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Nation & World

In 'Savage Tongues' A Woman Explores The Lasting Trauma Of Sexual Assault

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The new novel "Savage Tongues" is about a very young woman, a man more than twice her age, the summer they spent together in an apartment in Marbella, Spain, and how what passed between them that summer scarred the woman, haunted her through her life. As the novel opens, she is in her late 30s. She has returned to Marbella for the first time since that terrible summer. And if you want to start reading there...

AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: Perfect.

(Reading) The apartment had been waiting for two decades, neglected and yet more or less intact. As I stood in the entryway, I realized that the apartment was a map of my wound. The apartment, I thought, looking around in disbelief, with its emptiness, its dirt, its false appearance as a home - this apartment, where I had arranged my body, exposed it to Omar's terrible desire to drink from my mouth, to stroke my limbs.

KELLY: That is the author reading from "Savage Tongues" - Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. Thank you for that. And I want to flag for listeners, this interview will discuss sexual assault. And I also want to say welcome.

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: Thank you for hosting me.

KELLY: Let's start with this choice that your protagonist makes because it's interesting - the decision to revisit the scene of the trauma that she suffered as a 17-year-old 20 years later. What interested you about returning to rather than running from the place that torments her?

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: She returns with her best friend, Ellie. And in the process of this what they call a recovery journey, they're really trying to disentangle the various traumas that they've experienced, both sexual trauma as well as political trauma, and how the two might be playing off one another.

KELLY: Just to spell out, Arezu is Iranian American and Ellie, the best friend, is Jewish, right?

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: That's right. It's also, you know, a visceral, evocative way to really lean into one's trauma, to return and have an embodied experience of how that space may have imprinted itself upon her consciousness.

KELLY: Yeah. And stay with the space because most of the novel unfolds in this apartment and inside Arezu, your protagonist's, mind. It's a really interesting way of setting it up because the apartment is filthy. It is dark. It's dank. And what happened to her there is dark and awful. And I wonder, were you playing with that deliberately, that the space and what was going on in her mind are - I don't know - reinforcing each other?

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: Yeah, absolutely. I think part of the exploration of the trauma comes to life when she actually reenters the apartment, which she hasn't been in for 20 years. And when she first was there as a 17-year-old, she ended up being there alone in her father's summer home, and he never showed up. And I think it's also kind of symbolic of the way that sexual trauma happens without the presence of direct witnesses in these enclosed private spaces that then complicate all of the dynamics of being believed, of being able to explore the aftermath of the violence. And it was a really - just as a writer, a really evocative way for me to capture what's going on inside of her mind.

KELLY: Yeah. It also interested me - you don't describe in great detail the horrors of that summer. I mean, we understand that she was raped. We understand that it was a complicated relationship. But it felt like you were less interested in the details of what had happened than the reckoning and the years and years and years that follow of reckoning with that one summer.

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: I didn't want to sensationalize the violence that happens between them. And, you know, it's not so much the act of the rape itself as it is the aftermath of the way that that trauma will never really leave her consciousness, will never leave her body. It's not something that she can work through. It's something that will shift with her as she gets older. At every stage of her femininity and her womanhood, she's having to contend with what happened in a new way. And it's about that amoeba-like nature of memory and trauma and the way that it's always changing and evolving through our lives. And I think that's the true horror of sexual abuse. And it's the piece of it that we don't talk about as often - is the longevity.

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah, it struck me in a couple of different ways. I will say I got frustrated with your protagonist. Without minimizing in any way the trauma of rape and how long it can stay with you, there are points where she seems almost stubbornly determined not to heal and not to try to build a better life going forward. Does that - when I say that, does that sound fair to you, or does that make you bristle?

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: It doesn't make me bristle, but I'm not sure I see it that way because, to me, this is as much a novel about a love story between two incredible friends. And it's about how women kind of hold space for one another in private ways and private settings and how much more expansive that conversation is than the public discourse allows for.

KELLY: Yeah.

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: So I think it's really - they're the real love story in the book.

KELLY: Yeah. And I - and it's a beautiful love story, the female friendship between Arezu and her best friend, Ellie. And I thought that was a really interesting choice you made; that, yes, Arezu is not returning alone, but it's with her best friend, not her husband. She has a happy marriage, but that's not who she needs to go confront these demons with. Why did you write it that way?

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: You know, in the process of writing the book and talking about the book early on, it became really apparent to me that when, you know, women, whether in real life or in literature, are exploring the very conflicted emotions that they might have around a nonconsensual experience, there is a kind of pressure to discuss just the ways in which one might feel victimized. And I think that, you know, I quickly realized that that's actually part of the parameters of the social moment that we've always been in that we are now and that how different the conversation felt when, as a writer and as a woman, I was talking about the book with female friends or queer friends who are writers and how we could just go there and they don't flinch.

KELLY: Without giving away everything that happens here, I think it's fair to say that there is a reckoning, that there is movement here on the part of Arezu, that she went back to confront her demons. And she does. I wonder where you were as you were writing that. It's this idea, obviously, that trauma is going to inform your life for forever, but she also is finding a way - I don't know - to reframe it, to think about it, to feel supported in confronting it. But where would you say you kind of were trying to land this?

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: Yeah. You know, I think our sense of reality is dictated by what we're trying to avoid. And I really wanted to discover something I didn't know, something that I was afraid of facing. And I wanted to usher certain uncomfortable truths into the light. And that's why I wrote "Savage Tongues."

KELLY: That is the author of "Savage Tongues," Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, speaking to us about her new book.

Thank you so much.

VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: Thank you. It was such a pleasure to speak with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.