Near the beginning of the novel Call Me Zebra, the narrator, an Iranian-American woman, arrives in Barcelona to retrace journeys she made as a refugee with her father. She panics at the prospect of revisiting her past, but calms down after “thinking of how literature’s interconnected network of sentences would chaperone me into a great silence…into the dark folds of the universe.” For the woman, also known as Zebra, literature is a solace from trauma, and a crutch during her loneliness. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel about a difficult, funny, and troubled woman is at its heart a novel about the powerful role of literature in self-discovery.
The narrator, Zebra, formerly Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, lives in New York City, and she obsesses over the journey that brought her there. In the first chapter, young Bibi flees Iran with her parents during the 1980s war between Iran and Iraq. She suffers a horrific journey, filled with death and deprivation, and settles into a bleak existence in New York City. After her father’s death, Bibi sees herself as the last “ill fated” member of a family of “Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists.” Literature is her inheritance, and literature educates her about the pointlessness of a cruel world.
All alone, with no roots tying her to New York City, the narrator refashions herself as Zebra: “an animal striped black-and-white like a prisoner of war; an animal that rejects all binaries, that represents ink on paper. A martyr of thought.” Her new self-awareness, and the security bestowed by her new American passport, push her to retrace her journey out of Iran. She calls it her “Grand Tour of Exile,” and she speaks of constructing a “Matrix of Literature,” a compendium or collage of all literature. Still, she is burdened by memories of her family—the knowledge that her family left to her. At the start of her journey, in Barcelona, Zebra meets Ludo Bembo, an Italian philologist. In Ludo, we find a perplexing, opaque foil who cuts through Zebra’s interiority, forcing her to question her manner of comprehending the world.
For Zebra, literature is the only true frame of reference, the only sense in a senseless world, and along with the ghosts of her ancestors, it torments her. As the plot takes a back seat, the narrative embraces Zebra’s obscure musings and surreal interactions. Zebra struggles to speak to strangers, but she converses with her dead father and imagines the spirit of her dead mother in the body of a cockatoo. Oloomi pulls the reader into Zebra’s mind, and renders her unusual perspective with enough depth to affirm her authenticity, even as we doubt her reliability.
Zebra comes from a family that believes “ink runs through” their veins instead of blood. During her trip, this obsessive introspection, even self-absorption, makes her conversations with others either hilarious or confounding. Zebra quotes esoteric works to strangers; she seems unable to ask or respond to simple questions. She frustrates and fascinates Ludo, a fellow exile (though his exile is self-imposed, Zebra notes). Their banter, and the affair that follows, provokes a fresh rush of thoughts that pulls Zebra into her past. On almost every page she references writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Dante Alighieri to Hafez, as if desperate for words to make sense of the world.
In Oloomi’s novel, creative works are often perceived as corrupted copies of each other. So are the members of a family. Literature is “so self aware that it knows how to perpetuate itself like a disease,” and one family member, Zebra declares, is just “a distorted duplicate of the other. My father fit inside me the way his father, and his father’s father had fit inside him.” In this push and pull between her desires as a human searching for connection, and her lofty, obscure goal as a “martyr of thought,” a bizarre reflection of her ancestors, Zebra has to face her own stark reality. A woman so well read, and so incapable of reading others.
On her journey, she gathers other “Pilgrims of the Void,” hoping to transmit her knowledge of exile and the pointlessness of their world. But banalities bring down her lofty ambitions. Her “pilgrims,” caught up in their own problems, struggle comically to understand her; they simply search for a community of their own. And here, the reader begins to see literature as a reflection of—not an answer to—all of Zebra’s questions.
Ludo Bembo is one of her most troubling questions. In their interactions, Zebra slowly starts to confront her own loneliness, and the deep damage caused by years of displacement. Ludo’s imperfections are, in a sense, an opportunity for Zebra: a chance to unburden herself and embrace the simplicity, the banality, of her world.
At first, literature protects Zebra like a suit of armor, but while she wears it she is unable to write her own story. She frustrates, annoys, and perplexes us, but in her we see shades of every person’s self-absorption. We come to see the trauma of being an outsider in Zebra’s acceptance of her own doom. Perhaps literature is not so much her burden as it is the ship that carries her from one shore to another. To stand on solid ground, she has to disembark.
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Self-Discovery and the Limitations of Literature: On ‘Call Me Zebra’