Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi has written three startlingly different novels, each with its own particular tone and strangeness. The allusive and ominous Fra Keeler (Dorothy, 2012) was followed by the exultant, picaresque migration tale, Call Me Zebra (Mariner Books, 2018), winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award. In her new novel, Savage Tongues (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), Oloomi inhabits her most direct and melancholy narrator yet: Arezu, who has returned to Spain, having inherited the apartment where, twenty years previously, she survived an abusive relationship with an older man.
Savage Tongues circles questions of agency, sexuality, migration, and geopolitics, as Arezu and her friend Ellie, an Israeli American devoted to the Palestinian cause, take up residence in the haunted apartment. Confronting the traces of her past, Arezu strives to find a language that can carry her, with all her conflicting desires and painful memories, into the future.
In this interview, conducted by email, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi discusses the questions of healing and belonging that animate Savage Tongues, as well as the uncanny spaces that recur in her work, evoking the ghostly shiver of exile and return.
Sofia Samatar: Arezu, the narrator of Savage Tongues, is in the habit of going on “recovery journeys” with her friend Ellie. She writes: “we’d physically return to the sites of our traumas to map our stories in words, to reverse the language-destroying effects of unbearable pain.” Her return to Spain reminds me of other journeys in your writing: the narrator’s occupation of the dead Fra Keeler’s house in Fra Keeler, and Zebra’s retracing of her escape to Catalonia in Call Me Zebra. Can you talk about these recovery journeys in your work? Do you see them as related across the three novels?
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: I grew up moving around quite a bit — from Los Angeles to Valencia to Tehran to Dubai and back again — and so my understanding of home evolved alongside my understanding of language. As soon as I’d get comfortable in one language, in one linguistic cosmology, we’d be on the move again. As I came of age, I became aware that I was living in a perpetual linguistic jet lag; we never stayed anywhere long enough for me to align my thoughts with the new language, let alone to acquire enough range of vocabulary to describe my relationship to the spaces we lived in, fled from. The theme of returning to a landscape that I feel both enamored with and displaced from runs through all three novels; I am trying to reverse engineer parts of my identity and then to map onto language a relationship with an iteration of myself that existed in a different spatial and temporal reality. My narrators are not me but they do share this sensibility to return, to reenact, in order to collect lost parts of oneself, to gather them up, to account for the devastation and the pleasures. I suppose it’s a Benjaminian sensibility, an archivist or librarian’s sensibility, this desire to collect languages, iterations of self, to recover the past in order to approximate a whole, to build a complete narrative. It’s also a way to think of my own path as a migrant, a way to come to terms with having been an outsider. But it is — ultimately — a way to work towards belonging.
I can really feel that archivist’s sensibility in Savage Tongues. It seems double-sided to me: on the one hand, Arezu’s return is an act of healing, but on the other hand, her desire for closure invests her old apartment, the site of her past abuse, with a terrifying power. She declares: “the apartment was a map of my wound.” She doesn’t want Ellie to touch anything, as if the apartment is a shrine, or something alive. It’s an uncanny space, like the haunted house in Fra Keeler — and, as in the earlier novel, this eeriness comes from inside the narrator, rather than the space itself.
Of course, Arezu has reason to fear that apartment. But to me, the weirdly animated, abandoned living spaces in your work suggest a particular way of seeing, a fervent and fraught relationship with everyday things. Is there more going on here than the effects of trauma? Would you connect the uncanniness of objects and spaces to the passion of the collector?
Over the years, I’ve come to think of history as a haunting. I am interested in how violence from the past leaks into the future, and into the very surfaces of our lives. There’s a way in which trauma exerts pressure both on our bodies and psyches as well as on our relationship to objects, places, and things. When we are dislocated, the objects that held value for us, that we identified with — a family rug, a particular vase, albums of our ancestors — are often left behind; in that process of abandonment, they turn into things, into ruins or artefacts of a violent desertion. I grew up in a family that still held the keys to a home they’d lost in the Iranian Revolution. I think this is a common response to being severed from one’s life rather suddenly. The key comes to represent hope, fear, grief, nostalgia, confusion, desire. It goes from being an ordinary object to becoming a symbol, one that has a sacred aura. In this way, the things we care about acquire agency. Think about how in a very bad divorce, someone can suddenly turn against a couch because it reminds them of their ex-spouse! I’m interested in capturing that strangeness, the fluidity and leakage that exists between us and things, people and spaces, and so on.
I love that. In Savage Tongues, there’s this leakage between people too: charged encounters that raise Arezu’s energy or drain it away. There’s a line that made me laugh, when she goes to that doomed BBC radio interview, and she has to keep saying her name over and over again and hearing it mispronounced: “I was drowning in a deep sense of futility, exhausted from repeating my name and hearing it repeated back to me as if the world couldn’t quite wrap its mind around the basic fact of my existence; frankly, neither could I.”
That final bit is so hilarious and sad and true. In that scene, it’s as if Arezu herself is the uncanny object. Her name is an outrageous puzzle that baffles everyone. This sense of being an impossible creature — does it press your characters toward the genres of the unreal, toward fantasy and horror? I’m thinking of Zebra here, too — her hyperbolic language and quasi-magical experiences.
What a rich reading of that scene! I am often asked to repeat my name several times; if I do repeat it (and it really depends on the tenor of the ask), the person ends up repeating it back to be in a spirit of amusement, I suppose, or conquest. Sometimes, people say, Oh, what a beautiful name! Other times, they ask me where I am from. And the answer to that question would be like opening Pandora’s box, so I do my best to avoid a direct response, to distract the person while I exit the conversation altogether. There is a way in which this absurd repetition of one’s name exposes the impenetrability of the state and the management of bodies along lines of national origin, statehood, and so on; that bureaucracy, which is rational and inflexible in its design, can easily become absurd, even dictatorial, as it gets turned into an instrument for measuring belonging or the lack of belonging. That’s something both Zebra and Arezu think about often. Zebra has dreams about needing a visa for the most basic things, and she is perpetually denied. It is a Nabokovian or Borgesian space, I suppose. And if I am a citizen of any world, it is that one, the nation of exiles or writers, though I don’t really distinguish between the two.
Can you say more about that — the nation of exiles or writers? I’m thinking of Arezu’s brief meditation on the word “plot”: her discomfort with plot-driven novels, with “plot” as scheme or manipulation, with “plot” as territory. She says: “The literature I craved was untethered, mysterious, atmospheric. It was boundary crossing.”
Most writers I know and read are writing against the prescriptive life; they are examining social conventions from the position of a troubled spectator, yearning for a more truthful plane of existence. I’m interested in fiction that captures that desire for elsewhere. Most linear plots are designed to efficiently advance a story toward a resolution, but they aren’t well suited for capturing an elliptical life, or a life that is in free fall, suspended between shapes. Savage Tongues is an attempt at inventing a narrative shape that captures the wild landscape of possibility Arezu and Ellie enter when they untether themselves from the plots of religion, gender, and sex they were born into. It is an introspective novel that privileges reflection, meditation, and re-vision. Not every novel demands that kind of open-ended aesthetic sensibility, but this one did and I yielded because I believe that each novel calls forth its shape, sets down certain terms about how the telling is going to unfold.
That desire for possibility, for the new, reminds me that the healing journey of Savage Tongues is a specific kind of return: a retelling. Arezu returns to the scene of her trauma in order to retell the story to herself, and the result is the novel in our hands.
I can’t close without paying attention to the fact that this novel is very much about women, friendship between women, and women’s ways of surviving violence. When you speak of Arezu and Ellie untethering themselves from certain plots, I remember another moment that struck me: how Arezu appreciates Ellie’s silence. When Arezu says, “I feel such contempt for who I was as a teenager” — that is, at the time of her abusive relationship — Ellie doesn’t leap to her defense. Arezu reflects: “She had remained silent and I had loved her for it. She knew better than to bark back, But you were seventeen! A pawn. She knew that I would have much rather heard her say, Little nymph, haven’t you read Nabokov?”
This is intense Azareen! Lines full of a deep solidarity and trust between the two women, as well as defiance and refusal to be a “pawn.” This passage suggests that just as Arezu and Ellie have detached themselves from certain inherited plots of religion and gender, they are also establishing distance from the narratives of victimhood that often seem to take the place of those rejected plots. Can you talk about this aspect of Arezu’s retelling?
You’ve captured the novel’s vision exactly: Savage Tongues is about the long aftermath of rape, not the event of rape itself, but about how intimate violence reshapes Arezu’s consciousness and displaces her sense of self. The violence she experiences exerts tremendous pressure on her identity and changes her relationship to language, to what it means to construct a self through narrative.
Arezu’s journey through Savage Tongues journey takes her from confused silence and a sense of living under siege to a sense of mobility and livelihood. This movement is achieved through language, through the act of mapping into words the distance between her adult self and the teenager she once was.
As you say, she is committed to examining how her understanding of the past has shifted over time, how it might shift eternally. She is not seeking an end point, or yearning for a conclusive jurisdiction. She’s also not looking away from the shape of her own desire, her impulse toward self-destruction; nor does she avoid drawing connections between the different kinds of violence that have shaped her life (ethic/racial violence in the American context and the sexual abuse in Marbella, Spain). She understands that Omar’s actions were rooted in abuse and sees them as a terrible, horrific transgression. But that understanding is one piece of the larger picture. Through Omar’s abuse, she also gains insight into the political violence of civil war (in Lebanon) and the disappearance of his father; she wonders, how did those events imprint upon him? All of these stories and the various readings/interpretations of the events are nested inside one another. That’s what Arezu is searching for: an understanding of how these parts of her life, Ellie’s life, Omar’s life, got woven together into a larger tapestry — one that is tragic, but also empowering, beautiful in all of its complexity and contradiction.
I get that sense of wovenness, of the text as tapestry, from all your books. Yet each is entirely different from the others. Each has its own palette, its distinctive way of working with language. This makes me very curious about what might be coming next! Can you say anything about that?
Both Savage Tongues and Call Me Zebra are journey narratives that are concerned with questions of displacement and identity, with the many ways in which we rebuild meaning after loss. I also find immense joy in writing about love: the hilariously embattled love that Ludo and Zebra share in Call Me Zebra, and the incredible tenderness of the friendship between Arezu and Ellie in Savage Tongues. But you are right that each book functions in its own linguistic register, it’s own aesthetic aura. I’m currently working on a collection of stories that follow a group of young writers, many of them from the Middle East with disappeared family members. The stories are about a very particular kind of political nausea and are my attempts at capturing the absurdity of communications media—television, Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp—when they become the only means through which those living in exile can view the homes they fled. I’m dreaming up my next novel. It’s incubating. But I get the sense it will have a lot to do with the art world, or with the intersection between politics and art. It’s very, very early stages so I shouldn’t say much!
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Sofia Samatar is the author of four books, most recently Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her work has received several honors, including the World Fantasy Award. Her memoir The White Mosque is forthcoming from Catapult Books in 2022.