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. Read More