Van Der Vliet Oloomi's novel named finalist for PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction

Author: Josh Weinhold

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Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi (photo by Beowulf Sheehan ’90)

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, an assistant professor of English at Notre Dame, has been named a finalist for the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the country’s largest peer-juried prize for novels and short stories.

The honor is for Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second novel, Call Me Zebra, which follows a young heroine as she leaves New York and retraces the path she took with her father from Iran to the United States. Literature is at the heart of the novel — the protagonist, Zebra, considers books central to her identity, has personal literary theories, and at times literally devours certain pages of books.

“I’m deeply honored to be a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award,” she said. “After seven years of writing in near-complete solitude, of working through what it means to be from the Middle East in our contemporary world and of considering the emotional and psychological impact of losing and searching for home, it feels incredibly fulfilling to see Call Me Zebra — a book about books — find its place in the literary landscape at large.

“I’m grateful to the judges for reading Call Me Zebra with such careful consideration and will be celebrating being a finalist of such a prodigious prize for a long time to come.”

A trio of judges considered more than 400 novels and short story collections from American authors. Other finalists for the award are Blanche McCrary Boyd (Tomb of the Unknown Racist), Richard Powers (The Overstory), Ivelisse Rodriguez (Love War Stories), and Willy Vlautin (Don’t Skip Out on Me). The winner will be announced April 29, with all five finalists being honored at a May 4 ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Call Me Zebra received a host of strong reviews — including being deemed “ferociously intelligent” by the New York Times Book Review and a “filthy love note to literature unabashedly luxuriating in its bookishness” by the LA Review of Books.

“Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is a new breed of erudite, conceptually ambitious authors,” author Steven Felicelli wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Above and beyond the sociopolitical undercurrent, ‘Call Me Zebra’ is about the dead we love and communicate with each time we open a book (or access a memory).”

Other honors for Call Me Zebra, published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018 and recently released in paperback, include being longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award — intended to foster racial and ethnic diversity within the literary community — and being named a finalist for the Indiana Emerging Authors Prize. 

In 2015, Van der Vliet Oloomi was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 and was a 2015 Whiting Award winner for “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come.” Previous Whiting Award winners include Jonathan Franzen, Alice McDermott, and David Foster Wallace.

Van der Vliet Oloomi’s 2012 debut novel, Fra Keeler, earned critical acclaim for its “chilling,” “surreal,” and “humorously associative meditation” about a man who investigates the death of the former owner of his newly purchased house.

Originally published by Josh Weinhold at on March 20, 2019.