Zabel Yessayan is remembered as one of the most talented and prolific Western Armenian writers of the modern era. Yet, few of her works have been translated into Western languages, and even fewer into English. In order to introduce the English-language reader to the diverse output of this outstanding author, the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) arranged the translation of select works and release two books of Yessayan’s writings at a Publication Party on Sunday, March 23, at the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF) in Arlington, Mass.
The first book by Yessayan, The Gardens of Silihdar, offers a charming account of the author’s childhood in Istanbul. as well as insights into Armenian life in the Ottoman capital in the late 19th century. Jennifer Manoukian, of Columbia University, translated the book and added copious notes to explain the people, places, and events chronicled there. The second book, My Soul in Exile, depicts the dilemma of the artist in society, and also analyzes the psychological effects of the rootlessness experienced by Diasporan Armenians. The setting is the critical period in Turkey following the Adana massacres of 1909 and preceding the outbreak of World War I. The novel was translated by G. M. Goshgarian, and the book includes essays and other short works by Yessayan.
The team of AIWA members who conceived the project, arranged for the translations, and edited the selections—Judith A. Saryan, Barbara Merguerian, Danila Terpanjian, and Joy Renjilian-Burgy—presented the books and read brief passages. Translator Jennifer Manoukian, especially invited, read passages in Armenian and talked about the challenges of the translation.
Exploring Exile and Alienation
Writer, activist, and feminist Zabel Yessayan (1878-1943) was one of the most prominent Armenian intellectuals of her lifetime. Her prolific works in a variety of genres (short stories, essays, novels, travelogues) reflect the cataclysmic events experienced by the Armenians during those years and enjoyed great popularity when they were published. Today they are almost forgotten.
A native of Istanbul, Yessayan graduated from the Holy Cross Armenian School and became one of the first Ottoman-Armenian women to study abroad when she went to Paris and enrolled in the Sorbonne. She married the painter Dickran Yessayan and had two children, Sophie and Hrant. Her first novel, The Waiting Room, published in 1903, takes place in Paris and explores themes that were to become central to her work—exile and alienation.
In 1909, she was appointed a member of an Armenian fact-finding delegation to Adana, where she witnessed the aftermath of the bloody massacres of the Armenian population there. Her classic account of this experience, published as Among the Ruins in 1911, is widely regarded as one of her best works.
The only women on the “black list” of the Armenian intellectuals arrested on the night of April 24, 1915, Yessayan managed to elude the police and escape to Bulgaria. The end of the war found her working in the Near East, organizing the relocation of refugees and orphans. In the 1920’s, she visited Soviet Armenia and decided to move there in 1933, becoming a teacher of literature at Yerevan State University and continuing her writing. A victim of Stalin’s purges, she was exiled in 1937 and died, in unknown circumstances, likely in 1943.
Yessayan’s voice speaks to a diverse audience—young and old, Armenian and non-Armenian, male and female. AIWA notes that these publications will be of great interest to Armenians both in the homeland and diaspora, and also to a broader audience of readers and literary critics of Western literature. Yessayan’s works are relevant to those interested in Armenian studies, in women’s history, and in the multicultural society of the late Ottoman Empire.
The Yessayan books are parts of AIWA’s Treasury of Armenian Women’s Literature series, which focus on the pioneering female Armenian-language writers. Many of these authors (for example Srpuhi Dussap, Sibyl, Zaruhi Kalemkiarian) are virtually unknown today, even among Armenian-educated readers, and their works (many published in small editions or in rare periodicals) are difficult to locate. To learn more about AIWA’s programs to increase the visibility of Armenian women, call (617) 926-0171 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.