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On the publication of her new novel, Savage Tongues (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi sat down with New School faculty Alexandra Kleeman to discuss the rhythms of language, the influence of light, shadow, and landscape on prose, and the historical and political context of intimate violence. Van der Vliet Oloomi is the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the John Gardner Award, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Award, and has been long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award. The interview was presented by the Creative Writing Program at the Schools of Professional Engagement. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Alexandra Kleeman [AK]: I’m so excited to be hosting Azareen here at The New School. We are eagerly anticipating a reading and conversation with her. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of three novels. She’s the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the John Gardner Award, a Whiting Award, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Award, and has been long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award. Her work has been supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, a MacDowell Fellowship, and a Fellowship from Art OMI. Azareen’s work has appeared in the New York Times, GRANTA, Lit Hub, Guernica, BOMB Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She has lived in Spain, Iran, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates. She is an associate professor at the Notre Dame MFA Program in Creative Writing, a fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and the founder of “Literatures of Annihilation, Exile and Resistance,” an initiative on literature and human rights.
Van der Vliet Oloomi’s body of work is defined by many things: its commitment to the intricacy and specificity of identity within a nexus of historical ethnic and effective convergence; its faith and resistance and fragile reconciliation; its full-bodied belief in the capacity of language to hold experience, sculpt feeling, and fundamentally extend experience in expansive and unforeseen directions. In your first novel, Fra Keeler, a man moves into a home formerly occupied by the deceased Fra Keeler and begins investigating the circumstances of her death as his own mental processes began to sprawl and shift, pulling the story in directions both dark and unexpectedly comic.
In the novel, Call Me Zebra, we follow Zebra, a young woman steeped in literature as she traces in reverse the path she and her father took when immigrating from Iran. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s third novel, Savage Tongues, which came out in August, follows an Iranian-American writer named Arezu, as she travels back to an apartment in an Andalusian town where she spent the formative period of her teenage years, accompanied by her anti-Zionist Israeli friend, Ellie, who has come to support her during a difficult return.
Within this dark and claustrophobic apartment, and in the blindingly bright coastal landscape that surrounds, Arezu grapples with teenage memories and an intimate relationship with a much older Omar whose controlling behavior shaped her experience of sexuality and intimacy. It’s a novel about the complicated, personal, and cultural histories we carry around within us, about the strength and possibility of solidarity that can be found in friendship, and about the power of narrative to explore and illuminate the obscurities they bear. In an interview with Amina Cain in the Paris Review, she writes, “I am very interested in the power we can claim when we embrace the full spectrum of our identities and emotions, without reaching to erase the contradictions that informed them. And I’m interested in how literature can hold all of this without losing its sting or descending into simple empathetic sentimentalism.” This is something that Azareen’s work does beautifully, and we’re so lucky to have her with us tonight. Thank you, Azareen.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi [AVDVO]: Thank you so much, Alexandra, for that beautiful and very thoughtful introduction and for just all the time and energy you’ve put into hosting me this evening. It’s so lovely to be with everybody, even in the virtual capacity. I’m going to read two brief excerpts, actually quite deep into the novel. One will just be a snippet of the two friends approaching the apartment for the first time. And then I’m going to skip ahead to a scene where the narrator is able to really be expressive about her over-grief for the first time. [Click here to read the excerpt that Azareen read aloud.]
AK: I love the part that you read, the terrain that you cover, and the way that you were able to pull together all of the different threads of this novel into a passage like that. We have the past, we have the present, we have familial memory, and the memory and historical origins of a place that she’s concretely walking around. And to me, your ability to braid all of these things so seamlessly and so gracefully, has a lot to do with the voice that you found for this text. And, your previous novels also have a similarly distinct, similarly powerful and ranging voice. I’m wondering what the role of voices and the composition of your fiction, and at what point in the process, it intervenes and begins to shape the story?
AVDVO: Thank you for that question. I am a very voice-driven writer, and I think that with this book in particular, I couldn’t really visualize the arc of the novel in any concrete sense when I started to write it. I knew that the storyline was itself quite simple, that it was a story of two friends returning to this traumatic site, to the apartment, in order to confront and to maybe integrate into her conscious life, this version of herself when she was 17, having an affair with a 40-year-old man. And what I didn’t know was that in order for the scales of the story to be balanced and even, I would have to also figure out a way to stretch the scope of the voice in order to embrace Ellie’s past as well, which is her past comes from this very intensely Orthodox family in Jerusalem that she leaves behind when she realizes she’s queer.
And then, Ellie also enters an abusive relationship temporarily with an older man, before she’s able to come out and really live her queerness. And, the story that moves forward in the book is the story of the two of them in Spain. And then there’s a parallel story that’s remembered that’s nested within that, that moves backward in time in order to reintegrate the previous trip that they’ve taken together to the site of Ellie’s trauma. And so, I felt like the voice just had to be really elastic and almost operatic in a way, in order to fold all of that in, and then to also be able to always trace the historical context and the greater political context, that’s informing all of the violence—the intimate violence that’s happening in the novel—so that you would see these characters in their full context and the pressures of the trauma of those contexts, the ways that those pressures can exert a lot of force on their bodies and on their psyches. So yeah, it was just, I really did have to listen closely to the voice and learn from it.
AK: It strikes me that voice is one of these things that we can analyze post-facto and think about diction and syntax and things like that, but that in writing it, it’s a skill almost balanced. If you think too much about what you’re doing, you can confuse yourself. Are there techniques or tricks that you use to keep yourself dwelling within the center of that voice?
AVDVO: Yeah. I’m trying to remember. I think you’re absolutely right. It’s like a conversation with the language of the book where you’re still sort of shaping that language and editing it as you go along, but you also want to. . . I think, for me, language is very alive and has its own consciousness. And, I try to do a lot of active listening as a writer to the life of the language. And often, where I think it needs to go is different from where the language is taking me. And those are always, I think, points of potential conflict between yourself as a writer and the work or sites of revelation, right. Or insight where you can kind of submit yourself to the power of the language. And, I don’t know. The story just flowed out of me in a way that was really organic.
And at first, I just had the skeleton and then I went back and had to build the muscle around it. My strategy was to read different books for different aspects of the novel. So, I was reading fiction that does similar things like Marguerite de La Rocque or James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Sula, which is all about this beautiful friendship between two women. And then I was reading all this kind of, I’d say criticism, but not theory. Like criticism on what happens to the body or to our psyches or to our language when we’ve been exposed to torture. And like Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, a lot of more philosophical things. And then I was also reading a lot about the Islamic and Sephardic history of Southern Spain and the current Jewish and Muslim conflict in Palestine and Israel. Conflict is actually not the right word for it. So I take it back. But yeah, the violence and the oppression of the occupation there. And so, I did have to have different notebooks for these things. And, I had to keep track of what it was that I was doing in order to then weave it together in the editing process.
AK: It’s a wide net to cast. And, you do so much to densify the moment and the place with the strains of past emotional experiences and of adjacent and past historical and cultural experiences. It’s sumptuous and really rich with information, too. One of the things I was going to touch on next, I see someone’s already asking question about it in the Q&A, so I’ll work on combining some of those. In the excerpt you read, the setting is so evocative. Place and language seem to often intersect in your writing. How do you see language creating place? And inversely, how did these places create language? Which, I think is such a lovely combination of questions.
AVDVO: I love the way that’s phrased. Thank you. I feel like the shape of a landscape affects our minds in terms of how elastic our grammar is. I grew up briefly living in Irvine, California, which I think Alex you’re familiar with. It was like living on a grid in a parking lot, and I could not get lost. There was no way to drift. Traffic was always controlled and very specific. And over time, I started to really have this feeling that I was living inside this fake world. Everything’s a hologram and that no one was real. This couldn’t possibly be a real place where people had autonomy of thought and feeling.
And, I felt like the scope of my thoughts became organized in a way that mirrored the landscape, like quite narrow. Having lived in the Middle East and in Spain before moving there where there’s always tons of side streets and old medieval quarters and you can get lost. The patterns of a place—whether it’s urban or a natural landscape—definitely has a huge effect. We can reinvent ourselves in another place. And then the rhythms of the language of a place often also mirror beautifully the landscape, and just the collective kind of demeanor, if there even is such a thing, of a people or a community.
And so, it was important for me to allow the book to stretch, to include the level of introspection that corresponds to Islamic traditional, mystical thinking, and then an attention to light and shadow, which is part of Islamic philosophy. But then also to have these meandering circular or elliptical passages where the past and the present are being confused, because I feel like the romance languages really allow for that circularity and lots of clauses inside of a sentence, like how much can you nest inside of this? How much time can you actually capture? So that’s always an exciting project when I’m writing. Thanks for the question.
AK: I love the way you use this word, “nest,” to describe languages, because it also struck me that the spaces in your book are nested inside one another, that there are two gravitational centers, the apartment that’s claustrophobic and dark. And then the exterior, the landscape, which is brightly lit and governed by sea and sand and sunlight. And at the same time, they interpenetrate each other. And I wondered, did these two spaces perform a creative role in deciding the arc of this?
AVDVO: That’s a really good question. I don’t know, to be honest. I wish that I could just say yes, because then I would be a different kind of writer where I could manipulate the outcome more, or be aware of strategies that I could use to my own advantage or to the narrative’s advantage. If any of that work was being done, it was entirely unconscious, but I think you’re absolutely right where I hadn’t even noticed that that’s what’s happening when she’s outside in the light, the darkness kind of comes in. And I think that’s part of trusting the language, because the language is smarter. The language of the novel, I think, is always smarter than the writer herself or himself or themselves. I don’t foresee writing every book that way, but this was a book that I really needed to give in to.
And, I think there were probably moments in the text where I could’ve held back more or trimmed or tightened, in order to privilege the forward movement of the storyline. But instead, I was just interested in these associations and where trauma lives in our body, depending in what space she’s in. Like, is she outside? Is she inside? And I’m really interested in chiaroscuro—that dramatic sort of darkness and light next to each other. I love paintings from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance that have that quality like Caravaggio. So I’m always trying to figure out what it would look like to have that painterly quality in language.
AK: The light becomes palpable and actually, you hunger for it when reading your novels sometimes. And when she does enter the sunlight, it feels like something’s been released or transformed or changed. How did you go about planning this novel? I realized you spend a lot of time grappling with dialectics around identity, history, violence, and intimacy triggered by specific scenes and images. Did you construct these scenes to encapsulate these interior conflicts, or did some of them come to you first?
AVDVO: No, I think the scenes came to me first. So, I could see six or seven particular moments. I could see her first experience going up the elevator. I could see the scene at the ATM when she first tries to withdraw money unsuccessfully at the airport. I could see the tarot reading. I could see going into the shop where she’s looking for Rosario. And, I could see her also just tanning, and drinking cocktails on the beach. At some point, one potential that was in my mind that I never pursued was, “Well, what if this novel was a novel of revenge or vindication where she would go to the mountains, to the lake, in the mountains to look for Omar and confront him?” And, that there would be a reenactment of the violence.
But then the language was just not going there. So, as I mapped these particular scenes, then they were subtle enough. They weren’t heavy-handed in any way. They were just open-ended moments or events that I could fold all of this thinking about identity into. It’s really a novel about thinking through how one’s identity is formed when a trauma has disrupted it or changed its course. And, thinking about gender identity, sexual identity, and how our desire interacts with colonialism and logics of empire that do get reenacted in rape dynamics.
AK: That’s such a wonderful answer. And, it reminds me too, of something we’ve talked about in an earlier conversation between us, about Marguerite Duras and The Lover, and then many years later, the follow-up to The Lover, The North China Lover, where she’s also doing the work of revisiting, processing, and working through the trauma of a past relationship.
AVDVO: So what I admire so much about The Lover is that it’s showing a sexual awakening in adolescence, but it’s really about family abuse, like parental neglect and the dynamics of colonialism and being a fearful 15-year-old girl who’s objectified by the family and also potentially seen as a source of income and stability. But then left to fend for herself. And she has this relationship with a much older man. That novel shifts perspectives between first and third person. And you never really see. . .You feel the violence as a reader. You feel the violence of all of the different dimensions that are interfering with her, but you also really feel her agency and her sexual awakening and her desire.
And then, I feel like in The North China Lover, Marguerite Duras writes that when she’s much older and is able to perhaps acknowledge some of the violence in a way that she wasn’t able to when she wrote The Lover. And so, I was also interested in that kind of ambiguity and the fact that both things are true. It’s true for my narrator that she doesn’t want anyone to diminish what she desired toward Omar, or the fact that her sense of pleasure was completely gratified and awakened by him. At the same time, she was overpowered in ways that had consequences that she couldn’t have predicted. And, both things are true, you know? And I think Marguerite Duras was a very helpful guide in that way.
AK: In Savage Tongues, it really feels like Arezu goes through something of a journey to how she views the relationship with Omar. She starts out in a different place than she ends up. I wondered how you knew how to guide the reader through different returns to different emotional memories, to eventually get her a place of greater healing. Was that very intuitive?
AVDVO: Absolutely. At some point, I think I had to kind of step in and shape it so that there is change that happens. This is not an eventful novel, right? It’s a novel about internal change and how we come about that. And a lot of the very dramatic action has taken place in the past. So, it was through the conversations that the two friends have with one another and the sematic journey of returning, like there was something about physically returning. . . which is like you could think of as a traditional journey and like escaping alive, right? Because when she first entered the apartment, she feels repeatedly as the walls shift and bleed and are haunted. And she sees and hears Omar’s ghost all the time that she’s going to be subsumed back into the space.
And the apartment has this kind of energy where she thinks it’s going to devour her, and she can’t sleep. And she starts to also fantasize about Omar again. And I was like, well, some change has to happen, right? We can never sacrifice change when we’re writing a novel. And it’s connected to the question of duration or the passage of time. And so, I think the more she was able to physically have that release of giving expression to a grief that was so buried, she had never cried before, and it takes her 150 pages just to cry. And she really tries not to. Yeah, it was clear that she had faced her demons and recovered a connection to her younger self.
And so, the ghost that appears toward the end is not just Omar, but also she starts to actually really be able to see the 17-year-old self for the adolescent self and have a conversation with her about what would it mean to remove her from that apartment. And I think that, again to come to the term “nesting,” all of these versions of her as a woman are nested inside one another. And it’s about making those links again right through time, which were disrupted because of the violence of the relationship.
AK: It’s such a beautiful way you put that. I know that you’ve spoken a bit about how you wrote this book. How it came to you. How did the writing/editing process for this book differ from your previous projects? Because every book is its own world and its own unique obstacle.
AVDVO: How did the writing process differ, did I hear that right?
AK: How did the writing and editing process differ from the previous book?
AVDVO: This book was a lot more immediate. So when I wrote Call Me Zebra, I think it took me seven years to write that book. But also, there was a lot of world-building that happened in Call Me Zebra. It’s a kind of hyper realism. I was trying to really do a true journey narrative, in the sense of, character leaves home and then tries to return home. And then her return is obviously disrupted. But, I was also thinking about love stories and I have a guilty pleasure that I love stupid romantic comedies.
I just love the formula, you know? And to me, it was funny to have a romantic comedy. That’s very embattled between these two literary nerds who are, fighting through literary quotes with one another and can’t have sex without thinking about sex scenes in certain novels. It was a true trip to write that book. It was just a long, long period of walls full of Post-its and tons of research in literary history. Because she’s regressing as she returns to her home, she’s also going through a lot of literary history. And this book, like I said, just, I don’t know. You turn on the tap, and it just flowed. It took me two, two-and-a-half years start to finish. And it was just more immediate and there’s some world-building, but a lot less and it is multiple continents and spaces I know really, really well, because I’ve spent a lot of time. And, I think that helped.
Read an excerpt from Savage Tongues, courtesy of Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi and Mariner Books.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of Something New Under the Sun, (Hogarth, 2021), Intimations, a short-story collection, and the novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, which was awarded the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize. In 2020, she was awarded the Rome prize and the Berlin prize.
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the novel Savage Tongues (Mariner Books, 2021), Call Me Zebra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the John Gardner Award, was long listed for the PEN Open Book Award, was an Amazon Best Book of the Year, A Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller and named a Best Book by over twenty publications. It is being translated into Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Turkish and Romanian and was published in the UK by Alma Books, a division of Bloomsbury. She received a 2015 Whiting Writers’ Award and was a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree for her debut novel, Fra Keeler(Dorothy, a publishing project, 2012).