Zabelle: A Novel

Zabelle: A Novel

by Nancy Kricorian
Zabelle: A Novel

Zabelle: A Novel

by Nancy Kricorian


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Zabelle begins in a suburb of Boston with the quiet death of Zabelle Chahasbanian, an elderly widow and grandmother whose history remains vastly unknown to her family. But as the story shifts back in time to Zabelle’s childhood in the waning days of Ottoman Turkey, where she survives the 1915 Armenian genocide and near starvation in the Syrian desert, an unforgettable character begins to emerge. Zabelle’s journey encompasses years in an Istanbul orphanage, a fortuitous adoption by a rich Armenian family, and an arranged marriage to an Armenian grocer who brings her to America where the often comic interactions and battles she wages are forever colored by shadows from the long-lost world of her past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802143808
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 09/08/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Nancy Kricorian was raised in Watertown, Massachusetts, which has had a large Armenian community since the 1920s. With degrees from Dartmouth College and Columbia University, Kricorian is a widely published and award-winning poet.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

The Tin Cup

(Ras Al-Ain, 1916)

I remember what it was to be a child—you see the world in pieces. It was like a kaleidoscope, and every time you looked, the colors fell together in a different way, making another pattern. What I know now makes one kind of sense, but what I knew then made another picture.

The day I was born, my father wrote my name and the date in the family Bible, as was the custom. We lived in a house at the top of a hill, and my grandparents shared a walled yard with us where we had a garden. It was my job to pick mint from a bed that grew along the stone wall. After I gave the leaves to my mother, my fingers smelled of crushed mint all afternoon. We had a kitten that I named Moug, because she was gray like a mouse and had a small pink nose. The kitten sat in the lowest branch of the apricot tree, watching me and my cousins play hand games in the shade. The name of our town was Hadjin.

My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was very small, and together we made a doll out of my father's old shirt. The doll had black yarn hair, black buttons for eyes, and a tiny scarlet mouth my grandmother embroidered with satin thread, and her name was Zaza. My mother made a dress for me and one for Zaza from the same cloth.

I was too small to go to school with my cousins, but my father showed me how to write my name. The letters were like insects walking across the paper. Above my name I drew a picture of me, and Zaza, and Moug, and our apricot tree. The apricots were soft like the baby Krikor's cheeks. His hair was very light, almost blond. He sat in my mother's lap, clappinghis hands while I danced.

In the afternoon, when Krikor and I lay down to rest, my grandmother told me stories from the Bible, about Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the whale, Queen Esther and how she saved her people. How Lot's wife was turned to salt. How Jesus fed the multitude with the loaves and fishes. She also told about devs and djinns, some who were evil and some full of mischief.

My cousin Shushan and I got the idea one day to give the baby a bath in the big earthenware pickle jar in the yard. We had taken off the baby's clothes and were ready to put his feet in the brine when my grandmother came out into the yard, shaking the broom, yelling at us. Khent ek? Are you crazy? What kind of djinns are you girls? She grabbed Krikor and started chasing us around the yard, the baby in one arm and the broom in the other hand. The baby peed all over her dress, and my cousin and I could hardly run because she looked so funny. My grandmother caught up, and the four of us tumbled in a pile, laughing.

One day my father put some clothes in a sack and left the house. My mother was crying into her apron and rocking back and forth in the chair. Grandmother was pulling on her cheeks, because my uncle had departed with my father, so both her sons were gone. I asked, "Where are they going?" No one heard me. Not very long after that, the rest of the family made bundles and got ready to leave our house. My mother was kneading her hands like dough as she made piles of things to take and things not to take. She kept moving objects from one side to another, and back again. Would two pots be enough? The bedding was too bulky for us each to have one, but how many could sleep on one doshag? Should she bring my father's winter coat?

We loaded down the donkey and filled the wagon with sacks of rice, flour, bulgur, and dried fruit. Some clothes, a few blankets. My mother cried about leaving the rugs and the wooden chest she had brought with her from her mother's home. In the chest were the wedding towels she had embroidered as a girl and the needle-lace doilies she had worked. Each knotted loop in the lace was the size of a mustard seed. Strung together, they formed flowers, the sun, and stars.

My grandfather tied a tin cup to a string and made a necklace of it for me. Moug we had to leave behind, and the Bible stayed in its place on the shelf. I took Zaza with me, but somewhere along the road she was lost. Maybe some other little girl picked her up, I thought. She couldn't be lying in the mud under the wheels and feet.

We followed the ones ahead of us and were followed by those behind us, all the Armenians walking together. We abandoned our wagon when we reached the mountains. We climbed hills and mountains, descended into steep valleys, and went up again. It was cold at night; sometimes it poured down rain, and we sat holding a blanket over our heads. The donkey died, so we took what we could carry. To keep us moving, Turkish soldiers yelled from horseback and beat stragglers with whips. Local Kurds traded food for our last coins and my mother's earrings. They were gold earrings with rubies at the center. The sun rose and fell like a gold coin. Light and shadow leaped from fires at night. Grown-ups talked in a language that I knew but said things I couldn't understand. My grandmother whispered to me, "Hush, hush now. Go to sleep." Sleeping under God's own stars, but God's eyes were elsewhere. Who was watching over us? Who knew where we were going? Who knew where my father was and why a man fell down with blood pouring from his side?

Zabelle. Copyright © by Nancy Kricorian. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide

About this Guide
The material that follows is intended to enhance your group's discussion of Nancy Kricorian's ZABELLE. We hope they provide you with fresh ways of looking at this exceptional novel.

About this Book
ZABELLE begins in a suburb of Boston, with the quiet death of Zabelle Chahasbanian, an elderly widow and grandmother. The story then quickly shifts back in time to Zabelle's childhood in the waning days of Ottoman Turkey, where she survives the 1915 Armenian Genocide and near starvation in the Syrian desert. Zabelle's journey encompasses years in an Istanbul orphanage, a fortuitous adoption by a rich Armenian family, and an arranged marriage to an Armenian grocer, who brings her to America. Through each of the often comic interactions and battles she wages in her new country-with a domineering mother-in-law, Americanized children, and the man she secretly loves-images and shadows from a long-lost world accompany her.

Praise for this Book
"ZABELLE, like [Toni] Morrison's best work, is a lovely and artful piece...In spite of Zabelle's massive sweep, it's the intimacy and the care of the writing that truly impress." -Time Out New York

"Affecting...haunting and convincing...there's a fairy tale quality to the prose-a sense of wondrous and terrible things happening apart from human volition." -The New Yorker

"A mother is never truly known to those she loves most-because she does not reveal her secret sorrows and dreams to her own babies...But the full and dramatic details of Zabelle Chahasbanian's life...are a treasure to discover in this elegant novel." -Redbook

"Zabelle's story is rich andconvincingly rendered...Zabelle poignantly renders the generational differences, the pull of America, the slow fading of the old culture, the prejudices encountered and the hardships overcome." -San Francisco Chronicle

"An epic tale told with admirable economy and grace...[Zabelle] is the kind of character who instantly captures your heart." -The Baltimore Sun

Questions for Discussion:
1. The book's epigraph, Three apples fell from heaven, is a variation on the closing formula of an Armenian fairy tale, akin to "and they all lived happily ever after." Why do you think the author chose this epigraph?

2. The prologue begins by recounting Zabelle's story from the third person point of view, but in the first chapter, the narration shifts to first person as Zabelle tells her own life story. Why do you think the author chose to begin the story from this point of view? Why does she begin at the end of Zabelle's story, only to jump back to the beginning?

3. In the prologue, Zabelle searches for a tin cup, a hand mirror, a set of combs, a silver thimble, a brooch, and an envelope with a Worchester postmark. What is the significance of each of these objects?

4. After her mother dies in the desert, Zabelle's almost gives up her struggle to survive until Arsinee appears. Later in the book, Arsinee again appears at a critical moment. What roles do Zabelle and Arsinee play in each other's lives. What role does Arsinee play in the novel itself?

5. While the old country custom of "the bride has lost her tongue" (p. 63) was no longer formally practiced when Zabelle married Toros, how does this custom echo in Zabelle's dealings with her mother-in-law, Vartanoush? Is there any remnant in Zabelle's own attitude toward her daughter-in-law, Helen?

6. Zabelle's romance with Moses Bodjakanian at the shirt factory has as much to do with her unhappiness at home as it does with Moses himself. What does Moses represent to Zabelle?

7. Zabelle has different relationships with each of her three children-Moses, Jack, and Joy. How do her feelings toward each of them shape the directions of their lives? How are these relationships satisfying or disappointing to Zabelle? What about her relationships with her grandchildren?

8. While Zabelle is framed by a historical tragedy, the book is also full of humor-Moses' divine revelation about plastic surgery, the comic clash of cultures at Jack's wedding, the funny conversations between Zabelle and Arsinee. How does humor function in the novel?

9. When Joy asks her mother, "Do you love Pa?" (p. 208), Zabelle isn't sure how to answer, thinking, "It was like asking the elbow if it loves the wrist." How does the relationship between Zabelle and Toros change over the years? How does it compare to the courtship between Zabelle's parents described in the Epilogue?

10. The day before he dies, Toros confesses to Zabelle that he witnessed his father's murder and did nothing to help him (p. 223). This is the first time he has spoken of his experiences in the Genocide, and Zabelle, too, has always remained silent about that chapter in her own life. Why did they never discuss this tragedy? How did it permeate the atmosphere of their home?

11. The epilogue-a tale of Hadjin-is written in the style of a fairytale. Rather than telling the story of Zabelle's life, it returns to a previous generation to bring the story full circle. What does the epilogue tell the reader about the way of life that was lost because of the Genocide? How does Zabelle "live to remember and forget the tale" (p. 237)? What does she remember and what does she forget?

About the Author:
NANCY KRICORIAN was raised in Watertown, Massachusetts, which has had a large Armenian community since the 1920s. With degrees from Dartmouth College and Columbia University, Kricorian is a widely published and award-winning poet who currently lives in New York City with her husband, James Schamus, and their two daughters.

Author statement:
I wrote Zabelle as a tribute to my grandmother, Mariam Kodjababian Kricorian, and to the Armenian women of her generation who were Genocide survivors, resourceful immigrant wives and mothers and the backbones of their families, churches, and communities, which were reconstituted in the New World. I also wanted to honor the memory of the lifelong friendship between my grandmother and Alice Kharibian, who had been with her in the desert. As we say in Armenian, Bidi hishenk. We will remember.

About the Armenian Genocide:
On April 24, 1915, more than 200 Armenian religious, political, and intellectual leaders were arrested in Constantinople (Istanbul), taken to the interior of Turkey and murdered. In the eight years that followed, from 1915 to 1923, 1.5 million Armenians perished, and more than 500,000 were exiled from their homes as part of a systematic campaign instituted by the Young Turk government. Before 1914, more than two million Armenians lived in Turkey. By the end of 1923, virtually the entire Armenian population of Anatolia, Western Armenia, and Cilicia had been either killed or deported.


Aghchig, mayr, hayr unis? little girl, do you have a mother or father?
aghchigs my girl
Aman im Mercy me
basterma cured, spied beef
Bitdi, getdi done and gone
beoregs savory filled pastry
Cheh no
cheoregs sweet, yeasted rolls
Der Hayr Father (to address priest)
dev devil, monster
djinns demons
dolma stuffed vegetable
doshag soft, rolled-up mattress
Eh leh lepeleh... Turkish children's song
Esh donkey, ass
gadu cat
ghadayif pastry of shredded wheat, honey, and nuts
ghurabia butter cookie
hammam Turkish bath
Hanum Mistress
jajikh cold yogurt-cucumber soup
jarbig clever, resourceful
Khelatsi aghchigs my beautiful girl
Khent ek? Are you crazy? (plural)
Khent es? Are you crazy? (singular)
kufteh Armenian meatball
lahmejun Armenian pizza with ground beef or lamb
mantabour dumpling soup
manti dumpling
Mayrig Mom
odar non-Armenian
pakhlava pastry of filo dough, honey and nuts
poghokagans Protestants
saj griddle
Shad keghetsig es You are very beautiful
Shnorhagal em Thank you
tahn yogurt and water beverage
Vay alas, oh
Vay babum oh my father (idiom)
Voch No
yavrum sweetie, my darling
Yes hay em I am Armenian

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