World literature sickness: exile and dissent in Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra

Lorna M. Burns*

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article explores “literature sickness”, a term coined by the contemporary Iranian-American writer Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi and developed, I suggest, in her novel Call Me Zebra (2018). In doing so, it aims to offer not only an account of this novel, but to consider the radical potential of the condition Van der Vliet Oloomi outlines. This potential lies in the challenge to the dualism of reality and representation posed by literature sickness, an idea I develop comparatively via Call Me Zebra and the reflections on exile and, specifically, world literature in the work of Edward Said and Erich Auerbach. To develop these ideas further, I explore key concepts relating to the politics of world literature – exile, marginalization, and dissent. I focus on the work of Pascale Casanova to show how the concept of literature sickness that I develop in my readings of the novel relates to current debates in world literature theory. I position Call Me Zebra within a wider critical debate in order to argue that this novel offers a distinctive response to the Kantian dualism evoked in much contemporary world literature theory, one that I unpack using Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour. Deleuze’s philosophy of literature is central to my reading of Call Me Zebra, as it has distinct parallels with Zebra’s own theoretical musings. I use Deleuze to illustrate how, in the novel, Zebra’s exile gives her an especial perspective on oppression and marginalization, revealing literature’s capacity for imagining new futures and ways of belonging, and making Call Me Zebra a paradigmatic text of literature sickness and its radical potential.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalCritique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction
VolumeLatest Articles
Early online date18 Jan 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Jan 2024


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