Born Zabel Hovhannesian in Scutari (nowadays Uskudar), a suburb of Constantinople, she attended the local Surp Khach School, and her aim was to become a writer. She managed to go to Paris at the age of seventeen, in 1895, and study literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne. Her prolific literary career started in the same year with a prose poem published in the literary periodical Tsaghik, published by Arshak Chobanian in Constantinople. She went on to publish short stories, literary essays, articles, and translations, both in French and in Armenian, in periodicals such as Mercure de France, Masis, Anahit, and Arevelian Mamoul. She would also publish two novels, In the Waiting Room (1903) and Decent People (1907).
She first signed with her maiden name, and soon, after she married painter Dikran Yesayan (1874-1921), she adopted her nom de plume that made her famous. They would have two children, Sophie and Hrant.
After the Ottoman Revolution of 1908, Zabel Yesayan returned to Constantinople, where she was active in literary and public affairs. After the Adana massacres of 1909, she was a member of the Investigative Commission set up by the Armenian Patriarchate and was sent to Cilicia in this capacity. The tragic fate of the Armenians in Cilicia inspired her masterpiece testimony of the catastrophe, Amid the Ruins (1911), as well as a series of articles, a novella, and short stories.
She was the only woman in the list of intellectuals to be arrested and deported on the fateful night of April 23-24, 1915, but she was able to avoid that dubious honor and to find refuge in Bulgaria months later. She was later joined by her mother and her son (her daughter lived with her husband in Paris).
She went to the Caucasus, and worked actively for the next three years, both in Tiflis and Baku, gathering testimonies of survivors, which she also translated in order to provide information to the French press. After reaching Paris in 1919, she went to Cilicia and Beirut in 1920-1921 to collaborate in the relocation of refugees and orphans.
Returning to Paris, she published the novellas The Last Cup and My Soul Exiled, the latter being another of her best works. She published other works in the 1920s, when she also left the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, of which she had been a member, and took a pro-Soviet orientation. She visited Soviet Armenia in 1926 and wrote down her impressions in a travelogue entitled Prometheus Unchained (1928). Finally, she settled down in Yerevan in 1933 with her children. She taught French literature at Yerevan State University and participated in the first Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow (1934). She published two books during her last years, most importantly her childhood memoir, The Gardens of Silihdar (1935), considered her masterpiece.
Zabel Yesayan, holding the Armenian Tricolor, with her family in Paris.
As she wrote in The Gardens of Silihdar, “... I take refuge in them [the gardens] every time ominous dark clouds pile up on the horizon of my life.” Perhaps that helped her resist almost six years of exile and physical and moral suffering. One unconfirmed version says that she was drowned in the Caspian Sea in late 1942 or early 1943, at the age of 65. But her works lived to turn her into the “great lady” of Armenian literature.