Call Me Zebra: an interview with the author, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Call Me Zebra?

I started working on the novel in 2010, when I received a Fulbright Fellowship to Barcelona to study the work of the 20th Century Catalan writer Josep Pla. I had lived in a remote town on the coast of Valencia as a child and then again as a teenager; my family had settled there immediately after leaving Iran as a result of the 1979 Revolution and it had become a kind of second home we would often return to during periods of transition. I grew with Catalan in my ear and with a deep affinity for the dramatic landscapes of the Catalan territories. Spain, and Catalonia in particular, has always pulled me back into its orbit. So, it was incredible to return to those places as a writer. Once I was there, I decided to move to Girona. There, in that sublime Medieval city at the foot of the Pyrenees, I started to read an incredible range of Catalan writers of exile (Josep Pla, Merce Rodoreda, etc.) who had fled to France or Latin America during Franco’s Dictatorship. I started to retrace the landscapes represented in their novels and, eventually, developed the idea of using their novels as maps to walk through the Catalan territories and to think about the traces of history and collective memory embedded in those landscapes. As I walked, I observed which parts of me felt activated in certain places and which parts of me felt silenced. I was interrogating my own identity as an exile and an outsider and examining my relationship to space. This kind of wondering-this kind of intellectual drifting-is at the heart of Call Me Zebra. In essence, I walked the novel before I wrote it.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope that readers will laugh their hearts out! But I also hope that that laughter will allow them to meditate alongside Zebra on what it means to be displaced, to be an exile, or an émigré. Zebra is examining the traces history leaves in us-our bodies, homes, institutions, landscapes-and is trying to compile an inventory through her manifesto of all of the literature she’s read as a way of giving shape to her story. She is attempting to organize the chaos of her past while trying to make sense of history’s senseless brutality. In the process, she transforms herself from a singular being into a person with multiple identities, and that transformation becomes the key to making space inside herself for the pain of others. I hope she inspires readers to include space for others in their psyches. I hope she motivates us to push back much harder against dehumanizing narratives that reduce others to symbols or stereotypes. I believe we should weep and laugh together more often-that’s what this book is ultimately about for me.

Buy the book here