There is a sentence in the first half of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s new novel Savage Tongues that seems to also apply to her career thus far. “She’d made it her life’s work to study her own grief, to catalogue the invisible pain of others.” Savage Tongues is an ambitious novel, in that it aims to give language the feelings that arise from trauma and living with trauma. But how can one define something that doesn’t always have a name? Oloomi finds a way.
The quoted observation is made by Arezu, the story’s shellshocked protagonist, to her friend Ellie, a scholar of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Arezu has asked Ellie to accompany her to Marbella, Spain to pack up the apartment she’s inherited from her father. It’s not the task itself she needs help with; it’s the memories associated with the apartment that require hand-holding. Two decades prior, as a teenager, she’d entered a relationship-of-sorts with Omar, her father’s forty-year-old step-nephew. The two formed a passionate yet tumultuous bond, and the effects of her time with Omar has haunted Arezu ever since. She hopes that by returning she can reclaim control over her lacerated psyche. But she won’t know what that looks like until she’s back in that apartment.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of the novel Call Me Zebra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) winner of the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the John Gardner Award, long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, a Publisher’s Weekly best-seller, and named a Most Anticipated Book of 2018 by over twenty publications. She received a 2015 Whiting Writers Award and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” award for her debut novel, Fra Keeler (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2012). Her work has been supported by a Fulbright fellowship, a MacDowell fellowship, and a fellowship from ART OMI and has appeared in Granta, Guernica, the Paris Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places.
Speaking via Zoom from her home in South Bend, Indiana, Oloomi talked with me about queer friendships, the writers whose works she returns to most, and the art of teaching through deep listening.
The Rumpus: How did the premise for Savage Tongues develop, and why did you choose to pursue this story?
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: I wanted to explore the emotional aftermath of sexual abuse and the ways that the experience continues to live in the narrator’s body and psyche long after it happens. The relationship between the narrator and Omar is underpinned by geopolitical instability and crisis in the Middle East and by the displacement that ensues from that, so the desire and the crisis coursing through their interactions further complicates her sense of identity, both as a woman and as a hybrid body—someone who is Middle Eastern and British/American and who belongs to both sides of the political equation.
I also wanted to write a novel about the resilience of an enduring friendship between Arezu, the narrator, and her best friend, Ellie. It’s a queer friendship, which has a very particular ethos to it, but it’s also a friendship that is interreligious and very deeply intellectual in nature. One of the questions I kept asking through the book is: how do female and queer friends hold conversations about the aftermath of sexual abuse and political trauma? How do these conversations differ from more socially normative narratives of survival, where we’re still expected to either repress trauma, by not giving it too much air time, or to acknowledge it with the aim of moving on? That’s not what Arezu and Ellie are interested in. They’re interested in the permanence of the trauma, and the infinitely evolving constraint it places on their psyches and bodies. It also completely reshapes their reading of colonialism and patriarchy. In the context of their lives, sexual abuse is a deeply political act.
Rumpus: I feel there is a misconception surrounding “healing,” or absolving ourselves of distress after a traumatic event. One of the things I see Savage Tongues doing well is the way it depicts living with this weight long after the initial events occurred. The memories of that summer still control Arezu, and she goes back to Marbella to regain authority. But is it possible to fully regain control, or does learning how to live with these feelings still imply that the pain never goes away? I’d love your thoughts on this.
Oloomi: That’s an excellent question. It’s also a deeply political question, because the protocol for healing that Arezu encounters in therapy feels inadequate to her, in part because she never finds a therapist who has experiential knowledge of what it means to come from the Middle East. In many ways, she refuses what she perceives as a strictly linear Western chronology of grief and healing, one that requires her to locate the traumatic events in the distant past, process them, and move on. That kind of temporality doesn’t capture the way we experience trauma, or speak to the mercurial and ever-changing nature of memory; it doesn’t really speak to how the body experiences intense pain or pleasure.
Rumpus: I read the novel like a stream-of-consciousness. Everything is told from the lens of someone who is constantly replaying these disastrous events in their head. Arezu’s observations and how she describes her surroundings somehow all tie back to that summer with Omar. How would you say Arezu’s perspective changes?
Oloomi: At the beginning of the novel she is really treading water; she is totally immersed in the ghostly, haunting space of the apartment, which is always about to be inundated. For me, the apartment is its own character. It has agency over her (Omar’s fingerprints are everywhere), and when she first enters the apartment she doesn’t have the language she needs to talk about what she is feeling, or how what she is remembering is affecting her. So, she begins to investigate the apartment, the walls, her old swimsuit, the broken answering machine where her mother used to leave messages. She begins to fix these objects in language, to excavate her trauma and grief. By the end, she is in a very different position. The novel itself becomes a kind of witness to her.
Rumpus: Arezu and Ellie straddle a fine line between kinship and codependency, though it’s their respective traumas that brought them there in the first place. The term “chosen family” can imply that we’re the ones choosing, but oftentimes it is emotional resonance with others that does the choosing for us. In what ways is this true for Arezu and Ellie’s relationship?
Oloomi: I don’t think of their relationship as codependent. They are very committed to one another and that bond makes them interdependent in ways that increase their individual resilience and courage. The central love story in the novel is really Arezu and Ellie’s friendship. One of the things that makes their relationship so intense is that it’s informed by the conflicts and intersecting geopolitical contexts of the Middle East, Europe, and the United States—the occupation of Palestine, the living memory of the Holocaust, the Iran-Iraq war, the Lebanese Civil War that Omar survived as a teenager.
The fact that they know one another’s backstory and understand all the ways the political context of their lives injured their sense of dignity certainly makes the emotional bond between them more intimate.
Rumpus: Even Sahar, who, though initially a minor character from Arezu’s past, represents a very different experience of Middle Eastern and South Asian people living in America. I would love to know your thoughts on the camaraderie between brown bodies, particularly queer ones, beyond who we’re already closest to.
Oloomi: I think of the book as a love letter to my queer family. While the emotional plot hews closely to my life, it’s fiction and therefore a dramatization of things that are very real and genuine. Giving expression to them in a novel is both acknowledging and representing the kinds of bonds that exist between brown and queer bodies, but it’s also an artistic project about what a novel can do when its shape is being used to capture and map queer community and friendship across racial and ethnic lines. The novel, which is really an overheard conversation between Ellie and Arezu, or Ellie and Sahar, or Arezu and the teenage version of herself she is in the process of recovering, bears witness to all the beauty and pain that those friendships allow for in the real world.
I’m always interested in the question of how one can manipulate language, because it is so capacious, to actually do justice to those realities on the ground. That’s why there is so much internal monologue in the book, because Arezu is thinking about their friendship and how they move through the world, while she is also mining the deep archives of the past that have informed their understanding of the sexual politics of power. Trying to keep track of all of these layers in the novel was quite difficult, but it was the principal ambition of the book.
Rumpus: Everything we learn about Arezu’s past is told from her perspective in the present. Trauma can have puzzling consequences for our memories, and there are some very precise details she remembers from her time with Omar. How do you see trauma affecting the memory?
Oloomi: The novel asks some very unwieldy questions, mostly about the mercurial quality of language, and the complicated ways that it can simultaneously be weaponized against minority bodies and reclaimed as a tool for decolonizing our minds from the pressures of empire, occupation, domination, and patriarchy. Arezu’s identity is plural, hybrid. What she needs in order to comprehend the various interstices of her life is to build a multi-perspectival view of what happened. She has to think about her relationship to Omar, her parents, geography, self, and language from different cultural contexts.
Our memories are so easily influenced by language; what I’m saying is that there’s a way in which trauma, memory, and language become triangulated that is very complex. Together they form a kind of Bermuda Triangle. One can easily get lost in a hall of mirrors because our memories of our traumas are always evolving (memory is very amoeba-like), and because trauma can disrupt our ability to speak. To complicate things further, when we begin to fix our experience in language we also begin to exert pressure on the way that we hold and remember the events that we’d previously felt disempowered against.
When we are talking about the sexual politics of power, about sexual misconduct and abuse, the parameters established by the law concerning age of consent, the statute of limitations, and the (trans)national moral code(s) operating in our psyches can further complicate our feelings about what happened. Arezu has to process her relationship with Omar from the complexity of her identity, which is Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, European, and American. The combined age of consent in Spain, Iran, and America ranges from thirteen to eighteen. That complicates her ability to unpack what happened, and the ways that different adults she turns to understand what happened along the lines of the law further damage her. She can’t be single-minded about the process. I think that’s where language becomes so important, as it allows her to construct an apparatus complex enough to show how the different parts of her identity were generated, or disturbed, as a result of the experience.
Rumpus: I want to switch gears and discuss craft and style for a bit. The prose weaves between these poignant and vivid metaphors and raw, direct language. At times, the syntax reminds me of the Victorians. What were you reading as you wrote this, and who or what inspired you while you wrote?
Oloomi: I was reading Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and Cathy Caruth’s Literature in the Ashes of History. I was also reading Rachel Cusk, James Baldwin, Marguerite Duras, Toni Morrison, and Virginia Woolf. I’ve also always been deeply invested in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century aesthetic of the novel, where the narrative voice is tracking multiple levels of reality in a single sentence; Flaubert, Proust, Woolf, and Henry James all do this flawlessly.
I am persuaded by a kind of literary realism that doesn’t suppress the plurality of one’s consciousness, as opposed to more recent waves of literary realism that prioritize a more linear and less layered view of reality. I am also interested in how the aesthetic of realism can be complicated by philosophical writings on torture, by the knowledge that pain afflicted for a political end (interrogation, isolation, etc.) transforms our understanding of language and the world. Savage Tongues blends the aesthetics of realism and the electric charge of philosophy together with a defiant expression of female sexuality.
Rumpus: I’m sure the students you work with can have an influence as well. You’re on faculty at Notre Dame, and you workshop and mentor writers of varying ages. What sort of advice do you give your students that you feel is hardest to apply yourself?
Oloomi: I try not to give my students advice, to be honest. Instead, I exercise deep listening with them, because each writer is in his or her or their own world. The conversations that feel most mutually beneficial are the ones where we’re talking about complicating the idea of what a novel is, and how basic elements like plot and character fall short of capturing the kind of literature that I’m, at least, interested in creating, where there aren’t such clear-cut boundaries between what we’ve been taught to think of as the “elements of fiction.”
We also talk a great deal about the emotional plot of a novel and how difficult it is to find the central heartbeat of a project. It requires so much vulnerability from each writer to really go there, and it takes courage to be defiantly yourself. I’m always trying to get them closer to that so that they can be less afraid of their own power.
Rumpus: I’m elated to come across your work because queer Middle Eastern American stories are finally being told, but a lot of my excitement stems from a yearning for more inclusive narratives. We’ve seen a global wrecking in entertainment and politics recently for equity and equality for marginalized people, and Savage Tongues touches upon this. How does your writing reflect how we, as a cumulative Western society, can move forward while still holding ourselves accountable?
Oloomi: I think there is a lot of work for us to do in the Middle Eastern American community, as well as the queer Middle Eastern or Southwest Asian community, in terms of lifting each other up, building intersectional coalitions, coming together and mobilizing when we have been targets of so much political and rhetorical violence. The media’s portrayal of the Middle East is very limited and often perpetuates discourses that marginalize our communities. It is no secret that we are the target of surveillance politics and policies, and yet this fact is not openly protested or widely acknowledged. The fact that we are not a federally protected minority (thanks to Trump’s overturning of Obama’s efforts to create a separate MENA category on the census) complicates things further.
I think some people are ready to look at the tremendous consequences of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or our lack of intervention in Palestine and Syria, to look at how they may have been implicated in the violence either by looking away or exercising learned helplessness or supporting the wars outright. There’s a long way to go before the scale of the violence and the harm that has been done is acknowledged. We need to keep talking about it. We need to keep re-articulating the basics.
Photograph of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi by Kayla Holdread.