Follow this link for other accounts of the refugee experience.
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi translated by Tina Kover
As she waits, Kimiâ reflects on her colourful family history: the paternal grandmother born in a harem in northern Iran, her father’s thirtieth child; the maternal grandmother born to Armenians who fled Turkey shortly before the genocide. Then to her parents, Darius and Sara, human rights and political activists opposed to both the Shah and the Islamic Revolution that replaced him.
Kimiâ recalls her idyllic early childhood in Teheran, as the youngest of three daughters and her father’s favourite, permitted activities generally proscribed for girls. But a terrifying raid on the home confirms the dangers of dissent, and Darius flees to France. Some months after, Sara makes the perilous journey over the mountains with the girls.
The title of Négar Djavadi’s debut novel perfectly encapsulates its major themes. There’s the unravelling of the family’s Oriental identity alongside the disorientation of exile to a country that feels less welcoming than their previous veneration of French culture has led them to expect. For Kimiâ herself, there’s the disorientating ambivalence of adolescence, further complicated by a developing gender and sexual identity supposedly non-existent in Iran. No wonder she experiences occasional episodes of disassociation.
A poignant coming-of-age story coupled with an engaging account of recent Iranian history and culture, Disoriental won several prizes when first published in France in 2016. Tina Kover’s English translation came to me courtesy of Europa editions. A great start to women in translation month on Annecdotal, my only quibble being a slight tendency of the author to tell us too much – with, like The People in the Trees, the footnotes more conventional in a non-fiction text – perhaps due to possible parallels between her own biography and the narrator’s.
Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Alone in New York in her early 20s following the death of her father, Zebra decides to retrace the journey of exile in reverse, composing a manifesto of literature on the way. Flying to Barcelona, she travels around Catalunya, charming and exasperating those she meets.
Like them, I found my patience with Zebra fluctuating, I suspect less on account of the writing than my own energy levels. While her grandiosity was often amusing, her intellectual gymnastics could be a strain, especially for someone familiar with some of the literature she was quoting (although good to see Nietzsche popping up again).
My take on the novel is influenced – for better or worse – by how much she reminds me of people I’ve met on the psychiatric wards. Those who walk the line between genius and madness often perceive themselves as prophets possessed of superior wisdom they feel duty bound to share with others, whether others want to hear it or not. This intellectual superpower can be a defence against depression and isolation, sadly alienating the very people who might offer support.
While Zebra is conscious of her loss – indeed, her exiled and orphaned status give her a self-pitying sense of entitlement – and even cries about it, she can’t tolerate the vulnerability of not knowing. When an Italian exile becomes her lover, while she relishes the sex, she is contemptuous of the concept of love.
Will this most cerebral of heroines learn to connect with others on an emotional level? Will she step outside the Matrix of Literature to discover the merits of the 99.9%? Or will she persuade others to join her on the Pilgrimage of the Void? If you enjoy quirky philosophising, get your hands on a copy and find out! Mine came courtesy of the British publisher, Alma books.