Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
In anticipation of Van der Vliet Oloomi’s new novel, Savage Tongues, the authors consider language, hybridity, and Marguerite Duras.
I first encountered Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s work in 2012, when her debut novel, the enigmatic and unsettling Fra Keeler, came out on my favorite small press, Dorothy. I was just exiting an MFA program with degree in hand, experiencing some disorientation about how to write in an aloneness populated by so many internalized voices, and I felt saturated with critique, as though I might never need another set of eyes on myself or my work again. The boldness and bitter confidence of Oloomi’s writing, utterly immersed in language yet grasping something un-languageable, felt like a reminder of how powerful a text can be when it inhabits itself wholly, in all its contradictions and capaciousness.
In subsequent works, the offbeat bildungsroman Call Me Zebra (2018) and her latest novel, Savage Tongues (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), I recognized a writer who dwells in cultural and linguistic hybridity. Savage Tongues focuses on Arezu, an Iranian-born writer who, as a teenager alone in Andalusia one fateful summer, became entangled in a sexual relationship with the manipulative and much older Omar, her stepmother’s nephew. In later years, Arezu began to recognize the relationship as an abusive one in which her consent was breached. Now, accompanied by her progressive Israeli friend Ellie, Arezu returns to the small Spanish town and the apartment she occupied many years before, confronting the force of those memories and their hold on her.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Iran, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, Oloomi brings back the roundness of a language flattened through routine use. In her hands, language leaps and scuttles with renewed vigor. As a hybrid myself, raised between cultures and languages, I recognized in her characters my own nesting behaviors, language often being the easiest part of a foreign body to call home.
We spoke over Zoom on a bright spring day, one in South Bend, Indiana, and the other in Rome, our first real conversation.
Alexandra KleemanSomeone will have a recording of our faces when they transcribe this in case they need to get our mood and affect. Just generally, how are you doing?
Azareen Van der Vliet OloomiYou know, it’s been a rough year. But we’re pulling through. How about you?
AKIt’s interesting, varied. I’m at the American Academy in Rome right now.
AVVOHow is it at the Academy? Are you able to get out and just be a normal human?
AKYou can get out. In the most restricted “red zones” you need a certain piece of paper to walk around, but they never seem to check. I always feel like I could go someplace. The question is just what you have the verve to do in this year-plus of pandemic.
AVVOI’m assuming you don’t have access to the vaccine because of the rollout issues. My husband’s family is from Florence, and I know that they’re still vaccinating people eighty and above.
AKThings didn’t look so great in the US when we left, but I’m feeling the waves of optimism and it’s great. Although it’s also hard for me to imagine because I’ve gotten so used to not being very optimistic about anything there.
AVVOI don’t think I’m optimistic or pessimistic. With the pandemic, I’ve gotten to a point where it’s just getting through this day and the next.
AKTime definitely feels like it’s narrowed around the present. A day is a whole—
AVVOIt’s a whole world.
AKOr it’s a predictive unit. I can predict what I’ll do today. Maybe. (laughter)
I’m really glad to see you. I just love the new book. Not a single word was out of place, and its firmness about very unfirm and liquid things was such a pleasurable complication, including the question of whether anything’s truly changed for Arezu. The ending feels liberating, even though I’m not entirely sure she’s liberated after her long grapple with the past.
This is probably the very simplest and most common question, but I think it’s okay to ask it because we’re speaking before the book’s publicity cycle has truly started, and you probably haven’t answered it a million times yet: Where did this story start for you, and what’s the piece of it that you knew first?
AVVOI was trying to understand hybrid identity, or plural identity, and the ways in which that challenges our ideals of innocence, purity, essentialism. Although the book takes place in Andalusia in southern Spain, it looks back at the US. It interrogates the beauty of the US’s ambitions, as well as its bloody brutality and the constraints the US places around different bodies—the ways different ethnic and racial bodies, Middle Eastern bodies, religious bodies, get their mobility surveilled—and how that’s just part of this landscape that we all live in. So that was, really, at the very core. Obviously there’s a huge focus on the question of gender, on female friendships, and female bodies in particular, and the way history gets deposited in our bodies, whether through sexual violence or other forms of colonial violence.
AKEvery place you occupy in this book is not simply itself but resonates with other associations and spatial lineages. Even though you do a great job evoking the feel of Andalusia, for our narrator, this particular place can only be viewed in triangulation. Other places—the US and Iran—are metaphysically present as well. Do you often think of your settings and your characters in this intensely relational way? For example, I came to understand Arezu’s gender through how she relates to the constellation of Omar, her mother, and Ellie.
AVVOI do think of them in relational ways. Arezu is thinking about all of the political histories that converge in her body at the same time that she is working through a deeply personal wound. She is a writer and therefore invested in the capaciousness of language; she’s thinking about how she can build an apparatus, which is the book, that can hold all the complicated ways in which her political and personal traumas intersect; what she gets at is that there’s no way to separate the two. These parts of her are entirely porous, relational, fluid. The same is true for her best friend, Ellie, who is with her throughout the book, and for Omar, who ignites the journey in the first place.
AKThere’s a mobility there, a sense of movement. Arezu is a character who has been present within many places, but is passing through them, traversing them. Although there’s freedom in that, there’s also something really difficult about living within an unfixed location. For the writer, it means that you constantly have to describe a thing that’s in motion, capturing every point that it passes through, and it’s difficult to know when to stop or when you can rest. That’s one of the things that I felt so strongly when I entered the book: the challenge that this mobility presents to the writer and to Arezu herself, who cycles through the narration of these different places and moments— the scenes when she was young with Omar in Spain play over and over in her mind in slightly different ways, the affect constantly changing but not in a progressive, linear way. It’s not motion in the sense of a journey from point A to point B, but more of a constant fluctuation, a respiration.
AVVOI love what you said about the freedom and the difficulty of being mobile. Neither the narrator nor Ellie are fixed to one single location. So there’s this obsession with cataloging place and space, almost savoring it, and just fixing it in their minds. This is what this food tastes like, and this is the way the light was hitting the plate, and this is the color of the sea, and the smell, and the sound of the seagulls. But underneath that material pleasure is the challenge of a provisional existence, which is a symptom of exile. We can think about exile as an inability to return home, but that’s not the whole story; there’s the everyday logic of exile that forces us to transform our relationship to truth. Ellie and Arezu are both embroiled with this idea that, as a result of their displacement, all truths have become somewhat conditional. They’re trying to find anchors in reality, and in space, and landscape. At the same time, they’re having this deeper, as you said, metaphysical conversation about where they might put down anchors, and whether those anchors are constraining or grounding them.
AKYour book reminded me of The Lover by Marguerite Duras. It also takes place in a time that is a composite of all times and pulls the past into the present through the necessity of that relationship. You feel like there’s something in the past that you need to know, that you need to find the will to see. But in The Lover the past essentially repeats itself, fragments of the past surface with affect and associations intact; the narrator’s memories can’t be changed or touched at all by the present. There’s no reconsideration, as there is in Savage Tongues, just a reinhabitation. By contrast, Arezu isn’t satisfied with a passive mode of remembering, she remembers in a way that’s supposed to offer some impossible connection to the person she once was, and I think that gets at the difficulty of revisiting traumas that we didn’t perceive as traumas the first time. For Arezu, remembering is a sort of rewriting: it gives her a form of agency in the way she shifts a memory’s meaning. I was wondering whether you think of storytelling as a tool for changing our relationship to the past and the future.
AVVOI’m glad you brought up Marguerite Duras because The Lover was so formative for me when I read it for the first time in my twenties. What fascinated me is the fact that Duras, who writes the novel in both the first and the third person, is so protective of the girl’s physical experiences. She is working to preserve that first wild-eyed experience of desire. She is eschewing judgment. There’s a fierceness and defiance in not wanting her own or her narrator’s sense of the lived adolescent experience to be suppressed. The girl in The Lover doesn’t always—or exclusively—experience the memories of the affair through the lens of trauma. Perhaps the adolescent girl couldn’t recognize the trauma at the time. Or perhaps trauma doesn’t serve to capture all of the dimensions of that experience. Sexual curiosity, family pressures, and French colonial history in Saigon are also propelling the relationship between the girl and her lover. What’s interesting is that when Duras was much older, she wrote a second version.
AKThe North China Lover.
AVVOYes. That’s so wild, right? At that point, Duras wasn’t thinking about it from the adolescent’s perspective but from the perspective of the woman that she’d become. The North China Lover is a retroactive search for the girl she had been as an adolescent and a real attempt to level with the pain she’d endured as a young woman. And I thought, Well, what if those two books could be one? What would it look like to write a book that flies in the face of what women often aren’t allowed to lay claim to, which is to hold on to their sexual agency while also processing the trauma of sexual abuse? There are all these ways in which our sexuality is erased. Our desire becomes weaponized against us, even in the very simple language of, “Well, she was asking for it,” or “She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either.”
AKYour book keeps returning to a scene where Omar, a much older man, makes a move to kiss Arezu, and as she flinches away reflexively he says, “What are you doing trying to kiss me?” The first time you see it, she registers the manipulative aspect of the statement and how it’s designed to invert the situation and confuse her. Later, you encounter the shock of Arezu beginning to wonder if she had, in fact, made the move herself. Just the disorientation of that strange notion sinking in. The memory lives in double, and I like how the narrative tries to let both versions exist.
AVVOThat scene is the first sexual encounter between them, and I do think both versions will always exist for her. She hears Omar’s words, and they become ambient and nest in her body beyond the moment in which they were uttered. You’re right that Omar’s comment was designed to invert the situation. She can sense the manipulation—she has a somatic experience of it—but she can’t articulate it at that age, or trust her own discomfort. And then she’s also already desiring him, too. She has a sexual appetite for him, and she doesn’t know how that’s going to destroy her quite yet. But I want to be clear that it doesn’t only destroy her. Arezu is resilient. While the experience of sexual violence annihilates parts of her, it also awakens her to the full range of bodily experience and generates a new kind of political consciousness within her. She writes in order to preserve the memory as it was lived in real time as an adolescent but then interrogates the subtext of those memories and the ways in which they evoke all this fresh understanding that she has to repeatedly contend with as she gets older.
AKIs there a danger in interrogating those experiences? Even though it seems productive for Arezu to undertake this interrogation, it takes a toll on Ellie. They reach a point where they have to leave, and it’s not because the work of interrogation is finished but because to finish it would lead them to a dire consequence of some kind.
AVVOThere is definitely a danger in the interrogation. I think there’s danger anytime we acknowledge our ghosts, our collective ghosts of war, genocide, racism, the ways in which women’s bodies have been raped and plundered throughout history. I don’t think the US, or other nations, would be so obsessed with not cultivating a culture of memory if there weren’t danger in it. When Arezu interrogates her trauma, she realizes that the scope of her investigation extends beyond the intimacy of her own small life. She’s asking: What happens to our sexual appetites when we’ve been taught to hate ourselves, and each other, in this framework of essentialism, innocence, and purity that is part of the colonial project? It’s dangerous to ask such things, because doing so disrupts the status quo. It opens up a dialogue that is inconvenient and ushers a lot of difficult, uncomfortable truths into the light. It requires a lot of courage to withstand whatever it is that’s going to come up. Ellie and Arezu reinforce that courage in each other, but they also need to be released from it, to come up for air, to give in to the pleasures of being alive.
AKEllie’s past seen through Arezu’s narration feels more linear, as if there’s more of a biographical arc, a structure that you can use to stabilize yourself as you’re reading. And it feels like Arezu is using that structure to guide herself too, always finding homologies between them. That becomes a way of bridging what some people might think of as too large a geographical, or ethnic, or autobiographical gap. She wills herself to extend this empathy to Omar, but I don’t know if she feels like she’s succeeded.
AVVOArezu is not one to settle into bitterness; she can’t be satisfied with a narrative that reduces Omar to a simple villain, or a story that separates their intimate relationship from the larger geopolitical context. She has a searching temperament and an inclination to transform pain into knowledge.
Regarding the geographic and ethnic gaps, there’s no easy answer. I think when we really look at cultural history, we realize that those gaps are far narrower than we’ve been taught to think. Savage Tongues takes pace in Andalusia, a historically Muslim-Jewish space; Muslims and Jews were expelled from southern Spain in very close historical proximity. We know that prior to being expelled, this Christian-Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the Iberian Peninsula was culturally and artistically productive. There was so much cross-pollination between the cultures and the religions and the peoples, but at the same time there was also revolt and religious persecution across frontiers. What can be difficult to grasp is that we are still dealing with the shards of that distant Andalusian history. You can’t exactly draw a straight line from eigth-century Iberia to the twenty-first-century Middle East, but today’s geopolitical tensions in the region have distant echoes in medieval Al-Andalus, in the colonial project of the Inquisition and the “reconquest,” in the larger project of purging Islamic and Jewish culture from the European landscape, and then arbitrarily partitioning the land that had been under Ottoman rule since the sixteenth century after World War I.
AKIt’s only within a very restricted history that Europe resembles what we’ve been told.
AVVOExactly. We have this idea that Europe is a non-Muslim space—and we have these intellectual constraints that separate East from West—but, in fact, Europe is traditionally a very Islamic space, and a very Jewish space. In a way, southern Spain is primed for Arezu and Ellie. It’s there for them, and they can witness parts of their own cultural histories in the architecture, language, music, food, and climate. It’s a space that welcomes and recognizes them, but it’s also a space that rejected their bodies, that expelled their ancestors. It’s full of ghosts and familiar pleasures, so it’s a kind of homecoming for them.
I see how this place is the locus of the most traumatic and most fraught histories of both Arezu’s people and Ellie’s people. And the apartment is an encapsulation of that, as well as a site populated with a particular trauma, a particular hauntedness that is different for each of them.
AVVOThinking about this now, with some distance, the apartment almost feels like a material expression of the self-loathing that Omar was probably taught in his colonized context of Lebanon—the civil war in Lebanon, and the scars and traces of history that are in his body and in his psyche. There’s also the self-loathing that Arezu has as a British-American Iranian, because those parts of her are set up as enemies. You were asking at the start of our conversation about the potential for liberation? I think liberation exists for Arezu in laying claim to these opposing parts of herself, in being defiantly who she is, and not experiencing those sides of herself as enemy parts.
AKThis may be a personal tangent, but I wonder about the effort it takes for an individual made of oppositional parts, incommensurable histories or identities, to hold those pieces together. How does an organism learn to join its parts and move as one?
AVVOI’m assuming we both have hybrid identities, and that it’s challenging for both of us to integrate them. No one teaches this, right? Discourses around collective liberation still insist on—or fall back on—more essentialist ideals. I think hybridity is the thorn in the side of colonial existence and colonial ambivalence because it’s confusing to be hybrid, and it’s confusing to others to be confronted with someone who presents as hybrid. There’s this constant confusion that your body just creates everywhere that you go. However, if we can reach for a silver lining, that confusion makes it impossible for us to continue pretending that there’s a colonial person and a colonized subject, that we exist in these separate realities that demand an unequal distribution of power, where one subject is superior to another based on false social narratives of racial and ethnic hierarchy that were created to justify domination in the first place.
AKAnd sometimes there’s pressure on hybrid bodies to perform either a rejection of one identity or the other, or to act out this utopian ideal because the two forces have successfully merged in this body.
AKIt makes me think of Call Me Zebra and how Zebra also seems to be searching for a way, a metaphor, a schema that can unite the hybrid forces and conflicting parts within her. Zebra uses literature and her identity as a writer as a protective shield, or a bathysphere, around her when traveling through the world. Arezu, even though she has a place in the world, and in the literary community as a writer, relates to language in a very different way. I’m wondering how you see Arezu as a literary being, and if you often bring your characters into life by thinking of their relationship to language.
AVVOThanks for connecting those things. One thing both characters have in common is an understanding that literature can interrogate our morality, but it’s not a moral compass. Arezu understands that, but at the same time she’s really thinking about the ethical implications of political and gendered conflict, about how torture and violence silence our ability to voice who we are. The work of reconnaissance is linked to the project of locating her voice. Language is the medium that allows her to recover herself; it is the connective tissue between who she is as an adult and who she was at seventeen. In recovering, in archiving the story through all these different lenses, she’s also saying, I exist because I have language.
AKIn that sense, they’re both people who are trying to speak themselves whole by creating a network of story and illusion and reference and quotation. Even if we don’t always experience a sense of wholeness and unity, we can use language and story to help us bridge the gap that just naturally exists.
AVVOI agree. Literature is a great diagnostic tool. It helps us identify the problem and it charges us with the responsibility to dig deeper. It has the capacity to show us that we are all implicated in our collective predicament. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not writing and reading literature can heal us. I don’t believe it does. The work of healing is far more complicated than that. But literature is an invitation to get on the path of understanding, an invitation to be curious about the buried subtext of our lives. That’s no small thing.
AKI know that you have a background in Spanish, English, and Farsi. The way that your characters relate to language as this connective tissue is really beautiful and optimistic. The Japanese writer Yoko Tawada uses a metaphor to describe the sensation of becoming a different person when you speak a different language. In her metaphor, a person is like a cassette player and when a different tape gets popped in they say different things, they have a different script that they’re working from. And I wonder, how do your different language lineages dwell in you?
AVVOThat makes me think of your first book, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and this understanding of identity as mimicry, as generated by patterns of commodification and consumption. I share that. In some ways, every part of us has been planted on our behalf by these external forces that predate our birth. All these languages exist inside of me in challenging ways, in beautiful ways, and in painful ways. I’ve gone through periods where I don’t have anyone in my geographical location to speak Farsi with, and then suddenly, I’d hear Farsi randomly on the street or in the mall. It just shakes up all these parts of me, and it’s a brutal experience because during the long stretches when I don’t speak Farsi on a daily basis I feel my understanding of the language begin to slip away, and therefore my understanding of myself. I am terrified of my Farsi going extinct, of it disappearing from my psyche. So I work at it, but it’s weird having to consciously work at something that feels so alive in me. It’s a paradoxical experience…that strain…that love. What comforts me is that I’ve always believed that language has its own consciousness, its own inner logic and life. And that inhabiting language, especially the language of our ancestors, is itself a conversation.
AKSavage Tongues evolves toward an emotional space that feels more free, even if that freedom isn’t absolute. From out of the dark apartment, Arezu and Ellie arrive on a beach, watching beachgoers drink and flirt, and then go on a trip to Granada. These aren’t extraordinary things, but they feel incredibly liberating and like a counterpoint to the narrative’s first movement. I wondered if you built these moments in from the start or found your way to them in the process of writing.
AVVONo, it’s pure chance. While I was writing, I had so much trust that the language of the novel would guide me. The novel started with a feeling; it took time to find the tenor or the timbre of the language, but once I got there, it was like being in a river that had a solid current, and I knew it was going to take me where I needed to go. So I had no idea, when I started out, that they’d lie around on the beach, or go to Granada. These are places of pleasure and sensuality, right? I mean, Granada is such a layered, mysterious, beautiful place. And the beaches in the Costa del Sol are miraculous. The beach represents this part of Arezu that is embodied and intuitive; she trusts landscapes to guide her the way that she trusts language to do so. She is cerebral, yes, but she also believes that there’s great wisdom beyond the rational mind. And she’s playful. She wants to lie in the sun, talk about sex, sip alcohol out of a carved pineapple.
AKA body likes to lie in the sun. You can say that about almost anyone. It just connects with you on this level that can’t be interrogated.
AVVOExactly—it’s that shared impulse to lie in the sun.
AKI wanted to ask you about exile and institutionalization. A lot of your previous works are written from this position of movement, of mobility, of being cast out or being nomadic through a learned tendency. I know that you teach creative writing at the University of Notre Dame, and to be part of an institution, to learn to belong there, feels different from being a buccaneer of language. Is there something about an exilic perspective that can never be totally rooted down, even if you would want it to? Do you still anticipate writing from that place for your next book?
AVVOEverybody experiences their exile differently, and everybody defines it differently. At first it wasn’t easy for me to be in an institution because it’s a very concrete infrastructure that doesn’t naturally flow with what I’ve come to understand as the wilderness of my life. However, I do think these are contradictions that can coexist and that we need some tension between different points of our character in order to keep growing. I was lucky in the sense that I discovered very quickly that I love to teach. I love being in conversation with young writers about what literature means to us and what it can open up and what it can settle in us. The institution has given me the time and the support to be a writer, and writing is the thing that keeps me the most alive. I’d say I’m the same searching person I’ve always been. I still find ways to let myself loose, to romp around in the mud, and to stay connected to the parts of me that learned to live in drift.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of the novels Something New Under the Sun and You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, as well as Intimations, a story collection. The winner of a Rome Prize, Berlin Prize, and the Bard Fiction Prize, her work has been published in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, and n+1, among others. She is an Assistant Professor at the New School and lives in Staten Island.
Originally published in
Our summer issue features interviews with Mel Kendrick, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Kader Attia, Arthur Jafa and Dana Hoey, Quntos Kunquest, Katiana Rangel, and Anne Anlin Cheng; fiction by Jenzo DuQue, Dylan Landis, Anthony Veasna So, and Sophie Hoss; nonfiction by A.V. Marraccini; a comic by Ronald Wimberly; poetry by Arthur Solway, Rickey Laurentiis, and Alina Stefanescu; an essay and portfolio by Kalup Linzy; an archival interview with Suzan-Lori Parks; and more.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.