A CONVERSATION WITH AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI
BY GARRETT BIGGS
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Fra Keeler (Dorothy, a publishing project). She is the winner of a 2015 Whiting Award, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, and a Fulbright Fellowship in Fiction to Catalonia, Spain.
Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Guernica, BOMB, and the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal, among other places. She has lived in Iran, Spain, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and currently teaches in the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame. She splits her time between South Bend, Indiana, and Florence, Italy. Fra Keeler was published in Italian by Giulio Perrone Editore in 2015.
Her latest novel, Call Me Zebra, was published in February 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It has since been praised by The New York Times Book Review as “ferociously intelligent . . . with intricacy and humor.” The following conversation took place on February 19, a few days after the book’s release.
Garrett Biggs: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. I loved Call Me Zebra. It was such a pleasure to read, and I thought it was an interesting direction to take after Fra Keeler. Both have such distinct first-person voices, but Fra Keeler to me was opaque and disorienting, whereas this book was epic and loud. So I guess to begin, my question is: how did you go about discovering this voice, or was it clear what the voice needed to be from the beginning of your process?
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi: It wasn’t clear at all. It took me about seven years to write the book, and I started conceiving of the idea when I got the Fulbright to go to Catalonia in 2010. The reason I went there was to study Josep Pla’s work, and to inhabit the landscapes that he was describing in his work. I was hoping to find out what the relationship might be between landscape and historical memory in Catalonia, and to interrogate the notion that space, as a cultural palimpsest, has a consciousness of its own. Once I was there, the project evolved. I started going on the kind of literary pilgrimages that you see in the second half of the novel; for example, I read Walter Benjamin, and then went to Portbou, where he committed suicide while he was waiting to get into Spain from France during the war.
I had returned to Spain—a place I had lived in as a child and then a young adult—in order to excavate my own buried memories. I spent a little over a year there going on literary pilgrimages, reading, drafting. It took three years after that to really land on the narrator’s voice; the pages I had up until that point were either totally boisterous or just very sullen, and it took a while to realize they were two sides of the same coin. I had to find the very narrow, narrow thread of her actual voice, and once I had it, it consumed me for three years more. And there it was: the book.
GB: To me, Zebra’s voice is this consistent through-line that kind of holds the text together, and I’m drawn to the fact that wherever she travels her voice won’t—for lack of a better word—“assimilate” to the landscape. To me, that was such a great example of form echoing function in a book about exile.
AV: That’s such a great way to read it. Zebra is really obsessed with language and the way that new landscapes force us to invent new selves. Especially when you are an exile . . . one of the ideas she’s trying to grapple with is that there are multiple selves born of exile and that they act as foils or imposters for one’s original self, if such a thing can even be said to exist; she’s mistrustful of the notion of an “original” self, hyperaware of the self as an invention. Though her voice is consistent, I do think it echoes the writers she’s reading and the movement of the landscape she is traversing.
GB: Absolutely. And she’s so smart, so bookish, it’s easy to forget she’s absolutely hilarious. Whether or not she’s always aware of it. What role did humor play in your writing, or maybe all of your writing in general?
AV: Well, it was sort of what kept me alive while I was writing this. Because, you know, it was a difficult book to write in the sense that I wept alongside her and I was laughing with her, and sometimes laughing at her, but only rarely. For the most part, I felt at one with her and grateful that she was willing to hang out with me long enough to let me transcribe her voice. I wasn’t going to judge her or put her off. The humor is what keeps her alive, too. It’s such a macabre sense of humor and I think that was present in Fra Keeler, but much more buried and subtle. But I think the sort of humor comes from the strangeness of her internal reality and what’s actually happening in the reality of the story world.
GB: You say that, and I can’t help but think of how the airplane scene jumped out at me: when she hits turbulence and “descends into the matrix of literature.” That was such a great moment. And you know, on the subject of funny, bookish writers: Call Me Zebra—it wears its influences so much on its sleeve, but there was one author who I felt had an impression on the book but was one of the few not mentioned, and that was Roberto Bolaño.
AV: Oh, right!
GB: Yeah, his work has the same macabre humor, but Call Me Zebra relishes in the love of literature in a way that reminds me deeply of him. So am I crazy, or does he fit alongside Beckett and Cervantes in this book’s constellation of influences?
AV: Absolutely, he does. He is a big influence for me. I sort of came into literature through Latin American writers, the boom writers in particular. So I was reading Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and you can hear their work and how they’ve left their mark on me. And then Bolaño is a more recent love that I will be cherishing probably for the rest of my writing life. He’s phenomenal. And he was really good friends with Enrique Vila-Matas, who also does this play on Cervantes. He’s this Catalan—well, I don’t know if he would say he’s a Catalan writer—he’s Catalan, but he writes in Spanish and lives in Madrid. So he’s in there, too.
GB: If Fra Keeler was your Distant Star, it seems to me Call Me Zebra is your Amulet or The Savage Detectives, even.
AV: Yes, I love both of those books. Absolutely.
GB: Definitely. I’d be remiss, though, if at some point, I didn’t bring up the relationship with Ludo Bembo, since it provides such an emotional centerpiece to Call Me Zebra. So, for a novel concerned with such massive ambitions—geopolitics and exile, and as she puts it, “the great void of literature”—I am fascinated that so much of this book is built around a love story. Did you know from the beginning this was going to be such a major part of the book?
AV: Yeah, I did. Actually, Ludo’s character and those final scenes are what I wrote first. And I couldn’t figure out what they were or where they fit in the grand scheme of things until I was about 75 percent done with the process. But the love story, I think, it’s not a typical love story, right?
It has some of the elements of the romance genre but it really is a philosophical question about love when you are in an exile’s body and how it might distort your intimate relationships and your ability to be vulnerable and be close to another human being. In her case, in particular. And I think she’s asking these big questions like: how can I prove I exist?
She’s had all these pasts that feel remote to her and all of this overwhelming sense of loss and suicidal ideation. I think she’s struggling to really believe that these things happen, or that she actually exists in these places. And that’s part of her obsession with digging away at the landscape. So it’s really difficult for her to be conscious of her impact on Ludo, or even believe that he sees her in any way. I think it’s about also the obsession of this erotic desire they share, as a kind contrapuntal to all the rest of her disembodiment. It’s sort of like consuming literature and having sex are literally what force her into this radical embodiment. She’s been trying to resist it all along because she hasn’t had permission to take up space in the world.
GB: And, too, it kind of breaks that first Hosseini Commandment, which is presented toward the beginning: “Trust nobody and love nothing except literature.” I love the story moves away from that, and you can see those two elements of her past and her consciousness at odds with each other.
AV: I mean, she’s a very stubborn character, but she’s not static. She definitely moves toward a broader version of herself. I don’t want to say better, because that feels very punitive or unreal. But I think that she definitely acquires new sensibilities and begins to imagine the possibility of fleeting hope, which is already a lot for her at the end of the book.
GB: Yeah, and especially when she begins in this family, this incredibly literary family—I couldn’t help but wonder while reading it whether you were as surrounded by books as a young person as she was.
AV: No, I wasn’t. I didn’t grow up in a house with a lot of books. And I didn’t see people reading a lot. I grew up around a very elegant and worldly family, but not necessarily bookish. They were cultured and curious people, really intrigued by music and poetry, but it wasn’t the kind of thing where I would see people reading all the time. I was definitely an oddball.
GB: Were there any particular pieces of art you felt had a big impact on you at that age?
AV: Well, the big thing that had an impact on me was that my mom, and my grandma to a certain extent, both consulted Hafez’s poetry as a kind of omen. It’s a tradition in Iran, a sort of poetic form of fortune-telling, where you might ask a question of the book and then open it at random, and read the quote that you have opened up to as a message or response from the universe. I know it’s an old Latin practice, as well, to consult books in this prophetic way. That left an impression on me, of course, because that was the one book, which no matter how often we moved, made the move with us. So, I think Zebra’s habit of consulting books as a prophecy definitely comes from my own life.
GB: As you were saying that, I was thinking about Zebra carrying around The Hung Mallard with her father. Now, to switch gears slightly, I was curious, since we were on the subject of being a young artist, what advice you would give for emerging writers?
AV: I would say read a lot. And read outside your comfort zone.
GB: I have to say it doesn’t surprise me that would be your answer, considering the wide breadth of influences in this book. You know, you’ve made such a dramatic shift between your first two novels. I can only imagine what you have in store for your readers next. I don’t want to be gauche and ask you to describe what you’re working on, but I did want to ask what you think your current literary concerns are right now.
AV: I think an interest with investigating exile and identity and the poetics of space is definitely going to continue to be a part of my work, and I’ve been writing essays, trying to produce narratives out of memories that feel both factual and fictional, and to consider what that means. What is the ethos of representation in auto-fiction? I’m also concerned with the recovery of space in a world where we spend so much of our time in virtual reality.
Garrett Biggs is managing editor of The Adroit Journal. His most recent prose appears in CutBank, The Offing, and Nashville Review, among other journals. He lives in Denver, Colorado, and is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches creative writing.
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