REVIEWS, CALL ME ZEBRA
"Ferociously intelligent....With intricacy and humor, Van der Vliet Oloomi relays Zebra’s brainy, benighted struggles as a tragicomic picaresque whose fervid logic and cerebral whimsy recall the work of Bolaño and Borges." --Liesl Schillinger, NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"Van der Vliet Oloomi resists the standard redemption arc, infusing her protagonist with a darkly comic neuroticism." -THE NEW YORKER
"Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is a new breed of erudite, conceptually ambitious authors...Above and beyond the sociopolitical undercurrent, Call Me Zebra is about the dead we love and communicate with each time we open a book (or access a memory).” San Francisco Chronicle
"Van der Vliet Oloomi captures the shattered identity of the refugee and the immigrant, the way that literature becomes a lifeline in exile: a movable home, a network of dissent, a genealogy beyond national borders."- LA REVIEW OF BOOKS
"This is a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it." KIRKUS REVIEWS, STARRED REVIEW
"This is a miss your stop on the subway and ignore your to-do list kind of book." LITHUB, 15 Books You should Read this February
"Van der Vliet Oloomi has delivered a slightly screwball novel with a quirky, irrepressible narrator, full of literary theories, boundless curiosity, and biting humor." THE NATIONAL BOOK REVIEW, "5 Hot Books"
"Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel about a difficult, funny, and troubled woman is at its heart a novel about the powerful role of literature in self-discovery." THE MILLIONS, "Self Discovery and the Limitations of Literature: On CALL ME ZEBRA"
"What Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts did for gender and sexuality, Call Me Zebra does for the experience of exile, deftly threading the narrative with theory while also using theory to pull the reader in. Though Call Me Zebra happens to be fiction, both books are stuffed with complex ideas made irresistible and lyric. Both symbiotically use philosophy to clarify and amplify the human story. " LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOK
"The splendidly eccentric “Call Me Zebra” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 292 pages, $24), by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, stars Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, self-christened Zebra, an Iranian exile and the last leaf on a family tree rich in the three A’s: “Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists.” After her beloved, Nietzsche-quoting father dies, Zebra embarks on a heartbroken Grand Tour of Exile, during which she intends to complete a manifesto proving that the things of the material world, death included, are insubstantial illusions and that truth can only be sensed within what she grandly calls “the Matrix of Literature.” She’s unusual, is what I’m getting at, prone to declaiming things like, “In order to apprehend totality we have to annihilate the notion that life and death are two antagonistic blocks.” Zebra’s metaphysical quest, like that of Don Quixote, is marked by ridiculous hauteur and deeply buried sorrow. Ms. Van der Vliet Oloomi touchingly charts Zebra’s struggle to reconcile her faith in literature with her painful ongoing attachment to the real world. Hearken ye fellow misfits, migrants, outcasts, squint-eyed bibliophiles, library-haunters and book stall-stalkers: Here is a novel for you." WALL STREET JOURNAL
"The eponymous Zebra (née Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini) of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi's second novel is a young raconteur in search of the sources of her intellectual family's wandering past and cultural legacy. Born in an erudite Iranian family under constant threat, she is smothered in learning--memorizing passages from influential world literature and assimilating a dozen languages before her teens. Her father reads her bedtime stories from Nietzsche, Dante and Kafka. Finally without options in its native land, her family uproots and begins a treacherous refugee journey through Turkey to Spain and ultimately to the "new world" of the United States. Zebra loses her mother along the way, and her father dies when she is just 22 and a student at New York University. Call Me Zebra is the wildly imaginative story of her attempt to reverse her family's journey while toting the baggage of her parents' lessons and memories. She tells the sympathetic professor who gives her his unused sabbatical money, "I intend to dive into the lacunae of exile... to prolong this ridiculous habit of living just long enough to examine the landscapes we traversed during our long and brutal exodus." The professor arranges for a former student to take her under wing in Barcelona, and the enticing young Italian exile Ludo Bembo becomes the Sancho Panza to her Don Quixote. And so, her odyssey begins. A Whiting Award-winner and MacDowell and Fulbright fellow, Oloomi (Fra Keeler) wears her weighty intellectual bona fides lightly. Call Me Zebrais a novel of philosophical curiosity, so it is awash in quotations and references. Calling herself the "Dame of the Void" and intent on probing the "Matrix of Literature," Zebra liberally fills her narrative with bits and pieces from literary luminaries--not just from classics like Cervantes, Homer and Nietzsche, but also from the more modern masters like Borges, Robbe-Grillet and even Kathy Acker and Paul Auster. She's a motor mouth of observation who often slips into the streets of Barcelona, and the smaller towns of Catalonia, to ramble on about Gaudí, Dali and Picasso. But Zebra is also a young woman with a healthy erotic appetite, and Ludo is more than happy to oblige. In her outspoken way, Zebra directs the maneuvers of their mating and (like Henry Miller) savors their earthy erogenous passion. When sentimental Ludo whispers the love word, she chastises him: "Love is a useless emotion that accomplishes little more than putting two people on a violent collision course from which they will never recover." Filled with literature, art and sex, Call Me Zebra is rambling and picaresque as quirky and funny as its rambunctious narrator. Its many digressions into philosophy and history are not obstacles--they are stepping-stones. Call Me Zebra is a grand story, but as Zebra describes herself when looking in a mirror, it is also "as troubling as literature, as disquieting as language itself." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan. Shelf Talker: With a healthy dose of literary allusions and excerpts, Call Me Zebra is a vibrant novel of a young woman's odyssey into her family's legacy of exile and erudition. SHELF AWARENESS
"Escaping persecution and destruction during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Zebra's parents flee their home in Iran, and her father immediately begins her education by reciting quotations of famous writers and thinkers, instilling in her a love of literature. Her family is one of readers; their family crest is inscribed with three As for autodidacts, atheists, and anarchists. Unfortunately, Zebra becomes an orphan at a relatively early age, and she begins a quixotic search for the meaning of life. Arriving in Barcelona, Spain, she meets Ludovico Bembo, with whom she has a magnetic connection. After a brief time of living together, he declares his love for her, but Zebra is unable to reciprocate. As she walks around Barcelona, whose art and architecture have special meaning for her, she soon realizes that the greatest revenge in life is to feel tremendous love and to persist and prevail. VERDICT: This fierce meditation, a heady review of literature and philosophy as well as a love story, is a tour de force from the author of Fra Keeler that many will read and reread." LIBRARY JOURNAL
"In Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second novel, Call Me Zebra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a 22-year-old Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, who renames herself Zebra, sets out to visit the sites her family passed through while escaping Iran. When she arrives in Barcelona, it occurs to her that “there is no longer any ‘we’ to speak of. [She is] alone.” Exiled from the collective language of her homeland, she has no choice but to find shelter in the works her father read to her, hoping to recover some part of him in the process. Characters usually just exist within their own framework, referencing only themselves and their reality. Here, we are presented with one who mostly lives her life vicariously through the works of literature she has spent her life memorizing and over-identifying with. To readers who are familiar with Walter Pater or explored with care the precarious world of Gertrude Stein’s cubistic prose, and paddled through the disrupted waters of critical theory and post-structuralism—Zebra is depicting a familiar assemblage. Throughout the book, she systematically references Nietzsche as her Virgil, shedding light on instances of self-imposed exile, and the effect that politics can have on the daily inner workings of the mind. But Zebra is not (just) a writer’s writer, she’s a reader of readings. For theorist Maurice Blanchot, who Zebra references regularly, writing is an intransitive catastrophe. He writes: “By producing a work, I renounce the idea of my producing and formulating myself; I fulfill myself in something exterior and inscribe myself in the anonymous continuity of humanity.” For Zebra, the notion of self-effacement and evacuation is a determinative factor that will influence the decision she makes in the pursuit of a total—in the Wagnerian sense—literary existence. Roland Barthes, at the height of his intellectual genius, put forth the notion that the author must (metaphorically) die to give birth to the reader. In Writing Degree Zero (1953), he posits: “Writing is a way to Think literature, not create it… Language is never innocent: each word is filled with historicity and original meanings that blend discreetly into the new, adapted significations.” Such a definition of literature could not be more accurate for Zebra, who defines literature as “a black hole: an abyss with no boundaries, an elastic void that consumes everything and from which nothing but a faint residue radiates back out into the world—a nonplace where time collapses, becomes imaginary, and therefore, finally, truthful.” For both Barthes and Zebra, the abyss is exacerbated ad nauseam by writers attempting to imprint themselves in the canon through language. They can never create. They can only attempt to fill in the mold of all that it is and is not. This concept has been deconstructed, analyzed, modified, and mulled over for so many decades that scholars often overlook a question that Oloomi systematically asks her readers: How can we begin to account for the trace of a reader? When Zebra travels, she sees herself as a character in a novel who is trying to understand the meaning of novels. Beyond what we would typically associate with the physicality of reading—underlining, folding, highlighting, ripping out pages—for Zebra, the act of reading suggests a projection into real space, a way to keep her family in the world, and herself out of it. “I plan to prove that literature is an incarnated phenomenon; I, an exile and a Hosseini, am the embodiment of literature,” she says, categorizing herself as a vessel coveting with utmost care the difficult task of being a character in the story of Literature. When she leaves New York for Barcelona, Zebra meets Italian philologist Ludo Bembo. Quickly, the two of them dive into an intensely narratological and self-reflexive relationship in which the heft and prevalence of literature permeates through the cracks of both of their languages. They become mirror images of Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, with the added variable of romance between them. The two venture through Barcelona, Girona, Albanya, and, in the process, slowly write their own traveling text. Interestingly, as Zebra becomes the text of her own story, Ludo cannot help but read her, cruise her, and engage in a physical iteration of the erotics of reading. Zebra, however, resents Ludo’s affection, and considers his idea of love a waste of time. In part because of this tension, Zebra comes to understand herself not just as a reader, but as a character in her own book, a vessel coveting with utmost care the difficult task of being on and off the page. “If liberty = death and death = nothingness and nothingness = literature, then it follows that literature = liberty, death, nothingness… I was going to disappear into literature,” she says. But disappearing into literature becomes near impossible for Zebra, who is constantly pulled between it and her life off the page. Ludo’s presence becomes a test for Zebra to decide whether a reader can embody the physical world as something other than a container of literary multitudes. Oloomi effectively creates a fictional universe that thrives in its heavy-handedness: readers might get fed up with Zebra’s over-expressive hyper-intellectualism since much of her narration is filled with elegiac diction and hyperbolic discourse. Yet to stop there is to miss the realization that the beauty of Zebra’s character lies in the very fact that literature is hyperbolic. At any given time, there is always a character crying out; a war announcing itself; a family getting torn apart; a relationship ending. This threat of an imminently catastrophic dissolution keeps Zebra hooked to the books she carries with her and also makes her a magnetically passionate character worth following." BOMB MAGAZINE "AN ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE: ON AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI'S CALL ME ZEBRA"
- PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, STARRED REVIEW
- BITCH MEDIA, Included in their "17 Books Feminists Should Read in February."
- Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi was born under the sign of exile. The author’s striking name combines Persian and Dutch, evoking two very different worlds which seep into her work in unwieldy and whimsical ways. Reading the Iranian-American’s new novel Call Me Zebra is a journey through what the writer calls the “psychosis of exile”—a dark descent into the depths of an identity crisis Oloomi is all too familiar with. LITHUB, "THE EXILES OF AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI" A PROFILE BY ZAHRA HANKIR
REVIEWS, FRA KEELER
- Music & Literature
- Slate Magazine
- Rain Taxi
- Publishers Weekly
- The Millions
- L.A. Times Review of Books
- Fiction Advocate
- The Coffin Factory
- The Quarterly Conversation
- American Book Review, V. 34 No. 5, Review of Fra Keeler, “Inhabiting the Entretemps,” - Gerald L. Bruns, 2013