Born in 1878, Yessayan emerged into the tumultuous, multiethnic world of late 19th century Constantinople at a time when Sultan Abdul Hamid unleashed his fury on both Christian minorities and the progressive elements of Ottoman society.
One of the first women from the Ottoman Empire to study overseas, she traveled to Paris at the age of 17 to study at the Sorbonne. She wrote her first novel, The Waiting Room about an emigre North African Jewish woman. Set in Paris, The Waiting Room explores themes that would become central to her work: exile, alienation, and the "Other".
Her influential voice brought her to the attention of the Armenian religious leadership of Constantinople who asked her to join a delegation to provide relief for the victims of the 1909 massacres of Adana. Upon her return from Adana, she wrote her most powerful appeal for human rights, In the Ruins.
Her experience in Adana and the uprising in the Balkans shaped her views of war, and in 1912-1913 she wrote Enough! which decried the horror of war on the innocent of both sides. She was the only woman on the list of 250 intellectuals in Constantinople (Istanbul) who were targeted for murder at the early stages of the Armenian Genocide. Yessayan eluded arrest and went into hiding until she escaped to Bulgaria using a false identity. For the next five years, she travelled and recorded eyewitness testimony from survivors of the Armenian Genocide. She eventually settled in Soviet Armenia in 1933 where she taught literature at the University and continued to write. Her support of fellow Armenian writers caught the attention of Stalin's henchmen. The target of yet another empire, she was exiled and imprisoned in 1937 and died in unknown circumstances, most likely in 1943.
Yessayan crossed ethnic and religious boundaries and fought for human rights while the world collapsed around her. When in 1912, Yessayan saw refugees from the Balkans in Istanbul, she wrote, "They have been ousted from their own lands and turned into refugees….What have we got in common? What makes us similar? When I see the expression of intense fear in their faces my own pain, which had begun to recede, flames up again.”
Read more about the Zabel Yessayan project, which has been translating her work into English, and has allowed Pangyrus to republish the pieces you see here.