115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Her Armenia: Zabel Yessayan and the Voice of the Feminine

Katy Simonian, Whittier College

Zabel Yessayan’s voice as an Armenian woman made her a target for both ethnic and gendered persecution during and after the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The Gardens of Silihdar masterfully articulates her desire to confront and transcend the confines of the societies in which she lived and demonstrates the power of autobiographical reflection to record history and globally educate future generations on the horrors of genocide through the lens of a survivor.


Jean Rhys once declared on the pages of her short story, “The Day They Burned the Books” that “men can be mercifully shot. Women must be tortured.”[1] Although written nearly a half century after Zabel Yessayan emerged on the Armenian literary scene, these words seem to echo the legacy of courage and commitment to truth established through the fiction and autobiographical reflections of the only woman on the list of public intellectuals to be arrested and murdered on April 24,1915. The date, which marks the official beginning of the Armenian Genocide, proved to be a transformative moment in Zabel Yessayan’s life and work. As a writer, she quickly became a symbol of hope within the unique intersection of art and journalism to combat gendered and ethnic oppression. The Gardens of Silihdar is a personal reflection on the experience of female subjugation and the trauma of bearing witness to a crime that claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians. In order to comprehend the significance of Yessayan’s presence on that fateful death list, it is necessary to consider her life as a child in Constantinople, growing up with a ferocious appetite for words and ambition to be a writer. For a woman, in the context of the early twentieth century, this concept was a rarity within the Armenian community simply by virtue of societal norms.

When confiding in Serpouhi Dussap, a female novelist who stood nearly alone among the male titans of the Armenian literary community for years before Yessayan’s arrival, she was warned about the standards set upon women who dared to carve their own path through writing. Her reflection serves as a haunting prelude to writers such as Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid and Maya Angelou, among others who have found power in literary confrontations with oppression.

It is ironic that a writer whose career began with critics questioning her ability to write based on her gender as a woman ascended to the role of documentarian and social activist. Not only was her work praised, but also relied upon for recording the horrors of the genocide for posterity. By analyzing the nuances of The Gardens of Silihdar, as well as selections from In the Ruins, a book for which she ventured into villages destroyed during the initial targeting of Armenians in Turkey, I propose that Yessayan employs autobiography as a journalistic mechanism for recording history and inspiring empathy to further social change. In doing so she pioneers a form of writing that challenges narrow perspectives, firmly presenting the experience of violent subjugation from the lens of the individual. I argue that it is her identity as a woman that equips her with the antennae for the plight of those who were denied a voice based on their religion, gender and race. Her work is hauntingly relevant as a reminder of the need to protect the artist and journalist and encourage the pursuit of social activism within and across cultures. 

[1] Quote from Jean Rhys’s “The Day They Burned the Books,” Pg. 2360 from the Norton Anthology of Twentieth Century British Literature, Vol. F. 2006. 

Topic Area: