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The Women of our Awakening A HISTORY OF ARMENIAN WOMEN'S WRITING: 1880-1922 By Victoria Rowe 301pp. Cambridge Scholar's Press, 2003 ISBN 1904303234 Armenian News Network / Groong February 9, 2004 By Hermig Yogurtian If you are a diasporan who attended an Armenian high school, you probably learnt about the Awakening [Zartonk], in your Armenian literature class, possibly read a short story from Zabel Yesayian and/or Sibyl, and the name Srpuhi Dussap may ring a distant bell. If you were instructed in the Eastern Armenian tradition, you will surely be familiar with the proletarian poetry of Shushanik Kurghinian. Few of us, however, are likely to have ever encountered the work of Mariam Khatisian or Marie Beylerian. Yet these six remarkable Armenian women of letters contributed greatly to the debates that characterized the Zartonk; left a valuable literary legacy; initiated, if not a "feminist movement", then at least a re-evaluation of Armenian women's roles in the private and public spheres; and definitely deserve a more prominent place in our national plenum of writers and thinkers. Victoria Rowe's thoroughly researched and pleasantly readable "A History of Armenian Women's Writing: 1880-1922" makes that prominent place possible. ZARTONK As a religious minority in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had suffered second-class-citizen status for centuries. The Zartonk was a direct reaction to the repressive Ottoman rule that had stifled Armenian political thought and lulled artistic output into a slumber. By the mid-nineteenth century, the empire was weakening and breaking at the peripheries, and social reform for the Christian minorities seemed possible. Successive sultans promised to ameliorate conditions and reform was sanctioned (though not implemented) in the Armenian National Constitution of 1863, which would allow the Armenians to govern their internal affairs. It is within this framework of inevitable change that Armenian writers and social activists aspired to shape their national destiny. This was a time of momentous and unprecedented revival. Literary output multiplied, educational and charitable national organizations were established and political thought took shape and form. Constantinople, with its sizable Armenian community, was the hub of this re-awakening. Its proximity to Europe and the exposure of Armenian thinkers to the writings of contemporaneous western philosophers highlighted the necessity of social reform and emancipation. The ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all, precipitated from the French Revolution, inspired a new generation of young Armenian intellectuals. One major issue of overarching national concern that drove the agenda of the Zartonk was the adoption of the vernacular, (ashkharhabar'), as an acceptable form of written expression. The debate was not simply about language, but about change and modernization. A new national identity was being negotiated, the value of custom and culture reassessed, and the language had to change to reflect these new constructs. The traditional national establishments, and foremost among them the church, supported maintaining the use of the classical Armenian, (grabar'), whereas the young intellectuals, concerned with the necessity of reaching out to the masses and making education more widely accessible, advocated the use of the vernacular. The women intellectuals of the day were squarely on the side of modernizing the language. Srpuhi Dussap wrote essays in its support; Sibyl penned a grammar of vernacular Armenian; and Zabel Yesayian's novels helped create a uniquely modern Western Armenian literary lingua. Mariam Khatisian and Shushanik Kurghinian likewise wrote in modern Eastern Armenian. MOTHERS OF THE NATION Only an educated, progressive and modernized nation would be able to free itself of the Ottoman yoke, and an enlightened nation needed educated mothers who would transmit to their children cultural values as well as the language, which had become the new symbol of national assertion. Thus educating young Armenian girls became not only a women's rights issue, but took on national importance. Women, traditionally seen as physical caregivers and confined to a nucleic family, had to take on a new, public role, and so their education became a political and politicized issue. The mother of the family had to become the mother of the nation. Previously, education had been the prerogative of only the wealthy. Srpuhi Dussap (born 1841) and Sibyl (born 1863) had attended local French schools and received private tutoring for Armenian. By 1883 however, when Yesayian was five and about to enter school, Constantinople had eleven Armenian girls' schools. Whereas in 1865 there had been only 19 female teachers and 1400 female students in the capital, by 1908 the numbers had risen to 126 and 2457 respectively. The situation was very different in the provinces of course, and the elite and educated women of Constantinople realized how important it was to make education available to young children, and especially young girls, in the provinces. Two important charitable associations were founded in 1879. One was the Dbrots'aser Tiknants' Enkerut'iun [School Loving Ladies' Association], which was devoted to training female teachers who would go and work in the provinces. The second was the Azkanver Hayuhyats' Enkerut'iun [Patriotic Armenian Women's Association](AHE), which was founded by Sibyl (Zabel Khandjian then) together with eight of her female classmates, fresh out of Scutari Chemaran. The objective of this organization was to open schools for young Armenian girls in the provinces, and it established thirty-five schools in its first five years of operations. Sibyl was only seventeen when she founded the organization. She consequently went and taught herself in the provinces for eight years and remained a staunch supporter of the organization throughout its years of operation. These charitable organizations served several purposes. Not only did they strive to make education accessible to all, but also gave women a public forum where they could put into use their fundraising and organizational skills. Moreover, they provided a podium to create awareness of women's rights issues; made available a reputable profession (teaching); and afforded writers and activists a place where they could meet and work together. Thus for example Sibyl and Zabel Yesayian, whose mutual antipathy was public knowledge (XXXand more about that later), reconciled in 1909 when Yesayian joined the AHE. THE NOVELISTS Reflecting nineteenth century European trends, the novel features prominently in the oeuvre of Srpuhi Dussap, Sibyl, and Mariam Khatisian. A chronological comparison illustrates how the styles used by these authors changes; Dussap and Sibyl wrote mainly in the Romantic style while Mariam Khatisian's work combines elements of Romanticism and Realism. Srpuhi Dussap was a trendsetter. She was a feminist, a visionary and the first Armenian woman to publish a novel (1883). Her work greatly influenced the women who followed in her wake; Sibyl and Yesayian sought guidance and inspiration from her. Born to a wealthy family and married to the French musician Paul Dussap, she ran a European style literary salon where young artists and intellectuals, writers and activists met to discuss ideas and read poetry. Her first novel, 'Mayta', although dismissed by critics as "romantic" and "unrealistic", was extremely popular with readers. This was probably because she tackled crucial social issues of the day. It is her second novel 'Siranush' that Rowe analyzes in detail and compares/contrasts to Zabel Yesayian's 'The Last Cup'. The parallels drawn between the two works and the discussion of Dussap's influence on Yesayian are very pertinent. Both works deal with gendered power structures, romantic love, companionship and choice in marriage, and the familial and social conflicts that arise from these issues. Sibyl's novels add a new dimension to all these concerns, that of women's employment. Interestingly, in 'A Girl's Heart', Sofie, a teacher/governess, financially supports her artist brother, who is romantically involved with her student, Bubul. The novel unfolds in unexpected ways but there is never a prospect of romantic love or marriage for Sofie. Sibyl had a family and worked as a teacher most of her life, and yet supported the idea that employment and family life were incompatible for a woman and that a woman's primary place was in the home. She felt that work was somehow demeaning for women especially since there were not many respectable professions available to them. This is where Sibyl and Yesayian did not see eye-to-eye, since for Yesayian all work was ennobling and indispensable if women were to gain financial independence from fathers, husbands and brothers. Mariam Khatisian, whose name unfortunately does not feature in anthologies of Armenian literature, authored four novels. 'On a New Road' deals with issues of social mobility and employment opportunities for three generations of Armenian women. The novel is set in Tiflis, and explores the problems of assimilation into Russian culture and the cross-generational conflicts this creates. There is another very interesting dimension to this work; it illustrates how young Armenian intellectuals in Tiflis, men and women alike, were moved by the massacres and hardships inflicted upon the Armenians who lived under Ottoman rule, and how they responded to that. There is a certain sense of closeness, a one-ness as a nation that comes through. THE JOURNALIST Perhaps one of the more important, lasting legacies of 'A History of Armenian Women's Writing' will be the revelation of the work and character of Marie Beylerian. A free spirit, a staunch feminist, her life, work and tragic death would inspire young Armenian women even today. She was a political exile at fifteen and started editing a women's journal when she was twenty-two. She died during the Armenian Genocide when she was thirty-five. Forced to flee to Alexandria after having participated in the Bab Ali demonstrations in 1895, Marie Beylerian started a career of teaching, writing and feminist advocacy from a very early age. In 1902, she established and edited the women's magazine Artemis. Her editorials addressed issues of education, motherhood, and employment. She formulated unique concepts of how western practices of feminism related to and were applicable for Armenian women, and she always placed national unity first, without compromising the right to equality that she felt all women were naturally entitled to. Her journal had subscribers and published letters and articles from women living in as far-flung places as Kars, Nor Jugha, Tiflis, Paris, Moscow and New York; an enviable model indeed. THE POET One of the first Armenian women writers not to belong to the Constantinople or Tiflis middle-class elite, Shushanik Kurghinian dedicated her poetry to the working classes and drew inspiration from the ideals of the socialist revolution. Soviet era biographers and literary critics duly acknowledged her work, but they always championed her as a revolutionary writer without attributing enough importance to the rest of her writings. Her poems that dealt with economic hardships specifically as they affected women were sidelined as no longer relevant, and her short stories and poems depicting the plight of the Armenian refugees after the Genocide were dismissed as "too nationalistic". While her counterparts in Constantinople debated the desirability of employment for women, Kurghinian wrote about women for whom there were no choices available. Thus her poem 'Flower Seller', which touches on the then taboo subjects of prostitution and sexual exploitation, is the story of a young girl forced to sell her body in desperation in order to provide for herself and her elderly grandmother. 'The (Female) Worker' tells of a mother who sews by a dim light into the late hours of the night while rocking her infant's cradle, in order to be able to provide for her young child. AND THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN Zabel Yesayian was undoubtedly the most accomplished writer of the six authors discussed in this volume. A prolific writer who penned novels, essays and short stories, she had a modern-day professional's reverence for her vocation. Her literary style is unique, and although women's issues and female identity figure prominently in her works, the dilemmas of her characters are not exclusively gender-specific, but of a more universally human nature. Her novels and essays deal with issues of exile and migration, economic hardship, and psychological turmoil. She studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and remained a dedicated and meticulous writer throughout her life. Several of her works are discussed in detail in this tome: 'The Last Cup' (1917), 'The Man' (1905), 'In the Waiting Room' (1903-1904), 'My Soul in Exile' (1922), 'The Gardens of Silihtar' (1935), and two essays, 'Agony of A People; (1917) and 'Le role de la femme armenienne pendant la guerre' (1922). All these works, and her widely read account of the Cilician massacres of 1909, 'Among the Ruins', reveal her masterful understanding of the human psyche, her compassionate soul, her artful use of the language, and her genius in portraying multi-dimensional, complex characters. Few other writers' lives so poignantly embody the tragic fate of the Armenians, as does Zabel Yesayian's heartbreaking life story of perpetual exile and tragic death. In April of 1915, she escaped arrest by the Ottoman authorities only because she was out visiting when the gendarmes came for her. She fled to Bulgaria, leaving her young son in Constantinople with her mother, while her husband and daughter were in Paris. From Bulgaria, she traveled to the Caucasus and Cilicia to help care for Armenian orphans and refugees. She resettled in Paris in 1921, and continued writing and publishing. In 1933, she moved to Yerevan at the invitation of the Soviet Armenian authorities, where she lectured on French literature at the Yerevan State University. But this was yet another short respite from exile. During the Stalinist purges of 1936-1937, she was arrested and exiled to Siberia, where she eventually died in prison. We know neither the exact date (1942 or 1943), nor the exact circumstances of her death. SOULS IN EXILE After 1922, exile took on utterly new meanings for the Armenians. The refugee communities deported from Western Armenia settled mostly in Syria and Lebanon, their realities shaped for a very long time by the most basic forms of physical survival. Eastern Armenia was Sovietized, and developed under very different social and political constructs. Nevertheless, new voices did eventually emerge. Siran Seza, Las, Maro Markarian, Silva Kaputikian; Victoria Rowe touches very briefly upon the work and social circumstances of these authors at the end of her book. A second volume of A History of Armenian Women's Writing would be most welcome indeed. -- Hermig Yogurtian lives in Montreal and is involved in the local Armenian community. She is a researcher in issues of survivor memory and cross-generational transmission of trauma, especially as it affects women.