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 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
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