Azareen van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Fra Keeler, which came out with dorothy, a publishing project in 2012. Her new novel Call Me Zebra is out this month. She shares five things she’s reading, watching and thinking about right now.
1. Remedios Varo
Varo, born in Girona in 1908, fled to Paris during the Spanish Civil war and eventually settled in Mexico City, where, surrounded by Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna she was able to paint freely. I first discovered her work when I was living in Girona in 2010. I had returned to Spain to think through the sense of emotional exile I had inherited from my family. During those first lonely weeks, I realized I was pursuing a feeling I didn’t yet have language for, knowledge I wasn’t yet primed to acquire. But when I stared at Varo’s atmospheric, moody, mathematically precise paintings, my need for sentences would momentarily fall away. Her paintings invited me to enter a great silence, a space of limitless potential. I have been staring at her work again, and taking delight in her solitary hybrid figures tinkering with magical machines that seem to have been spontaneously assembled and yet are capable of creating birds or mirages that beckon the viewer to reflect on the notion that all of so-called reality is mere appearance to mind.
I am fascinated by literary lists. One of my favorite list makers is the odd, enchanting and capricious eleventh century Japanese writer and court lady Sei Shōnagon, author of The Pillow Book. Who else would think to write a list of things ‘that quicken the heart’ or ‘startling and disconcerting things’? In the latter list, she includes: ‘Someone pins you down and commences laying down the law about something that means absolutely nothing to you without your being able to get a word in edgeways.’ I have a nagging suspicion that I’d warm to social media so much more willingly if she were still alive and tweeting her odd lists into the cosmos.
3. Reading for pleasure at last
Start to finish, it took me seven years to write Call Me Zebra. By the time I was done, my head was completely empty. I walked around the world feeling stupid, devoid of thoughts or feelings. To pass the time, I devoted myself to plucking okra, eggplant and sunflowers at our local public garden; I photographed our dogs; took naps at odd hours. The only recurring emotion I remember experiencing was a kind of manic delight at procrastinating, ignoring certain soft deadlines. Then, eventually, I picked up a book, A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux. I read: ‘I suddenly realized with astonishment: “Now I really am bourgeois” and “It’s too late now”’. I laughed my heart out, and the old hunger for devouring prophetic sentences came rumbling back. I’ve been on my knees since!
4. Yo-Yo Ma Silk Road Ensemble, ‘Going Home feat. Abigail Washburn’
I’ve always loved the cello’s robust, rusty, honey-textured sound and am often stunned by the way that the master virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma brings its scales to life. This album, full of joy and longing, is one I can listen to indefinitely. It’s timeless quality transports me simultaneously to Iran, Jerusalem, Spain, India and to places I have never been, but that I yearn to experience: China, Japan, Malaysia. It’s a seductive, celebratory and gorgeous collaboration that brings into sharp relief the fact that the sounds of our diverse languages are so much more deeply interwoven and indivisible than we tend to think.
5. Saul Bellow, Herzog
I am very slowly reading this bizarre, pathetic, hilarious tale of the life of the lonely outcast, Moses Herzog. I’ll read a few lines in the morning, before I am fully awake, or late at night, when I’m already half asleep. I am horrified and delighted by his sentences and feel as if they are being secretly whispered into my ear. Why such complicity? Because, after finishing Call Me Zebra, I realized that the book had to be dedicated by Zebra to all of her dead relatives, those near and dear to her as well as her intellectual ancestors, the Great Writers of the Past. So, I did just that. Then, recently, I cracked open Bellow’s book and read: ‘Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.’ What else can I add?
Call Me Zebra is out on 6 February with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Image © La Tête Krançien