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Zabel Yessayan

Zabel Yessayan

Biography

WRITING - HER LIFE’S MISSION

Writers in the 20th century were destroyed by either The Genocide of 1915 or the Stalin Purge that began in 1937. Zabel Yessayan was silenced in the latter.

Zabel Yessayan (alternate spellings: Yessaian, Esayan, Essayan), a gifted novelist who was considered the female counterpart to Krikor Zohrab, was born in Scutari, a district of Constantinople. From an early age, she wanted to be a writer and as early as age 17 she published a short piece in a literary magazine. She obtained higher education in Paris where she worked her way through the Sorbonne by revising a French-Armenian dictionary and by writing articles and short stories for French and Armenian magazines. She returned to Constantinople at the age of 30 to enjoy an active literary life, well recognized for her talent. The Young Turks ranked her with Zohrab, Zartarian, Siamanto and Varoujan and placed her name – the only female writer – on their list for liquidation. She escaped to Bulgaria and from there managed to reach the Caucasus where she documented much of the atrocities taking place. In 1918 she went to Egypt, then to Cilicia and then to Paris, serving in the Armenian Delegation for Peace. Disillusioned, she became a Communist and urged all Diaspora Armenians to recognize Soviet Armenia as the only motherland.

In 1927 she visited Soviet Armenia for the first time. Shortly afterwards she was invited to establish permanent residence. In 1933 at the age of 55, she left a comfortable Parisian life and settled in Soviet Armenia with her daughter, Sophie and son, Hrant. When she was asked how she could tolerate the discomforts of living in Yerevan after the opulence of Paris, she replied with a scowl, “These inconveniences are meaningless in my eyes because I take an active part in building the future of our country. Does that answer your question?” (Ararat/Winter 1979 page 12) In Yerevan, she taught Comparative Literature and French Literature at the University, wrote numerous articles and published prolifically. A writer can express only what he/she experiences, feels deeply and knows well. A successful writer is the one who writes about what he knows best and that takes time for the art to develop and mature. This was her philosophy, her mantra. One of her outstanding pieces was The Gardens of Silihdar, which describes her upbringing in the district of Scutari. This has been translated into English by Ara Balizoian. Recalling its beauty, she writes, “….I take refuge in them (gardens) every time ominous dark clouds pile up on the horizon of my life.” Yessayan was accused of “nationalism” and fostering nostalgia for times past -- an excuse to silence her powerful voice.

The same accusations were made against Bakounts, Totovents, Armen, and Mahari. Yessayan came to the defense of her colleagues and she, too, was exiled. The year was 1937 and Yessayan was 59 years old. Bakounts and Totovents were shot. Mahari and Armen returned from exile years later to write of their experiences. Yessayan did not. It is believed, but not confirmed that she was drowned and most likely died in exile sometime in 1943. She was allowed neither pen nor paper in the camp. The years between 1937 and 1943 must have been torture for a woman with her zest for life, who thrived on producing and writing from the depths of her being.

Through her writing she championed the cause of women’s liberation; her writing demands a re-evaluation of women’s rights. She cared deeply for her people, particularly those living in the interior of Turkey, having toured the aftermath of the massacres in Adana in 1909. She reported her experiences in a narrative entitled, “Amid The Ruins,” a sensitive account of the carnage and devastation; it is a clear and first-class piece of journalism. Her writing radiates genuine compassion and artistry.

Some of her other works: The Waiting Room, Hours of Agony, The Last Cup (Chalice), My Soul in Exile, Uncle Khatchik, Phony Geniuses, The Veil, When They Don’t Love Anymore, Meliha Nouri Hanem, Shirt of Fire, Retreating Forces.

Source: ARARAT Winter Issue 1979; Writers of Disaster by Marc Nichanian; A Reference Guide to Modern Armenian Literature, 1500-1920 by Kevork B. Bardakjian.

by Ruth Bedevian

Acknowledgements:

Provided by: Ruth Bedevian

© Ruth Bedevian. Published with the permission of the author. No copying or any sort of redistribution allowed without the prior written permission of the author.

See also:

Other essays and biographies by Ruth Bedevian:
Khachatur Abovian
Khrimian Hayrig
Hovhannes Hovhannesyan
Mikael Nalbandyan
Arshak Chobanyan
Petros Duryan

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