Interview with Judy Saryan and Isabella Sargsyan from the Eurasia Foundation Institute in Armenia, an institute that supports civil society.
One evening in March, 2011, after watching the documentary, Finding Zabel Yessayan, a group of women from AIWA decided to band together to introduce Yessayan’s writing to a wider audience. When we began our project to translate Zabel Yessayan’s books from Armenian into English, we had little idea where our journey would take us. We spent months researching Yessayan’s life and literary contributions. She wrote prodigiously, and during her lifetime she published several works in a variety of literary formats including novel, memoir, essays, plays, and testimony. We decided to start with one of her great psychological novels, My Soul in Exile, which confronted the themes of alienation and isolation. We then turned to her lyrical memoir, The Gardens of Silihdar, which she wrote in Soviet Armenia and published in 1935. Our third book was an earlier work ,which we chose to highlight the 2015 centenary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. In the Ruins was Yessayan’s first-hand account of the aftermath of massacres in Adana, Turkey – often considered a key historic event in the lead-up to the Armenian Genocide.
Zabel Yessayan’s Turbulent Life
Zabel Yessayan was born into the tumultuous, multiethnic world of late 19th Century Constantinople (Istanbul). By the time Yessayan was a young girl, the Sultan had unleashed his fury on both Christian minorities and the progressive elements of Ottoman society. Despite being surrounded by family members beset with mental illness and alcoholism, she learned about the importance of human dignity and respect from her father, a progressive and worldly thinker. At the age of 17, she published her earliest works and she traveled to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. Yessayan was one of the first Ottoman women to get a higher education and to study overseas. She wrote her first novel, The Waiting Room, about an émigré North African Jewish woman who was married to a man with a terminal illness. Yessayan examines the themes of exile, isolation and “the other” – ideas she would return to again in her later works. In 1902 Yessayan returned to Constantinople where she edited the women\'s pages of a literary journal and continued to write essays and novels. She created a furor in the Armenian community when she published Phony Geniuses, a satire about fellow Armenian writers. During the next few years, she tried to start an Ottoman Women's peace organization in which all religions and ethnic groups in the empire would be represented. Her influential voice brought her to the attention of the Armenian religious leadership of Constantinople who asked her to join a delegation to provide relief for the victims of the 1909 massacres of Adana. She traveled to Adana and upon her return wrote her most powerful appeal for human rights, In the Ruins. Her experience in Adana and the uprising in the Balkans shaped her views of war, and in 1912-1913 she wrote Enough! which decried the horror of war on the innocent of both sides. It is unclear whether the Turkish government had read any of her work, but nonetheless she was considered a potential danger. She was the only woman on the list of approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals who were targeted for arrest and murder at the early stages of the Armenian Genocide. Yessayan eluded arrest and went into hiding in the city until she was able to escape to Bulgaria using a false identity. A few months later when Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Germans and Turks, she escaped again, this time to Tiflis and then Baku where she feverishly recorded testimony from survivors of the Genocide. The work exhausted her, and she envisioned a new novel in order to find a mental space of peace and beauty in the midst of war. Soon after, Yessayan penned her psychological novel, My Soul in Exile about an artist who returns to her native city of Constantinople. The story is set in a time before World War I, before the erasure of the Armenians from their Western Armenian homeland. After writing several more novels including one about a Turkish woman Meliha Nuri Hanim (which was recently translated into Turkish and published in Turkey), she became disillusioned with life in France and decided to emigrate to Soviet Armenia. There she found a brief period of stability, and she wrote the lyrical memoir of her childhood, The Gardens of Silihdar . This time, her outspoken support for fellow writers caught the attention of Stalin's henchmen. The target of another empire, she was arrested and sent to prison where she survived six years and then died in obscurity.
The Power and Beauty of Zabel Yessayan’s Writings
The psychological novel, My Soul in Exile follows the artist Emma as she returns home to Constantinople after finding success abroad. In her innovative, impressionistic style which the author and critic Krikor Beledian calls a “poetic recital”, Yessayan explores universal themes of alienation and the conflict between the individual and society. In beautifully drawn sketches, the city of Constantinople comes to life in vivid colors. My Soul in Exile is translated by G.M. Goshgarian. This publication includes essays and other short works. The Gardens of Silihdar is a memoir of a young Armenian girl growing up in Constantinople in the late 19th century. Yessayan reveals how early on she developed the ambition to become a writer in a world hostile to the contributions of women. Despite family alcoholism and depression, and against a backdrop of impending doom, Yessayan finds and uses her voice. Growing up in the multiethnic city of Constantinople, Yessayan traces her philosophical and artistic evolution in a memoir of her childhood and early teen years. The book is translated into English by Jennifer Manoukian, who recently won the Dr. Sona Aronian Book Award from NAASR for this translation.
At age 31, Yessayan journeyed to the scene of the 1909 massacres of Armenians in Adana to provide relief for the victims and to observe conditions. She returned to Constantinople and penned In the Ruins, which heralded a new literary form. A literature of testimony, Yessayan documents the voices of the survivors who tell her their horrific stories and describe their emotional turmoil and terror. The book includes an appendix with selected articles and letters by Yessayan that elucidate the events of 1909 and their immediate aftermath. Translated by G.M. Goshgarian, the official publication date is March 8, 2016, coinciding with the 2016 celebration of International Women’s Day. These three volumes contain arguably the best and most influential works of a gifted artist, human rights activist and pioneer. They provide a picture of the scope, breath and historical significance of her writing and bring the reader into a world delicately balanced between intense beauty and unpunished cruelty.
The books are the latest releases in AIWA’s “Treasury of Armenian Women’s Literature” series, which makes available English-language translations of works by pioneering women authors who wrote in Eastern or Western Armenian. The translation and publication of The Gardens of Silihdar and My Soul in Exile and Other Writings were supported by a generous grant from the Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Fund. In the Ruins was made possible by a generous grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation.