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How Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi Walked Her Novel Before She Wrote It

by Brendan Dowling on March 1, 2018

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s stunning Call Me Zebra introduces an unforgettable character with Zebra, a 22-year-old literary prodigy from Iran. When Zebra’s father dies, she decides to retrace her family’s journey from Iran to New York. She soon finds herself in Catalonia, where she becomes entangled with Ludo, a hapless philologist who challenges Zebra’s more intellectually insular existence. Steeped in literature, Zebra confidently holds forth on topics such as displacement, war, and sexuality in a manner that is sure to captivate readers. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s was named one of the National Book Award’s “35 Under 35,” and Call Me Zebra was named a Most Anticipated Title of 2018 by the Boston Globe, Nylon, Book Riot, and The Millions. Van der Vliet Oloomi spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on February 17th, 2018.

Even though it deals with these big dark themes, the book is very funny, and that’s in large part to Zebra’s narration. How did you settle on her voice?

It was a long process that involved drafting probably twice as many pages that made it into the book. A lot of it involved swinging between this really vibrant and capricious voice that was all humor to the opposite end of the spectrum, where the grief and the sense of alienation and loneliness was coming into the foreground. So it took a long time for me to figure out how to marry those two voices together and weave them in a way that honored the complexity of the character. In the process I was reading a lot of different writers like Cervantes. I read a lot of Nietzsche, who’s highly stylized, deadly serious, but also hilarious. And then Salvador Dalì, who writes these beautifully megalomaniac pieces that are also really funny, but he’s talking about serious issues at the same time. Reading things you wouldn’t think would go together helped me. Somewhere in the intersection among those books I found Zebra’s voice.

That seems to call to mind Zebra’s whole idea of the matrix of literature, where everything is connected and she’s being guided by these different authors of the past.

The matrix of literature is her manifesto to the world and it’s also a way for her to become embodied again. She’s really concerned with people who have been disinterested in books or literature, or who have burned books or literary history during periods of historical shifts. She talks about the Spanish Inquisition, and the Catalan being oppressed by the dictatorship under Franco, and Iranian intellectual history. So in a way she’s sort of digesting this literature and consuming it. Part of it is that she feels so abstracted as a Middle Eastern body. This is her way of coming back into herself and taking up space in the world in a way that feels empowering to her. Even though it’s excessive to a point, her very survival depends on that excess.

The book follows Zebra retracing her family’s fleeing from Iran. I read about how during your Fulbright fellowship, you went on “literary pilgrimages to sites of exile.” Can you talk about what those entailed?

I basically started reading the works of Joesp Pla, who’s a twentieth century Catalan writer. He’s a very complex character. He wrote in Catalan and then switched to Spanish during the Franco years. He was a very cosmopolitan character and journalist who then became a total misanthrope and retreated to Palafrugell, a village a little inland from the sea.

I was reading his work, and there are just meticulous descriptions of the landscape. He used to go and sit in these spots and try to transcribe the landscape onto the page the way that a painter might go onsite with their easel. That felt compelling to me, so I decided to retrace all of the roads that he had walked when he had first returned to Palafrugell during the 1918 pandemic. I actually started doing the paths that are in his novel The Gray Notebook. I also retraced the path from Palafrugell to Girona, that he traveled with his donkey La Perla when he was a young man. So that’s how the idea started. From there I was reading a lot of Walter Benjamin. He died in Portbou, right at the border of France and Spain, so I did a pilgrimage there and went to the memorial sculpture that’s there in his honor. I was just traveling the same roads, reading their texts. So in a way I walked the novel before I wrote it.

There’s such a sense of place in the book. That physicality of the journey show up so clearly.

One of the aspects of the drama of exile, at least for me, is the sense of having your memories be displaced from your physical location, in the sense that the landscapes we live in are deposits of our own collective memory, our personal memory, and our historical memory. There’s residue of history in the landscape. If you can’t encounter those external points of reference, then you’re left to to grapple with all of the emotional aspects. It can feel really disorienting. I talk about it as the “psychosis of exile.” Part of it is the physical and abrupt detachment from this sense of place that holds the markers that make you feel coherent with the external environment. There’s a sense of coherence between your internal world and your external world. So that’s where the interest in this radical regionalism came from. Also in a world where we’re existing so much in the virtual plane, it felt like a gesture of a recovery of space and I guess a warning too. (laughs) As a marginalized body I think we’re more aware of the way space operates both overtly and covertly.

That seems to play into not only the manifesto that Zebra is writing, but also the manifesto that’s been passed down through her family for generations. She has such a strong sense of oral tradition because so much of their family’s physical belongings have been destroyed.

She’s in preservation mode, right? She has these objects that she’s inherited that are tattered bits of pieces. Things like the samovar and the old stained rug and she’s still carrying that around. She carries her father in a suitcase! It’s just part of the macabre humor.

Part of the book’s sly humor is discovered when you read the blurbs on the back. Quim Monzó is one of the writers who provides a blurb, and he’s also a character in the novel, which I’m guessing is a literary first. How did he make his way into the novel?

I got the Fulbright to research Joesp Pla, but I was reading Quim Monzó’s work before I went. I became even more intrigued with his work while I was there. He’s such a funny character who’s purposefully duplicitous in a way that for me embodies the mischief of fiction. He’s the kind of writer I admire because of the way that he plays with the line between fact and fiction, with what is life and what is art. I reached out to him through a friend. He’s notoriously difficult to get a hold of, but he came through very quickly in a big way. I have a lot of love for him for that. To have him also blurb the book was especially fun.

I read about how when you wrote your first novel, Fra Keeler, you wrote in six-minute segments while you were blindfolded. What did you learn from that process and did it have any influence in how you approached Call Me Zebra?

I had been writing for a long time, but that was the first time the plane took off, you know? I was actually talking about this with some of the editors of LA Review of Books yesterday, but I kind of go stupid when I’m writing. My brain turns off or goes to this other plane of existence where I feel like I’m transcribing. I think that that quality is definitely in both Fra Keeler and Call Me Zebra. The characters are motormouths and they exist as embodied characters that feel real, but they also have a kind of “voice-from-elsewhere” quality about them. So I learned to train myself to give way to that with Fra Keeler. Part of the reason I wrote with my eyes closed is I was really trying to feel transported by the voice and stop my conscious mind from editing the sentences while I had his attention. I definitely don’t need to write blindfolded anymore. I can enter that space now pretty easily, but it was a great process. It was a lot of fun.

And finally, what role have public libraries played in your life?

I love libraries. The libraries that I love the most and have the most experiences with are the national libraries in Florence and Catalonia. There are so many books, stacks and stack of books, that are hidden in the basement or some annex. You have to request the books and they pull them up on this old dumbwaiter I love that moment when the books are being pulled up and you see them sitting there like caviar on the plate. It’s such a wonderful feeling. They also give you a really hard time. You have to prove that you’re worthy of accessing these books. It’s really prohibitive in a lot of ways, but it also makes the feeling of achieving and getting the books so much more exhilarating. That’s really different from the experience I have in libraries in the states, where you just get a card, you go in, there’s the book, and you’re very welcome to check it out. It’s very democratic in that sense and it’s just wonderful. Preserving those spaces where people get to sit alongside books, whether they’re reading or just looking at them, is so important. It just feels like the oldest museum in the world. I hope that those spaces exist and people make use of them.