In this month’s empowerment series, we are proud to introduce you to one of the most important female figures of her generation—gifted novelist and feminist Zabel Yessayan.
Yessayan was a writer with a brilliant mind who differentiated herself from other women of her time. She published her first work at only 17 years old and was one of the first women living in the Ottoman Empire to strive for higher education.
Yessayan fought for human rights and social justice through her powerful writing. While she did not identify as a feminist, her voice has inspired feminists across generations.
Zabel Yessayan was born in 1878 in Uskudar, Constantinople (Ottoman Turkey) as Zabel Hovhannessian to Mkrtich and Aghavni Hovhannessian. She lived with her younger sister Mathilde, her grandmother Loucig and her three aunts Yearning, Youghaper and Makrig.
Her interest in writing, social justice, human rights and languages began with her father, who was an Armenian novelist. An optimist in the face of adversity, Hovhannessian treated people equally regardless of their religion, social class or ethnicity. Yessayan was intrigued by her father’s passion for reading and his ability to speak several languages, including Armenian, French, Turkish, Russian and some Georgian.
Hovhannessian taught Yessayan how to read at just four years old. He differed from other fathers of his generation in that he supported women’s emancipation, urging his daughter to craft her goals around a career in writing and women’s rights issues rather than marriage.
Yessayan always knew she wanted to become a writer. She believed that writers can convey their subjective experiences and feelings with discipline and dedication to the art form.
While Yessayan was called a feminist, she always rejected the label. “I never became a feminist,” she once wrote. “I resolved those issues for myself and 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. It’s true that often I was obliged to struggle against all of this, but that struggle was self-motivated, strong, and always victorious because never did I stray an inch from the positions I wrote about.”
Yessayan was only drawn to women’s rights issues that impacted her personally. She was not interested in trying to better the feminist cause, regardless of her father’s encouragement to do so. While teaching her at a young age, Hovhannessian attempted to instill within her his own beliefs on women’s rights, underscoring that equal opportunity in education was essential to women’s emancipation. Thus, he guaranteed that his daughter would be given a promising education.
A priest, whom she called Garabed Agha, soon replaced her father as her teacher. He instructed her on how to read religious Armenian texts aloud with perfect pronunciation. Although Yessayan was intrigued by religious poems in the Armenian language, she was never interested in becoming religious.
At 10 years old, she attended an Armenian school called the Sourp Khatch (Holy Cross) School. Although she was one of the worst writers in her first two years in her class because she refused to comply with the then dominant Romantic style, during her third year, she began to take her education very seriously.
Her writing soon caught the attention of Melkon Gurdjian, also known as Hrant, her Armenian teacher and a contributor to the Armenian press. He commended Yessayan’s talents and their shared resistance to prevailing literary styles.
Gurdjian, who was born in the rural provinces, educated his students in the urban Constantinople about the injustices that Armenians from Anatolia faced. He thus cultivated among his students a national consciousness that might unite rural and urban Armenians.
His teachings inspired Yessayan to leave Constantinople and live in an Armenian village, where she would suffer and fight alongside other Armenians for a more just future for her nation. Growing up, she believed living in the provinces was the perfect life and that urban life was flawed. Unfortunately, her goal to move to the provinces did not become reality. Her interest in moving, however, strengthened after graduating from the Sourp Khatch School in 1892, when she began attending Madame Matakian’s salon every week to listen to revolutionary leaders such as Arpriar Arpiarian, Levon Pashalian, Arshag Chobanian and her future husband and painter Dikran Yessayan talk about literature, education and politics. Yessayan practiced reading in Armenian and French and received insight from revolutionary leaders she met at the salon, which she included in her writings.
In 1895, Yessayan published her first piece in Arshag Chobanian’s literary journal, Dzaghig, a poem called “Ode to the Night.” She was 17 years old at the time. Through the publication of the poem and two short stories, “The Blind Girl” and “Feminine Souls,” she gained a great deal of newfound exposure and celebrity. Although most comments about her work were positive, one writer who professed to be a women’s rights activist doubted her ability to work professionally with her male colleagues. Yessayan would lambaste this type of hypocrisy in her writing.
In one memorable encounter, Yessayan and a friend visited Sirpuhi Dussap, the first Armenian feminist novelist. Dussap told them that in literature, women have far more struggles than men, adding that “a male writer was free to be mediocre; a female writer was not.”
As Yessayan’s writing career began to flourish, disturbing reports of ongoing mass killings and political repression of members of the nationalist movement concerned her father. During the mid-1890s, many friends that Yessayan met through the salon fled to Constantinople amid arrests of writers and intellectuals. Yessayan’s father arranged for her departure to Paris.
Yessayan escaped to Paris in 1895 on a French steamboat. She would return to Constantinople in 1902 with a family, including a daughter named Sophie, and as a successful Western Armenian literature figure. As she pursued her writing career, her childhood memories always played a major role in her infamous works.
After travelling to Cilicia to provide humanitarian assistance for orphans following the Adana massacres of 1909, she wrote her eyewitness testimony In the Ruins, which went on to be read globally.
“It is essential, I repeat, that all of us see our bleeding country in its true colors, that we learn to take a hard, courageous look at it,” she said of her motivation for writing the book. “What I saw and heard was such as to rock the foundations of the whole state…They should be considered less the fruit of an Armenian woman’s susceptibilities than the spontaneous, heartfelt impressions of an ordinary human being.”
On the list of over 200 Armenian writers wanted for arrest and deportation on April 24, 1915, Yessayan was the only woman. She escaped to Bulgaria then Baku and fought to prove the reality of the Armenian Genocide through published writings and reports to the 1919 Paris Peace delegation. She permanently moved to Soviet Armenia in 1933 where she taught literature at the university and publicly defended and supported Armenian writers.
During Stalin’s Great Purge, Yessayan was arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death in 1937. She fought against her death sentence and received 10 years of hard labor, but died later due to unknown circumstances in Siberia, Russia in 1943. Armenian writers Axel Bakounts, Vahan Totovents, Mkrtich Armen and Gurgen Mahari were also targeted by the Great Purge; only Mahari and Armen survived to write about their experiences. While it is rumored that Yessayan drowned and died in exile, this has not been verified.
Yessayan possessed a strong and willful character that carried her through the tragedies of her life. She persisted in her kindness toward all people and her appreciation for the beauty of nature and art.
Through her writing, Yessayan fought for women’s liberation through higher education and re-evaluated women’s rights. She ignored distractions, personal criticisms and hypocrisy, focusing her attention on the struggle for human rights for all. She cared about the people, especially women living in Turkey, and chronicled their lives and reality in her novels. Her legacy has persisted as an advocate in movements for justice and equality in which men and women equally participate.