Author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi Visits Sewanee

Camille Pfister
Junior Editor

On Tuesday February 8, 2022, students, professors, and community members packed into Gailor Auditorium to listen to visiting author Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. Following an introduction from visiting assistant professor of Spanish, Dr. Parker Lawson, Van der Vliet Oloomi began her visit by reading from her most recent novel, Savage Tongues. She read excerpts from different places in the book allowing even first timers to her work to become whisked away

into the intriguing world of her story. Her voice, soft and powerful, expressed every word with the same care and attention, as though each one was carefully picked and just as important as the rest. 

When discussing the new interest in learning about different perspectives, and different countries, especially  in the Middle East, Van der Vliet described it as “an act of hope and courage.” She said,“I think people are hungry for hearing stories from the other side.” 

Van der Vliet Oloomi is a PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novelist and has penned three novels in her young life. Her works include Call Me Zebra, Fra Keeler, and the recently released Savage Tongues. Oloomi is also the founder of Literatures of Annihilation, Exile, and Resistance, which is a bi-annual symposia & lecture series at the University of Notre Dame that focuses on the study of literature that has been shaped by migration, systemic violence, and gross human rights violations. The symposia tackles the hard questions of history and reimagines global histories from the lens of oppressed voices. It also examines the relationships between ethics and literature through the view of minority authors who use their writing to fight back against the oppressive violence they have faced. 

Van der Vliet Oloomi traveled a lot in her young life, describing herself as an “immigrant who happens to be an American citizen,” as she has lived in Iran, Europe, and the Arab world, and when she resettled in the United States, she had to relearn English, which Van der Vliet said is why she got so addicted to writing. “There is such a heavy editorial process through writing,” Van der Vliet said. “You get to revise, and revise, and revise, and keep refining your language, and I think I am really addicted to that.” 

Savage Tongues follows Arezu, a 37 year old Iranian British American woman who returns to Spain after 20 years, where she was manipulated into an affair with a 40 year old man when she was only 17. The excerpts read from Savage Tongues show images of bravery and love. Her characters face unspeakable traumas and yet remain strong and courageous. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s language showcases the depth of the experiences she is drawing from to craft this novel. Oloomi remarked during her conversation following the reading that after the Trump era and the Muslim ban, she “felt a call” to write this novel. 

Following the reading, Van der Vliet Oloomi sat down with Dr. Lawson and discussed both of her novels, Call Me Zebra, and Savage Tongues, as well as her past, writing process, and much more. 

Van der Vliet Oloomi has written from many different perspectives, often calling on her own knowledge and life experiences but also using other writers and other stories to fuel her writing. According to Van der Vliet Oloomi, “writers have been writing back to writers for generations.” Van der Vliet Oloomi went on to say that although writing is a “pretty solitary task” if you don’t have “writers in your mind, and in your library” it can limit you and your craft. 

Writers should read other writers’ work, exploring their culture and life experiences and using it to fuel their own writing and open themselves up to what Van der Vliet Oloomi calls “the natural inheritance writers get.” Van der Vliet Oloomi also discussed how writers and ideas have “circulated across borders” and how writers “always had a tendency to migrate.” Van der Vliet Oloomi’s work in both the written word and the classroom attempts to connect writers and learners with the outside world.

 “I am acknowledging their truth and de-nationalizing the literary conversation,” she says.

Van der Vliet Oloomi’s author visit left a lasting impression on students, teachers, and community members, and reminds all of us, regardless of age, race, or nationality, that power and language has a “consciousness of its own.”