Forgotten life and work of Zabel Yessayan slowly coming to light

Forgotten life and work of Zabel Yessayan slowly coming to light

William Armstrong -
Forgotten life and work of Zabel Yessayan slowly coming to light The pioneering work of Zabel Yessayan, an Armenian author born in Ottoman Istanbul in 1878, was almost entirely forgotten after her death in the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Even in Armenia itself Yessayan remains little known today, though new translations of her work have recently been appearing in English. 

Her memoir of growing up in late 19th century Istanbul, “The Gardens of Silihdar” is reviewed here, and the Hürriyet Daily News spoke to translator Jennifer Manoukian about Yessayan’s mysterious life and exceptional work.

Let’s start by giving a broad idea about the background and context in which she emerged, this broader ferment of changes in the Ottoman Armenian community in the 19th century. What were the drivers of this process?

It was a very exciting time for all nations in the Ottoman Empire. In the Armenian community the change was driven mostly by reformers – students who would become doctors, writers, lawyers - who went to study in Europe at the beginning of the Tanzimat period, in the 1840s and 1850s, and who returned to implement the trends they saw in Europe. So we see a big push for improving the education system, creating a periodical press, publishing books and reforming the language. Before this period, there hadn’t been much of a secular literary culture. The literate class was dominated mostly by the clergy, so there were few novels and newspapers being printed. 

The reformers sought to transform society by making education and writing much more accessible. With this, the themes in literature expanded. The novel and the short story were adopted as literary forms, which reinforced the new vernacular literary language, different from the one used in the Church. It was a period of tremendous change, and the growing pains could still be felt as Yessayan was growing up in the 1880s and 1890s.

Yessayan herself was heavily involved in educational issues early on, from what I gather.

Definitely. She benefitted from an excellent education, which has a lot to do with her father who wasn’t part of this reform movement but who had adopted its ideals. He was committed to making sure his two daughters got the best possible education and he tutored them individually at home. He was the one who introduced them to the social issues that would shape Zabel’s consciousness—those that she would address later on in her writing. 

So she had an informal education with him, then she went to the local Armenian school in Üsküdar, and eventually left for France, where she was one of the first Armenian and Ottoman women to go to Europe to study. 

HDNWhat was she doing in Paris? How old was she? How long does she spend there?

The memoir ends when she was 17. She was planning to write two more volumes of it, but she was arrested shortly after it was published and we don’t have the later manuscripts, which may explain why it cuts off so abruptly. 

She left for Paris when she was 17, in 1895. In 1895, Armenian intellectuals feared that they would no longer be able to write and express themselves with as much freedom as they had before, because of Sultan Abdülhamid’s surveillance and censorship policies. Even though she was so young, she was involved in these intellectual circles, listening to these writers and activists, attending the same literary salons. 

Her father became concerned that his daughter would also fall victim of Abdülhamid’s policies, so he sent her to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where she would be protected from the political turmoil in the Ottoman Empire and would also have a chance to hone her craft and be exposed to new ideas. She already spoke French, so that wasn’t a problem. The family wasn’t wealthy enough to send her all expenses paid, so her father arranged for her to support herself by working as an editorial assistant on a project to create a new French-Armenian dictionary.

She arrived in Paris in 1895 and returned to Constantinople in 1902. During that time a lot of things changed in her life. She was gaining much more prominence in both French and Armenian circles. She got married. She was publishing much more readily. What I really admire about her is that she made an effort not only to write for the Armenian community, but also to expose the French community to Armenian literature. So from the very beginning she would translate from Armenian into French, and she would write review pieces and other articles that introduced the Armenian literary tradition to the French public. 

I wondered more broadly about her family’s economic position, because it’s quite difficult to tell from the memoir.

It’s tough to say because she doesn’t really go into much detail. It’s an enigma. Her mother and her father’s families both seem to have been well-to-do. Her paternal grandfather was a judge, her maternal great-grandfather was a civil servant, and other relatives had ties to the palace. But her father was irresponsible with his money, which caused his family to dip into periods of financial hardship. They had some periods where there was a lot of tension relating to money. The mother and the three aunts also worked, but it did not seem to alleviate the burden. These financial issues would continue throughout her life; she was never a wealthy woman.

In the review I refer to Yessayan as a feminist, but apparently she was quite reluctant to use this term. Why?

We can only speculate that she was reluctant to identify as a women writer or as a feminist, because writing by Armenian women at the time wasn’t considered to be very serious; it was seen as more of a pastime for bourgeois women, who mostly wrote poetry in the romantic style. Yessayan used to say that they just wrote “frivolous” stories, which meant anything that wasn’t attacking social injustice. She never worked within the confines of the social norms established for women, she tried to shatter them and redefine them for herself. The other women writing at the time never broke into the inner circle of Armenian literature like she did. 

Yes, she used the word “feminist” with a lot of disdain and seems to have understood feminists as women beholden to a kind of movement, rather than women fighting autonomously to achieve political and social equality. Dissociating herself from the feminist movement and the term “feminism” seems to be just another way for her to assert her independence of thought.

But she got along very well with like-minded women. She worked on planning what was called the Solidarity League of Ottoman Women, drafting this idea with other Turkish women around 1908, right after the constitution was declared. The idea was to try to create cohesion between women of different ethnic communities, working specifically on education. During this time she also had plans to create an Armenian school for girls, as well as another project to train women teachers to teach in Armenian schools in the provinces. But even though she was working towards all these goals for the advancement of women, she tried to distance herself from the term “feminist,” as many women still do today.

The memoir gives a classic image of introverted confessional communities with little crossover. To what extent was Yessayan involved in cross-communal links as she developed as an intellectual?

That’s a question that I’ve also asked myself. I’d be very intrigued to know if she was reading Turkish literature. We don’t even know if she had a strong handle on the Turkish language. But in the early years she wasn’t dealing too much with any intellectual activity beyond the Armenian and French communities. Later on she developed a number of allies, but these were all people who she met in Paris. She had ties to Prince Sabahaddin, who was one of Sultan Abdülhamid’s relatives but had fallen out of favor and fled in 1899. She also worked with Ahmed Rıza. But apart from that we don’t know too much about any inter-communal collaboration. 

In the memoir she expresses a strong distaste for what she saw as the “romantic sentimentalism” that was the literary fashion of the time, in favor of a kind of rationalism.


Jennifer Manoukian, the translator of

Yessayan's book.

From the very beginning, she adopted the style and themes of the realist movement that was gaining momentum in the 1890s. This could be because romantic sentimentalism was the genre that women would most often write in, so it was another way to emphasize her exceptionalism as an author, while also showing that women were capable of rational thought. She does make the movement her own, though, by introducing complex female protagonists in her novels and laying bare their thoughts, fears and concerns. This is the first, and practically the last, time in Western Armenian literature that we see such multidimensional female characters and plot lines that address the particular experiences of women. In “The Gardens of Silihdar” she doesn’t portray women in the best light. She doesn’t seem have much respect even for the women in her family, partly because they appear to be driven by their emotions rather than by the rational principles she espoused.

There’s a big difference in how she portrays her mother and father. Her father comes across very positively while her mother is the opposite. What was behind this?

She had a very turbulent relationship with her mother during her childhood. Partly because her mother was battling a severe form of depression and couldn’t really take care of her children. 

But her father was the kind of person she wanted to become. He was well-read, well-travelled, and very literary minded. He was also very mentorly and never treated her like a child, which is something she talks about in the book. Even when she was 10 years old he would have conversations with her about politics and social inequity. He didn’t try to sugarcoat anything for her and always treated her like an adult, who was capable of understanding complex ideas. 

We can see the effects of this in her writing. Even in her very early writing she has a maturity to her ideas and expression. Her father was the one who encouraged her to write. He was actually the one who encouraged her to write about the issues that women faced in Armenian society at that time. She commented that his open-mindedness was an anomaly at the time. Her friends who were struggling with fathers that wanted to push them into marriages were envious of her, because hers encouraged her to develop her intellect and pursue a life that wasn’t the expected route for women at the time.

She seems to have had an extremely peripatetic decade after leaving Istanbul. Can you talk a little about the circumstances of why she left the city, where she went, and how her work changed? 

In 1915 she was one of the intellectuals targeted for arrest on April 24. That evening, the Ottoman authorities came to the house looking for her, but she was visiting friends at the time. Her family got word to her that she was being pursued, so she hid in a hospital in Üsküdar for two months before fleeing over the Bulgarian border. But when Bulgaria entered the First World War she had to flee again, and went to the territory that would become the Independent Republic of Armenia and then Soviet Armenia. She lived there for two years, collecting many accounts and testimonies of Armenians who had fled the massacres in the Ottoman Empire. That’s what occupied her time from 1916 to 1918 - she was furiously interviewing people, documenting them and translating them into French for publication in newspapers to raise awareness about the plight of the Armenians. 

In 1919 she settled in France, where we see a huge shift in her politics. From 1922 on, she became an advocate of socialism and worked hard to convince Armenians in the diaspora that there was no hope for the Armenian nation outside of the Soviet Republic. Many of her writings after 1922 were colored by her politics. A lot of them are dismissed as propaganda pieces and not taken as seriously as the work she had written earlier. She visited Armenia in 1926 and wrote what she said was a travelogue, but was really just a way to lure diasporan Armenians into moving to Soviet Armenia. She edited a French Armenian newspaper with socialist leanings for a while and then eventually moved to Armenia in 1933, settling there for good. That’s where she wrote “The Gardens of Silihdar,” which was a complete departure in style and theme from her other writings post-1922.

After 1935 she was arrested on trumped up charges, imprisoned and sent to a labor camp. The last we hear of her is in 1942 from a prison in Baku.

It’s so ironic and tragic that she said Armenians could only thrive in Soviet Armenia, but then ended up a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge. What were the accusations against her?

The charges were subversion. It had happening to a handful of Ottoman Armenian intellectuals who had settled in Soviet Armenia and who were writing these kinds of memoirs and accounts. The authorities feared they would incite the Armenian community to glorify a history that was pre-Soviet. But it’s all very secretive. Very little research has been done into this period.