Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Zabelle C. Boyajian

Zabelle C. Boyajian, 1912
Zabelle C. Boyajian was an Armenian painter, writer and translator at the turn of the 20th century.

Biographical information on Zabelle isn't widely available. We know the basic facts and some of her publications and major works, but it is difficult to find out the smaller details of her life. She was born in Diyarbakır in the Ottoman Empire in 1873 to an Armenian father and a mother of English descent.  In 1885, her father was killed in the Hamidian Massacres, prompting her mother to move with her and her brother to London. After the move, Zabelle enrolled in the Slade School of Fine art and began writing and illustrating her own books.

In 1901, Zabelle published her first novel under the pen name Varteni. The book, titled Yestere: The Romance of a Life (Esther in English) dealt with the massacres in Sasun, where the Armenian resistance movement first took a stand against the Ottoman army.

In 1910 and 1912, Zabelle had the first exhibitions of her paintings in London. She would later go on to exhibit her artwork in Germany, Egypt, France, Italy and Belgium between 1920 and 1950.

In 1916, she published what is her best surviving work, Armenian Legends and Poems. Zabelle compiled and translated (along with a few other translators) this collection of folk songs, legends and poems, knowing that the stories treasured by her people were at risk. By this time, the Armenian Genocide was well underway in the homeland she'd left behind. The first edition of Zabelle's book raised money to aid refugees from the ongoing atrocities.

Zabelle traveled widely and published a book about her travels to Greece in 1938. In 1948, she published her translation of Avetik Isahakian's epic poem Abu Lala Mahari. She also wrote many essays about classic literature, Armenian literature and comparative essays about Armenian and English literature. Zabelle died in 1957 at the age of 83 or 84.

Through her efforts to preserve the legends and poetry of Armenian, Zabelle has reached across the decades to ensure a vast diaspora has access to these important literary and historical artifacts. In the introduction to Armenian Legends and Poems, Zabelle wrote, "In preparing this book of Armenian legends and poems my principal object was to publish it as a memorial to an unhappy nation."

Zabelle succeeded in that goal and achieved one she might not have expected. As the great-granddaughter of refugees of the Armenian Genocide and a lover of books, I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to find the Armenian stories that I don't know, the ones that were lost when my ancestors were scattered. Zabelle's collection was the first I found nearly a century after she first published it.

The young Zabelle lost her father, her home and surely many family members and friends to the repeated massacres and genocide of the Armenian people. Though she was far from her home and her people, she fought back. She fought by publishing the work of a group of people who were being slaughtered while it was happening, thereby raising money and awareness. She fought by keeping stories alive and preserving the very heritage the Ottoman armies sought to eliminate. As I write this, I sit here with a copy of her book beside me. Her efforts may not be widely known to history, but they are not lost.

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