Self-Discovery and the Limitations of Literature: On ‘Call Me Zebra’


Near the beginning of the novel Call Me Zebra, the narrator, an Iranian-American woman, arrives in Barcelona to retrace journeys she made as a refugee with her father. She panics at the prospect of revisiting her past, but calms down after “thinking of how literature’s interconnected network of sentences would chaperone me into a great silence…into the dark folds of the universe.” For the woman, also known as Zebra, literature is a solace from trauma, and a crutch during her loneliness. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel about a difficult, funny, and troubled woman is at its heart a novel about the powerful role of literature in self-discovery.

The narrator, Zebra, formerly Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, lives in New York City, and she obsesses over the journey that brought her there. In the first chapter, young Bibi flees Iran with her parents during the 1980s war between Iran and Iraq. She suffers a horrific journey, filled with death and deprivation, and settles into a bleak existence in New York City. After her father’s death, Bibi sees herself as the last “ill fated” member of a family of “Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists.” Literature is her inheritance, and literature educates her about the pointlessness of a cruel world.

All alone, with no roots tying her to New York City, the narrator refashions herself as Zebra: “an animal striped black-and-white like a prisoner of war; an animal that rejects all binaries, that represents ink on paper. A martyr of thought.” Her new self-awareness, and the security bestowed by her new American passport, push her to retrace her journey out of Iran. She calls it her “Grand Tour of Exile,” and she speaks of constructing a “Matrix of Literature,”­ a compendium or collage of all literature. Still, she is burdened by memories of her family—the knowledge that her family left to her. At the start of her journey, in Barcelona, Zebra meets Ludo Bembo, an Italian philologist. In Ludo, we find a perplexing, opaque foil who cuts through Zebra’s interiority, forcing her to question her manner of comprehending the world.

For Zebra, literature is the only true frame of reference, the only sense in a senseless world, and along with the ghosts of her ancestors, it torments her. As the plot takes a back seat, the narrative embraces Zebra’s obscure musings and surreal interactions. Zebra struggles to speak to strangers, but she converses with her dead father and imagines the spirit of her dead mother in the body of a cockatoo. Oloomi pulls the reader into Zebra’s mind, and renders her unusual perspective with enough depth to affirm her authenticity, even as we doubt her reliability.

Zebra comes from a family that believes “ink runs through” their veins instead of blood. During her trip, this obsessive introspection, even self-absorption, makes her conversations with others either hilarious or confounding. Zebra quotes esoteric works to strangers; she seems unable to ask or respond to simple questions. She frustrates and fascinates Ludo, a fellow exile (though his exile is self-imposed, Zebra notes). Their banter, and the affair that follows, provokes a fresh rush of thoughts that pulls Zebra into her past. On almost every page she references writers from Jorge Luis Borges to Dante Alighieri to Hafez, as if desperate for words to make sense of the world.

In Oloomi’s novel, creative works are often perceived as corrupted copies of each other. So are the members of a family. Literature is “so self aware that it knows how to perpetuate itself like a disease,” and one family member, Zebra declares, is just “a distorted duplicate of the other. My father fit inside me the way his father, and his father’s father had fit inside him.” In this push and pull between her desires as a human searching for connection, and her lofty, obscure goal as a “martyr of thought,” a bizarre reflection of her ancestors, Zebra has to face her own stark reality. A woman so well read, and so incapable of reading others.

On her journey, she gathers other “Pilgrims of the Void,” hoping to transmit her knowledge of exile and the pointlessness of their world. But banalities bring down her lofty ambitions. Her “pilgrims,” caught up in their own problems, struggle comically to understand her; they simply search for a community of their own. And here, the reader begins to see literature as a reflection of—not an answer to—all of Zebra’s questions.

Ludo Bembo is one of her most troubling questions. In their interactions, Zebra slowly starts to confront her own loneliness, and the deep damage caused by years of displacement. Ludo’s imperfections are, in a sense, an opportunity for Zebra: a chance to unburden herself and embrace the simplicity, the banality, of her world.

At first, literature protects Zebra like a suit of armor, but while she wears it she is unable to write her own story. She frustrates, annoys, and perplexes us, but in her we see shades of every person’s self-absorption. We come to see the trauma of being an outsider in Zebra’s acceptance of her own doom. Perhaps literature is not so much her burden as it is the ship that carries her from one shore to another. To stand on solid ground, she has to disembark.

Literature’s Inherited Trauma: On Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

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The dead chase the living in Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s new novel about the legacy of trauma. In Ward’s last novel, Salvage the Bones, the main character is preoccupied with the mythological tale of Medea, a woman left heartbroken. Here, Ward traces an American highway odyssey, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Parchman Farm, the notorious state penitentiary. Bouncing between the past and present, between ghosts and breathing bodies, between drug-induced fantasy and raw, heartbreaking reality, Sing, Unburied, Sing follows a family that seems to descend from earlier novels like Beloved and As I Lay Dying, uniting past and present suffering.  Ward’s fiction is about inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy.

All of Ward’s characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing live with trauma. Pop, the patriarch of the family, grandfather to Jojo and Kayla, remembers his time in Parchman Farm penitentiary and his friend Richie, a young boy who died there. Mam, his wife, is dying from cancer. Their grandson, Jojo, takes care of his younger sister, Kayla, while their neglectful mother, Leonie, deals and consumes drugs. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, Given, who was shot and killed as a teenager; he appears when she is high, often looking disapproving. When Michael, Leonie’s lover, and Jojo and Kayla’s white father, is set to be released from Parchman, Leonie takes her two children on a journey across Mississippi to bring him back. Along the way, the dead are revived, and they fight to return from the prison with them.

Ward allows the reader to imagine the persistence of ghosts in every facet of this family’s life. Ghosts exist in Pop’s stories, they arrive in a drug-induced haze, they sit like birds on the trees around their home and sing. These ghosts are physical manifestations of the family members’ psyches and symbolic of collective trauma endured by previous generations. They bring with them a restlessness, anger, and desperation—depicted with visceral emotion in the figure of Beloved, decades ago. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, too, was a marker of the pain her mother had endured. But unlike the haunted house in the first few pages of Beloved, where even the sideboard would react to a house’s inhabitants, the ghosts of Sing, Unburied, Sing float, existing as part of the history of a given space without making a direct impact on the space itself. The ghost of Given appears only to Leonie at first, his arrivals and departures indicative of Leonie’s own guilt at her inability to be a good mother and daughter.

While ghosts of the past trouble the present, magic and ancestral mythology eludes Leonie, a loss that stings deeply. Mam, bedridden for most of the novel, is Leonie’s connection to her spirituality, her conduit to her faith. Mam comes to Leonie in her dreams “calling on our Lady of Regla. On the Star of the Sea […] she was holding me like the goddess, her arms all the life-giving waters of the world.” The Lady of Regla, a syncretic Catholic-Yoruba figure, brings mythological stakes to their journey to Parchman, the “Star of the Sea” meant to guide voyagers home. But, unlike The Odyssey, in which the gods and the supernatural often intervene to help the hero along his journey, Leonie and her children face their journey alone. Leonie’s ability to see her brother’s ghost is not a gift, it is a burden weighing down on her through the journey, a source of guilt and remonstrance. Ghosts and supernatural creatures are restricted to imagination and memory in this novel, they cannot intervene. The characters are left to their own devices without hope of supernatural intervention.

The narrative has a persistent tone of hopelessness, much like the mood of the doomed and destructive families of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s families were living in a collapsing post-Civil War world where their legacies were in decline. “The reason for living is to get ready to stay dead,” Addie Bundren said, emotions repeated in Sing, Unburied, Sing where the living are engrossed by stories of the dead, and Mam waits for death with resignation.

The ghost story fits into a realistic framework, because Ward places limits around ghostly intervention. These limits allow the reader to question the position of ghosts in relation to the characters. Are they truly present? Or are they in the characters’ minds? Does it even matter when the deeper, larger grief is prevalent in both the living and the dead?

As Baby Suggs says in Beloved: “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with a dead Negro’s grief.” Ward’s work is full of stories of the dead, specifically of young black men. In her memoir Men We Reaped, published in 2013, she wrote about the tragic and violent deaths of men in her life, including her own brother.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Parchman Farm represents collective grief and trauma, as a space where slavery is still alive and well. Like Faulkner resetting time in The Sound and the Fury, Ward blurs time, inserting memories into the present. “[How] could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once?” says one character. The past in Parchman Farm is the main catalyst for the story. Pop relates his experiences there to Jojo in the beginning of the novel, and Jojo is fascinated by this history. For Jojo, Pop’s dark past marks an entrance into manhood, where he aspires to arrive at one day. But for Pop, a man bearing the burden of imprisonment, saving his grandchildren from similar fates is a primary concern. Jojo ultimately faces Pop’s past when he arrives at Parchman Farm. For the older and younger men in Ward’s novels, history lives on in their bodies, and the stories they transmit through them. So Jojo finds Pop’s world not just through his second-hand version of events, but by arriving at the space that imprisoned and traumatized their family.

By invoking Morrison and Faulkner for new readers, Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present. Often the book relies too much on old symbols. Pop’s memories of Richie and the actions causing the young boy’s death draw almost too heavily upon the inspiration of Beloved.

Suffering is a continuous process of engagement with trauma, facing, fighting, and sometimes succumbing to it. In the foreword to Beloved, Toni Morrison described writing about slavery in a way that kept memory alive: “the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead.” The dead in Sing, Unburied, Sing are needy because they have no choice. Trauma demands attention, yet that attention brings chaos into the characters’ lives. The act of writing and reading such stories also demands that oppressor and oppressed address their positions in an unjust society. Literature and history occupy the same role, as record-keepers of injustice, and of experiences. These records allow us to understand why past and present trauma are ultimately spokes in the same wheel.