‘Call Me Zebra’ by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi – An Exile and the Guy Who Loves Her

 

‘Call Me Zebra’ by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi (2018) – 292 pages

‘Call Me Zebra’ is the winner of the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Our narrator, a woman nicknamed Zebra, is a member of a family which was part of the Iranian intelligentsia which were persecuted by the Iran Revolutionary Guard after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Her Hosseini family have the first Hosseini Commandment: “Love nothing but literature”. Then Saddam Hussein and Iraq started war with Iran in the early 1980s firing poison gas into Iranian towns, and she, still a young girl, and her father and mother were forced to escape her country and become exiles. Her mother is killed during the escape, and after many stops along the way, she and her father wind up in New York.

After leaving Van (in Turkey), my father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini, and I spent years moving across the surface of the earth in search of a place to think. We were like the slugs that come out after a hard rain: ugly, weather-beaten, dispossessed, the refuse of the world. So it goes.”

Zebra is passionate about literature and about being an exile, having to flee her homeland. Large sections of the novel are devoted to her struggle and her pain at being one of the world’s unfortunates, an exile from her home country. When Zebra is alone her thoughts often turn to abstractions about life, literature, and death. I much preferred the parts of the novel when she is out and about and with other people, at first her father and later Ludo Bembo, an Italian man who she meets in Spain after her father’s death and who falls for her hard.

Most of the story does takes place in Spain as Zebra retraces the route that brought her to the United States.

‘Call Me Zebra’ just did not cohere for me. When Zebra is alone, many of her thoughts are a prolonged lamentation or mournful complaint. And since she is constantly pushing away Ludo the guy who loves her, she is alone much of the time. When Zebra is by herself, her language becomes painful but sometimes opaque. Phrases like “performative transcription” or “The Matrix of Literature” are not evocative or easy to like.

If there had been a girlfriend or a sister to Zebra, it may have brought this story more down to earth. Softening the story does not necessarily mean weakening it. There is too much abstract thinking in the novel, and the many quotes from famous literary and artistic figures did not hit home for me. Of course I have never been forced to become an exile so cannot identify fully with her situation.

I would say that ‘Call Me Zebra’ is an ambitious novel about the struggle and pain of being exiled from your home country that does not fully succeed but is probably more significant than other novels which do not attempt as much.

 

Grade:    B-

 

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