Call Me Zebra
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
The word “manifesto” is thought to derive from the Latin manus and factus, meaning “hostile hand”. Like a fist striking, then, manifestoes are furious, authoritative, and self-aggrandizing. They are also typically masculine in form, bound up with the triumphant history of Intellectual Men. But no-one has told this to Zebra, the badass young female protagonist of Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second novel Call Me Zebra. Zebra flaunts her literary stripes by invoking – always loudly, always grandly – a “deep web” of thinkers, from Nietzsche and Kafka to Cervantes and Khayyám, and shamelessly inserts herself into this “Great Writers” parade with her own manifesto, “A Philosophy of Totality: The Matrix of Literature”.
Zebra is a literary wanderer, the last remaining descendent of the Hosseini clan, “Autodidacts, Anarchists, Athetists” all, who have suffered death or exile at the hands of tyrannical conquerors. And so Zebra and her father Abbas Abbas flee Iran for New York, by way of Turkey and Spain, her father imparting esoteric wisdom all the way. When Abbas Abbas dies, Zebra retraces their passage in reverse, creating a spatial palimpsest on which to write the manifesto of “my perpetual exile”.
Zebra’s obsessive, high-theoretical declarations, throughout, that her life is a fragmented and traumatised text are often heavy-handed, even infuriating. But this is the point. For Zebra, this is not theory: rather than fetishising her non-linear, nomadic existence – and its literary correlates – she lives its horrifying, compelling pain, cracked apart by the weight of her history, veering close to psychosis. Manifestos, though, also involve hope. Zebra resists her loneliness by fantasising an “invisible superhighway of language”, a utopia in which her parents’ voices mingle with those of books, and all are immediately accessible to her.
Zebra does want to connect, and this extraordinary and hilarious novel shows her striving to relate – to books, to people – in strange and difficult ways.
Words – Gill Moore