Movement and the encounter of those considered different have been near-certain features of human existence. Both engender opportunities for introspection and comparison, anxiety and growth.
Recently, specific kinds of national boundary crossings have garnered much political and media attention. Refugees and economic migrants—groups who left their homelands under distressing conditions—are finding that they are not always welcomed. Neo-Nazism has increased its presence throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Immigrant anxiety was a driving force behind Brexit, the impending abscission of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The American right accuses immigrants of plunging American society into a state of disrepair. The current administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards undocumented immigration resulted in the separation of families at the US-Mexico border.
Azareen van der Vliet Oloomi’s latest novel, Call Me Zebra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), delineates the complex aftereffects of dislocation. The novel revolves around a young woman named Zebra, the sole remaining member of a family of “anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts.” Following her father’s death, she decides to retrace her journey from New York City to Barcelona, the city she and her father fled to after leaving Iran, their place of origin. What ensues is a story about exile, relationships and the role of literature in the lives of the dispossessed.
My interview with van der Vliet Oloomi was conducted last spring as an email exchange.
The following is an edited transcript.
TQ: How did Call Me Zebra come to be? What gave birth to the story?
AvdVO: Call Me Zebra came to me in layers over the course of seven years. Back in 2009, I felt the need to return to Spain, to Catalonia in particular, where I had lived sporadically as a child and as an adolescent. At first, I didn’t know what was compelling my return. I wanted to study the work of Catalan author Josep Pla while walking through the landscapes that had inspired his work—that much I knew—but the originating motive of the project remained a mystery to me even once I was there. I applied for and received a Fulbright Fellowship to Catalonia for 2010-11 and once there, I spent my time reading Pla’s work alongside many other Catalan authors whose novels and essays were about memory, exile, displacement, and the rhythms and weather of the landscapes they had been banished from. I did a great deal of walking. I catalogued space, documented the movement of the light through this or that landscape across the course of a day. I thought about the relationship between self and space. But the novel—or perhaps Zebra—would not let me in for years after that trip. I had to labor over it, mature through intense reading and reflection on the psychological death(s) brought on by displacement. I finally broke through in 2015 and spent two years fixed to my desk, watching all that work synthesize on the page. The story of the book is the story of my own coming to terms with a deep sense of homelessness and my fraught relationship to what it means to love and let go.
TQ: Death features prominently in both your previous book Fra Keeler and Call Me Zebra. What is presented in both books is an exploration into the nature of death. What attracts you to this topic?
AvdVO: I don’t think of life and death as two antagonistic blocks. To me, life and death are synonymous, simultaneous; life is an unfolding onto death. Along the path of life, we suffer loss, we change, we grow; certain paths or ways of being become unviable and we are challenged to seek out new roads. These transitions involve a psychological or metaphysical death—we continue to live, but a part of us ceases to exist or is disrupted or no longer serves us. This applies to all of us: animals, plants, environments, humans. What attracts me to the topic in particular? I suppose that, like many other people who were raised in a dictatorship, or whose families fled from one, I grew up with the constant presence of death, disappearance, and exile. These themes are at the core of my writing because they are central to my understanding of consciousness, infinity, impermanence.
TQ: The protagonist, Zebra, is a young lady from an unapologetically cerebral family. She herself is exceptionally intelligent, yet she chooses not to take advantage of institutionalized education. Is this intended to be commentary on formal education?
AvdVO: Yes. I am very mistrusting of certain educational institutions. I certainly felt I was being asked to resign my own judgment and sensibility as a child and as an adolescent in Iran, Spain, and later the United States. I had to supplement my education by reading independently. In Iran, I was being fed revisionist histories. In Spain, I felt intellectually challenged but also intensely othered and isolated; none of the teachers had the resources to help integrate students from different backgrounds into the classroom. In the United States, I found my tribe among other immigrants or children of immigrants, but the classroom was a place in which I felt bored (all that busy work!) and overtly discriminated against. College was different. It was a remarkable experience, diametrically opposed to what I had experienced in middle and high school. It was a transformative time for me. I read and read and read. I couldn't get enough. But overall, even in the best of cases, institutions are still operating within a system designed to exclude people of color, the poor, the LGBTQ+ community. We have our work cut out for us. The good news is that there are many educators striving toward a more just, equitable, and inclusive system.
TQ: As a “literary terrorist,” Zebra constantly refers to books with which she has engaged. This includes the global selection from Omar Khayyam to Borges to W.E.B. DuBois, and many others. What was your thought process behind choosing such authors?
AvdVO: The authors whose names and works come up in Call Me Zebra are all speaking to one another across time and space. So much of the novel is about the circulation of texts and ideas/identities across time and space from the Middle Ages to the present. The novel is, in one sense, a cry against the artificial boundaries and exclusionary politics of the nation state; it is a celebration of plurality, of multiplicity, of kaleidoscopic identity, of the connective tissue that weaves all of literature together into a complex, boundless tapestry.
TQ: Because of their intellectualism, Zebra and her family are forced out of Iran, only to find their way to Barcelona and then New York. Why did you choose Barcelona and New York City? Does their cosmopolitanism—and their potential for creative and intellectual gestation—play any role in your decision for Zebra and her father to sojourn there?
AvdVO: Yes, certainly. They are both remarkable cities with a multi-cultural sensibility and fascinating architectural, literary, and cultural production that reflects their kaleidoscopic pasts. I’ve also lived in Barcelona and New York City myself, so they are important nodes on my personal map.
TQ: Much like Zebra, you have lived a rather peripatetic life. What has the role of literature been in your life, as someone who has been domiciled in multiple places?
AvdVO: Literature has been a great friend, a companion with a fantastic sense of humor, an expansive mind, deep reservoirs of empathy. I have certainly retreated into literature as a way of making sense of the contradictions inherent to each of the complex and historically stratified cultures that have shaped me: Spanish, Iranian, American. Reading has helped me to give order to that chaos and has, in equal measure, allowed me to let go of the need for sensemaking. For me, literature has become a celebration of the absurd.
TQ: In spite of her travels and her books, home for Zebra is Iran. How do you define home? Is it a place or a concept? Is it where familial history and memory reside?
AvdVO: I don’t have a precise definition for home. I don’t think I ever will. But I do think home is both a place and a concept, an experiential event. It has to do with familial history, with world history, with our personal and collective memories. I grew up exclusively with women, all of them from Iran. They spoke of home as a country that no longer existed. So, even if I were to anchor my understanding of home in a specific time and place, that understanding would always be accompanied by a sense of absence, of something having been lost or forsaken. I think of home as Indiana, now. Lake Michigan reminds me of the Caspian Sea. There’s so much the two landscapes have in common. That echo of one place in another, that ghostly doubling, is something I cherish and celebrate.