Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel “Call Me Zebra” has won the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
The book, Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second, is an offbeat, deadpan funny account of the travels of a young Iranian woman, the last in a long line of “autodidacts, anarchists and atheists,” who believe they are the “guardians of the archive of literature.” The main character takes her legacy seriously, and she reads — and rereads and memorizes — as many books as she can while retracing the journey she took with her father decades earlier when they fled to the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war by way of Kurdistan and Catalonia.
“It still feels like a dream to me,” Van der Vliet Oloomi, 35, said by phone Friday of her win. “I have moments where my understanding unfolds a little bit more and then I just sit there staring at the wall and I can’t believe my fate.”
The judges, writers Percival Everett, Ernesto Quiñonez and Joy Williams, considered more than 400 novels and short story collections by American authors published in 2018.
“Once in a while a singular, adventurous and intellectually humorous voice appears that takes us on an inescapable journey,” the judges wrote in a statement. “Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s ‘Call Me Zebra’ is a library within a library, a Borges-esque labyrinth of references from all cultures and all walks of life. In today’s visual Netflix world, Ms. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel performs at the highest of levels in accomplishing only what the written novel can show us.”
The process of writing the book was lengthy and began in 2010 after Van der Vliet Oloomi received a Fulbright Fellowship to study the work of Catalan writer Josep Pla in Barcelona. In contrast to Van der Vliet Oloomi’s first novel, the Whiting Award-winning “Fra Keeler,” which she wrote in a matter of months, “Call Me Zebra” took seven years and required extensive research. Because the novel’s exiled protagonist seeks refuge in literature — and makes constant references to various texts — the author spent years just reading, revisiting the work of Dante Alighieri, Walter Benjamin and Nietzsche, among dozens of others to inform her novel. That was necessary to conjure up a character who might encourage a stranger on an airplane to compare passages from “Don Quixote” and “The Divine Comedy” during a harrowing bout of turbulence.
“Zebra is obsessed with the matrix of literature and looking at how these books are talking to one another across time and space,” Van der Vliet Oloomi said. “It’s very much a text that is about the life of the mind and about reading literature and what that can do to shift our perception of reality.”
Van der Vliet Oloomi will be awarded the $15,000 prize during the PEN/Faulkner Awards ceremony on Saturday at D.C.’s Arena Stage. (Washington Post critic Ron Charles will be master of ceremonies.) The four finalists — Richard Powers, who won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this month for “The Overstory”; Blanche McCrary Boyd (“Tomb of the Unknown Racist”); Ivelisse Rodriguez (“Love War Stories”); and Willy Vlautin (“Don’t Skip Out on Me”) — will receive $5,000, and all five authors will read their new writing. Tickets for the ceremony are $95 and available online at pfaward19.eventbrite.com.