Yessayan, Zabel (1878–1943)

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Yessayan, Zabel (1878–1943)

Armenian writer. Born in 1878 in Scutari, a suburb of Constantinople; died in 1943 in exile from Soviet Armenia; studied at the Sorbonne, Paris.

Selected works:

Spasman srahin mej (The Waiting Room, 1903); Averaknerun mej (Among the Ruins, 1909); Keghts Hantarner (Phony Geniuses, 1910); Anjkut'yan zhamer (Hours of Agony, 1911); Verjin Bazkakê (The Last Cup, 1917); Promet'eos azatagrvats (Prometheus Unchained, 1928); Silihtarhi Partezner (The Gardens of Silihader, 1936); Krake Shapik (Shirt of Fire, 1936); Barpa Khatchik (Uncle K., 1936).

Zabel Yessayan was born in 1878 to a prosperous family in Armenian Scutari, a suburb of Constantinople (now Istanbul). When she was 17, she submitted a short story to a literary magazine, which published it. She later studied literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris. During this time, her articles and stories were featured regularly in the French literary journals Mercure de France, L'Humanite nouvelle, and La grande France, and in the Armenian periodicals Anahit, Masis, and Arevelyan Mamoul. In 1903, her short novel Spasman srahin mej (The Waiting Room) was serialized in Tsaghik, an Armenian literary magazine.

Yessayan returned to Constantinople in 1909, after the declaration of the new Turkish constitution by the Young Turks. Now a public and literary figure among Armenians, she was sent to Cilicia that same year, to distribute food and assist the sick following the massacre there. Afterwards she wrote Averaknerun mej (Among the Ruins) based on what she saw in Cilicia. Described as a deeply passionate work, it brought Yessayan to the attention of the Young Turks, who added her to their list of Armenian intellectuals to be liquidated. She was the only woman writer so singled out.

In 1910, she wrote a satirical novel, Keghts Hantarner (Phony Geniuses), in which she publicly ridiculed author Diran Cherakian of Indra (1875–1921). The following year, she published a short novel, Anjkut'yan zhamer (Hours of Agony), about an unhappily married woman who wants her hated husband dead and finally induces him to commit suicide. Yessayan returned to this subject matter in Verjin Bazkakê, first serialized and later published in book form. The story details an unhappily married woman's affair with a married man and the affair's subsequent detection. The protagonist looks to her husband to beat her so that she can regain a passion for life. When he refuses, she is torn by her inability to develop any kind of relationship with him.

In 1915, Yessayan escaped from Armenia by crossing the Bulgarian border. Three years later, she went to Cairo, and then to Paris as a member of the Armenian delegation at the Peace Conference. In 1927, she made a significant visit to Soviet Armenia and outlined her impressions in Promet'eos azatagrvats (Prometheus Unchained, 1928), which is generally regarded as a propaganda piece. Despite warnings from her friends, Yessayan moved to Soviet Armenia in 1933 and became a Soviet citizen. Working as a university lecturer, she also continued to publish her work, which at this time consisted of many articles.

In 1936, a major turning point in Yessayan's life occurred when she wrote Silihtarhi Partezner (The Gardens of Silihader) in both French and Armenian. The book chronicles her early life in her native Scutari, which she describes in a positive manner. Nonetheless, she was accused of fostering nostalgia by the Soviet government. Also in 1936, Yessayan wrote Krake Shapik (Shirt of Fire) and Barpa Khatchik (Uncle K.). In the former, she describes some of the negative aspects of life in Scutari. In the latter, which has been described as "an aesthetically pleasing work of proletarian prose," she proves her dedication to the Soviet regime. Despite her open commitment to the government in Soviet Armenia, Yessayan was chastised in 1937, possibly for the passionate artistry in her last novel and possibly for her continued defense of other writers accused of disloyalty to the government. Two chapters of this last novel were published before Yessayan was officially silenced by Soviet officials.

In 1937, she was arrested and then banned from Yerevan with some 200 other intellectuals. In the charge against her, she was accused of being a counter-revolutionary and nationalist criminal. Five years later, in 1943, Yessayan died in exile amid questionable circumstances. She left unfinished her magnum opus, a lengthy novel based on the life of her Zorba-like uncle. A collection of her work can be found in English translation, The Gardens of Silihader and Other Writings, completed by Ara Baliozian.


The Reader's Adviser. Vol. 2: The Best in World Literature. 14th ed. Ed. by Robert DiYanni. New Providence, NJ: R.R. Bowker, 1994.

Reader's Encyclopedia of Eastern European Literature. Ed. by Robert B. Pynsent. NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

Susan Wessling , freelance writer, Worcester, Massachusetts

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Yessayan, Zabel (1878–1943)

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