Armenian poet Zabel Yesayan among 5 groundbreaking women: Refinery29

Armenian poet Zabel Yesayan among 5 groundbreaking women: Refinery29

PanARMENIAN.Net - Refinery29 has copiled a list of five women from the book "100 Nasty Women of History" by journalist Hannah Jewell, including Armenian poet,novelist and translator Zabel Yesayan among them.

"100 Nasty Women of History" gives an alternative view of history and documents the women the textbooks accidentally forgot to cover. These "nasty" women are everything from pioneers in medicine, science and maths, to women who led armies and uprisings, to women who decided that getting drunk or having sex or speaking candidly when they were meant to sit in the house and be quiet would actually be a lot more fun.

Yesayan is another example of a brilliant woman who lived in a time and place where to be intelligent and opinionated was the most dangerous thing to be. In fact, she managed to live in not one but two such places in the course of her short life.

Zabel was an Armenian born in 1878 in Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire. She published her first poem in a weekly paper at age 16, and by 17, had decided to become a writer professionally. So she did. That was that. There was no decade of umming and erring, no grand proclamations about the novel she had ‘knocking about in her head’ – she just did it.

As Zabel set out on her path she received a warning from Srpouhi Dussap, the first female Armenian novelist. ‘When Madame Dussap learned that I wanted to enter the field of literature,’ Zabel recalled later, ‘she warned me that a woman’s path to become a writer had more thorns than laurels. She said that our society was still intolerant towards a woman who appeared in public and tried to find a place of her own. To overcome this, one had to surpass mediocrity. Success came easily to the man who merely got his education, but the stakes were much higher for the intellectual woman.’

Zabel went to France to study literature, and married a painter at age 19, as one does when one moves to France. She returned to Istanbul, however, without her husband and against his wishes in order to continue to build her reputation as a writer there. What she found when she returned was one of the first great tragedies Zabel would witness in her life: Armenian refugees fleeing massacres in Adana, in what is now southern Turkey, and arriving in Istanbul. Zabel decided to travel to Adana to see for herself what had happened there, turning her findings into a book called Among the Ruins. The utter destruction she witnessed in that city changed her, and it would not be the last time she documented Ottoman crimes against the Armenians.

As a prominent Armenian intellectual, particularly one who had publicly decried crimes against her people, Zabel knew she was in danger. In 1915, the first year of the Armenian Genocide that would claim 1.5 million lives at the hands of the ruling Turkish party, the Committee of Union and Progress, she had a close call with Turkish officials. While exiting a building, an official asked her if she was Zabel Yesayan. ‘No,’ she replied coolly, ‘she is inside.’ She quickly made her escape and moved to safety in Bulgaria.

In Bulgaria and then back in France, Zabel found work with an Armenian newspaper and set about the grim task of documenting what was happening back at home, collecting testimonies of death marches, deportations and destruction from those Armenian refugees who had managed to escape. Zabel wrote under a male pseudonym, worried about the safety of her remaining family in Istanbul. She said in letters that the work nearly drove her to madness, yet without it, that history, however horrible, could have been lost. As it is, the Turkish government has to this day denied that the Armenian Genocide took place, making such testimony all the more powerful.

In 1932, Zabel was invited to become a lecturer at Yerevan State University in Armenia, which had by then become part of the USSR. She had high hopes for life in Armenia but once again, the relentless awfulness of history caught up with her. In 1934, Moscow hosted the first Soviet Writers Congress, which gathered writers from across the USSR, for the unofficial purpose of allowing Stalin to work out who needed to have an eye kept on them. Zabel attended, and despite her initial enthusiasm for the Soviet project, ended up on Stalin’s shit list. A few years later, when Stalin began to actively persecute Armenian literary figures, arresting writers as well as their families, Zabel was in danger again.

Zabel was arrested and thrown in prison where she was not allowed to read books or newspapers or listen to the radio, and so instead she hosted prison literary salons in which she discussed French literature from memory, as you do. It is not known exactly when or where she died during her imprisonment, but she left behind her ten books, countless letters and articles, and of course the testimony she gathered of the Genocide. For Zabel, writing was a deeply political act, and her novels dealt with women’s place in society among other injustices. ‘Literature is not an adornment or a pretty decoration,’ she explained, ‘but a mighty weapon or a means to struggle against all matters I consider unjust.’

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