Alas, The Overstory can’t win them all.
On Monday, the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction was bestowed upon Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra. The award celebrates the best fiction submitted by living, American citizens. Over 400 works were reviewed in what the organization deems the “largest peer-juried prize for fiction.”
The Iranian-American author’s second novel is the cerebral odyssey of an Iranian exile in America and beyond. The titular Zebra is smart, obnoxious, and obsessed with how literature—a veritable library memorized in her brain—will guide her on her journey through life. Above all, the tale of Don Quixote.
Van der Vliet Oloomi said after winning the award:
“I discovered William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury alongside Toni Morrison’s Beloved almost two decades ago in my senior year of high school. These two books have remained an integral part of the evolution of my literary consciousness; I consider them material proof that the vital energy of life can be transmitted to readers across time and space and that literature has the potential to heal both the individual and the social body. Call Me Zebra represents an homage to the great writers of the past and present who have had the courage and intellectual stamina to think with their hearts about what it means to be human in a world where justice and equality remain scarce for so many. Winning the PEN/Faulkner Award at such a delicate and trying juncture in our nation’s troubled history is an honor I am infinitely grateful to carry. It is, for me, a reminder from our mysterious universe that honest writing can allow us to speak humbly with one another, an intimation to love and to listen deeply each time I set pen to paper.”
While reading Call Me Zebra, I remember feeling gleeful observing the obvious talents of Van der Vliet Oloomi. To be sure, it’s not a book that one can sit down and graze over—one must pay attention, and will be finely rewarded when doing so. The judges seemed to have felt similarly. In a joint statement, the judges Percival Everett, Ernesto Quiñonez, and Joy Williams said:
“History is the ultimate judge, and it will certainly treat all five finalists with kindness. However, once in a while a singular, adventurous, and intellectually humorous voice appears that takes us on an inescapable journey. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra is a library within a library, a Borges-esque labyrinth of references from all cultures and all walks of life. In today’s visual Netflix world, Ms. Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel performs at the highest of levels in accomplishing only what the written novel can show us.”
Call Me Zebra is the “first among equals” in the shortlist, which included Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning behemoth The Overstory, as well as Blanche McCrary Boyd’s Tomb of the Unknown Racist, Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories, and Willy Vlautin’s Don’t Skip Out on Me.
The winner receives $15,000, while the rest of the short list receives $5,000 each. There will be a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on May 4th.