Zabel Yessayan–the mere utterance of the name echoes with what Marc Nichanian describes, in Western Armenian, as հմայք, whose closest English equivalent would be allure. Nichanian’s chapter on Yessayan in his Writers of Disaster makes for a devastating reading–her tumultuous personal life, her eyewitness accounts of the 1909 Adana massacres, her escape to Bulgaria, and her embrace of Soviet Armenia where she settled in 1933. It was also in the Soviet Union that her fate was sealed and where she disappeared, a victim of the Stalinist purges. She had bravely defended her fellow Soviet Armenian writers who were the target of the Stalinist persecutions, and in the end she shared their fate at the age of 55. Her grave is unknown.
Hers is a monumental life, shaped by the two major events of twentieth century Armenian history–the Aghed and Sovietization. It is also a life of many passages–from Istanbul to Paris, back to Istanbul, to Bulgaria to flee the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, and finally to the Caucasus. Today, more than six decades after her death, Yessayan is a figure hovering between the two worlds of the Armenian collective memory. She is known but not known, her works (mostly in Armenian) are not widely read.
It is this quality of being known and not being known which forms the impulse behind the 40-minute documentary, Finding Zabel Yessayan, by two Armenian women, Talin Suciyan and Lara Aharonian. The film opens with a scene where the film-makers are looking for the street that bears her name in Yerevan. No one seems to have the foggiest idea who she is. For the two film makers, finding Yessayan means introducing the world to an important literary figure, and as such it is a nobel project. But as with all such larger-than-life personages, the film is no equal to the life portrayed, but more so to the issues which her life and her writings bring to the foreground: Who is to claim Zabel Yessayan? Where to situate her, this woman who crossed national, ideological, and personal boundaries? In feminism? In Soviet Armenian history? In the Aghed? In the literature of Armenian Istanbul?
The Q and A which followed the screening of the film here in Boston was telling for the way in which the framing leaned toward feminism but barely touched the point that Nichanian makes in the film: that her crossing to Soviet Armenia–physically and metaphorically–contributed to the chasm between the two wings of the Armenian nation. And which language should lay claim to her? The Istanbul Armenian dialect of her years in that city and of her writings? The Eastern Armenian of her ideological choice? Or the English language which was the medium through which she came to life, so to speak, in the discussion after the film? She belongs to all these languages, and must belong to all of them. Reducing her to one language, one frame, one claim impoverishes not only her work and her life; it also destroys the possibility of these languages being enriched by her presence in them.
To honor this remarkable woman is to open her life and her writings to the processes of thinking about her in all these ways, in all these languages. To enage in a conversation with her, to “find” her means losing her to the multiplicity of meanings which her tragic life holds, a life imbued and bracketed by idealism and its other–disillusionment. For it is a restless life of constant movement, constant search, constant need to, in Nichanian’s words again, write the testimony of what she saw, not only in Adana but also in Cilicia, in Cairo, and finally in the prisons of Baku and Yerevan. She is for the generations and for the many worlds she inhabited.