Call Me Zebra

by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

Available 02/06/2018

From an award-winning young author, a novel following a feisty heroine’s idiosyncratic quest to reclaim her past by mining the wisdom of her literary icons—even as she navigates the murkier mysteries of love. 

 

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780544944602
  • ISBN-10: 0544944607
  • Pages: 304
  • Publication Date: 02/06/2018
  • Carton Quantity: 12

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book
    From an award-winning young author, a novel following a feisty heroine’s quest to reclaim her past through the power of literature—even as she navigates the murkier mysteries of love. 

      

    Zebra is the last in a line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts. When war came, her family didn’t fight; they took refuge in books. Now alone and in exile, Zebra leaves New York for Barcelona, retracing the journey she and her father made from Iran to the United States years ago. 

      

    Books are Zebra’s only companions—until she meets Ludo. Their connection is magnetic; their time together fraught. Zebra overwhelms him with her complex literary theories, her concern with death, and her obsession with history. He thinks she’s unhinged; she thinks he’s pedantic. Neither are wrong; neither can let the other go. They push and pull their way across the Mediterranean, wondering with each turn if their love, or lust, can free Zebra from her past. 

      

    An adventure tale, a love story, and a paean to the power of language and literature starring a heroine as quirky as Don Quixote, as introspective as Virginia Woolf, as whip-smart as Miranda July, and as spirited as Frances Ha, Call Me Zebra will establish Van der Vliet Oloomi as an author “on the verge of developing a whole new literature movement” (Bustle).

     
  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    Prologue 

    The Story of My Ill-Fated Origins 

     

    Illiterates, Abecedarians, Elitists, Rodents all?—I will tell you this: I, Zebra, born Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini on a scorching August day in 1982, am a descendent of a long line of self-taught men who repeatedly abandoned their capital, Tehran, where blood has been washed with blood for a hundred years, to take refuge in Nowshahr, in the languid, damp regions of Mazandaran. There, hemmed in by the rugged green slopes of the Elborz Mountains and surrounded by ample fields of rice, cotton, and tea, my forbearers pursued the life of the mind. 

     

    There, too, I was born and lived the early part of my life. 

     

    My father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini?—?multilingual translator of great and small works of literature, man with a thick mustache fashioned after Nietzsche’s—was in charge of my education. He taught me Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, English, Farsi, French, German. I was taught to know the languages of the oppressed and the oppressors because, according to my father, and to my father’s father, and to his father before that, the wheels of history are always turning and there is no knowing who will be run over next. I picked up languages the way some people pick up viruses. I was armed with literature. 

     

    As a family, we possess a great deal of intelligence?—?a kind of superintellect—?but we came into this world, one after the other, during the era when Nietzsche famously said that God is dead. We believe that death is the reason why we have always been so terribly shortchanged when it comes to luck. We are ill-fated, destined to wander in perpetual exile across a world hostile to our intelligence. In fact, possessing an agile intellect with literary overtones has only served to worsen our fate. But it is what we know and have. We are convinced that ink runs through our veins instead of blood. 

     

    My father was educated by three generations of self-taught philosophers, poets, and painters: his father, Dalir Abbas Hosseini; his grandfather, Arman Abbas Hosseini; his great-grandfather, Shams Abbas Hosseini. Our family emblem, inspired by Sumerian seals of bygone days, consists of a clay cylinder engraved with three As framed within a circle; the As stand for our most treasured roles, listed here in order of importance: Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists. The following motto is engraved underneath the cylinder: In this false world, we guard our lives with our deaths. 

     

    The motto also appears at the bottom of a still life of a mallard hung from a noose, completed by my great-great-grandfather, Shams Abbas Hosseini, in the aftermath of Iran’s failed Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. Upon finishing the painting, he pointed at it with his cane, nearly bludgeoning the mallard’s face with its tip and, his voice simultaneously crackling with disillusionment and fuming with rage, famously declared to his son, my great-grandfather, Arman Abbas Hosseini, “Death is coming, but we literati will remain as succulent as this wild duck!” 

     

    This seemingly futile moment marked the beginning of our long journey toward nothingness, into the craggy pits of this measly universe. Generation after generation, our bodies have been coated with the dust of death. Our hearts have been extinguished, our lives leveled. We are weary, as thin as rakes, hacked into pieces. But we believe our duty is to persevere against a world hell-bent on eliminating the few who dare to sprout in the collective manure of degenerate humans. That’s where I come into the picture. I—?astonished and amazed at the magnitude of the darkness that surrounds us—am the last in a long line of valiant thinkers. 

     

    Upon my birth, the fifth of August 1982, and on its anniversary every year thereafter, as a rite of passage, my father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini, whispered a monologue titled “A Manifesto of Historical Time and the Corrected Philosophy of Iranian History: A Hosseini Secret” into my ear. I include it here, transcribed verbatim from memory. 

     

    Ill-omened child, I present you with the long and the short of our afflicted country, Iran: Supposed Land of the Aryans. 

     

    In 550 BC, Cyrus the Great, King of the Four Corners of the World, brave and benevolent man, set out on a military campaign from the kingdom of Anshan in Parsa near the Gulf, site of the famous ruins of Persepolis, to conquer the Medes and the Lydians and the Babylonians. Darius and Xerxes the Great, his most famous successors, continued erecting the commodious empire their father had begun through the peaceful seizing of neighboring peoples. But just as facts are overtaken by other facts, all great rulers are eclipsed by their envious competitors. Search the world east to west, north to south; nowhere will you find a shortage of tyrants, all expertly trained to sniff out weak prey. Eventually, Cyrus the Great’s line of ruling progeny came to an end with Alexander the Great, virile youth whose legacy was, in turn, overshadowed by a long line of new conquerors, each of whom briefly took pleasure in the rubble of dynasties past. 

     

    Every one of us in Iran is a hybrid individual best described as a residue of a composite of fallen empires. If you were to look at us collectively, you would see a voluble and troubled nation. Imagine a person with multiple heads and a corresponding number of arms and legs. How is such a person, one body composed of so many, supposed to conduct herself? She will spend a lifetime beating her heads against one another, lifting up one pair of her arms in order to strangle the head of another. 

     

    We, the people—?varied, troubled, heterogeneous?—have been scrambling like cockroaches across this land for centuries without receiving so much as a nod from our diverse rulers. They have never looked at us; they have only ever looked in the mirror. 

     

    What is the consequence of such disregard? An eternal return of uprisings followed by mass murder and suffocating repression. I could not say which of the two is worse. In the words of Yevgeny Zamyatin: Revolutions are infinite. 

     

    By the twentieth century, the Persian empire’s frontiers had been hammered so far back that the demarcating boundary of our shrunken nation was bruised; it was black and blue! Every fool knows that in order to keep surviving that which expands has to contract. Just look at the human heart. My own, reduced to a stone upon the double deaths of my father and my father’s father, both murdered by our so-called leaders, is plump and fleshy again; your birth has sent fresh blood rushing through its corridors. 

     

    Hear me, child: The details of the history of our nation are nothing but a useless inventory of facts unless they are used to illuminate the wretched nature of our universal condition. The core of the matter, the point of this notable monologue, is to expose the artful manipulation of historical time through the creation of false narratives rendered as truth and exercised by the world’s rulers with expert precision for hundreds of years. Think of our own leaders’ lies as exhibit A. Let us shuffle through them one by one. 

     

    When the century was still young, our people attempted the Constitutional Revolution but failed. In time, that failure produced the infamous Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled the country with thuggery and intimidation. Years later, during the Second World War, Mr. Pahlavi was sent into exile by the British, those nosy and relentless chasers of money—?those thieves, if...

  • Reviews
    Praise for Call Me Zebra 

    Named a Most Anticipated Title of 2018 by Book Riot 

     

    “A darkly, funny novel…[and] bombastic homage to the metacriticism of Borges, the Romantic absurdity of Cervantes, and the punk-rock autofictions of Kathy Acker…[Call Me Zebra] is a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it.”—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review) 

     

    “Oloomi’s rich and delightful novel… crackles throughout with wit and absurdity… [Call Me Zebra] is a sharp and genuinely fun picaresque, employing humor and poignancy side-by-side to tell an original and memorable story.—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) 

     

    "An arresting exploration of grief alongside a powder keg of a romance."—Booklist 

     

    "Zebra is exile as education, history as passion, life as literature, and literature as death." 

    Tom McCarthy, author of the Man Booker Prize-finalist Satin Island and Remainder 

     

    "A penniless orphaned refugee, Zebra knows she can count on two things: literature and death. She builds a fortress out of both, surviving on fury, on memories and manifestos, until life begins to break through. Can Zebra handle life? Can literature handle Zebra? Reader, go find out! Call Me Zebra is like nothing else I've read, geo-political and bookish and sexy, quite refreshingly nuts and yet a ripping good read. Also, there's a stolen bird! I'd say I couldn't put it down, but Zebra would never approve a cliche, so I'll pay it a compliment she might actually accept: this book metabolized me." 

    Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First 

     

    "There’s something really radical about this epic and ecstatic quest. It’s in the tradition of Cervantes’ ingenious nobleman, but also deeply in conversation with Borges’s Pierre Menard and Kathy Acker’s own Don Quixote. The young female narrator of Call Me Zebra luxuriates in the tradition of Enrique Vila-Matas’s literary sickness, or Kafka writing that he is made entirely of literature. A hilarious picaresque, perverse and voracious." 

    Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines and Green Girl 

     

    Call Me Zebra is a book about everything—exile, love, loss, literary theory, the insouciance of time, the history of Iran, funerary rites, and the idiosyncrasies and intricacies of the mind. In the main character, Zebra, we receive ‘a scribe of the future,’ one who can synthesize great swathes of literature, history, and politics to produce insights that transcend categorization, insights that illuminate existence, its ascending flights and horrors. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, the author of Call Me Zebra, has written a marvelous book that is at once contemporary, in conversation with fiction writers such as Valeria Luiselli and Rachel Kushner, and simultaneously reaches back to the eccentric talkers and characters in the work of Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Svevo. Call Me Zebra risks the grand, the large, the sublime as a means of answering the questions we speak only to ourselves when we think no one is listening.” 

    Roger Reeves, author of King Me 

     

    “This novel is not about a zebra but about a whole sharp, amazing, malicious and wicked zoo. Please enjoy responsibly.” 

    Quim Monzó, author of A Thousand Morons  and supporting character in the novel Call Me Zebra 

     

    Praise for Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi and Fra Keeler 

    Winner of the Whiting Award, 2015 

    National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Honoree, 2015 

    A Slate Overlooked Book of 2013 

      

    “[An] exciting debut…It’s a stunning psychological thriller, a total identification with madness that creates drama without either belittling or romanticizing the insane…Told in tight, unencumbered prose…The canny narrator’s thoughts, which reel and falter as incidents accumulate, sustain a note of drama—and blessedly, humor—that provide the novel with the manic energy and tensile strength to pull it along toward its mystifying, violent end.” —Los Angeles Times 

      

    “Oloomi enters so fully and sympathetically into the mad logic of her narrator that scenic detail, chronology, cause and effect, and even such mundane props as cactus, mailman, and ringing phone are bent, doubled, or subsumed by the paranoid geometries of meaning he draws…Subtly menacing, but not without humor, the novel derives momentum and tension from the space between its clear, intelligent language and the absolute unreliability of its narrator.” —Slate  

      

    “Surreal…The lines that separate the living and the dead are blurred, revealing that perhaps the past is more present than it seems.” —Mashable  

      

    “Van de Vliet Oloomi’s spare, clear language sets this novel apart…Fra Keeler reminded me of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Reticence, not to mention big classics like Crime and Punishment and Lolita.” —The Millions 

      

    “Mysterious, experimental, and surreal; [Van der Vliet Oloomi] crafts sentences so beautifully and unexpectedly that it’s no wonder she’s catching people’s attention…She might just be on the verge of developing a whole new literature movement.” —Bustle  

      

    “The book is a pleasure to read…Just as the word- and thought-play is both delightful and menacing, the narrator’s logic chains are both convincing and impossible, like the patterns we all make out of everyday life.” —Bookslut  

      

    “A rare gem of a book that begs to be read again.” —Publishers Weekly

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