The Place of Zabel Yessayan’s The Gardens of Silihdar Among Women’s Autobiographies

The approach to women’s autobiographies, in the 1980s and 1990s, acknowledged the assumption that it was a genre with a number of distinctive features. [1] Estelle C. Jelinek was one of those who expressed their opinion on this particularity: “. . . [M]en distance themselves in autobiographies that are ‘success stories and histories of their eras’ focused on their professional lives, while women’s life writings emphasize personal and domestic details and describe connections to other people.” [2] This interpretation is also in line with the status of Zabel Yessayan’s memoir of women’s narrative. Even though Yessayan begins her memoir with personal memories and details from her childhood, she talks about the lives and sufferings of others in later years and focuses on the relationships she establishes with people, if not private. Her witness to the events of 1909 in Adana was a breaking point for Yessayan, and she strived for understanding and explaining the griefs that were not so easy to describe. [3]

Apart from narrating the sorrows of life during the late Ottoman period, she questioned the male-dominated fabric of both the Armenian community and the entire Ottoman society. Nevertheless, to give a more specific and personal example, when Yessayan is a witness to the violence against a Jew in the neighbourhood, her immediate reaction can be demonstrated: “I was trying to rebel against the barbarity I had just witnessed. That man, still grieving over his scattered tools and overturned stove, became my image of the city of Ani, sitting and crying.” [4] The mind of Zabel interferes with the pain of the man in front of her, as if another voice, another consciousness appears in her mind, as also can be distinguished by her words, “[i]t was after seeing the struggle of that nameless Jewish tinsmith, that I felt the agonizing pangs of compassion for the first time.” [5] Zabel is no longer the person who only focuses on her own life, but she feels the pain of another in her heart. This is just like the moment when the Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth and put his words into his mouth. In other words, this situation cannot remain at the level of empathy alone, because, as Jelinek says, “[w]omen . . . seek to authenticate themselves in stories that reveal ‘a self-consciousness and a need to shift through their lives for explanation and understanding.’”[6]

Therefore, Zabel Yessayan makes it clear that real life is fundamentally distinct from the image – or the idealised world – she creates for herself, and adds: “Oh, if I had only been a boy, I would have been a Circassian, an eshguia, a smuggler, or a thief who hides out in the woods. I would have fought for justice and would gladly have died for it.” [7] The last feature that brings together the text of Smith and Watson with Yessayan’s memoir is the fragmentariness that needs to be emphasised. As underlined by Smith and Watson, women’s narratives somehow indicate a reflection of their daily lives, which is generally – and to some extent, stereotypically – characterised by “. . . the fragmentary, interrupted, and formless . . .” structures. [8] This pattern is also seen in the general framework of Zabel’s memoir. The fragmentary and scattered face of her life that jumps from one place to another is evidently pronounced in The Gardens of Silihdar. Last but not least, Yessayan does not have a narrator’s voice with the intention of giving advice and teaching, which is often seen in the writings of some male writers, such as Ahmed Midhat Efendi, in the late Ottoman period. She is openly in favour of sharing her thoughts and feelings: “If it had been possible, I would have expressed my feelings.” [9]

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