Trauma Doesn’t Follow a Linear Narrative

In Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel "Savage Tongues," a woman confronts the pain of her teenage affair with an older man

Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

In the 20 years after spending a tumultuous summer in Marbella, Spain, Arezu has remained largely quiet about what happened, as if silence might protect her. Instead, two decades after leaving, she realizes that her perception of herself and her past are nearly unreachable because of the ways she has tried to distance herself. In the hopes of reclaiming her narrative and working toward some form of healing, Arezu must confront the painful memory fragments from a predatory relationship she endured at the age of 17 between herself and Omar, who was 40 at the time.

Accompanied by her best friend Ellie, a pro-Palestinian Israeli-American scholar, Arezu returns to the site of her pain: a neglected apartment in Marbella given to her by her estranged father. The apartment’s surfaces begin to bleed and morph, carrying with them dark echoes of the past. Arezu, with Ellie’s support, begins to shine a light on what has haunted her.

In Savage Tongues, Whiting Award and Pen/Faulkner Award winner Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s third novel, Van der Vliet Oloomi asks questions that resound with the themes of her previous work: How do geopolitical and historical traumas map themselves onto people’s bodies and morph across generations? How can people, women especially, process trauma when there is no specific language that might hold their experiences? And what does it mean to bear witness to someone else’s pain?

Over the phone, Van der Vliet Oloomi and I spoke about agency, decolonizing the idea of plot, the harm caused by binaries, and the beauty of female friendship. 

Jacqueline Alnes: Arezu, 20 years after experiencing immense trauma, expresses that she needs “to shine the light of language onto the dark vaults of my life.” So much of Savage Tongues is about language: the lack of language to describe trauma, the loss of a mother tongue, the difficulty of translation and what is lost in the process. I’m curious to hear how you felt exploring these gaps (and successes) in language, particularly in relation to trauma, as you wrote.

Trauma changes our relationship to language.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: Trauma changes our relationship to language, especially when someone is leaning into it, like Arezu does. She wants to understand how she became who she is and differentiate between the parts of trauma that are personal and the parts of it that are geopolitical and historical. Especially as a woman, she has a hard time finding language to talk about her body, the sites of pleasure in her body, and also the ways in which it was weaponized against her. Her return to Spain with her best friend Ellie, who is also a writer, is a way of excavating that site of trauma; the tool she is using is language. Once she has language, she has the necessary distance she needs to carry on. 

JA: The word “distance” you just used is interesting to me, as the novel feels the opposite of that, only because we feel so close to her trauma the whole time. It feels like humidity, impossible to get off your skin.

AVdVO: It’s a very close-up book.

JA: What compelled you to write toward the trauma?

AVdVO: The question that I’m asking in the book is: How does trauma live inside our bodies and our consciousness? Our memory of trauma is so chameleon-like. The structure of a memory is also like an amoeba, constantly changing. It can be manipulated. What I’m interested in exploring is how every phase of Arezu’s life as she’s gotten older has caused the memory to shape-shift. It’s always organic and alive, not fixed in time. That’s the mercurial energy of trauma, but also of memory. 

We don’t have an appetite anywhere in the world culturally for intense female interiority or intersectional female interiority. We get tons of books written by men full of interiority, hundreds of pages that we are all hungry for, and it’s because we were taught to develop an appetite for that kind of thinking on the page. I love so many of those books, and at the same time, the work of doing and capturing the inner life of a woman is so important. I wish there was more of that kind of literature in the world.

JA: The structure of the book allowed for that interiority. Even when Arezu would leave the apartment or try to escape, her memory would circle back to the site of trauma. Did that structure come easily to you?

We don’t have an appetite anywhere in the world culturally for intense female interiority or intersectional female interiority.

AVdVO: The circling back is also what allows the novel to span different centuries and continents. Arezu has gone with Ellie to the apartment in Marbella specifically to conduct this kind of somatic reconnaissance healing work. The novel is told in a span of just seven days, so it seems they would always have to be stuck within the architecture of this place and yet, I needed a way to travel mentally to occupation in Palestine to politics in Israel that connect with Ellie’s identity, and the ways that the regional politics of Iran and Lebanon and Palestine connect historically, and how those political contexts were alive in the subtexts of the relationships between the characters. In order to move across such a broad space, I did really have to be anchored in a specific site.

JA: Arezu at one point explains that “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.” Plot is also “a territory with distinct boundaries, with a frontier designed to contain the story.” What is your relationship to plot as a writer?

AVdVO: I’m very aware that the way we think of what a good story is is completely informed by the narratives of the nation-state and the history of political modernity. Political identity is shaped by nationalism, and nationalism has informed what a successful narrative arc is for people, which in turn has informed what we believe a successful narrative arc is for a story. In the American landscape, this is a very action-driven nation that also blatantly exercises all sorts of historical amnesia, doesn’t recognize genocide, settler colonialism, and doesn’t really contend with the legacies of slavery. It’s all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and getting things done.

Aesthetically, books that move forward with force and speed, where lots of things happen and the characters have lots of control over what’s happening, are considered books that are masterful or excellent. They align aesthetically with the ideal of the powerful political subject. 

What I’m interested in is undoing that. What does it look like if the characters don’t always have the authority to fully control their destiny because of historical or political circumstances? How does temporality or spaciality change when that happens? That’s where reflection and meditation acts as a means of structural or aesthetic decolonization for me. 

JA: It also reminds me of the closure or triumph narratives that we privilege. It was difficult and beautiful to read a narrative where we could live in the trauma and know that the trauma was going to be woven into the fabric of Arezu’s life her whole life, but also know she would work toward healing. 

AVdVO: Yeah, and that she doesn’t wish it were otherwise. I think that’s truly being in a position that’s empowered, but not one that’s in denial or fearful of pain. She’s not fearful of sadness and grief. She can lean into it and be in freefall for as long as she needs to. There is so much richness in that kind of pain.

JA: Is part of dismantling binaries part of your aim in writing? Omar is clearly predatory in so many ways, but part of Arezu’s healing comes from her ability to consider him as a whole person and think about the political and historical legacies that have led him to where he is. 

AVdVO: I have a fraught relationship with binaries. I’m a hybrid body. I’m half Iranian, half British, born in America, left, and came back as an immigrant who happened to have a passport many years later with a mother who was up for deportation at some point, without documents. For me, binaries are reductive and controlling and not in touch with the full nature of human life. 

This is a novel that, for me, is a love letter to my queer family and my chosen family. It’s right there in the dedication. There are characters in the novel who are in the process of transitioning. There are characters who are Jewish Israeli and pro-Palestinian. It’s flying in the face of any kind of binary.

JA: So much of this book felt like erasing harmful, manmade boundaries between people, identities, and places, and getting a glimpse of what it would look like to have a more fluid relationship between them. 

AVdVO: Those boundaries cause so much suffering. They are there to give us a false sense of security, but really, who is ever in control? Being okay with the very untethered nature of life is such a hard thing to practice, but I wrote the book in that spirit. The narrator is lightyears ahead of me in that regard. She’s self-reflective to a fault but also, as a person who got to write her, I’m envious of her freedom.

JA: The things you imagined in the novel were things I wanted to see in reality. Did you feel hopeful writing it, imagining these possible futures?

AVdVO: I do feel there’s a lot of hope in the book. Female friendship is so powerful and having that one female friendship in a woman’s life can be one of the greatest love stories of all time. It makes each person more resilient.

JA: And, as the book suggests, I think that sort of intimate friendship allows each person to bear witness to the other’s pain. Arezu questions her agency throughout the novel, wondering where her desire begins and ends, and wonders about the border between pleasure and pain. Could you share what it was like considering the idea of agency, both on the level of the individual and culturally? 

What does it look like if the characters don’t always have the authority to fully control their destiny because of historical or political circumstances?

AVdVO: The way that Arezu’s sexual trauma is completely interlinked with her sexual fantasies, and the way that she still desires Omar and the way she loathes herself for desiring him. Whose agency is operating there? Is it Omar’s agency over her? Or her agency over him? I don’t think there’s a clear answer. Speaking about boundaries and fluidity, I feel that our reality is created through collective experience and the interdependence we have with the people that surround us. I don’t think that even agency is completely individual. 

Arezu has the agency and the courage to look at what happened to her, and that’s huge. That’s a place where I feel she has clear boundaries and phenomenal willpower. 

JA: Choosing to put into language this experience is an act of agency, too. 

AVdVO: Absolutely. And as a woman, having the language to talk about one’s body, that’s taking a lot of agency back.

JA: I usually think of homes as places we can live in or put things on the walls, as if they are passive, but the apartment kind of has—I don’t want to use the word agency again —but has a power to speak back in a way I usually don’t associate with place.

The apartment itself is vital to this book, as is Spain. What is the role of place, both in a literal and abstract sense, in allowing us to access different parts of our identities, memories, pain, histories and joy?

AVdVO: Landscape is really important to me. Place has an enormous effect on consciousness and our mood, and the way we perceive who we are and our identities. Different landscapes can change the parameters of our sense of reality or our sense of what’s possible. It’s so evocative and physical and pleasurable to write landscape, and we exist in landscape 24/7. For me, again, it’s a place where the boundaries are really blurred; I can’t think of a character as separate from a landscape. 

How we interact with the nature that we are raised in, or even the artificial material world, that affects your sense of time and sense of reality enormously. Landscape is like another language that we speak. 

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