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RE-CONSIDERING ZABEL YESSAYAN, AN EXTRAORDINARY ARMENIAN LITERARY FIGURE

y Florence Avakian
Recognized as one of the leading Western Armenian writers, educators, and social activists, Zabel Yessayan and her prolific literary output are little known to readers of English. On Tuesday, May 6, the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), presented a fascinating talk on Yessayan’s life and works by translator, essayist, and Columbia University master’s degree student Jennifer Manoukian.

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PRESS OFFICE
Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern)
630 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10016
Contact: Chris Zakian 
Tel: (212) 686-0710 or (973) 943-8697  
E-mail: chrisz@armeniandiocese.org
Website: www.armenianchurch-ed.net
June 10, 2014
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RE-CONSIDERING ZABEL YESSAYAN, AN EXTRAORDINARY ARMENIAN LITERARY FIGURE
By Florence Avakian
Recognized as one of the leading Western Armenian writers, educators, and social activists, Zabel Yessayan and her prolific literary output are little known to readers of English. On Tuesday, May 6, the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), presented a fascinating talk on Yessayan’s life and works by translator, essayist, and Columbia University master’s degree student Jennifer Manoukian.
Introduced by the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, director of the Zohrab Center, the speaker took her audience on a journey to 1878 Constantinople and the Armenian district of Uskudar, where Yessayan was born and lived until age 17. It was a unique neighborhood shared by Greek, Turkish, and Jewish families.
“This close proximity to other groups and nationalities helped to shape a belief in tolerance and humanism that would define her writing and activism later in life,” noted Manoukian.
During her formative years, her most fundamental relationship was with her father, a drifter in business ventures, “but to Zabel no one was wiser or more worthy of respect. He encouraged her to become a writer, to read widely, and instilled in her a love of knowledge.” His progressive views on women’s rights and women’s education had a powerful effect on his daughter, whom he encouraged “to not let anything prevent her from doing what she wanted with her life.”
Already a fixture in literary salons at age 17, Zabel wrote a short story called “Feminine Souls” in the anthology, My Soul in Exile, which displayed her “resistance to the social restrictions placed on women, and her search for an identity outside of [the role of] wife and mother normally prescribed to women,” the speaker said.
“Carve Out a Place For Yourself”
By 1895 Zabel’s father, deeply concerned for her future, as well as the impending massacres against intellectuals, decided to send her to Paris for her safety. Before she left, she visited the first Armenian female novelist, Serpouhi Dussap, who wrote about the struggles of Armenian women. Dussap warned Zabel: “A male writer is free to be mediocre. A woman writer is not. Carve out a place for yourself in society.”
Arriving in Paris in 1895, Zabel was one of the first Armenian women to study abroad. Fluent in both Armenian and French, she began publishing in both languages, and studied literature, philosophy, and history at the Sorbonne, while living a modest life in the Latin Quarter. Cultivating relationships with French literary figures, she introduced Armenian literature to the French public through translations, reviews, and original work.
It was in Paris that she met an Armenian art student from Constantinople, Dikran Yessayan. They married in 1900, and had two children: Sophie (born 1901) and Hrant (born 1910). In 1902 the couple with their one-year-old daughter moved back to Constantinople, where Zabel had no trouble reintegrating into community life. Dikran found it difficult, however, and returned to Paris permanently in 1905.
During the period between 1902 and 1915, Zabel traveled often between Constantinople and Paris, and wrote extensively, producing a number of novels, novellas, and journalistic works about the specific experiences of women in Armenian society. She tackled social injustice topics not addressed by other women writers, whom she called “frivolous.” Her subjects included struggles faced by Armenian school teachers in Constantinople, the role of Armenian women after the 1908 revolution, as well as her student years in Paris.
Taking advantage of the optimistic feeling after the 1908 overthrow of the sultan, Zabel began plans to create an Armenian high school for girls in Constantinople and organized a movement to train women teachers in Armenian schools in Anatolia. These plans abruptly ended in the summer of 1909 when she went with a Patriarchal delegation to Cilicia to document the massacres of a few months earlier, and report on the state of the surviving widows and orphans. She worked diligently to prevent the orphans from being taken away from their homeland, and also to prevent them from being entrusted to foreign groups, including European, American, and Turkish institutions, “in order to prevent their assimilation and the loss of their Armenian identity.”
In a heated argument with Jemal Pasha, she fought desperately, but failed due to lack of support from Armenian organizations, to prevent the use of Turkish by Armenian orphans in Ottoman orphanages set up by the government. She continued the fight after leaving Cilicia, and wrote a book on this episode called, Averagneroun Metch (“Amid the Ruins”), considered by many to be her masterpiece.
Intimate Experiences of Women
Zabel’s life in Constantinople from 1911 to 1915 was devoted to writing novels focusing on the intimate experiences of women, “told from the perspective of female characters that were at their core, in search of human truth that all novelists seek to find. These themes had never before been written [about] in Western Armenian, and haven’t been written since,” Jennifer Manoukian said.
With the onset of the Genocide in 1915, Zabel was one of the intellectuals on the government list to be rounded up on April 24. She managed to hide in a hospital disguised as a Turkish woman, then escaped to Bulgaria, but was forced to leave her son and mother behind. After two months in Bulgaria, she fled to the Caucasus, spending the next two years in Baku and Tiflis. There she assisted Armenian orphans and refugees, and published their eyewitness reports in many periodicals.
In 1919, Zabel moved back to France, and wrote furiously, but lived hand to mouth. During this time, her writing also veered in a new direction, focusing on exile and its influence on art. By the mid 1920s, she unexpectedly became an unofficial spokesperson of Soviet Armenia in the diaspora. After a 1926 trip to Soviet Armenia, she became the editor of a pro-Soviet journal in France, designed to entice diasporan Armenians to move to Soviet Armenia. She finally settled in Armenia in 1933.
“Zabel had a very bleak outlook on the future of Armenian art in the diaspora, which is a theme she delves into in My Soul in Exile,” related Manoukian. For Zabel, “the best way to contribute to the Armenian nation was to be in Armenia: taking an active role in the socialist reconstruction of the country.”
From 1933 until her imprisonment and eventual disappearance in 1937 during Stalin’s purges, “she seemed to be at her happiest,” living near her son and daughter, teaching classes in French literature at Yerevan State University, and again writing prolifically. It was at this time that Zabel wrote The Gardens of Silihdar, intended to be the first in a three-volume autobiography.
“The book is often celebrated as one of her most beautiful works,” Jennifer Manoukian said, “in part because of its magnificent imagery and the way she brings the characters of her childhood to life.”
Following an enthusiastic Q-and-A session, copies of Zabel Yessayan’s books, The Gardens of Silihdar and My Soul in Exile, were sold out in minutes, and discussions among the audience members continued during the reception.
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