Her commitment to justice began early in life; even as a child, she struggled to understand her relatives’ general indifference to the social inequities that saw around her. Born Zabel Hovhannessian on February 5, 1878, she spent her childhood and adolescence in Scutari (today’s Üsküdar), a suburb of Constantinople on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Her neighborhood—the Gardens of Silihdar—brimmed with a kind of cosmopolitanism that was typical of the period. The shimmering golden domes of the nearby mosque, the gypsy snake charmers who dazzled her with their magic, the sound of Greek men celebrating the coming of the New Year with their chants, and the glee of Armenian children soaking unknowing passersby on Vartavar all made equally lasting impressions on the young writer.
As a child, she was frail and sickly. Though she teetered between life and death until the age of nine, the love and concern of her entire family nevertheless produced fond memories of this period. As was customary, members of Yessayan’s immediate and extended family lived under one roof—this included her maternal grandmother Loucig, affectionately called Doudou; her three maternal aunts, Yeranig, Youghaper and Makrig; her mother, Aghavni; her younger sister, Mathilde; and her father, Meguerditch.
In the eyes of anyone else, Meguerditch Hovhannessian would have appeared to be a well meaning, but ultimately irresponsible dabbler who drifted from one business venture to the next, accruing large amounts of debt and jeopardizing the well-being of his family in the process. But to his eldest daughter, there was no man wiser or more worthy of admiration.
Yessayan cites her father as having the most profound and lasting influence on her. She was drawn to his optimism in the face of adversity, to his belief in the dignity of each person—regardless of ethnicity, religion or social class—and especially to his erudition. His knowledge of languages—among them, Armenian, French, Turkish, Russian and some Georgian—his travels throughout the Caucasus and Anatolia, and his insatiable love of reading captivated his daughter and fostered in her a kind of love that never faltered.
Yessayan’s fascination with language began with him. It was as a four year-old nestled in her father’s arms that she first learned to read. The patience and affection with which he helped her sound out words as a toddler remained when she came to him with more complicated questions as a young woman. She credits her father with explaining the world to her and enthusiastically encouraging her goal of becoming a writer—a sentiment, she wrote, that was uncharacteristic of fathers of the time, who normally envisioned marriage for their daughters, rather than a career.
These hopes for his daughter were fueled by his own more general support for women’s emancipation—a topic that he urged Yessayan to explore in her writing. Although we often, perhaps anachronistically, label Yessayan a feminist writer, she rejected this term outright by writing:
I never became a feminist. 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.
Here Yessayan draws the distinction between writing about women and writing to advance the feminist cause—an element, she insists, never featured in her writing. Despite her father’s efforts to instill in her an appreciation for the larger cause, she was only interested in women’s rights insofar as they affected her directly. As a writing exercise, Meguerditch would often have his daughter summarize in writing his own views on women’s emancipation; one of his main arguments was that equality would only be achieved once girls were given the same opportunity as their male counterparts to continue their education beyond primary school. Although he had no way of enacting this kind of change on a grand scale, he did work to ensure that his daughter received an excellent education.
Through supervised readings and discussions, Yessayan’s father was her only source of education until age nine, when she began studying classical Armenian with a former priest, who she called Garabed agha. Hitting his ruler rhythmically against his desk, Garabed agha taught the young girl to read religious texts aloud with proper pronunciation and accentuation. She was enthralled by the poetry of certain hymns and prayers and in awe of the language itself, but she writes that, both at the time and later in life, she never felt the slightest inclination towards religion.
In 1888, at the age of ten, she began attending the Sourp Khatch (Holy Cross) School, the neighborhood Armenian school, where her interest in language and literature intensified. She writes that in her first few years, she was always one of the worst students in her writing class, because she refused conform to the Romantic style that dominated Armenian literature at the time. She rarely wrote more than three or four lines on principle and mocked the students who received the highest grades for compromising their literary integrity.
Outgrowing this youthful recalcitrance, in her third year at Sourp Khatch, Yessayan began to take her education, and particularly her writing, more seriously. Her Armenian teacher Melkon Gurdjian—also known by his pen name, Hrant—was the first to take note of her potential as a writer. Gurdjian was a writer himself and a frequent contributor to the Armenian press in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but was exceptionally critical of the sentimentalism and frivolity that he felt characterized writing produced by Armenians in Constantinople at the time. In Yessayan’s writing, he found sincerity, simplicity and a similar resistance to literary norms that he considered promising.
In his Armenian literature classes, Gurdjian also introduced his young students to ideas of injustice. As a new arrival to Constantinople from the provinces, Gurdjian educated his students about the oppression that many Armenians in Anatolia (western Armenia) endured. He assigned them novels like Raffi’s The Fool and David Bek as a way to urge them to become aware of the privilege in their urban upbringings, to empathize with the struggles of their rural compatriots and, ultimately, to develop a national consciousness that would transcend the divide between rural and urban Armenians.
The troubles described in these books resonated with Yessayan to such an extent that, after graduating, she planned to leave Constantinople and settle into village life to share in the suffering of her fellow Armenians and play a role in shaping the future of the nation. As a teenager, she glorified life in the provinces and viewed the urban Armenian experience as inauthentic. Although she was still committed to these notions, her enthusiasm for moving to Anatolia waned after an exchange with a doctor from the provinces. Cutting her lofty views of national solidary down to size, the doctor reminded Yessayan not to forget a box of combs before she left, since treating lice was, before all else, the most pressing need in the villages.
Her plans to leave for the provinces did not take shape, but after graduating from the Sourp Khatch School in 1892, Yessayan did continue to develop this interest by becoming much closer to the nationalist cause. Every Saturday night, she attended Madame Matakian’s salon where the leading figures in the revolutionary movements—Arpriar Arpiarian, Levon Pashalian, Arshag Chobanian and her future husband, painter Dikran Yessayan, among others— gathered to discuss literature, education and politics. Yessayan recalls that she did not utter a single word during those gatherings, but her mere presence allowed her rare insight into the inner workings of the nationalist movement and drew her into the Armenian intellectual circles of the day.
Yessayan read voraciously during this period, both in Armenian and French, and wrote with the same vigor. Once she found the courage to publish her writings, the writers and intellectuals that she had met at Madame Matakian’s salon helped facilitate it. Her first works were published in 1895 in Arshag Chobanian’s literary journal Dzaghig. She remembers that these works—a poem Ode to the Night and two short stories, The Blind Girl and Feminine Souls—attracted significant attention and led to a kind of an unexpected celebrity.
Though she writes about her admiration for the elegiac poetry of Bedros Touryan (Dourian) and her interest in the proto-feminist novels of Serpouhi Dussap, Yessayan consciously distinguished herself from the Romanticism of her predecessors and the patriotism of her contemporaries. Above all, her writing from this period was fed by an overpowering disgust for the hypocrisy, injustice and contradiction that she saw in the society around her. On one occasion, she notes her frustration when she heard a writer, who had passionately advocated for women’s rights in the press, question the decency of a young woman who worked in close quarters with male colleagues. Yessayan channeled her anger into writing, which she tried to use as a way to unmask the hypocrisy that she despised.
This literary career that began in Constantinople would continue in Paris. With political repression and massacres looming, Yessayan’s father feared for the safety of his daughter, because of her ties with members of the nationalist movement. Arrests of writers and intellectuals had already begun by the mid-1890s and many of the figures she had met at Madame Matakian’s salon were fleeing Constantinople. Her father arranged for her to study at the Sorbonne and to work as an editorial assistant on Guy de Lusignan’s French-Armenian dictionary, Nouveau dictionnaire illustré français-arménien (1900).
Zabel Yessayan left for Paris in December 1895 aboard a French steamboat. When she returned to Constantinople seven years later, her life had changed dramatically: married with a young daughter, she had already succeeded in establishing herself as a formidable figure in Western Armenian literature. Though her writing would later take many different directions, the sights and sounds of her childhood would always feature prominently in her work.