatorship. In 1937, the Soviet police arrested Zabel Yessayan and exiled her to Siberia. Most likely, the reason for the arrest was publicly defending Yeghishe Charents during her speech at the Writers’ Union.
Zabel Yessayan died on the way to Siberia, not reaching Siberia, probably in 1943:

Zabel Yessayan. A Courageous Human Rights Defender

All the works of Zabel Yessayan are based on humanism. She has written numerous articles in Armenian and French devoted to human rights and social justice. She was one of the only female writers living in the Ottoman Empire who presented not only the roles of women in society in her work, but also considered women’s rights in the context of the fundamentals of human rights.

“Zabel Yessayan struggled against the alienation and isolation of the poor through her work. She was always with the oppressed and defended the rights of the people, regardless of gender and social status. When you read the writer’s letters, you feel her humanism even in her mundane work, in the most difficult moments of her life, she was always ready to help and support the needy, she helped to create shelter for orphans and deportees during the Genocide” said Judy Saryan, editor, representative of Boston’s National Association of Armenian Studies and Research, and member of the Armenian International Women’s Association.

For Zabel Yessayan literature was a way of fighting against injustice. And despite living in Paris, according to biographer Sevak Arzumanyan, the writer gives a brief tour of pure art theory, art for art, but shortly afterwards she returns to one of her major visions – literature as a weapon of struggle. As she writes in one of her unpublished works: “Literature is not an ornament, a pleasant pastime or a beautiful flower; literature is a weapon to fight injustice.”

“When we talk about social injustice or human rights, we always quote the words of foreign writers and public figures, but we have our own writers, one of them is Zabel Yessayan ,” says Lara Aharonian.

Thanks to the members of the Armenian International Women’s Association,
Zabel Yessayan’s works “The Gardens of Silihdar”, “My Soul in Exile” and ” In the Ruins” have been translated into English. According to Judy Saryan, they will continue to translate the literary heritage of Zabel Yessayan into English, encouraging future professionals involved in the research of the writer’s life and works.”

The Armenian Digital Library has digitized most of Zabel Yessayan’s works, which are available here.

Translated by Tatev Khachikyan
The original article is published in Granish literary community website.

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