The elimination of writers was a priority both during the Armenians Genocide of 1915 and during Stalinist repressions which began in 1937. It was precisely because of the enormity of the Stalinist regime that famous writer Zabel Yesayan turned silent forever.
Zabel Yesayan, a gifted novelist who is regarded as the female equivalent of Armenian writer Grigor Zohrab, was born on February 4, 1878, in Scutari, a district of Constantinople. Since an early age, she demonstrated attraction towards writing. And at the age of 17, she published a short work in a literary magazine.
Zabel graduated in Paris where she earned a living by correcting the French-Armenian dictionary and writing articles and short stories for French and Armenian journals.
She returned to Constantinople at the age of 30 to enjoy her active literary life. However, the Young Turks placed her on a par with Zohrab, Zartaryan, Siamanto, and Varuzhan — the only female writer — on the extermination list.
She fled to Bulgaria from where she managed to reach the Caucasus and document all the horrors that took place. In 1918, she went to Egypt, later to Cilicia, and then to Paris, working in the Armenian Peace Delegation. Disillusioned with Western powers, she became a Communist and began to encourage all Armenians of the Diaspora to recognize Soviet Armenia as their only Motherland.
In 1927, Yesayan visited Soviet Armenia for the first time. Soon, she was invited to live there permanently. In 1933, at the age of 55, she left her comfortable Parisian life and settled in Soviet Armenia with her daughter Sophie and son Hrant.
When asked how she could tolerate the inconvenience of living in Yerevan after the wealth in Paris, she angrily replied: “These inconveniences are meaningless in my eyes since I now take an active part in building the future of my country.” In Yerevan, she taught general and French literature at a university, wrote many articles, and published fruitfully.
A writer can only express what he felt or knows well. A lucky writer is the one who writes about what he knows best, using art combined with wisdom. This was Yesayan’s philosophy, her mantra. One of her outstanding works is “The Gardens of Silidar” which describes her life and maturation in the area of Scutari.
This work was translated into English by Ara Balizoyan. Remembering the beauty of those places, Yesayan writes: “… I took refuge in the gardens every time the ominous dark clouds piled up on the horizon of my life.”
In the years of the Stalin regime (namely, the Great Purge), Yesayan was accused of “nationalism” and spreading nostalgia for the past times. This was just an excuse to silence her powerful voice. Similar charges were also brought against writers such as Bakunts, Totovents, Armen, and Mahari.
Yesayan defended her colleagues and was sent into exile along with them. it was 1937, and Zabel Yesayan was already 59 years old. Bakunts and Totovents were shot. Mahari and Armen after many years returned from exile and wrote about their lives there.
But Yesayan wasn’t able to return. There is an unconfirmed opinion that she was drowned in 1943, possibly in Siberia. While in exile, she was forbidden to have a pen or paper. The years of exile were special torture for the woman whose vocation from the very beginning was to write.
Through her works, she defended women’s liberation and voiced demands to overestimate women’s rights. Having felt the consequences of the massacre in Adana in 1909, she deeply worried about her people, especially those who still remained in the territory of Turkey,
She reported on what she saw in a story called “Among the Ruins”, a sensual assessment of the extermination and slaughter described with purity and clarity which shows her talent as a writer and as a journalist. Zabel Yesayan’s writing radiates sincere feelings and artistry.
Some works by Zabel Yesayan are “In the waiting room”, “Evening dawn of Scutari”, “Fake talents”, “Gifted people”, “Freed Prometheus”, and “Fire shirt”.
Zabel Yesayan: The Woman of Letters Honored in Paris