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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Iranian-American Author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi— Writing Through and About the Complexities of Otherness

by Parisa Mazarei, Center Summer Intern, MA Student, SFSU

Unlike many Iranian-Americans who choose assimilation over being properly-identified in their adopted countries where Iran has been demonized for over forty years, novelist Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi courageously chooses a path of exposure and examination. In her third novel, Savage Tongues, Oloomi continues her exploration of characters in exile, this time through a complex tale of toxic love, historical violence, and familial estrangement. She believes that alleviating the traumas of exile, migration, and racial violence lies in revealing such histories rather than in hiding them.

Oloomi was born in Los Angeles in 1983, but much of her childhood and adolescence was nomadic as she and her Iranian mother moved between the US, Spain, Iran, Scotland, and the United Arab Emirates. Her British-Dutch father, who met and married her mother in Tehran just prior to the Revolution, was a mariner and largely-absent from the family.

Savage Tongues takes place on the Spanish island of Marbella. “Spain,” Oloomi says, “was where my parents fled to when the Revolution happened.” She spent much of her childhood and, later, her first year of high school in Spain before finishing in the US. But from age seven to twelve, she lived in Tehran under the strong tutelage of a maternal trinity: her mother, grandmother, and aunt (khaleh). Eventually, the Islamic Republic’s oppressive rules, especially towards women, became too much to bear, and they fled yet again.

Oloomi’s nomadic life exposed her to vastly different cultures and languages (she speaks four) as well as to countries and societies that oppose one another historically and politically. Her many encounters with racism and prejudice have shaped her narrative and her career. “College here [US] was really great,” she says. “High school was terrible.” Even her teachers graded her less favorably than the American kids. When Oloomi decided to pursue her degree in Creative Writing and Latin American literature, much of the family was dismissive. “My mom was actually very supportive,” she says. “But the rest of the family wasn’t.” As in many immigrant communities, literary exploration is considered more of a hobby than a career path.

Oloomi published her first novel, Fra Keeler, in 2012, for which the National Book Foundation gave her a 2015 “5 under 35” award. Her second novel, Call me Zebra, for which she earned the 2019 Pen/Faulkner Award, John Gardner Award, and a Whiting Award, came out in 2018 and garnered widespread acclaim.

In all her works, Oloomi has used her own experiences as a catalyst to study the complexities that surround being Other in the Western world. The characters and events in Savage Tongues, for example,bear some resemblance to Oloomi’s real life. The main character—Arezu—is a half-Iranian, half-European woman who is constantly seeking an equilibrium between her dual heritage of colonizer and colonized. And Arezu’s teenage brother is subjected to a brutal hate crime in post-9/11 America. Oloomi says, “The part in the book about the brother, that is real, that happened, that comes from my life, that was the first experience we had just a few months after we landed.”

Oloomi is an Associate Professor of English at Notre Dame University and founder of a symposium and lecture series called Literatures of Annihilation, Exile & Resistance. “The series is for writers of color, by writers of color,” she says. It aims to provide writers of Middle-Eastern and North African background a platform to collaborate and exchange insight on creating work that responds to military occupation, state-sanctioned violence, and colonialism. While Oloomi concedes that the program is a way to highlight and give visibility to such writers, receiving recognition or affirmation from the “West” is not the primary goal. “Most people are good and most people will say ‘yes, I see you’. Look at all the solidarity around protests,” she says. “But we can’t go around the world asking for validation and permission to celebrate and have pride in our culture.” 

At the same time, Oloomi is not afraid to speak her mind about the negative aspects of Iranian culture that have been damaging to its people. Iranians in the diaspora share a collective migration story, and thus the trauma that accompanies it. “I hope that Iranians can acknowledge their trauma and be vocal again about who we are instead of hiding all the time and being so terrified. We could be louder.” She believes we must have those uncomfortable conversations around the cultural taboos that divide us and prevent us from developing a collaborative voice. “We need to be proud of our racially and ethnically intersectional heritage and of the LGBTQ+ members of our community and not afraid to acknowledge them.”  

When asked if she would ever like to go back to Iran, Oloomi says, “Yes! I would love to be able to visit. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so lost. I think it might settle me.” That being said, she adds, “But I’d rather miss it than move on from it.” 

You can hear Oloomi read from her new novel and be in conversation with novelist, Susanne Pari, on October 21, 2021 at 4 PM (PDT) on zoom. You can register for that event here:

Excerpt from Savage Tongues:

Twenty years had passed since I’d been to Marbella. Twenty years, I repeated to myself as the plane descended through the sky toward Spain. I leaned my head against the plexiglass. The cool surface felt good against my forehead. I could see the mountains in the distance covered in a forbidding veil of mist. We’d flown through the night; now dawn was breaking. An uncertain yellow light was coming through the pillowy masses of clouds. Wrapped in fog, the ring of mountains looked muted and dull; only their peaks glowed in the hushed smoky tones of the sky. Below, I could see airplanes lined up on the black belt of the runway waiting to take off; closer to the gates, there were tourists deplaning, leaning into the wind, their hair blown back, the turbines on the regional planes still spinning. The drone of the slowing engines echoed in my ears. I had the uneasy feeling that time had come to a standstill. That all of Marbella had existed in a state of suspension since I had last been there at seventeen— raw, restless, with a savage temperament that had led me into Omar’s arms. Omar, my stepmother’s nephew. Omar: my lover, my torturer, my confidant and enemy.

It had been one hell of a night. And now, here I was, returning to one of the ugliest episodes of my youth: that strange, wild summer I’d spent in this moonlit city of salt and gulls and palm trees, on this dark and playful coast, living in my father’s vacant and abandoned apartment, learning to ride Omar in the blazing afternoon heat. I was supposed to spend the summer with my father, though I’d known full well that he would fail to show up, or that he would show up late, and that even if he did show up it would be with that wife of his, that fussy demimonde from Beirut, a woman of the old world who was raised on French colonial patisseries and who, at sixteen, was shuffled from her father’s home to her first husband’s, a cousin two decades her senior who had left her widowed in middle age. She is as naïve as she is possessive, manipulative, calculating.

I knew that my father would ignore me that summer, or that he would acknowledge my presence but deny his responsibility for me, his daughter, a human he’d created, whose health and happiness, if normal societal rules were applied, he should be tending to. But normal societal rules have never been a part of my life. They do not interest me. They provoke in me nothing but boredom.

I am a half-formed thing, neither this nor that. My mother is Iranian. My father, British. I am a split child of the gutters, raised in the shadowy streets of Tehran, where a few lonely hooded faces murmur with trembling lips, “Death to America.” America, the country I moved to as an adolescent, a country that groans at the very thought of Iranians, calling us bloodthirsty tyrants, vowing to smoke us out of our holes, as if the whole Middle East were living under one big primordial rock, spinning the yarn of evil. I suppose from the white man’s view we are so evil that we deserve to be eviscerated. Just look, for example, at how quickly after we set foot on American soil that my brother was subjugated by a hate crime that damaged him beyond repair, a cruel attack that I witnessed and that infused my already fragmented life with an unfocused rage and despair. I wonder now: If we had never moved to America, would my life still have collided with Omar’s with such brutal force on the other side of the Atlantic in Spain? Would I still have been animated by self-loathing, self-immolation, a misdirected revenge? It never ceases to amaze and bewilder me how events that have germinated on one continent can be harvested in the shadows of another far, far away.

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