Recovering/Remembering Love, Sex and Trauma

13 December, 2021

A review of Sav­age Tongues


Sav­age Tongues, a nov­el by Aza­reen Van de Vli­et Oloomi
Houghton Mif­flin Har­court (2021)
ISBN 9780358315063

Jordan Elgrably


Nos­tal­gia and trau­ma are not mere­ly con­ceits of lit­er­a­ture, for many of us live each day remem­ber­ing what hap­pened to us, and from time to time we ask our­selves what remains of our expe­ri­ence, how it shaped us, and left us changed. We won­der in ret­ro­spect, did we real­ly get hurt — and are we still dam­aged? For instance, can one, in one’s body, recall the seer­ing emo­tion­al pain that comes from sex­u­al abuse 20 years ear­li­er? That is the pro­pos­al of Aza­reen Van der Vli­et Oloomi’s third nov­el, Sav­age Tongues — to explore the over­heat­ed land­scapes of the past.

Sav­age Tongues is pub­lished by Houghton Mif­flin Harcourt.

Although the nov­el jour­neys back and forth to Mar­bel­la, past and present, with stops in Mála­ga, Grana­da and Jerusalem, much of it takes place in the con­fine­ment of a lone­ly flat where one sum­mer Oloomi’s nar­ra­tor at 17 becomes the lover of her 40-year-old step­broth­er. Read­ing at times like a diary, Sav­age Tongues is a mem­oir of alien­ation, of self-dis­cov­ery, as Arezu judges her­self two decades lat­er, while her lover, Omar, remains a spec­tre, an enig­ma, a man guilty of seduc­tion, and at one point (the read­er will have to decide what to believe) rape.

If the nov­el is about Omar’s assault on the narrator’s 17-year-old self, she mit­i­gates her judg­ment only 40 pages in: “His com­pul­sion to assault my body, how­ev­er unfor­giv­able, was minute com­pared to the dis­fig­ure­ment that had been engi­neered by the West against us both, and these loss­es, lay­ered on top of one anoth­er, formed an entan­gled whole.”

At one point, Arezu sug­gests that she stayed on in Mar­bel­la that sum­mer long ago, “because I was in love with Omar” (ital­ics are the author’s).

Arezu is half Iran­ian and half British, and it is her estranged British father who has giv­en her the keys to his Mar­bel­la flat, where he is meant to meet her, but nev­er shows up. Instead, he sends the son of his sec­ond wife, who is Lebanese, and some­thing of a shrew. Omar is a tall Arab hunk who arrives on a sil­ver Ducati and quick­ly seduces the teenag­er he was sent to assist. If Omar is the vil­lain and even named as a “preda­tor” at one point in this sto­ry, Arezu seems to have most of the agency here, and all of the words to describe what she remem­bers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in con­ver­sa­tion with her best friend Ellie, the novel’s oth­er major char­ac­ter, a self-hat­ing Israeli Amer­i­can, who hap­pens to be queer.

We know who Arezu is almost from the start, as she assures us that “nor­mal soci­etal rules have nev­er been a part of my life. They do not inter­est me.” Both women had sex­u­al­ized expe­ri­ences as teenagers, one in Mar­bel­la, the oth­er in Jerusalem; one in an apart­ment alone with a 40-year-old lover, the oth­er passed from one guy to anoth­er, some­times liv­ing on the street. Their expe­ri­ences at times trans­late to trau­ma, at oth­er times, ques­tion­able mem­o­ries, much like eye wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny in crim­i­nal court.

No mat­ter what, Arezu and Ellie have each other.

The author writes brazen­ly, direct­ly about sex, penis­es and vagi­nas, as is the style of her gen­er­a­tion. Does it ever seem at all scan­dalous? Not in the least. But sex in the nov­el is only inter­est­ing in a foren­sic sense — it is not about the phys­i­cal plea­sure or sen­su­al­i­ty that may have been extant, but rather, the poten­tial emo­tion­al dam­age that occurred. In this way, the read­er begins to think of her/his own expe­ri­ences and behav­ior, ques­tion­ing what pur­pose a giv­en rela­tion­ship might have served.

The action of the sto­ry comes pri­mar­i­ly in the trav­els in which Arezu and Ellie are com­pan­ions, but not lovers. The nar­ra­tor calls these trips recov­ery jour­neys — as she and Ellie trav­el to work on their bruised inter­nal selves.

Some­times what the author wants is to ana­lyze emo­tion­al and sex­u­al abuse, while explor­ing Arab, Mus­lim and Jew­ish life — in Spain, in Israel, in the Unit­ed States, but not in Lebanon or Iran, where the nov­el doesn’t take us. At times, Sav­age Tongues remind­ed me vague­ly of that clas­sic British nov­el about love and mis­spent youth, The Magus, but I found I want­ed to know much more about Arezu and her Iran­ian moth­er and poor broth­er, who was the vic­tim of a bru­tal attack by white suprema­cists in the Unit­ed States, where the fam­i­ly winds up after the divorce from her British father.

Aza­reen Van der Vli­et Oloo­mi is the author of the nov­el Call Me Zebra, win­ner of the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fic­tion, and the John Gard­ner Award. She received a 2015 Whit­ing Writ­ers Award and a Nation­al Book Foun­da­tion “5 Under 35” award for her debut nov­el. She is Iran­ian-Amer­i­can and has lived in Cat­alo­nia, Italy, Iran, and the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates. She is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame.

The author spends a great deal of time with Ellie and her loathing of Israel, equat­ing her lone­li­ness and alien­ation from her fam­i­ly with her regard for the Pales­tini­ans, as Ellie’s “belief that they had a right to self-deter­mi­na­tion — was con­sid­ered an unfor­giv­able trans­gres­sion by her fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty” … “And that meant that she was alone in the world, trapped in an absurd para­dox: she was com­plic­it in the vio­lence enact­ed against Pales­tini­ans at the same time that she was dis­owned by her fam­i­ly for denounc­ing the crimes of the state and the hypocrisy of the peo­ple who denied Pales­tini­ans their dig­ni­ty, their human­i­ty, their basic civ­il rights, who treat­ed Black and Mizrahi Jews as sec­ond-class citizens.”

As Sav­age Tongues begins to approach its finale, Arezu sums up how she and Ellie expe­ri­enced both sex­u­al vio­lence and plea­sure, but as a read­er, one feels that the dra­ma and the feel­ings are mut­ed, quite as if there’s a var­nish, a coat­ing over every­thing, pre­serv­ing its mem­o­ry but numb­ing our feel­ings, when Ellie, like Arezu, “under­stood the pain of know­ing that our bod­ies had expe­ri­enced plea­sure even in the midst of unde­ni­able vio­lence.” And that is per­haps the point, the pur­pose, of this sto­ry — to assert that while we can intel­lec­tu­al­ly recall the details of our past, remem­ber­ing the worst and the best about our lovers, we can­not be cer­tain that what we recall today resem­bles close­ly what we lived years ear­li­er. For the truth is, all expe­ri­ence becomes trans­mo­gri­fied by time, such that we’re rarely cer­tain that we know what we know, and so we are only left with fil­a­ments, not flow­ers in full bloom. They may be mean­ing­ful, but they remain incomplete.


Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.


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