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Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi was born under the sign of exile. The author’s striking name combines Persian and Dutch, evoking two very different worlds which seep into her work in unwieldy and whimsical ways. Reading the Iranian-American’s new novel Call Me Zebra is a journey through what the writer calls the “psychosis of exile”—a dark descent into the depths of an identity crisis Oloomi is all too familiar with.
The book recounts the tale of “Zebra” Hosseini, a 22-year-old “literary terrorist” who along with her father flees a war in Iran that claims her mother’s life. (“Iran was no longer a place to think,” Oloomi writes. “Not even the Caspian was safe. We had to flee. We had to go into exile. We departed: numb, astonished, bewildered.”)
Riddled with grief and bitter nostalgia, the Hosseinis start anew and settle in New York, seeking refuge only in books. When Zebra’s father passes away, she embarks on a “Grand Tour of Exile” by way of Barcelona to retrace the steps of her family’s dislocation, and to preserve the Hosseinis’ literary legacy, now threatened not only by oceans but by a heightened sense of mourning and loss. Zebra repeatedly reminds the reader that she carries this peculiar responsibility as she is the last of a long line of “autodidacts, anarchists, and atheists.”
The extraordinary expedition loosely mimics Oloomi’s own life movements. The author refers to herself as an “immigrant who happens to be an American citizen,” in part because in her 34 years, she has lived in Iran, Europe, and the Arab world; she later resettled in the US and presently resides in South Bend, Indiana, where she alternates between writing and teaching. Oloomi has said she is unmoored to the point of feeling she’s from nowhere. Her nonlinear roots seem to have precipitated some of that struggle: her father, once a sea captain, had “nomadic tendencies,” and her mother departed Iran during the revolution. She was born soon after.
“Being someone who’s an outsider, there are so many ways in which the world acts on you or assigns narratives to you.”
It is the Iranian chapter of Oloomi’s childhood that seems most unresolved. Returning to the Islamic Republic as a writer would, she says, “be too risky,” so when Oloomi decided to take a break from the US in 2010, she applied to and secured a Fulbright fellowship to research Catalan writer Quim Monzó in Barcelona (Monzó makes a delightful cameo appearance in the novel). There, she went on “literary pilgrimages to sites of exile,” delving into the works of authors who fled Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War and taking a particular interest in Walter Benjamin, who is thought to have committed suicide along the French-Spanish border after fleeing the Nazi invasion of France.
Much of Call Me Zebra’s transcendent quality is rooted in that trip. “I was traveling with these texts, and it was quite conceptual because that was the beginning of my descent into exploring my own feelings about being adrift in the world,” Oloomi says.
It took Oloomi some seven years to complete Call Me Zebra, an arduous process that saw her throw away twice as many pages as there are in the novel—by contrast, she wrote her first book, the equally disorienting novella Fra Keeler, in six-minute spurts over a 12-month period, with her eyes closed. When Oloomi first put pen to paper for the new novel, Barack Obama was about a year into his presidency. While the political milieu was relatively euphoric at the time, Oloomi was still reeling from George Bush’s tenure—she and her family had experienced both “covert and overt” bouts of racism. (“Keep on bombing Iraq and invading Afghanistan, strangling the region, and there will be more of us!” Oloomi writes in Call Me Zebra).
“I was struggling in the U.S. under the Bush era, and because I’ve moved around and have always had a leg in Europe, I wanted to go back as a way of excavating that part of my identity—that buried self,” she says of her time in Spain. “Once I was there, these feelings of deep homelessness came to the surface. The book was painful to write.”
Oloomi acknowledges juggling her various selves—Persian, American, and European—can be a jarring process fraught with guilt. Finding one’s voice as an immigrant “is like trying to put a camel through the eye of a needle,” she explains. “Being someone who’s an outsider, there are so many ways in which the world acts on you or assigns narratives to you.”
Zebra’s journey brings to mind that of Mustafa Sa’eed, the protagonist in Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966). This seminal postcolonial novel tells the story of a young Sudanese man who makes his way to England from North Africa to pursue an education and work before later returning to Sudan. The tale boldly reverses a dominant orientalist narrative: an Arab man storms into Western lands and does as he pleases before returning home unscathed.
But the tentacles of orientalism doubtlessly remain. Like Salih’s book, Call Me Zebra ambitiously and successfully asks the reader to consider the experience of the so-called other. “We don’t have a language for being ‘other’ that I’ve been able to rely on, and that’s made it more difficult to position myself as a subject in this country with any particular group,” Oloomi says. The author points to the US census, which categorizes Americans of Middle Eastern heritage as “white.” (The Census Bureau just last month ruled against creating a category that would offer citizens of North African and Middle Eastern ancestry a separate box to tick). “The history of that is fascinating, because a lot of Middle Easterners have tried to go under the radar of being a visible minority to some degree, at least in my family.”
In exploring the journey from the “New World” to the “Old,” Call Me Zebra presents readers with a timely read. I refer, of course, to the elephant in every immigrant’s room—Donald Trump. But that timeliness disconcerts Oloomi. She instead likes to think of her novel as timeless, recognizing that its themes speak beyond this particular moment.
“Those of us who are from the Middle Eastern diaspora in the US have been dealing with these emotions for so long. It’s just taken a crisis point for the conversation to be amplified,” she says. Call Me Zebra “engages with the literature of exile across time. It’s part of our human condition to be in exile. Within that human condition, particular nations or people go through these intense struggles.”
Oloomi diagnoses the protagonist of Call Me Zebra with “literature sickness” in addition to her “psychosis of exile.” These hefty motifs are balanced out with unexpected moments of hilarity and razor-sharp wit that will knock readers sideways (at one point, Zebra walks up to a rose, and “punches it in the face”).
The humor and pseudo-mania manifest acutely in the character of Ludo Bembo, an Italian immigrant in Spain and “embalmer of words” who is both terrified and enamored by Zebra (incidentally, Oloomi’s partner is also Italian). Ludo, being a European expatriate in a Western country, sits atop a “Pyramid of Exile,” Zebra says, whilst positioning herself in the middle of the structure and refugees at the bottom. That differential doesn’t stop her from falling quite desperately for Ludo, “a man of exceptional literary pedigree” who, like Zebra, “is part of the .1 percent.” The fear of opening up to her new lover and potentially exposing herself to more heartache or “contamination” causes Zebra to lash out at him in intense ways.
Besides its immersion in the vastness of exile, Call Me Zebra also serves as a paean to literature and how it relates to landscape—Zebra doesn’t only read books, she consumes and regurgitates their contents, firmly locating the words in time and place. (While Zebra is on her expedition, she pledges to assemble “A Matrix of Literature,” something of a literary manifesto, as an ode to her father). “Certain landscapes are like Russian nesting dolls—everything is nested inside something else,” Oloomi says. “In the old world, that’s more visible than it is in the US.”
It was in Iran that Oloomi first woke up to the power of literature and narrative as a sixth grader. Not yet a teenager, she’d been instructed, along with her classmates, to copy the story of Ayatollah Khomeini’s journey back from his exile in Paris to Iran five times. Precocious child that she was, she raised her hand, and exclaimed: “We’ve never been asked to copy anything this many times. This is brainwashing!” She was suspended, and her mother congratulated her for her well-placed disobedience. “I didn’t really understand the political history or what was at stake,” she says. “But there was always a sense of something dark right at the edges.”
“It’s part of our human condition to be in exile. Within that human condition, particular nations or people go through these intense struggles.”
Still, Oloomi looks back on Iran fondly. It was in Tehran that she learned to appreciate the transformative nature of literature, language, writing, and film, which her family mostly accessed through the black market due to censorship. “Iran was intellectually formative in a way I’m still trying to understand,” she notes.
Oloomi says she could toil at the intersection between landscape and literature forever. In that vein, she has been on an essay-writing binge that explores the idea of journey narratives, one of which centers on reading the Odyssey in South Bend; she is also on the cusp of completing her next manuscript, and is working on another. “Maybe not all of our emotions belong to us, and not all of our thoughts are our own. We’ve inherited these things we perform again and again, and landscape really shows that to us. I got to sit with that idea for a prolonged period with this book.”
Oloomi’s influences are wide-ranging and too numerous to cite in this space, but she says she regularly lingers over the prose of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lespector, and César Aira (she has also lately explored Vladimir Nabokov’s earlier works, as well as medieval literature). The author’s ability to marry intense realism with what she calls a ”speculative psychological space” in Call Me Zebra was hastened by years of studying the texts of realists and hyperrealists Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. “I had to literally retrain my brain” to capture the right tone, she says. “It was excruciating.”
Now that Call Me Zebra is on bookshelves, it has helped Oloomi revisit the question of her own belonging. “Part of what’s great about finishing the book is that now I feel like I’m from all of those places simultaneously—it’s like I lay claim to them in my own way,” she says. “There are certain things I will assimilate into. There are other things I refuse to accept. But it’s not this black and white space of ‘all or nothing.’ And that’s part of becoming integrated: allowing those places to meet certain needs, but not requiring them to fulfill you entirely as a person.”