Call Me Zebra tells the story of an impassioned heroine’s quest to reclaim her past through the power of literature—even as she navigates the murkier mysteries of love.
This year’s judges—Percival Everett, Ernesto Quiñonez, and Joy Williams—considered more than 400 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during the 2018 calendar year. Submissions came from more than 180 publishing houses, including small and academic presses.
The PEN/Faulkner Award is America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction. As winner, Van der Vliet Oloomi will receive a $15,000 prize. Each of the four finalists—Blanche McCrary Boyd, for Tomb of the Unknown Racist; Richard Powers, for The Overstory; Ivelisse Rodriguez, for Love War Stories; and Willy Vlautin, for Don’t Skip Out on Me—will receive $5,000.
Congratulations to Van der Vliet Oloomi and to all the finalists!
“As the paramedics futilely try to bring Abbas Abbas Hosseini back to life, his daughter Zebra—last in a long line of valiant thinkers—stands in their New York apartment dizzily watching, feeling like she’s dissolving … What Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts did for gender and sexuality, Call Me Zebra does for the experience of exile, deftly threading the narrative with theory while also using theory to pull the reader in. Though Call Me Zebra happens to be fiction, both books are stuffed with complex ideas made irresistible and lyric. Both symbiotically use philosophy to clarify and amplify the human story. ‘The literature produced by exiles [is designed to] objectify and lend dignity to a condition designed to deny dignity,’ Zebra says, citing the postcolonial theorist Edward Said. ‘By transcribing the literature of such writers we will be restoring dignity not only to literature, but also to ourselves.’ A person of no particular nation, Zebra is left situated in her own body and mind.”
–Nathan Scott McNamara (The Los Angeles Review of Books)
“With intricacy and humor, Van der Vliet Oloomi relays Zebra’s brainy, benighted struggles as a tragicomic picaresque whose fervid logic and cerebral whimsy recall the work of Bolaño and Borges. In her first novel, Fra Keeler, a psychological thriller about a man who buys a house and is obsessed with the circumstances of the previous owner’s death, she showed similar acuity and dark wit; here, however, she immeasurably expands her terrain. Literature, as Zebra’s father has observed, is ‘a nation without boundaries’ and for this high-minded heroine, ‘landscape and literature are entwined like the helix of DNA.’ But the pilgrimage she undertakes in Call Me Zebra teaches her to raise her eyes and register the reality of the people who exist in her present, not just those who survive in the pages of her past.”
–Liesl Schillinger (The New York Times Book Review)
“A young woman struggles to make sense of the tragedy of exile, embarking on a series of pilgrimages that may destroy her chance for happiness … Perhaps most astonishing is that we get to revel in the intellectual formation—and emotional awakening—of a frustrating, complicated, hilarious, and, at times, deliberately annoying heroine whose very capriciousness would prevent her from surfacing in any other novel or under any other writer’s care. This is a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it.”
Read an excerpt from Call Me Zebra here
“My Return to Tehran: On Family, Restlessness and Revolution” Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
“The Exiles of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi” by Zahra Hankir