A History of Violence

Savage Tongues by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. New York: Mariner. 288 pages. $24.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. Photo: Kayla Holdread

The writer Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi has just published a new novel, Savage Tongues. The book, her third, features a middle-aged writer, Arezu, who returns to a family property in Spain for the first time in twenty years. As a teenager, Arezu had a brutal affair in the apartment with an older man, Omar. Revisiting the site means coming to terms with abuse, violence, desire, and the ways in which politics and power infuse our intimate lives. For Bookforum, poet and writer Nazlı Koca spoke to Oloomi about personal and political self-destruction, resilience, the literature of exile, and the ways in which state-sanctioned violence affects the stories we tell.

NAZLI KOCA: My first question is about how your protagonist, Arezu, returns to the apartment where she spent a traumatic summer as a teenager. It made me wonder whether you thought about the story through the lens of the abject theory.

AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: I thought about it more through embodied experience. I spent a good deal of time conducting research on the effects of violence on language, how state-sanctioned violence, in particular, can distort our desires and impact our ability to render experiences of oppression or suppression into speech. But your question does bring up something else the book is leaning into: What happens to our sexual desires when we’ve been taught to hate ourselves and hate one another?

I was reading Edward Said’s memoir around the same time that I read your novel. Did his work influence your writing?

Yes, he’s been important to me as a writer, a thinker, and as a Middle Eastern American. He’s helped me understand how to live with my exile, which is a choice we make every day: how we want to negotiate exile and how we want to interact with policies and people who put pressure on our identity in negative ways. I’ve never thought of the world as East versus West. Edward Said teaches us that that’s a construct. It’s a narrative, one that becomes instrumentalized to create more suffering in the world.

The novel takes place in Andalusia for specific reasons. That area is historically a Muslim Jewish landscape, and the traces of those silenced lives are still embedded in everyday life. So many current policies in Europe try to purify the continent from Islamic presence or Muslim presence or Muslim thought. They claim that this is not a traditionally Islamic space, but it really is—and a traditionally Sephardic one as well. When you look at the history of a place, you see how cultures have interacted over time in ways that are dramatically different from the separatist politics of today. And different from the apartheid politics that we have enacted since the birth of the modern nation state. So, Said is connected to a critique that I’m advancing as a writer.

Arezu reflects on her younger self, and her trauma, as an older, wiser, and badass woman. She goes back to the space where she had been abused and remembers it all. Along with her best friend, Arezu dissects all the societal binaries and the power dynamics that put the young Arezu in that position. Back then, she didn’t have the language for it, so she replaced it with a violent desire to self-destruct. That might be related to how whole nations seem to be on self-destruct mode—it’s difficult to separate the personal from the political.

There are different modes of self-destruction in different countries. The one that exists in the United States has been exported to other parts of the world. But we also all have our own autonomy, our own responsibility, and our own internal problems in the Middle East. In the US, there’s an inability to acknowledge the complex histories of violence and genocide and slavery, the failures of Reconstruction, and the struggles of Indigenous peoples and their rights to sovereignty. Not being able to sit with what’s been done is a terrible weakness that makes you vulnerable to perpetuating violence. In Iran, there’s also a denial of pluralism that has caused great swings from a claim to secularism and mythical whiteness to a very religious, ethnically diverse state. People say the Shah modernized Iran and allowed women to go to school, but that’s only true for a specific segment of the population. Religious people couldn’t go to school because the hijab was banned. You could make the same argument for the regime of the Islamic Republic, that so many more girls are able to get educated because families are OK with public education when the hijab is mandatory. What’s lost in between these two sides is the movement of the Tudeh party, the social democracy movement, the intellectual movement, the proletariat movement, the working class, the teachers, the educators—that’s a vanishing history that needs to be recovered. The violence comes from not being able to accept pluralism and not being able to acknowledge the tremendously interconnected nature of the grief that’s passed along.

In terms of separating politics and the personal, perhaps it is only possible when one has certain advantages, certain social privileges. Or from a deliberate amnesia. Writers whose lives are less directly engulfed in violence can sometimes think of language and literature as neutral. But once you’ve been interrogated or cross-examined, you understand that language is a political instrument. I don't think the personal and the political are separable.

I’ll jump to my question about Ellie, Arezu’s best friend who’s from Israel and is a pro-Palestine academic. Arezu says something like, “If I knew that Ellie and I were going to meet and become such good friends, and that we were going to meet our other queer family members, I wouldn't have had this experience with Omar, because I would have waited for something better.” How do you think grown-up Arezu’s Marbella trip would have turned out if Ellie wasn't there?

It probably wouldn’t have happened. You really need the enduring power of a friendship to face something so annihilating.

To go back to your answer about how amnesia comes from a denial of plurality, Arezu’s friendship with Ellie—and their larger queer families—is a form of resistance. They’re creating their own plural perspectives. When you’re in exile, you see how much you have in common with people from countries that are supposedly so different according to politics and the news. When we come together, we realize there’s so much similarity there.

I have friends from Turkey, Iraq, and Palestine. Our customs are so similar. The way we eat, the way we come together, acknowledge, and greet one another, the way that we hold space for one another in our imaginations—it’s all so similar that being together is like a homecoming. When we look at it in that light, it’s impossible to deny pluralism. Breaking bread together is one way to realize that the history on the ground is very different from the textbook histories we were taught.

I’m going to circle back to the novel, but before that, I want to talk about the literatures of exile. You’ve founded a reading and seminar series that features Middle Eastern and North African writers and writers with roots in that region: The “Literatures of Annihilation, Exile, and Resistance” program at the University of Notre Dame. It’s created a much-needed space for counternarratives in literature and art. How would you describe these conversations and how they’ve shaped your work?

The lecture series examines the relationship between state-sanctioned violence and literature, and how minoritized writers and writers of color are innovating the novel in the process of responding to state-sanctioned violence. The initiative is really based on a model of collective thinking. I have an advisory collective and we shape the conversations together. It’s not a unilateral response to those erasures, it’s a coming together. It’s also a documentary or witness poetics practice, with conversations that have been ground shifting for a lot of us. The other day, we had a conversation with two Iranian writers, and it was the first time—that I know of—that Iranian writers in the United States have come together to talk about the vanishings of so many generations and how that silenced us and our families. We needed a whole generation to pass to be able to reenter that space of mourning and loss and ask questions about what happened and how traces of that violence still exist in our bodies. We’ve been able to talk about the Palestinian struggle and its connection to the Black liberation movement. And we’ve hosted writers like Elias Khoury, who’s one of our preeminent intellectuals and thinkers about violence in the Middle East, in Lebanon and Palestine in particular.

The publishing industry celebrates war writing—and some of it is exceptional and deserves that acknowledgement. Middle Eastern Americans writing about their experiences through the lens of state-sanctioned violence is more difficult for people to fully acknowledge. If we’re not looking at these wars, not fully acknowledging their illegality and injustice, how can we really look at the writers who are responding to it? The lecture series is a form of testimony, of archiving atrocity.

And to return to the novel: How literally should we take the fever dreams of Arezu and the apartment’s grotesque heartbeats?

For me, the landscapes and spaces (like the apartment) represented in the novel are haunted with history; they have their own agency. While I was writing, I thought a lot about Toni Morrison’s treatment of place, of her notion that spaces are full of ghosts.

The slight speculative energy of the novel—that’s the energy of history coming back, the phantom of history that’s always there. It’s layered over the walls or right underneath the story and never goes away. The apartment is really the only home Arezu can return to, but it is also a site of violence. That allows her to ruminate on ruin and destruction, on what it means to inherit an apartment where that violence occurred. These are questions she doesn’t really have answers for but has to live with nonetheless.

Yes, the novel has a speculative energy, but it’s also a brutally realistic account of how we process trauma. There is no endpoint, or, if there is, this is as close as it gets. Did you feel Arezu getting close to closure?

At the end of the day, she’s the most resilient character in the novel. She’s not afraid to go back into the ruins. She’s like, I can look at this and it’s going to destroy me, but I’m going to be that much taller when I walk out. Her journey is a precise and almost excruciating analysis of the personal and political wounds that have informed her life, as well as that of her abuser, Omar. She’s able to do a 360-degree analysis. But even then, she doesn’t get a complete picture of the past and its afterlife because there’s always an element of what we can’t know, of what we can’t quite recover. We can’t fill all the holes. We have to learn to live with them, to befriend them. That’s what healing is for Arezu. An accounting of the losses with an unflinching temperament. She’s fierce and tender in equal measure. I really grew to love that about her as I was writing.

Nazlı Koca’s first novel, The Applicant, is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic.