Azareen Van der Vleet Oloomi is the author of the new novel Savage Tongues. Her other books include Call Me Zebra, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Guernica and Granta. She is based in South Bend, Indiana, and in Chicago.
Q: What inspired you to write Savage Tongues, and how did you create your character Arezu?
A: I wanted to write a novel about the many complicated ways that our most intimate scars are connected to the wounds of history, and about the power of finding our chosen family in the aftermath of displacement.
Savage Tongues is set in Andalusia, in the historically Islamic and Sephardic part of Spain, but unfolds across Iran, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and the United States.
What Arezu and her best friend Ellie are asking through Savage Tongues is: What happens to our sexual and emotional appetites when we have been taught to either hate ourselves or each other as a result of war, conflict and colonialism?
I set out to write a novel about the power that language—particularly the language of intimacy between female and queer Jewish and Muslim friends—has to reanimate parts of ourselves that have disappeared or been erased by violence and about the courage it takes to give voice to a pain that exists beyond speech, when our very ability to speak for ourselves has been injured.
Q: The author Margot Livesey said of the book, "In Savage Tongues the immensely gifted Van der Vliet Oloomi describes a woman walking the razor thin line between memory and madness as she tries to rescue her younger self." What do you think of that description?
A: I think it’s a powerful description; it captures the danger and the urgency of Arezu’s journey back in time, toward a past that has haunted her for 20 years.
Returning to Andalusia is a risky move that threatens to undo her. But she is compelled to go back because she believes in the power of inviting her ghosts into the room, of confronting the traps in her own character.
It is a lot to manage—and she leans into that line between memory and madness in order to finally become, at the end of it, more clear-eyed about who she is in all of her complicated wholeness.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The book takes on questions of colonialism and all of its physical, psychic, and discursive forms of violence.
The title came to me rather late in the process. For me, it points to the discursive violence of colonialism, turning the nomenclature of “the barbaric/savage other” on its head in order to address the very questionable narrative of moral authority that colonial powers claim to have over colonized bodies.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I knew that Arezu and Ellie would have to get out of that apartment at some point, somehow. But I didn’t know what would unfold while they were there, or how the apartment would come to life, and so I couldn’t foresee their exit plan until I was halfway through the writing process.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a series of speculative short stories that explore the nausea of occupying a Middle-Eastern-American body during two decades of U.S. military domination and gross human rights violations in the region.
The stories take place in America, Spain, Italy, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and capture the absurdity of communications media—television, Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp—when they become the only means through which those living in exile in the land of the instigator can view the homes they fled.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb