• March 7, 2019

    Opening Round

  • Michael Ondaatje

    4Call Me Zebra

    Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

  • Match sponsored by

    Magic City Books
Call Me Zebra

Kate Petersen: Brecht promised there would be singing in the dark times, but I don’t think the song should always have to be about dark times. Art must be allowed to be frivolous as often as it’s deep, transgressive or staid. Each story sensitive to or dismissive of history, literature, the laws of physics when it needs to be.

Kate Petersen’s work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, the Paris Review Daily, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. A former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University, she currently serves as coordinator for the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I am acquaintance-friends with Lydia Kiesling; and studied with Richard Powers at the Stegner workshop one quarter.”

While I’ve always believed this, I’m afraid I never feel that same freedom as a reader. There, on the other side of the page, I’m a body trapped in time, circumstance, my little map-dot of history. Poor book, who encounters this reader in 2019.

I’m not the first to observe that our collective imagination may have been warped by the Oval Office’s toxic algae bloom. Vocabulary, too. Certain words, via frequent expectoration from the bully pulpit, have been taken out of play.

Similarly, certain narrative moves may also have been annexed. The relentless recapitulation of self and self-primacy—a time-tested comedic narrative stance deployed across centuries, from Sterne’s Tristram to Roth’s Portnoy—may have been sped to its sell-by date by a humorless, non-reading reality TV star. How unfair.

Yet that was my first reaction when I picked up Azareen Van Der vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra. Not: Oh, here is a Don Quixote send-up (though the picaresque that unfolds is surely indebted to Cervantes), but: Oh no, another narcissist.

In the Trump era, I’m still willing to suspend my disbelief for a book, but I want that book to feed me. I want it to bar the door to the real world for a few hours, offer me something I have not found out there. Slake the thirst the real world put in me for an elsewhere, and in that elsewhere offer me something to take back in.

Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight does this: offers me a mystery so private, so constellated, that I must concentrate as the narrator must while his mother teaches him chess. “Focus, she’d whisper as we sat down within the storm’s gunfire and flare lights to another of our small contests of will.”

Set in England in the accreting aftermaths of the second World War, Warlight is told by Nathaniel, 14 when his mother and father abruptly leave him and his older sister Rachel with a neighbor whom they call The Moth. The novel’s structure is a kind of skipped stone: Two surface traumas—the abandonment, then his mother’s return—are instants from which radiate the wider occasion of the book, concentric circles Nathaniel traces trying to understand his mother, his past.

Call Me Zebra opens with more acute childhood trauma. After fleeing Iran during the Iran-Iraq War as a child, a harrowing journey during which she watches her mother killed by a collapsing building, Zebra and her father move from Turkey to Spain, then New York. When he passes, Zebra decides that she will embark on a Grand Tour of Exile (h/t Don Quixote), reversing her unchosen itinerary.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

I love the ambition and potential subversion of this narrative power-play: housing such a bombastic voice in a marginalized body—a woman of hyper-literary but “ill-fated” lineage, born into exile and orphaned young.

But the move is never fully executed, and so a ventriloquistic doubt creeps in: Was this character, a self-declared “void,” ever granted a body by her author? “I still burn with rage, grief, and confusion at the arduous path of my past,” Zebra thinks in New York. Where does all that register in the body? “‘Mimicry,’ I corrected in breathy stabs, ‘is mockery,’” Zebra tells her lover Ludo. But what is a breathy stab?

The book seems stylistically uncertain, too, casting between a kind of fast-stitch abstraction and a rarer tactile realism. The general was prized over the specific in nearly every case, except when it came to sex and furniture. “I looked at the three black encrustations on the red fabric of the recamier and imagined steam rising from the mouth of a volcano,” Zebra thinks. This red recamier in the Barcelona flat came up so often, I began to count mentions, and at last, sheepishly, had to look up what one was: an old-timey sofa named after a French socialite.

Zebra seemed, too, to have a swipe-left view of the world, describing people with one or two quick physical tags: tall, oily, bulbous, flat-faced. Early in the book, she likens a flight attendant’s face to the “corpse-strewn deserts of that no-man’s land I had traversed so long ago with my mustached father.” As many times as I re-read it, I couldn’t picture that flight attendant, or believe this woman would remember her father via his mustache.

In Warlight, by contrast, Nathaniel recognizes an old lover from a rhyme she said to him near sleep decades earlier in a borrowed house. Recognizes his mother’s birthmark in a recorded interrogation of her intelligence partner. Everyone is seen by the brief light of what they once did or said for another in help, or love.

“Is this how we discover the truth,” Nathaniel asks, “By gathering together such unconfirmed fragments?” Like so much of Ondaatje’s work, a lacuna—his mother’s life—forms the power-train of the story, its investigation. “Find the beginning, the slight silver key to unlock it, dig it out,” says the speaker in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. “Here then is a maze to begin, to be in.”

Here is Zebra: “I looked inside myself. I saw acres of consciousness decimated by the lacunae of exile.” The lacunae seem more decided than discovered. Declared than felt. And these days I long for less declaration, more feeling. Proof.

Among the things I’ve come to doubt over the last two years is a lesson I learned from a choir teacher long ago: You command more authority speaking quietly than you do shouting. Today, in the public sphere, I find scant evidence to support this. How thrilling to find then, in Warlight, in the privacy between book and reader, between custodian and former charge, between old lovers, that this rule still holds.

Warlight—in its unmapped leaps in time, its patient sensuality—is unafraid of being quiet. Of not-knowing. The novel commands attention in a voice one must strain to hear. In a loud season, I was so glad to quiet myself in order to listen, trust myself to the hands of careful Nathaniel. To be admitted to a book shaped around this covenant: Reader, look, here is what I thought I knew, but I was mistaken. I was mistaken, so I had to look again.

Or, in Nathaniel’s words: “We say the wrong things…We judge easily. But the one hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change. We learn, we evolve. What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here. But who did I hurt to get here? Who guided me to something better?…But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do?”

May reader and writer keep asking these questions, come what may.


Thank you to Magic City Books for sponsoring today’s match! Located in the vibrant Tulsa Arts District, Magic City Books is an independent bookstore owned by the Tulsa Literary Coalition, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.

Magic City Books specializes in literary and popular fiction and narrative nonfiction for adults, offers carefully curated sections for children and teens, and is also the home of Booksmart Tulsa, which has been presenting author events for almost a decade in Tulsa. Upcoming events at Magic City Books include Lawrence Wright, David Dow, Gina Perry, Anna Quindlen, Tommy Orange, Anne Bogel, Rachel Kushner, and Melanie Benjamin. Check out their book clubs, and find them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Match Commentary

By Nozlee Samadzadeh & Rosecrans Baldwin

Rosecrans Baldwin: As John and Kevin mentioned yesterday, we’re going to mix it up in the commentary booth this year. Today we welcome Nozlee Samadzadeh, eight-year producer of the Tournament of Books, who retired this year to normal sleep patterns somewhere in Brooklyn.

Nozlee, it’s the first match of the opening round in the 15th edition of the Tournament of Books. How do we feel about this?

Nozlee Samadzadeh: We’re here in the middle of having a third cup of coffee, gazing up at the judgment and gazing down to the comments, and we feel GOOD, we feel ANTICIPATORY—that is how we feel. We’ve done this whole thing 15 times, but still, anything could happen!

Rosecrans: Call Me Zebra was one of your favorite novels from 2018. Before we get into the judgment, tell me a little bit about your own experience with the book.

Nozlee: I had to laugh when I read Judge Peterson’s line, “Oh no, another narcissist,” drawing a line between the eponymous Zebra and our president. I’ll draw a similar line myself: As a pretty direct result of being Iranian American under this administration, the emerging project of my early thirties has been coming to a better understanding of my national identity by seeking out the literature, film, art, and food of the Iranian diaspora. If that’s narcissism, I think it’s a pretty radical form of it, and that’s the spirit in which I read this book.

I loved the weirdo narrator of Call Me Zebra, so distinctly Iranian in how prickly, proud, and prose-obsessed she is, but equally influenced by Catalan and American culture. I’ve wandered bookstores in search of contemporary literary fiction by Iranian or Iranian American authors, but I would never in a million years have thought to ask for this book, which is like a cross between the metafiction and metatextuality of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and the globetrotting plot and poetic cadence of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor.

Rosecrans: I really enjoyed Judge Peterson’s personal reasoning around a desire for quiet; I definitely relate to that. To stay on the sound metaphor for a moment, our judge noticed a “ventriloquistic doubt” in Zebra. That’s a pretty smart way to describe it, when she didn’t seemed entirely persuaded except in cases of furniture and sex. Did you also get a strong sense of “swipe-left”? Did it bother you in the ways our judge describes?

Nozlee: I saw Call Me Zebra as a 292-page experiment in whether you can make fal-e Hafiz—“Hafiz’s omen,” the practice of seeking advice by opening a volume of Hafiz’s poems and reading the first line you come across—the basis of an entire novel. That experiment worked for me, but I totally understand the ways in which it wouldn’t work for another reader. I admire the gutsiness of a book that doesn’t make itself easy to love more than most but even then, there are SO MANY quotes.

Rosecrans: For example?

Nozlee: We get a lot of despairing quotes about exile (“the adversities of outer life which sometimes come from all sides, like wolves”) and literature (“The book is, in principle, the world, and the world is the book”) from a bevy of B names—Blanchot, Borges, Beckett, Benjamin—but just when it all feels too male-focused, we get some Kathy Acker in there (“I travelled all over the world, looking for trouble”). And I’d never heard of the Catalan writer Josep Pla before, who looms large in the literary pilgrimages that close out the book.

The best thing about the Tournament is how it reveals the way we think about books! I agree with basically everything our judge brought up, and yet the book fed me where it left her in the cold. In contrast, I loved how warmly she describes Warlight, a book I would not have necessarily thought to read. (This is where I confess that I actually haven’t read any Ondaatje, although I have read this excellent Popula essay on reviewing the movie based on The English Patient.)

Rosecrans: You specified wandering through bookshops looking for a certain kind of book or literature. Is that a result of our politics? What does reading fiction do in your life?

Nozlee: This feels like a canned answer, but only because it’s true: I don’t know what I don’t know, but I can try to seek out novels—hopefully fun, weird, new-feeling novels, nothing too musty—from different perspectives to make me understand what I don’t know a little better. In my case, what I want to understand better is something very close to me, my Iranianness. Books like Zebra and another novel from 2018, the YA debut Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, are helping me get there in 20-page increments on the subway every morning. (Hey commenters, what else should I read?)

Rosecrans: Let me go off-track for a moment. Over 15 years, we’ve discussed potential biases for judges when it comes to assigning value. Big books versus small, realistic or fantastic, genre, experimental. What are your blinders? And what’s the first great read you remember discovering from the ToB?

Nozlee: I am always going to be a sucker for campus novels and fantastical long journey-type novels. But when I pick two books at random and imagine the judgment I would write—I do this embarrassingly often and I defy any Roosterhead to tell me they haven’t as well—I know in my heart that despite my predictable interests, I’m always hoping to be blown away by something I thought I would hate.

I had totally forgotten about this, but the first book I remember discovering from the Tournament was the 2005 winner, Cloud Atlas. I was a high school TMN superfan and I was so excited to read the winning book—except that, perhaps you’ve heard, there was another book published in 2004 called The Cloud Atlas

Rosecrans: Wait, really?

Nozlee: Which is the one I checked out of the Stillwater Public Library, a little confused about how this related to the judgments I’d read, but still down with what turned out to be a fantastical, long journey-type novel. From an email my 17-year-old self sent to my older sister:

there are two books: cloud atlas: a novel, and the cloud atlas. THE. THE. THE cloud atlas is about world war ii and priests and eskimos and bombs and now i can’t stop reading it because there’s only, like, a couple hundred pages left, even though now i know there’s another cloud atlas out there. turns out my library doesn’t even have the other cloud atlas.

I’ve still never read the “real” Cloud Atlas.

Rosecrans: Final question: How is it on the outside? Send nachos?

Nozlee: I will admit that I have a kind of phantom limb sensation whenever I look at my inbox. Where are the email threads zooming in and out? Where is my tangle of Google Docs? How is it that I still don’t know which books are in the lead? I miss the ToB team and the work and our increasingly sleep-deprived emails to each other, but it’s a blast to know that this March is gonna surprise me. And I actually have time to read the shortlist! So Lucky and The Dictionary of Animal Languages are next on my list.

Rosecrans: Thanks, Nozlee, for eight great years and many more. See you in the Commentariat. (Send nachos.)


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