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February 7, 2018

Book Notes - Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi "Call Me Zebra"

Call Me Zebra

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi's novel Call Me Zebra is my favorite book of the year so far, a smart and compelling look at exile, love, and literature.

The Los Angeles Review of Books wrote of the book:

"What Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts did for gender and sexuality, Call Me Zebra does for the experience of exile, deftly threading the narrative with theory while also using theory to pull the reader in. Though Call Me Zebra happens to be fiction, both books are stuffed with complex ideas made irresistible and lyric…Van der Vliet Oloomi sets herself the tall task of writing a precocious narrator, a self-proclaimed 'expert connoisseur of literature,' a narrative path that's littered with prospective pitfalls. In less capable hands, this could easily be annoying or unconvincing, but Zebra is unvaryingly brilliant and deadpan funny."

In her own words, here is Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Call Me Zebra:

The following paragraph from Call Me Zebra captures the originating motive of the novel—a vertiginous and obsessive exploration of exile, literature, art, death, and love in the age of reckless capitalism and globalization. Here's Zebra, having a darkly funny light-bulb moment in the aftermath of her father's death, directly before she decides to embark on her odyssey across the Mediterranean:

"It became clear to me then and there that my father's missive to record the uselessness of our suffering would become, over the course of the following months, an unstoppable impulse. An impulse that would require everything of me. I, alone in the world and without family, am a person of little consequence. But, I thought inwardly, let the story of the Hosseinis, which is also my story, the story I inherited and through which I must slog, be a resounding alarm to the rest of humanity, the 99.9 percent of anti-intellectual rodents who scamper about this earth indifferent to the pain of others. I'm not talking about a mild heartache. No. I'm taking about the kind of pain that eviscerates, the kind that levels your life, that leaves you barely holding on. I reached for my notebook. 'This notebook is my only hope,' I told the gentleman who had prepared my father's body. 'Everything rests on it. I am willing to extend my life, which is itself a death, in order to put these words in the record.'

The man stood there, nodding along and smiling warmly."

It took me seven years to conceive of, write, and edit the novel. During that time, I traveled to and lived in the United States, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. These songs come from Italy, Spain, America, the Far East. They echo the cadence of the novel and Zebra's journey across Iran, Turkey, Spain/Catalonia, and the U.S.A.

"Avaz-e Dashti" by Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble

I've always loved the propulsive quality of traditional Persian music and "Avaz-e Dashti" has an extraordinarily dizzying bittersweet melody that echoes the emotional register of the young Zebra's journey on foot with her father from Iran to Turkey. The musical instruments harmoniously combine to create a haunted, nimble sound. The song is simultaneously delicate and full of conviction. For me, it mirrors the cadence of a forced journey away from one's homeland; the sense of urgency required to move forward and the pauses that are pregnant with longing and rumination. There's a crescendo towards the middle of "Avaz-e Dashti," a rush that gets my heart racing and then a radical slowing down that is both melancholy and reflective.

"I'm a Creep" by Radiohead

As an adolescent, I was obsessed with Pink Floyd, so when Radiohead came around I swooned over them immediately; their sound reminds me of some of Pink Floyd's more oblique, meditative albums, like Meddle. "I'm a Creep," is one of my all-time favorite songs, because much like Pink Floyd's music it makes me feel completely vindicated and united with misfits and outsiders around the world.

And, it's a song fit for Zebra, who, after losing her father in New York decides to fully commit to the sheer absurdity of her ill-fated life by setting off on a journey to retrace the path of their exile. She leaves New York for Barcelona, where her days take on progressively stranger shapes, and where, for better or for worse, she comes fully into her own.

"Volver" by Estrella Morente

For me, this song represents one of the richest musical explorations of what it feels like to encounter a person or place from our past that was pivotal to our character and to the course of our future life and around which memory we've stored up a great deal of longing and trepidation. I can't think of a better song to reflect Zebra's first days in Barcelona, a city she lived in with her father before moving to New York, and which streets and surfaces she has returned to investigate in the hope of excavating her own forsaken memories. My favorite lines from the song are: "Vivir con el alma acerrada a un dulce recuerdo que lloro otra vez…tengo miedo del encuentro con el pasado que vuelve a enfrentarse con mi vida." And Estrella Morente's gritty, passionate voice and strong physical presence always blows me away.

"I Put a Spell on You" by Nina Simone

This is one of the sexiest, most soulful, and sensual love songs of all time—and that saxophone! This song makes me think of the explosive encounters between Ludo Bembo and Zebra, particularly during the early days of their bizarre love affair in Barcelona. This powerful, unapologetic declaration of desire always lifts me off my chair: "I don't care if you don't want me, I'm yours right now. You hear me? I put a spell on you, because you are mine."

"I'm so glad" by Skip James

I discovered my love for the blues the summer after I graduated from high school. I had gone to Spain with a few friends. It was our last summer together before we all left for college and we were living in my father's dilapidated apartment overlooking the port of El Grau, a small fishing village on the coast of Valencia. I remember trying to clean the floor of the apartment only to have rag after rag come away black with grease and dust. No one had been there in years. I racked up a lot of memories in that village. My time there as a child and later on as a young adult was wild, terrible, euphoric, and that summer it was punctuated by the music of Big Bill Broonzy, Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton. Skip James's smoky, lyrical sound makes him my all-time favorite. I can't think of Barcelona or Valencia without thinking of his music. He also brings to mind Picasso's paintings of Barcelona from his Blue Period: mysterious, simultaneously dark and lit up, at once alluring and edgy, addictive.

"Bcn" by Fufü-Ai

Zebra's days in Barcelona are melancholy, manic, and charged with an intoxicating intellectual and sexual energy. This song, with its dark lyrics and upbeat sound, makes me think of the rhythm of Zebra's emotional unraveling in the city, particularly during her first pilgrimages through the streets of Barcelona, before she moves to Girona to live with Ludo Bembo (or, to impose herself on him!). Here are a few lines from Zebra's early days, as she stands on the terrace of el Parc Güell overlooking the city.

"I looked out at the sea, slack and purple in the distance; at the cranes hovering over the spires of La Sagrada Familia; at the domes and turrets of the city; the slick blue glass and reddish hues of the Torre Agbar; the clay tower of the warden's house in the park; and the fronds of palm trees in between. I thought to myself, yes, indeed, I will leap off the terrace and, as Borges said, my tomb will be the unfathomable air."

"Catalonia Calling" by The Trouble Notes

The virtuosic, playful and irreverent music of The Trouble Notes beautifully blends traditional and contemporary notes; their music is transgressive and yet grounded in tradition. This duality captures the intense, almost belligerent energy with which Zebra moves to Girona, into the heart of Catalonia, reciting platitudes by the Great Writers of the Past along the way, and imposing herself on Ludo Bembo and his roommates by moving in with them without having been asked or invited to do so. This move is Zebra's great revenge on society's marginalization of exiled bodies. As she climbs the narrow streets of Girona to his home, the sky above her "a long solitary black strip," she thinks to herself: "What did Ludo Bembo think…that I was just going to lie down and die? Or lick my wounds out of view like a wild animal under a bush? That I was unable to speak, to resist, to react, to push back against the injustices the world and its subjects, including him, had assailed on me?"

"I'd rather go blind" by Etta James

This song makes me think back to my first youthful heart break, which, incidentally, took place in Barcelona. So, I can't think of a better song to describe Zebra's hidden feelings when she realizes Ludo Bembo has been frolicking about with a woman she refers to as the Tentacle of Ice. The song's pained lyrics always grip me and Etta James' smooth voice makes me want to drink whiskey and smoke a pipe late into the night!

"Peach Plum Pear" by Joanna Newsom

I listened to The Milk-Eyed Mender obsessively during my first few months on the Fulbright in Catalonia. I had gone there to do background research for Call Me Zebra, which quickly turned into going on a series of literary pilgrimages using books as maps—a concept I later dramatized in the novel. So, in many ways, I walked the novel before I wrote it. All the while I was listening to Joanna Newsome\'s sharp, haunted poetry and the metallic, cascading notes of her harp.

"Mirando el Mundo al Revés" by Che Sudaka

This song echoes the propulsive, frenetic, revolutionary energy of Zebra's expeditions to famous sites of exile along with her roving pack of pilgrims. Together, they look at the world upside down as if they were bats hanging from branches (I'm paraphrasing the songs opening lines here). But, for Zebra, whose life has been marked by death, exile, loss, literature, and migration, seeing the world upside down is equivalent to seeing the world correctly, truthfully, just as she has come to know it—and the experience of going on these long walks with others who have been marginalized and who carry feelings of emotional homelessness, transforms her consciousness and, eventually, opens her up to the possibility of hope, remote but lingering over the horizon nonetheless.

"Miralls" by Carles Querol

I absolutely love the thoughtful, ruminating quality of Carles Querol's voice. This song is full of longing and desire. It makes me think of the emotional abyss Zebra falls into when Ludo Bembo leaves Girona for Florence, returning to Italy in order to escape her hold on him. She quickly follows suit, but before she does she feels the full impact of his absence, which is intolerable for her.

"In Alto Mare" by Loredana Berté

I adore the electric funky music of the 80s. Loredana Berté is one of the most amazing Italian singer-songwriters of the last few decades; her rusty, charged, sensual voice is unforgettable. This particular song is about lovers whose encounters are so charged it is as if they were perpetually stuck in high seas. It's a song that makes me think of the closing chapter of Call Me Zebra, during which she travels by sea to Italy in a ship that is being "pitched precariously in the inky waters." She is thinking of Ludo's grief and her own, and of the grief of all of those who have dared to traverse the Mediterranean in search of a new home, as well as those who have drowned in what she calls the Sea of Sunken Hopes. Here are my favorite lyrics: "Navighiamo già da un po' / Bene o male non lo so / Stella guida gli occhi tuoi / Un amore grande noi...E ci ritroviamo / In alto mare / In alto mare / Per poi lasciarsi andare / Sull'onda che ti butta giuù / E poi ti scaglia verso il blu."

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi and Call Me Zebra links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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