On Exile, Literature, and Feeling Small Before the Page—Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Author

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Episode Notes

For our season 3 premiere, we talked with author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, an associate professor of English at Notre Dame and the winner of the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the largest peer-juried prize for novels and short stories in the United States.

Azareen was recognized for her second novel, Call Me Zebra, published last year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The book also won the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and was named a Best Book by a number of media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly and Harper’s Bazaar. Azareen was previously the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and honored as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” in 2015.

Host Ted Fox started out by asking her to read from Call Me Zebra, after which they talked about the book, the complicated journey of its unforgettable protagonist, and whether there’s any such thing as original writing.


Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge, the show that invites scholars, makers, and professionals out to brunch for an informal conversation about their work. I'm your host, Ted Fox. With a Side of Knowledge is supported by Sorin's restaurant inside Notre Dame's Morris Inn, which serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. If you see us recording, feel free to stop by and say hi--preferably not when we're chewing. And when we're not recording, or chewing, you can always find us on Twitter, where we are @withasideofpod.

We've known we wanted to start our third season with this interview for a while now. It's with author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, an associate professor of English at Notre Dame and the winner of the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the largest peer-juried prize for novels and short stories in the United States. Azareen was recognized for her second novel, Call Me Zebra, published last year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The judges for the award noted that, quote, "In today's visual Netflix world, Ms. Van der Vliet Oloomi's novel performs at the highest of levels in accomplishing only what the written novel can show us." Call Me Zebra also won the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and was named a Best Book by a number of media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly and Harper's Bazaar. Azareen was previously the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and honored as one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" in 2015. I started out here by asking her to read from Call Me Zebra, after which we talked about the book, the complicated journey of its unforgettable protagonist, and whether there's any such thing as original writing. (end voiceover)

So Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  2:04  
Thank you for having me.

Ted Fox  2:06  
Whenever I have someone on the show to discuss a novel, I like to start by asking them to read a short piece from their book, and you've been gracious enough to allow me to continue that tradition today. So this is a paragraph from Call Me Zebra that really stuck with me, as read by its author, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  2:24  
"I explained to him a very complicated thing, a thing not everybody would have the capacity to grasp. I told him that I speak directly because in order to stay alive I must always work to make up for the time I've lost due to the fact that, as an-ill fated citizen of this negligible world, I am subjected to being constantly attacked by history and that I have been trained by my literary-minded ancestors to combat the dulling effects of the psychic and emotional wounds caused by these violent attacks with verbal efficiency. Language is my sword, I told him. I may be gored by history, but I hack away at its horns with the ethereal sword of literature. I don't win. But I'm able to keep myself at ground zero. I survive in order to leave testimony."

Ted Fox  3:21  
So thank you for reading that. The speaker here is the protagonist, Zebra, a woman born Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, who is the last in a line of self-described anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts, which are self-taught learners. I will admit that I did look it up to make sure I knew what I was talking about when I started reading. She was born in Iran, but I would venture to say she identifies more as an exile than anything else, than necessarily as an Iranian specifically. So she's someone who's been forced by circumstances wholly beyond her control to move from place to place and has been taught, initially by her father and then her own life experience, that the only thing it's safe to love--maybe the only thing that's worthy of love--is literature, is books. And it's not like, Hey, book club love, like this is a great book. It's literally her survival and in some respects her undoing at points in the book. Maybe this is an odd or obvious question to ask a writer, but why did you choose literature as the thing, why is that the thing that is kind of--everything else is temporary or fleeting; it's literature is this thing that she turns to?

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  4:33  
Well, I think literature is such a flexible container for all of the range of issues we face as humans on Earth. And because it's so malleable, like language, it's organic, it's always evolving, the form and the shape of literature can be so multifaceted. It becomes a kind of safe container for her to hold a lot of the grief, and even her defensiveness, right? She's literally using literature as a survival mechanism, so it's also her defense mechanism. So it doesn't always help her to thrive, but it helps her to kind of stay afloat and record or leave testimony for the wrongdoings of history so that she can get ahead of some of the threats or the traumas that she's experienced. But I think it's also, she realizes this later in the novel, literature is a kind of coming-through-the-back-door to love humanity, right? There's a way in which leaving that kind of testimony is also a giant act of love and generosity and hopefulness. And she doesn't really arrive at that until very late in the novel, at that specific emotional intelligence that literature can provide us with.

Ted Fox  5:58  
She is so highly literate and able to draw on such diverse traditions and great works and great authors. And I think anyone reading this book, some of the references, you'll recognize right away, and they'll be others [where] you say, Okay, this is something that I haven't encountered. What is your own relationship to literature? And how did you go about crafting that for her so she would have that facility with it as a character?

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  6:23  
Yeah, I mean my relationship to literature is definitely informed by my own background. And what I tried to do in this book was tap into the Iranian literary tradition, the Spanish and Italian and French literary traditions, and then the American literary tradition, and German as well, right? And these are, with the exception of Germany, places that I've lived in, grew up in, languages I've inhabited and had to learn in order to keep moving forward in my own life, and trying to really weave all of these traditions together into one book was--took an astonishing amount of work. But you know, once I was deep in the work, I realized that all of these writers were actually speaking to one another, and that ideas and literature sort of travel across borders and time, very freely. And there's a lot of contamination between the books and circulation of ideas. And so it was sort of a model for how to even deal with the immigrant body, right? The body that you at first encounter think is an other, and then upon closer examination, you realize that actually, this psyche is deeply informing my psyche, this text is deeply informing this other text from another cultural tradition and is informed by maybe a very, you know, sort of historical, medieval text from the Islamic tradition, right? So, you know, that was sort of the labor of love that was trying to integrate these traditions within myself, but also leave a literary trace of that via the book.

Ted Fox  8:16  
One thing that in reading it that I noticed in the second half of the book in particular, I found myself writing down a number of places where Zebra was kind of articulating her skepticism of human love, especially of the romantic variety. And we see this come out a lot in her relationship with the character Ludo Bembo. And she also expresses a skepticism about her capacity to receive romantic love based on just everything she's experienced. And I think it would be easy--and indeed, I found myself doing this at times--to dismiss her as eccentric or nihilistic, just the way, you know, she's behaving in this relationship with this man. But she also demonstrates, I think, a growing self-awareness throughout the book of, This is why loving people is hard for me. And I think it would be kind of a mistake to dwell on how that difficulty manifests in her life and her relationships, and allowing that to obscure what I felt like, as a reader, you're almost showing kind of this long-term fallout of being someone who is exiled, a psychological fallout that continues well after the physical fallout has gone away. What are you trying to say through her about maybe the experience of exile and the experience of someone who has gone through this and these wounds that aren't obvious on the surface, maybe, to other people who are encountering them? Because Ludo does his best, but it's kind of like, I don't know what you want from me, like, this is too much.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  9:47  
Mm hmm. Well, there are multiple answers. Ludo is pretty manipulative himself and has a distorted perception of reality just like she does. On the surface, he seems more sane, but he has a lot of psychological barriers himself. I think the other important piece is that, we could define her as eccentric and nihilistic. And she certainly is. At the same time, I think that she behaves in a way in the romantic situation or dimension of the novel that a lot of men behave constantly that way, and they don't get pegged as being nihilistic or eccentric, right? It's just sort of, consuming the female body is just par for the course. So having a female character that has that approach to her sort of sexuality was really important to me and liberating, and I wouldn't want to reduce that just to her exile trauma. But certainly, she is also cautious to let anybody in because she hasn't sorted through her own vulnerability yet. And she doesn't want anyone to tap into it and have to force her to cope with things or the grief of losing her mother or her land or her mother tongue, right, before she's ready to. And I think true intimacy does force us to look at ourselves in a way that can be horrifying, and also extremely beautiful. So she's not quite there yet. Yeah. So it's a multifaceted response, yeah.

Ted Fox  11:30  
No, I mean, I think that is a really great point of how much of how we as a reader, how much I as reader, might receive her behavior. And if you look at it kind of through that gendered lens, yeah, there's very clearly that component of exile but also the, like, Yeah, you're kind of a means to an end to me--like, I have these physical needs, and that's great that you're here and I'm attracted to you, but I don't need this kind of emotional, deep-rooted connection in order to enjoy you in that way. And also to then push you away when when I'm done with you. So yeah, I think that's a really, that makes a lot of sense.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  12:10  
Yeah, I think because she's a female, when women do it, we realize it's not a very kind thing to do.

Ted Fox  12:16  
(laughs) Right.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  12:16  
So. (laughs) 

Ted Fox  12:17  
Right, exactly.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  12:18  
Maybe that message will land for male readers, I don't know. (both laugh)

Ted Fox  12:23  
I really found this fascinating of, she makes a distinction between people who have been exiled and people who have not been exiled in terms of the way they think. When she talks about the way people who haven't kind of experienced this uprooting, they believe in a coherent and linear reality. And because of kind of the discordance of the experience of exile, as an exile, you don't think that way--like, you don't think, you know, point A leads to point B leads to point C, and maybe the immortality of the soul, all these things. Like, it's a much more chaotic difference that, to me, was both subtle and really crucial to understanding what she was doing and what you were doing. And I was wondering, how did you arrive at kind of understanding that mindset and how you wanted to present it? Was it through personal experience, extensive reading of people who have gone through exile? How did you bring that to the book?

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  13:14  
There's a line from a Buddhist monk that I love, Pema Chodron, she talks about how the big spiritual squeeze is in that gap between when we want something and we don't get exactly what we want, right? When things don't align between our internal state and our external conditions. That's the big space for spiritual growth. And I think that the fact that Zebra's moving from place to place often--I mean, initially out of her control because of historical factors, and then also personal, familial lineage of coming from a family that's pretty eccentric, and then later on moving out of habit and sort of desire to recover and understand her own path. But that leads to, like you said, a lot of discontinuities in her own consciousness and her sense of identity and her sense of time and space. And I think that she doesn't have a relationship to cause and effect that's simple. And that is also, I mean, as dark as that is, as difficult as that is, it's also the very thing that has the potential to allow her to transcend and transform. And that doesn't mean to heal completely--I don't think there's any such thing--but to kind of arrive at an acceptance of the deep, open, untethered nature of reality. I think that's what she's grappling with. And I think that's where the deep work of the book is for readers and for myself, too. Beyond the sort of, like, glittery surface. That's what what's being worked through.

Ted Fox  15:00  
Continuing on that theme of nonlinear thought, you said something that was really interesting right before we started recording. You were going back, I showed you the paragraph I was gonna ask you to read, and you said, Okay, let me go back and look at it and what a strange experience it was to read your own words, it feels like someone else's words, because you're almost in this kind of hypnotic state when you're actually putting the words down and writing them. And one of the things I admired about the book, it was a challenge as a reader, but it could be disorienting at times because of the way her thoughts were working, and you're in her head, and she's not--again, it's not Point A to Point B to point C. How does that work for you as the author when you're trying to literally craft your prose and craft the story? It sounds like maybe it's related a little bit to your own process, but I would also imagine that it's a challenge to try and inhabit that space and do it in a way that is both affecting and authentic to the character and her experience.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  16:03  
Yeah, I mean, she free-associates a lot, there's a lot of stream of consciousness in the novel. But the thing is, the challenge with that is never losing a sense of the forward momentum. And the forward momentum comes from just the sort of--I think part of it is just the love story. The way that it unfolds sort of gives a shape to her thoughts that I think holds the reader's hand quite a bit through that sort of maze-like thinking process that she has. And then the project of the literary manifesto, or the matrix of literature, that she's building also gives direction to her thoughts. But I think that, for me, it's the drive, the forward drive comes from the emotional pursuit in the book and the kind of working toward an atmosphere or mood and never losing track of that. So there is a lot of editing involved, right? There's a lot of stream of consciousness writing, and then going back and shaping and making sure that there's control. There's impulse writing, and then there's the pushing back against it. So it's a conversation between where the writing wants to go, and being aware of and kind to your reader at the same time.

Ted Fox  17:22  
There's so many--I could show you the note on my phone that I kept reading it--like, there's so many great lines where I would just pull it out like, Okay, I want to save this so that I have it here. And you even saw one that I shared on Twitter at one point just when I was reading it. There was one about books, and you alluded to this a little bit earlier. But she says "Every book, I whispered into the retreating night, is a distorted duplicate of another book, the ghost of a false original, which, like the seed of the universe and my dead ancestors, is nowhere and everywhere at once." This is Zebra talking about her view of books and again, kind of what you talked about earlier, this matrix of literature and these things relating to each other across time and space. Is that how you feel personally when you think about your own writing? Do you feel like anything that you could craft or come up with, that idea has been expressed by someone somewhere at some point? And that it's adding to kind of that continuum in that way? Is that how you think about your own work? I don't know if that was a weird question. (laughs)

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  18:33  
No, I think what you're asking me is if I believe in original writing.

Ted Fox  18:38  
(laughs) Yeah, it's kind of a roundabout way of asking that, I suppose.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  18:42  
I don't. (laughs)

Ted Fox  18:44  

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  18:45  
I don't. I think that that would be a deeply narcissistic belief. And I do believe people who think they're writing in a vacuum have that belief; I'm just not one of them. And I think the more you read, the less you're capable of believing that. Writing is a collaborative process even though you're doing it on your own completely. I feel like in order for me to create a novel that's a specter or a ghost, which is what I'm interested in, then it has to be talking to the other ghosts, right? Which are books by dead authors, or less often, my contemporaries. But mainly in this book, I was speaking back to writers from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the 19th century. Yeah.

Ted Fox  19:36  
I mean, I love that answer coming from you in particular. Because I think anyone who reads this book, it reads like and feels like a highly original book, in a highly original way you're going through, and to have you as the author say it's all part of this bigger thing, and it's all informed by this bigger thing, I think is really--not only is it very humble, but I think it's also very telling about the way you think about writing, the way you think about literature. And I would tend to agree with you on that. Like, it's just, it's this huge corpus of work spreading across time, and it is hard to think and would be kind of narcissistic to think like, Yep, I'm the first one who ever came up with this, and I'm the first one whoever got it down.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  20:19  
Yeah. And it's also a lot of pressure to think that way. (both laugh)

Ted Fox  20:22  
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. You achieve something with this book that I think is very difficult to do. That not only did I not know how it was going to end until it ended, I also found myself not knowing how I wanted it to end and thinking--and I don't want to spoil this for anyone who hasn't read it--but really imagining a couple different paths and really thinking like, I'm not sure which one I'm rooting for. I don't know how I would describe the story. I feel like in some ways, it's too sobering to call it hopeful. But yet, I felt hope reading the end of it. And I'm wondering how you, as the writer of it, both thought about the process of ending her story and how you kind of think of the book as a whole?

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  21:12  
Mm hmm. Yeah, I really like the way you describe your feeling about how the book would end because I really felt that way, too, when I was writing it. And I had to be very cautious not to--this isn't a book I could wrap up neatly. And everything is not okay, so I can't make everything okay for the reader; it would be deeply dishonest. And I think that the thing that it ends with, and this isn't a spoiler, is a series of imagined futures. And she's moving toward them. So she's in a ship in the Mediterranean--which is where a lot of refugees and immigrants move, you know, are drowning or moving across to supposedly safer lands--and the space was really important as a kind of salute to all the people who are moving through the Mediterranean now and have moved through it in the past. And I think that that was an act of collaboration, of just sending out love and camaraderie.

But at the same time, the hopefulness doesn't mean that her pain ends, right? And I think that that's a sort of American narrative of the happily ever after that is a deep lie that creates a lot of suffering. And I think that of all the places I've lived in, people are more lonely here than I've ever encountered people elsewhere. And I think that this narrative of, there's always something better, there's always a point of arrival, but the target keeps moving is just this narrative of optimism and efficiency and positivism that is divorced from real emotional life--which contains those things, but it's also sometimes you're battling with things, including yourself. So I couldn't tap into that. But I do have hope. And I do think that that's an important emotional thing for us to cultivate without, I don't know, without believing that we deserve to get it, right? That we deserve to have exactly what it is we want our outcome to be. So it was sort of like a Walter Benjaminian space of hopefulness where there is hope, but maybe it's not here for us right now. It's in some imagined future. But we need to imagine that future in order to keep going.

Ted Fox  23:56  
I think she even had a line in there--and I know I'm not going to summarize it exactly right--but she talks about kind of this acceptance of, I know I'm never going to be kind of in quotes "alright," but there are pieces that can get better and things about it that can get better. And exactly what you're saying there, I mean, I know from my own personal experience in therapy, one of the biggest kind of breakthroughs I ever had was talking to my therapist and her saying, Look, most days, if they were on a scale of one to 10, most days aren't gonna be a one, most days aren't gonna be a 10. And if you spend all your time waiting for those 10-out-of-10 days, you kind of lose the, you have a pretty good day when it's a five. Like, it's just kind of, there's a mundanity to it, but it's not bad. And I think you're right that when we get so focused on the, Well, I'm striving towards this thing that is perfect, it's deeply frustrating and can leave you deeply isolated and unhappy because you're striving towards an impossible ideal.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  24:56  

Ted Fox  24:56  
That's not what human life is.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  25:00  
You know, I was thinking, like, if I had children, which I don't, but if I had them--if I even had enough hope to have them, let's just put it that way--the biggest thing I could imagine giving them is the gift of being okay enough to just have an ordinary life. Because I think it's so hard to have an ordinary life. It's like we always want to have an extraordinary life, and we don't get that all the time. You know, we have moments, but then they pass.

Ted Fox  25:34  

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  25:35  
And I think that as a writer, for me, it's especially important to remember that because there are going to be books that are received wonderfully, and books that are just going to be out there doing their work slowly over time and very quietly, and that's also a roller coaster, right? Just your artistic life. So trying not to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows is difficult, but important.

Ted Fox  26:02  
So you did recently have one of those extraordinary moments: You won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, which is the largest juried prize in the U.S. for American authors. It's a group of authors who select the winner. And just wondering if you can put us in that moment when you heard yourself announced as the winner. Because I know I first contacted you to do this interview when you were a finalist, and we didn't know at that point whether you would win. There's that old cliche, Oh, it's an honor just to be nominated, which I know it is. But I imagine that moment of hearing yourself announced has to be a pretty unique space in time.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  26:43  
Yeah, it definitely is. I mean, that is an extraordinary moment, there is no doubt about it. And my mom was with me, so, you know, I just kind of like hugged her and cried. It was, you know, it was really wonderful. And I think that it's really emotional, and just having that reward after a lot of work, and just sort of like keeping my head down for a long time.

Ted Fox  27:08  
Was that right, I read this book was seven years that you worked on it?

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  27:11  
Yeah, it was a long process. And part of it was long because I had to mature as a writer and as a human in order to actually get the story down in a way that felt accurate. And by accurate, I mean honest; it sort of took a lot of work psychically for me. So to know that readers felt that and other writers felt that, I'll never forget that moment. But I think I'm also the kind of person who just sort of puts my head right back down afterward and try to go back to the space where I feel really small before the page. And I don't mean that in a bad way; I mean that in a really great way. So trying to always recover that feeling of privacy with your work and smallness I think is the most important thing for me. And then knowing that there are these big moments where you get to step into your bigger self, then that makes all the work worth it.

Ted Fox  28:18  
I feel like that's a great thing. True with other art forms but thinking of writing specifically, there is a great thing about going back, and it's a blank page again. And it's like, Okay, in this case, I've done this thing, this book won this big award, people know it, and now I'm back here again, with a page with nothing on it, and I have to pour myself into it to create again. And you're right, it's almost like the work in a sense forces you to have a hard reset and start with what you're gonna do next.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  28:49  
Yeah, I think it would be a mistake to lean on the award. You know, your next book can't lean on--I mean, it can in the sense of your audience and the sort of broadening of the audience, there's a lot of light and energy that gets poured forth for you and to your next project, right? Like, you're building, the foundation gets deeper, so the next book is standing on a more solid foundation. But I think the content of the book, the process, can't lean on the previous, right? That's sort of like how empires fall, right? (both laugh) Or countries that used to be empires, like Iran or Italy.

Ted Fox  29:32  
That's right. Can you tell us at all what you're working on now?

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  29:38  
I can tell you one of the things. There's another book that's gonna be coming out in 2021 that I can't talk about much at the moment, but I'm working on a smaller, a very weird manuscript about Napoleon's exile in the island of Elba.

Ted Fox  29:52  
Mm hmm.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  29:53  
So I'm really excited about that. I'll be going out there this summer and just sort of like reading--you know, I'm really invested in reading history. And that's part of my sort of angle as a writer, and manipulating and fictionalizing it because it's already fake news. (laughs)

Ted Fox  30:11  

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  30:12  
To a big degree. But just Napoleon is such a wild and crazy man, and, you know, not unlike other megalomaniacs that we have around us running governments these days. So it's sort of tragic and comic at the same time to be reading his work.

Ted Fox  30:28  
Well, and it's those connections across history we talked about with the literature. (laughs)

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  30:31  
Yes, yes, he thought he was, you know, Charlemagne's, you know, next sort of reincarnation or Alexander the Great's, and, you know, we have--I don't need to name them. Let's not ruin our morning. (laughs)

Ted Fox  30:44  
I will say, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for making time for the show. And congratulations again on the award.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi  30:51  
Thank you so much.

Ted Fox  30:53  
(voiceover) With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame with support from Sorin's restaurant. Our website is provost.nd.edu slash/podcast.