English professor reflects on the role of exile in her writing
Megan Valley | Friday, February 24, 2017
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi has always felt like a stranger; she thinks she always will, she said.
“I was born right after the Iranian revolution,” Van der Vliet Oloomi, assistant professor of English, said. “My mother is Iranian and my father’s British-Dutch … they were forced to exit the country, sort of overnight.
“I was obviously born under the sign of exile, and that sort of political tension really sort of infuses itself into everything you do; it’s part of your everyday life,” she said.
For Van der Vliet Oloomi, this “inherited suffering” has been a critical influential factor in her career as an author.
“This theme of exile and this kind of aimless drifting as a result of exile is a big part of who I am as a person, but obviously a big part of my writing,” she said. “Issues of alienation and displacement come up quite a bit in my work.”
Currently, Van der Vliet Oloomi is finishing up her second novel, “Call Me Zebra,” which she said follows a heroine’s quest to reclaim her past by mining the wisdom of her literary icons and continues to build upon her work on the theme of exile.
“She goes from the new world back to the old world and, as she regresses through her own life story-line, she also is investigating the great writers of the past, all of whom would have had a relation to exile,” she said.
In her own life, Van der Vliet Oloomi’s own literary icons — including Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Beckett — have helped her find her place in the world.
“People tend to think of reading as a way to escape the world, but I really think reading literature is a way of going deeper into the world and coming out the other end, probably with more questions, but hopefully with a tremendous amount of imagination and empathy as well,” she said.
“Fra Keeler,” Van der Vliet Oloomi’s first novel, drew a lot of attention to the author: She was named a Whiting Award winner in 2015 and was named a “Five-under-35” honoree by the National Book Foundation.
The book follows a man as he investigates the death of the title character, who used to own the house he just purchased.
“I realize now, looking back, that I was really trying to map consciousness onto the page,” Van der Vliet Oloomi said. “The reader is really immersed in the thought patterns of the narrator and I think I was really interested in this notion as beingness as thought — that we’re just thinking beings and we produce narratives as a result of thinking and those things lead to stories and narratives that can then be of incredible consequence.”
In addition to several cities in the United States, Van der Vliet Oloomi has also lived in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, England and Italy. Currently, she and her husband — Leonardo Francalanci, assistant professional specialist in the department of romance languages — split their time between South Bend, Ind. and Florence, Italy.
Having lived in both big cities and remote villages, Van der Vliet Oloomi said her life experiences have made her very comfortable when it comes to adaption.
“I always feel like an alien observing human life, because I’m kind of from nowhere and that allows me to have this kind of anthropological experience, so I’m really interested in the idiosyncrasies of life in places that are a little remote, or where life is slower or different,” she said.