Nora Kayserian is a mother, counselor, bibliophile, and most recently, a published children’s book author. On July 26, she announced her forthcoming debut book, Անպարտելի Զապէլը (The Unstoppable Zabel), a picture book biography about Western Armenian writer and activist Zabel Yesayan.
Kayserian first felt inspired to write a children’s book when she encountered her nieces’ English-language picture book biographies about well-known influential women like Frida Kahlo, Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks. “Why not have books about Armenian women who are also trailblazers?” she posed in an interview with the Weekly. “Why should our kids only be inspired by non-Armenian women?”
A newcomer to the world of writing children’s literature, Kayserian purchased writing guides, attended webinars and joined a storytellers’ community for children’s book authors. She studied maps, images and other archival materials from 19th century Uskudar to reconstruct the Istanbul of Yesayan’s childhood. The product of her work is Անպարտելի Զապէլը, a 32-page picture book with full color illustrations that narrate Yesayan’s journey to publishing her own books and transforming the world through words.
Անպարտելի Զապէլը attempts to rectify the lack of visibility of pioneering Armenian women from history within the modern-day diaspora. Kayserian herself did not learn about Yesayan until the release of the documentary Finding Zabel Yesayan by Lara Aharonian and Talin Suciyan in 2009. “Zabel Yesayan was the first Armenian woman who was introduced into my life as a feminist,” she shared. Kayserian, who was born in Istanbul and has lived in Yerevan and Los Angeles, resonated with Yesayan’s life experiences, depicted in her writings on exile and isolation, her critiques of the Armenian Ottoman community and her decision to move to Armenia and “take an active part in building the future of our country.”
While the historic achievements of many Armenian women remain obscured, the efforts of feminist activists and scholars over the past decade, including the release of Finding Zabel Yesayan and the publication of Yesayan’s writings in English by AIWA Press, have brought her to the forefront of intellectual thought. These endeavors paved the way for Kayserian to research and write a children’s book to introduce Yesayan and her life story to Armenians at a younger age and promote the representation of female trailblazers within the community at large.
In addition to increasing awareness of an overlooked Armenian writer, the book also acquaints children with social justice topics, including women’s rights, through the example of a woman who overcame sexist norms to struggle for equality and fairness. “[Yesayan] wasn’t taken seriously initially because she’s a woman,” Kayserian related. “Despite all of the challenges that came her way she never stopped. Her goal was to write and to use her writing to make a difference in her community. She saw injustice in her community…and she wanted to make an impact.”
While English-language books exploring social justice issues through language suitable for children have proliferated, the trend has not yet permeated Armenian children’s literature. “[I] see all of these books be so successful within non-Armenian communities, so why not in our community?” Kayserian said. “There is a growing market of socially conscious parents, and I think that if done right, we can discuss social justice topics in children’s books.”
Անպարտելի Զապէլը addresses all of these complex, contemporary issues in Western Armenian. Kayserian is the latest in a line of female authors, including Taleen Khoury Moughamian, Taline Badrikian and Alik Arzoumanian, writing and publishing children’s books in Western Armenian in order to transmit the endangered language standard to the next generation. “These women, they weren’t writers. They were just moms who already had a full time job, who already had kids they were raising…who wanted more Armenian books to read to their kids. There was a gap, and they [decided] to fill this gap,” Kayserian gushed. “On top of everything else we have to do as mothers, as if our job wasn’t hard enough, we’re writing books too!”
Currently the campaign to raise funds to pay for illustrations and print 1,000 copies of Անպարտելի Զապէլը has raised $6,216—well beyond Kayserian’s initial goal of raising $4,900. Kayserian plans to use the remaining funds to translate the book into English, Turkish and Eastern Armenian. Supporters can pre-order a first-edition hardcover copy of the book and select from different perks, depending on the amount of their contribution.