Narrator Judy Saryan discusses the life and work of the novelist, intellectual and activist, Zabel Yassayan: a woman who didn’t call herself a feminist but now personifies feminist ideals and is a role model for contemporary women
Many of my female ancestors were voiceless. I am the daughter and granddaughter of genocide survivors. I grew up in a patriarchal society where women’s roles were limited and their voices suppressed.
I can’t remember the first time that I heard my father Sarkis’ story of how he escaped the deportations and hid in his paternal grandmother’s cellar. He told us over and over again how he slid down the donkey’s tail and ran away. After World War I ended, Sarkis left his native village of Piran in the Armenian highlands and came to New York City to live with his Uncle. He was the hero of his own life.
His mother survived the Genocide in very different circumstances. She was deported from her home and sent on a march to nowhere with three of her children, two girls and a boy. The three children all died, two by her own hand. Grandma Mariam was raped and escaped to live her life with her daughter in Syria. She never told me her story. She couldn’t because we never met.
Separated from his mother at the age of four or five, my father only once visited her in Syria. They remained geographically and emotionally distant. He was shamed by the fact that his mother survived, having dishonoured his father. Sarkis felt no connection to his half-sister either. As far as he was concerned, his siblings were dead. I never met my Aunt even though she came to the United States for a long visit. I didn’t even know her name.
Not all Armenian women were nameless or voiceless. Zabel Yessayan, born in the late 19th century in Constantinople, published her first works at the age of seventeen. In the same year, she travelled on her own to Europe to study at the Sorbonne, one of the first Ottoman women to pursue higher education overseas. After the 1909 massacres of Adana, she went to Cilicia to provide relief for the orphans and wrote her eyewitness testimony, In the Ruins, which was widely read. The only woman on the list of over 200 Armenian writers and intellectuals to be targeted for arrest and deportation on April 24, 1915, she escaped to Bulgaria and then Baku and bore witness to the Armenian Genocide through published accounts and reports to the 1919 Paris Peace delegation. After moving to Armenia in 1933, Yessayan stood up to another empire, this time the Soviet Union, where she spoke out in support of other Armenian writers. During Stalin’s purge, she was arrested and imprisoned, fought her death sentence – which was commuted to ten years of hard labour – and died under mysterious circumstances.
And yet I didn’t know about this amazing woman until I saw the documentary, Finding Zabel Yessayan in 2011. I was 56 years old.
The author told her that a male writer was free to be mediocre but a female writer was not.
One of the biggest outcomes of growing up with a history of victimhood is fear and isolation. When I first saw the documentary about Zabel Yessayan, I was shocked. She didn’t accept victimhood. She struggled all her life for human rights and social justice. She was very different from the women in my life. I wanted to understand her strength and to tell others about her.
At that time, the only English translation of Yessayan’s work was an abridged version of The Gardens of Silihdar, a memoir about her childhood in Constantinople in the late 19th century. Besides being incomplete, the translation lacked texture and a sense of her writing style. Even worse, the volume opened with a critique of Yessayan’s political activism by Gosdan Zarian, one of her literary contemporaries.
To bring Yessayan’s work to Armenians and the wider world, I would have to find a way to put together and publish high-quality unabridged English translations of her writing. In collaboration with a small group of women from the Armenian International Women’s Association, we published two volumes of Zabel Yessayan’s books in an English translation in 2014: the memoir The Gardens of Silihdar and My Soul in Exile and Other Writings, which contains a novella about an artist returning home after living in exile as well as other short works. In 2016, we published the aforementioned In the Ruins.
Readers of English now have an opportunity to appreciate the pioneering life of Zabel Yessayan as well as the power of her writing. In The Gardens of Silihdar, she tells us that her father spent hours with her talking about the importance of human rights and human dignity. Yessayan has also written about the treatment of minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Seeing these indignities first-hand made her seethe.
A turning point occurred when, as teenagers, she and a friend visited Sirpuhy Dussap, the first Armenian feminist novelist. Dussap warned them that the world of literature was filled with more thorns than laurels, and the obstacles were far greater for women. The author told her that, as a woman, she would need to exceed mediocrity saying, according to Yessayan, that ‘a male writer was free to be mediocre; a female writer was not.’ Yessayan decided that, in order to avoid mediocrity, she had to find a way to study abroad despite her family’s strained finances. In Constantinople, she had completed four years of formal schooling. The options for higher education for girls in the Ottoman Empire were very limited. At the age of 17, Yessayan journeyed by herself to Paris to study at the Sorbonne.
Returning in 1902 to Constantinople, Yessayan angered her community by writing several articles about the position of Armenian women in society, advocating not only for education but self-fulfillment. She criticised her fellow Armenian writers and wrote a book called Phony Geniuses, satirising one of them. The publication of the novel in serial form was discontinued because of public outcry. Diran Charekian, who was fictionalised in the novel, lashed out at Yessayan and suggested publicly that she had lived a scandalous life in Paris.
Yessayan was the only woman on the list of over 200 intellectuals and leaders who were targeted for arrest, deportation and death
In 1908, the Young Turks overthrew the Sultan and reinstated the Constitution of 1876 that provided for human rights, including minority rights in the Empire. Yessayan, along with many Armenians, supported the Young Turks. According to letters that she wrote to her husband, Yessayan reached out to Muslim women to start an Ottoman Women’s peace organisation, modeling it after one founded by Maria Szeliga, a leader of the Polish Socialist International Women’s Movement in Paris. Yessayan was a member of this society. Yessayan’s plan was to include representatives from all religious and ethnic groups within the Ottoman Empire. She wrote to Prince Sabahattin, who expressed an interest in her plan and suggested that many of the princesses would give their support. She had decided that the name for the society would be ‘The Ottoman Women’s League of Solidarity’.
Yessayan’s plans were thwarted by news of the horrifying massacres in Adana in April 1909. She was asked by the Armenian religious leadership to travel with a delegation to Adana to provide relief to the orphans and other survivors, an early example of Armenian indigenous humanitarianism. Prior to Adana, the Ottoman Government prevented Armenians from providing aid to victims of massacres. Yessayan wrote about her observations and experiences in a groundbreaking book, In the Ruins, published in 1911 in Constantinople. For this book, she recorded the testimonies of the survivors, many of whom were women, who described their torments in heartbreaking detail. In the preface, she declared herself a citizen of the Ottoman Empire and explained her reasons for writing the book:
‘Thus I shall be endevouring to communicate to all the members of our nation, but, as well, to all those compatriots who have remained indifferent to our instinctive reactions and our pain, a sense of the unrelieved misery of the sombre existence that I shared for three months … It is essential, I repeat, that all of us see our bleeding country in its true colours, that we learn to take a hard, courageous look at it. What I saw and heard was such as to rock the foundations of the whole state. In principle, no one affirms the contrary. That sentiment was, for me, as a free citizen and true child of this land, enjoying the same rights and charged with the same duties as everyone else, a powerful motivation to write these pages without reserve. They should be considered less the fruit of an Armenian woman’s susceptibilities than the spontaneous, heartfelt impressions of an ordinary human being.’
In 1912, during the Balkan Wars, Yessayan penned a treatise titled Enough! that called for peace. When she saw Muslim refugees from the Balkans streaming into Istanbul, she wrote:
‘They have been ousted from their own lands and turned into refugees … What have we got in common? What makes us similar? When I see the expression of intense fear in their faces, my own pain, which had begun to recede, flames up again’ (Bilal, 2009).
The only woman on the list of over 200 intellectuals and leaders who were targeted for arrest, deportation and death on April 24, 1915, Yessayan immediately went into hiding to avoid apprehension and escaped to Bulgaria, where she notified newspapers and foreign diplomats about the arrests in Constantinople. She wrote a somewhat fictionalised account of her escape, using a male pseudonym, presumably to protect her mother and son who were still in Constantinople. When Bulgaria entered the War as an ally of Ottoman Turkey, Yessayan fled to Tiflis and then to Baku and spent the next three years recording and publishing eyewitness accounts of Genocide survivors, including Haig Toroyan’s ‘The Agony of a People’, which was published in 1917, in the review Gordz of Baku. Yessayan wrote the preface to this book and emphasised the need to bear witness to the catastrophe. In 1919, she submitted a letter to Boghos Nubar Pasha, the head of the Armenian National Delegation to the Peace Conference, about the enslavement of Armenian women and children during the war and its aftermath. Yessayan also presented a talk titled ‘The Role of the Armenian Woman during the War’, at the Salle des Ingenieurs Civils in Paris, which was later published in the Revues des Etudes Armeniennes (Paris, 1922).
Yessayan returned to Adana in 1920 and 1921 to organise the care and relocation of orphans during the French mandate and subsequent retreat.
Yessayan’s experiences could have made her vengeful and bitter, but they did not. She remained empathetic towards Muslim refugees and was able to find solace in the beauty of nature, her soul’s inner sanctuary and her art. She wrote in My Soul in Exile that ‘immediate concerns notwithstanding, we all have recesses in our souls in which we can always take refuge, inaccessible, authentic sanctuaries that we all build for ourselves. Woe to those whose souls are empty.’
Even though she didn’t call herself a feminist, Yessayan now personifies feminist ideals and is a role model for contemporary women
In 1933, Yessayan moved to Soviet Armenia where she taught literature at the University. Her outspoken support of other writers caught the attention of the authorities. She was arrested in June 1937 by Stalin’s henchmen and imprisoned. She fought her death sentence, and it was commuted to ten years hard labour. She died in prison in unknown circumstances, in 1942 or 1943.
Even though she didn’t call herself a feminist, Yessayan now personifies feminist ideals and is a role model for contemporary women. She encouraged women to pursue their education and personal goals and her own life reflects that. She ‘never paid any attention to all the problems that the surrounding community, with its deep-rooted prejudices, hypocrisy and immoral thinking, would create around me.’ She ignored public criticism of her lifestyle. For many years, her husband and young daughter lived in Paris, while she lived in Constantinople in order to pursue her career as a writer and a political activist. Having witnessed the outrages against ordinary people of different minorities in the Ottoman Empire, Yessayan bravely struggled for human rights for everyone. She empathised with the ‘other’ even after her own harrowing experiences in the aftermath of the massacres of Adana. She understood that women’s rights were human rights and that you could not have one without the other.
Wanting others to find inspiration in Yessayan’s empathy and bravery emboldened me to take her message on the road. We’ve presented her books in Boston many times, in Milwaukee, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, London, Stepanakert and Yerevan.
I also wanted to bring these messages to young people: I co-organised a Zabel Yessayan human rights essay contest for high school students in Artsakh. Over 50 high school students wrote essays about the meaning of human rights to them and their reality in the light of the experience of Zabel Yessayan. The students emphasised that human responsibilities were an important component of human rights. For example, Sirun Gabrielyan found inspiration, as I did, in Yessayan’s courage:
‘Zapel Yesayan, a girl-maiden-woman-warrior-victim, the writer who went through hell, how could she maintain in that unjust world her steadfast, brave attitude?’
In parallel with the human rights essay contest, we also co-organised a t-shirt design contest in Artsakh. The winning t-shirt included a quote from Yessayan:
‘Literature is not an ornament, a pleasant pastime, a pretty flower. Literature is a weapon to struggle against injustice.’
As a result of the success of the first contest, we will hold additional Zabel Yessayan human rights essay contests at schools in Armenia.
In cooperation with Gulnara Shahinian, a human rights and peace activist, we will raise awareness of Zabel Yessayan at the upcoming seventh International Young Women’s Peace Award Ceremony in Yerevan. We are also working with Maro Matosian, the founder of the Women’s Support Centre’s domestic violence shelter, to resurrect Yessayan’s legacy in Armenia. With Matosian, we will publish the first Eastern Armenian translation of The Gardens of Silihdar. Zabel Yessayan is a vital role model for young Armenian women.
Yessayan lived in exile most of her adult life. When she wrote of moments of happiness, she invoked the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood. Even after she moved to Soviet Armenia, where she found a new home, Yessayan wrote about her ‘indelible’ memories of the Gardens of Silihdar, where she sought refuge in art and in nature. In Yessayan’s fiction, we see her returning to the themes of exile, alienation and loss, but leaving us with hope in the ‘corner of [her] soul… [where] there is neither massacre, nor deportations, nor Bolsheviks, nor anything else, but only sunshine, roses, and the eternal song of love, beauty and grace.’
Books by Yessayan in English
- The Gardens of Silihdar, A Memoir, Translated by Jennifer Manoukian. Boston: AIWA Press.
- My Soul in Exile and Other Writings. Boston: AIWA Press.
- In the Ruins, the 1909 Massacres of Armenians in Adana, Turkey, Translated by G.M. Goshgarian. Boston: AIWA Press.
- The Gardens of Silihdar and Other Writings, Translated by Ara Baliozian. New York: Ashod Press.
Atabekyan, A. 2018. Tracing Silihdar. Lebanon, New York City and Washington D.C. (https://www.khabarkeslan.com/articles/2018/3/10/tracing-the-gardens-of-silihdar).
Bilal, M. 2009. ‘Pagavan E (Enough!): Zabel Yesayan’ın Barış Çağrısını Duyabilmek”, (Being Able to Hear Zabel Yesayan’s Call for Peace)’, Kültür ve Siyasette Feminist Yaklaşımlar, (Feminist Approaches in Culture and Politics), 2009:7 (Accessed via http://www.istanbulkadinmuzesi.org/en/zabel-yesayan).
Kentron. 2018. Zabel Yesayan: The Woman of Letters Honored in Paris. Yerevan: Kentron (http://kentron.am/en/video/26690649).
Manoukian, J. 2014. Zabel Yessayan: Portrait of the Writer as a Young Woman. The Armenite. Yerevan: The Armenite (http://thearmenite.com/2014/04/zabel-yessayan-portrait-of-the-writer-as-a-young-woman/).
Nichanian, M. 2002. Writers of Disaster. Princeton and London: Gomidas Institute.
Rowe, V. 2003. A History of Armenian Women’s Writing: 1880-1922. London: Cambridge Scholars Press.
von Dewitz, L. 2012. Zabel Yesayan: First Ottoman-Armenian socialist-feminist pacifist female writer. Instanbul: Women’s Museum (http://www.istanbulkadinmuzesi.org/en/zabel-yesayan).
Letter from Yessayan to her daughter on her birthday. (March 20, 1914. Letter #65 of the Zabel Yessayan collection at the Museum of Literature and Art, Yerevan.)
Judy Saryan was born in Delaware and graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts with a major in economics. She spent her career in the financial services industry, most recently at Eaton Vance Management, where she was vice president and portfolio manager. She has been called upon numerous times to provide financial commentary for The Boston Globe, The International Herald-Tribune, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal, and she has been featured on CNBC and CNN. Saryan left her successful career in order to pursue her passion for literature and history. She is working with the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) to showcase the work of Ottoman Armenian author, Zabel Yessayan. Seven years ago, after watching a short documentary called Finding Zabel Yessayan, Saryan was determined to introduce this groundbreaking author’s legacy to a wider audience. She joined a group of women from AIWA, and together they arranged for the English translations of three of Yessayan’s works.