Photo: Kayla Holdread.
Not many writers can convey both great beauty and horror at the same time, but in Savage Tongues, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi does so deftly. The novel follows Arezu, a woman in her late thirties, as she travels to Marbella, Spain, where she spent the summer when she was seventeen. She has returned to confront the past, the ghost of who she was, and her memories of Omar, an enigmatic older man who introduced her to unfamiliar freedoms even as he harmed her and dispossessed her of her power. Oloomi has written two previous novels, Fra Keeler, a mystery as hallucinatory and menacing as it is comic, and Call Me Zebra, which follows the pilgrimage of a free-spirited exile and autodidact. Though Savage Tongues takes after both, it explores new territory, as Oloomi works through questions of sex, friendship, trauma, and the obliteration of the self, with an inventive approach to time, setting, and character.
The language of the new novel diverges, too, and Oloomi’s sentences, whether evoking pain or pleasure, are electric, filled with life. If I’m honest, when I was reading, I often wished I had written them. The imagery is filmic, and sometimes piercing. Take this passage, in which Arezu has just entered her old apartment building in Marbella—“When I pressed the elevator button, I felt Omar’s hand reaching through mine as if our bodies were superimposed: for a moment, my limbs filled with lead. All of the energy and vitality and strength I’d cultivated over the years drained out of me. I felt the pressure of his finger against the illuminated call button and a cold shiver ran down my spine.”
This summer, Oloomi and I wrote back and forth to each other over Google Docs. She had just returned from a trip to Turkey, and I’d just arrived in the Catskills, both of us readjusting to movement and travel after having stayed still for so long. We talked, among many other things, about pleasure, self-preservation and survival, and literature that is “raw and ruthless.”
Savage Tongues is a book of summer. How has this summer been? What have you been doing?
It’s been all sorts of ways. I’m directing the M.F.A. program at the University of Notre Dame this year, so work didn’t slow down until mid-June, when I left for Turkey. Like most people, I hadn’t traveled in more than fifteen months, and to go from the static life of quarantine and lockdown to moving across a huge country felt amazing. I spent time in Istanbul and Bodrum. I swam every day. And I ate my heart out. I’m back in the Midwest now, swimming in the lake when I can, though mostly I spend my downtime at a natural horsemanship barn where I lease a horse.
I’m curious if you’ve read anything lately you especially liked, and also, I’d like to know what you read when you were writing Savage Tongues.
I’ve been reading short story collections, mostly. Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq and Haruki Murakami’s First Person Singular. I like the way that stories can feel like miniature time capsules. When I was writing Savage Tongues I was reading a lot of radical women writers—Marguerite Duras, Elena Ferrante, Annie Ernaux, Etel Adnan, Maggie Nelson, Nawal El Saadawi. I went to Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Judith Butler, Toni Morrison, and Elaine Scarry as I started to think about the politics of discursive violence. Then I read a lot of James Baldwin, Garth Greenwell, and Hervé Guibert—writers who write brilliantly about sex, who are always aware of the power and the politics underpinning a physical or sexual encounter. So I had different stacks of books, different guides to see me through each dimension of the novel.
In many ways, Savage Tongues is quite different from your other two novels, though all three share a restless, relentless, investigative quality. How did the novel first arise for you, and what was it like to write it?
I’d been thinking about Savage Tongues for a long time before I sat down to write it. The search for the language of the novel was definitely protracted, likely because the questions the novel asks kept piling on. The more I sat with it, the more impossible it seemed to separate the private, intimate story of Arezu’s life during her teenage years—and, later on, as an adult woman looking back at her younger self—from the geopolitical context. It is a book that required me to let everything in, to look at Arezu’s individual trauma as inseparable from the wounds of history and migrancy.
To start, I really wanted to explore the complex and troubling ways that children of immigrants have to bridge the gap between their parents and the host culture they are dropped into, the unbearable violence that can manifest when that gap is too wide to close. One thing I don’t think we talk about enough is how parental neglect, cross-generational misunderstanding, family dynamics, and gender-based abuse intersect with geopolitical conflict, colonialism, and patterns of migration. How the particular dynamics of political and identity-based violence one flees influence one’s ability to navigate the structural violence at play both in the adoptive country at large and in one’s own diaspora community. I needed to sit with these questions for a good long while, and to archive intimate conversations I’d been having for years with my queer family, the tribe of friends who finally made America both legible and bearable to me. Savage Tongues is in many ways a love letter to my chosen family.
After finishing the novel I kept thinking about the relationship between Arezu and her best friend, Ellie, who accompanies her to Marbella and the apartment there, which is a site not only of trauma but also of desire. None of what Arezu experienced in that place was cut-and-dried, which Ellie understands very well because of her own experiences. I was moved by the “recovery journeys” the two go on together—Arezu has accompanied Ellie to Israel and occupied Palestine—and the healing that comes through these journeys. That kind of friendship is not often explored in literature. And I’ve never read a novel before that is in itself a kind of recovery journey—the reader is accompanying Arezu, too. It sounds as though the friendship between Arezu and Ellie was a central part of the novel from the outset.
I definitely think of it as a novel about the enduring power of friendship. There’s an Audre Lorde quote that was very present for me as I wrote the book—“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The friendship between Arezu and Ellie is fundamental to their self-preservation, and it is most certainly an act of political warfare, a resistance to systems of oppression that perpetuate hate. Arezu comes from a culturally Muslim Iranian family, Ellie from an Orthodox Jewish family that doesn’t recognize Israel’s occupation of Palestine. They’ve both been abandoned and disowned by their families, Ellie for being queer and for dedicating her intellectual and emotional life to the Palestinian cause and recognizing her position as an implicated subject in the violence of the occupation. Arezu is a bit feral and tends to live in a fugue state. But their love for each other allows them to survive, and to recover their right to pleasure. Their recovery journeys are about voicing unspeakable pain and suppression so that language can no longer be weaponized against them.
In a profound way the unspeakable is transcended. On one level, Savage Tongues is a novel of conversation—so much is gotten to and pushed past through Arezu and Ellie’s talks. Yet it is only when Arezu is unaccompanied that she can come into contact with her past self. I was very affected by how this self comes to life. On the bus to Marbella, for instance, Arezu sees her projected on the horizon, bruised, walking across the desert rocks. She sees her in the apartment with Omar, riding him in bed. She sees who she might have been if she’d never left—ravaged, haunted. The past is not dead. It is always rising to meet the present. How did you think about the self in the novel, especially as it relates to time?
There’s a speculative element to the novel that helped me to convey the electric charge of history, of a traumatic past that refuses to be let down easily. The element of horror, of a subtle surrealism, allowed me to let in the ghosts, to memorialize the past in order to begin to imagine an alternate future. When I think of the selves in the novel—the self that I am and from which I write, and the selves I am interested in inhabiting on the page—well, their very survival depends on remembering the past, their history that would otherwise vanish because history’s victors have no interest in archiving their pain, their material culture, its immense historical power and the ways in which its power has been foreclosed in the service of colonialism. There’s something else, too. This book is intensely about intersectional female interiority. Our power has been foreclosed in the service of the patriarchy, which is an extension of colonialism. But there’s so much resistance and pushback to these various eclipses, there always has been, there always will be. There’s Duras, Lessing, Morrison, Lorde, Adnan, El Saadawi. The list goes on. That’s something to feel immensely grateful about. What would culture look like if writers didn’t refuse to move on, to just get on with it? What if we said, Okay, you win, we’ll bury our heads in the sand, we’ll take the injustice? I wouldn’t want to know.
You mentioned that Arezu and Ellie help each other recover their right to pleasure, and I’d like to come back to that because it, too, has such a bearing on the novel, just as much as horror. The two spend long, luxurious hours together eating and drinking, lying on the beach in Marbella, wandering the streets of Granada, soaking in the baths at a hammam. The descriptions of the landscape, the plants and the flowers, are deeply pleasurable to read.
Landscape is one of the things I most love writing about, because it is so sensory, evocative. All of our memories are nested in spaces—in sights, sounds, smells. So I don’t think of landscape as separate from character and have never conceived of setting as a backdrop to the consciousness of the characters who inhabit my novels. To me they are inseparable elements of a life. Arezu’s time with Omar, the very texture of her experiences with him, is intertwined with the balmy Mediterranean air, the particular shade of the water at various times of day, the gangly palm trees that arch over the roads, the dark, isolated mountain lake they swim in, hemmed in by evergreens and out of view. And there’s all of the food she and Ellie eat, all of the ways they are alive to their bodies in the aftermath of trauma. They take so much pleasure in the landscape, the same landscape that had ravished Arezu as a teenager. This is one way in which Arezu reclaims her power, even as she addresses the horrors of the past.
Arezu is marked by Omar, by her absent father, and by the West. When a white supremacist attacks her brother, for instance, this is an attack on her, too, one that shapes her life. She sees Omar clearly, and the harm he did her, but she also sees her yearning for him, and for freedom and life, as well as the geopolitical conflicts and colonialism that underpin their relationship. When I said earlier that the unspeakable is transcended, this is also part of what I meant. It’s everything I want literature to do, to be able to hold these complexities and seeming contradictions. I think my favorite books punch all the way through one side into another, and that is the side one reads. I don’t know if that makes sense.
It makes a great deal of sense. I often see the shape of a book before I see the characters, or anything else for that matter. The shape dictates the mood, the whole atmosphere of the novel. Savage Tongues kept appearing to me as a Möbius strip. There’s a great deal of meditation and interiority in the novel. That introspection is not self-indulgent—it is the kind of self-theorizing that is required to decolonize one’s mind and body. That level of stillness is also what allows Arezu to transform the cruelty and murderous brutality of her past into a kind of transgressive awareness. She comes to see that the beauty and power of life lie in its volatility and its impermanence. 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 inform them. And I’m interested in how literature can hold all of this without losing its sting or descending into simple epiphanic sentimentalism.
Are there works of literature you can think of that do this, hold it all without losing the sting?
I can think of a few writers who do this. Elena Ferrante is on the top of my list. So are Claudia Rankine, Marguerite Duras, Fleur Jaeggy, Doris Lessing, Arundhati Roy, J. M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Roberto Bolaño, César Aira, Lina Meruane, Garth Greenwell, Alexandra Kleeman, Annie Ernaux. And Laura Van den Berg’s stories, they can turn you inside out. What I love about these writers, who are so different from one another, is that they are equal parts raw and ruthless—they are not afraid of language’s wilderness.
Thank god. We need more writers not afraid of jaggedness, of cutting the reader if it means writing truthfully and entering new territory in literature.
We do. We need writers who challenge us intellectually and emotionally, and who have an expansive sensibility when it comes to managing temporality and spatiality on the page. Think of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf—so much of their power comes from the scale of time they are able to distill in a single paragraph or chapter. I am definitely hungry for that kind of literature.
Amina Cain is the author of two collections of short stories, Creature and I Go to Some Hollow, and a novel, Indelicacy. She lives in Los Angeles.
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