I had lost the ability to see myself clearly. Where then would I speak from? How would I retell my story? I had lost my descriptive capacities. He had reshaped my identity in his image, with his gaze. Going forward from that summer, who I am would always be, in part, because of what he did to me. I couldn’t undo that. I no longer had any interest in denying myself the past. I needed to see and then unsee myself through Omar’s eyes. Then, I wondered, would I be able to look at the world as myself for the first time?
This need to rewrite a painful personal history is the impetus that drives Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s latest novel, Savage Tongues. Oloomi has already garnered several major literary awards: first, a Whiting Award in 2015 and later the PEN/Faulkner Award for her 2018 novel, Call Me Zebra. In Savage Tongues, she relies on common pillars of the memoir form: an adult on a journey into her past, combing through the detritus of an apartment to recognize how a stolen summer remained imprinted on her body. Accompanied by her best friend, Ellie, Arezu arrives at the site of the trauma — the long-abandoned flat she inherited from her father.
In a recent interview, Oloomi expressed her admiration for Proust and Knausgaard. These writers, she noted, had permission to undertake long narrations guided only by their perambulatory thoughts. She added, “[C]omplex female interiority has been largely absent from the discourse of history or, likewise, the literary canon.” Savage Tongues is Oloomi’s contribution to this discourse, the first-person narrative of a troubled and contemplative young woman. Arezu’s memories bend time, connecting disparate moments together to reveal a deeper truth. At one point, she even acknowledges that her own writing style veers from what is generally accepted in the literary sphere: “In all my years of writing I hadn’t once been able to produce an outline or a novel that was distinctly plot driven. The word itself — plot — seemed problematic to me, artificial.” While on the surface this statement seems to justify Arezu’s narrative style, it also serves as a commentary on the authenticity of storytelling.
Arezu’s narration captures the complexity of how a mind learns to cope. Fragmented memories surface in each chapter, receding and returning numerous times, coming into sharper focus with each pass. This attention to narrative, executed so diligently, allows the reader to witness a mind carefully excavating buried violence. Arezu slowly comes to a better understanding of the history she had believed to be static, recovering the significance of charged objects: a bathing suit, a female boar, a motorcycle ride. One fully examined moment is Omar’s first kiss: initially, she had believed she had the agency in that exchange, but upon further review, his subtle manipulation came into focus. “I’d longed for Omar, longed for an adult who understood the world far more easily than I did — someone I could rely on. Who could translate the world for me. That was the longing that Omar recognized in me, and he’d distorted it to meet his own needs.”
Arezu’s digging into her past allows her to take up these memories like artifacts, holding them at different angles in order to achieve clarity about what happened. For years, she had regarded her relationship with Omar as something in which she had willingly participated. But now, returning to the scene, she wonders how much agency she had as a 17-year-old. At the time, Arezu was an impressionable girl dealing with the trauma of her brother’s brutal beating by a skinhead. After a long absence, her father reappeared to help “rescue” them, but Arezu knew deep down that, when she traveled to Marbella, he would again be absent. Into this emotional gap stepped Omar, abusing his power to coerce Arezu into a relationship.
Oloomi’s novel examines trauma in a multifaceted way, her characters displaying a layered complexity and their social relationships revealing rich dimensions. Arezu is the daughter of an Iranian woman and a British man. Her friend, Ellie, is an Israeli citizen with Sephardic Jewish ancestry whose opposition to the occupation of the Palestinian territories has led to alienation from her family. Arezu feels deep empathy with her friend, observing that she “understood the feeling of being forced to decide between one’s own sense of integrity and the assumed modes of well-being expressed by one’s community, that when the two are at odds with each other it feels as though one-half of us is dying.” Division runs deep within Arezu, not only due to her mixed background but also because of the split between her younger and mature selves. Inside that apartment in Spain, she frequently sees the ghost of her younger self, a feral girl trapped in the past.
Spain holds many meanings for Arezu: not only is it the country where she experienced the theft of her youth, but it is also a place steeped in echoes of the past, with palaces of Moorish design and ruined walls from the Roman and Visigothic conquests. “I thought of the deep history of these streets, how thousands of Muslims and Arab Jews secretly practiced Islam and Judaism after the Christian reconquest of Spain.” In addition to examining her role in the relationship with Omar, Arezu looks at events through a wider lens, facing the challenges of sustaining an identity in countries with blurred borders and marginalized peoples, where vestiges of the lost past remain embedded in the landscape.
The name of the Spanish province where the story is set, Andalusia, comes from the Arabic Al-Andalus, meaning Land of the Vandals, a Germanic tribe whose moniker connotes plundering and theft. We witness numerous layers of destruction in this novel, whether of a homeland, of safety, even of personal autonomy. “[W]e’d physically return to the sites of our traumas to map our stories in words, to reverse the language-destroying effects of unbearable pain.” Arezu’s behavior, her agency in traveling and writing about her past, echoes a concept Oloomi once explained during an interview with The Massachusetts Review: “Language is malleable — and when we understand how to manipulate grammar we can give expression to invisible forms of violence, dismantle exclusionary or centralizing forms of speech, and affirm/acknowledge bodies that are in pain.” Oloomi’s latest novel arrives at a pivotal crossroads in our cultural history, with the #MeToo movement urging a confrontation with buried sexual traumas, inviting us to look back, to dive deeper, to question forgetfulness and comforting memories. Savage Tongues does all of that and more.
Anita Gill is a writer, educator, and recent Fulbright Fellow to Spain. She currently serves as the nonfiction editor for Hypertext Magazine.