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.
"Splendidly eccentric...Hearken ye fellow misfits, migrants, outcasts, squint-eyed bibliophiles, library-haunters and book stall-stalkers: Here is a novel for you.” —Wall Street Journal
"Ferociously intelligent...A tragicomic picaresque whose fervid logic and cerebral whimsy recall the work of Bolaño and Borges.”—The New York Times Book Review
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).
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...
Praise for Call Me Zebra
Longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award
An Amazon Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Bestseller
Named a Best Book by:
Entertainment Weekly, Harper's Bazaar, Boston Globe, Fodor's, Fast Company, Refinery29,Nylon, Book Riot, The Millions, Electric Literature, Bitch, Hello Giggles, Literary Hub, Shondaland, Bustle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn,Read It Forward,Entropy Magazine,Chicago Review of Books, iBooks and Publishers Weekly
"Ferociously intelligent...With intricacy and humor, Van der Vliet Oloomi relays Zebra's brainy, benighted struggles as a tragicomic picaresque whose fervid logic and cerebral whimsy recall the work of Bolaño and Borges.”—The New York Times Book Review
"Splendidly eccentric...Hearken ye fellow misfits, migrants, outcasts, squint-eyed bibliophiles, library-haunters and book stall-stalkers: Here is a novel for you.”—Wall Street Journal
"If you don’t know this name yet, you should: Van der Vliet Oloomi, a National Book Award '5 Under 35' honoree, returns with this absurdist, unwieldy, and bracingly intelligent story." —Entertainment Weekly
"A sexy, complicated affair...geopolitically savvy." —Elle
"In a story that might otherwise be self-serious, Van der Vliet Oloomi resists the standard redemption arc, infusing her protagonist with a darkly comic neuroticism."—The New Yorker
"Acerbic wit and a love of literature color this picaresque novel...By turns, hilarious and poignant, painting a magnetic portrait of a young woman you can't help but want to know more about." —Harper's Bazaar
"Hop on board with anarchist, atheist, and autodidact Zebra as she bounds on her hilarious and frenetic adventure through literature and across the globe, always in search of deeper connection." —Fodor's
"Not many authors are compared to Borges, Cervantes, and Kathy Acker all in one breath, but that is exactly what we're dealing with here: Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is a twisted, twisty genius, whose latest novel is a wild, trippy ride across countries…[Zebra] is in possession of an inimitable…voice, but it’s all the better to help her—and us—navigate the chaos of this collapsing world." —Nylon
“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…One of the greatest components of Call Me Zebra is how funny it is…Call Me Zebra also features quietly devastating moments when Zebra’s emotional defenses fall away, when we are reminded that because of tyranny, war, and poverty, she has been left entirely alone to process her family’s eradication from the earth… Zebra is the smartest narrator you will encounter this year.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“[Van der Vliet Oloomi] is one of a new breed of erudite, conceptually ambitious authors emerging in an industry long dominated by accessible, character-driven realism…In Call Me Zebra [she] comes into her own…channel[ing] Friedrich Nietzsche, Kathy Acker, Maurice Blanchot and dozens more past masters to conjure a literary landscape of exile where the great bodies of work come and go...Wildly innovative...The all-in author of Zebra engages her mind, body, and soul.”—San Francisco Chronicle
"Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, the protagonist of Call Me Zebra, is probably more similar to Don Quixote and Ignatius Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces than she is to you and I. Partly, that’s because she stems from a family that prizes knowledge of literature above all other practical skills. And it’s partly because her life is a picaresque adventure on par with some of the greats in literature, weaving in dark family tragedy (she’s orphaned by the time she’s 23) with international globetrotting and grand acts of romantic pursuit. Call Me Zebra is a novel in the best sense of the word. It’s filtered entirely through an idiosyncratic mind, who thinks in sentences that are sharp and smart and utterly ridiculous." —Refinery29
"This is a miss your stop on the subway and ignore your to-do list kind of book.” —The Millions
"It’s difficult to pull off both depth and wit, but Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi masters both in Call Me Zebra." —Bitch
"One of the most original stories we’ve read in a long time...A delight for the true bibliophile." —Hello Giggles
"Brilliant and heart-wrenching...In a lyric, funny, and irresistible manner, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi distills the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Rainer Maria Rilke, Miguel de Cervantes, and an army of other great writers and thinkers through the mind and experience of Zebra, a strong-willed exile from Iran fighting to make sense of her family history of displacement and anguish." —Literary Hub
"For every human whose first love in life will always be literature...A beautiful depiction of first love, legacy, and our desire to feel connected to where (and who) we come from." —Shondaland
"Oloomi wears her weighty intellectual bona fides lightly...Filled with literature, art and sex, Call Me Zebra is rambling and picaresque as quirky and funny as its rambunctious narrator. Its many digressions into philosophy and history are not obstacles--they are stepping-stones...With a healthy dose of literary allusions and excerpts, Call Me Zebra is a vibrant novel of a young woman's odyssey into her family's legacy of exile and erudition."—Shelf Awareness
"A unique book with a unique young voice—adventurous, emotional, absurd, and very bookish." —Omnivoracious
"A love letter to literature, as well as a thoughtful meditation on family and love." —Read It Forward
"The opening sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude might be my favorite first line of all time. But Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi‘s second novel, Call Me Zebra, gives Márquez a run for his money." <...
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