After having the privilege to meet writer Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi in a classroom setting when she visited campus in February, I was initially drawn to her questions regarding one’s personal identity. With my mother, half-Indian and half-English, and my white American father, Oloomi shares a compatible background as an Iranian-American who has lived in the Middle East and Europe. Her identity not only crosses international borders but the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.
In Oloomi’s book Savage Tongues, the protagonist, Azeru, is also Iranian-American (with an absent white, British father) and the novel centers around Marbella, Spain, where she revisits the site she spent a summer as a seventeen-year old in an abusive relationship with her father’s forty-year old step-nephew, Omar. Both as a seventeen-year old and now in her thirties, she is aware of his grooming and how their intercourse was assault. Knowing he desired her body as a vessel for his enjoyment, as an adult, she struggles with understanding her complicity in the relationship. What’s more, how does she share her relationship to her husband or friends without perpetuating Islamophobic stereotypes about Middle Eastern men, the same stereotypes which resulted in a violent, racist attack against her brother? Omar himself suffered through the Lebanese civil war, and Azeru discerns his violence against her as a result of his subjugation to a militant, colonial power. Azeru organizes the world through empires, historical violence, and an East versus West dichotomy, especially when it comes to desire and sex. She insofar admits she was attracted to Omar as a dominant, aggressive entity.
She travels to Marbella with her friend from graduate school, Ellie. Ellie also confronts her “colonized-colonizer” background as an Israeli-American of an Orthodox Jewish household, who came of age in Israel, reckoning with her perceived role in Palestinian oppression (and now exists as a “queer postcolonial scholar”). Unlike Azeru’s husband, who understands Omar as solely her oppressor and abuser, Ellie identifies with Azeru’s guilt over an exploitative relationship.
Through Ellie, Oloomi creates sisterhood between two grown women, a trope too often lost in modern literature. Much of the narrative focuses on the apartment where Azeru spent her summer with Omar. A summer in which she not only forfeited herself to a forty-year old man, but when she lost her connection to other seventeen-year old girls. Her friendship with Ellie, more so than the trip to Marbella, creates a means of reconciliation.
The two stay in the same apartment where Azeru and Omar had their affair. Revisiting the site of her subjugation, she suffers searing flashbacks to their relationship and the immediate aftermath in her depression as an undergrad. Although there is never a graphic depiction of sexual violence, Oloomi, in a more effective manner, creates tension through symbols (decades-old bloody rags found under a sink, Azeru’s old, still dirty swimsuit found stuffed in the back of a closet, memories of Omar’s ‘pet’ wild boar). In all honesty, this book was borderline painful for me to read due to how the majority of the pages are dedicated to vivid memories and reminders of her ensnarement in an abusive, sexually violent relationship in a stream of consciousness format. Descriptions of Marbella’s landscape and the apartment’s layout underline how physical space serve as both reminders and perpetrators of oppression.
Spain, for Oloomi, serves as a clear setting for both the affair and a reckoning with a violent past. “History,” “geopolitical,” alongside “rape,” string together repeatedly throughout the book (in a seemingly intentional heavy-handed way that risks coming off as pretentious). She references both medieval and early modern persecutions of Jews and Muslims in Spain (which for Azeru creates another bond with Ellie), and Oloomi conjures a muddled connection about how this history relates to her relationship with Omar. This confusion in both the reader and Azeru, perhaps, purposefully leaves the reader with more questions that neither Oloomi nor Azeru have claimed to answer. The trip, for Azeru, resolidifies her belief that personal relationships function to fulfill one’s desired role as the colonizer or the colonized (although her friendship with Ellie contradicts this view). Savage Tongues, therefore, embodies how one struggles to define how history, stretching into the medieval period, encroaches on the present and the individual.