Ladane Nasseri: The title of your book conjures tongues that are, like Omar’s in the novel, an erotic tool, dispensing pleasure but which can also wound with words—“a tongue with thorns” as we say in Persian. can also be understood as a nod to language that isn’t tamed or mastered, or that is lost (as is the case for Arezu, who loses touch with her native Persian language). What did you have in mind with this title?
LN: Without summarizing the novel, what would you say is about?
LN: I found a multitude of themes in this novel: identity, memory, patriarchy, domination and dispossession, sexuality, sexual violence, violence against minority communities, trauma—as well as stories we bury and the space that opens with language as we claim our voice. At a broader level, it’s also about race, gender, and nationhood. How did these themes congeal together, and what were the most important topics you wanted to explore?
LN: Savage Tongues is timely given the heightened awareness around social justice and the rights of Palestinians and marginalized communities. How important was it for you to highlight the plight of communities or individuals who are not in control of the narratives around their lives?
AVVO: Arezu and Ellie are asking a lot of difficult questions about the violence of political modernity and the logic of the nation-state that serves to protect some communities while leaving others stateless and dispossessed. With regard to Palestine, Ellie, who stands against the occupation and examines her position as an implicated subject in the violence of ethnic cleansing, and Sahar, who is from the West Bank and whose life is shaped by the separation wall, talk often about the Palestinian struggle and their individual struggles with displacement. In general, all of the novel’s characters are distinctly aware of how one nation’s autonomy is predicated on the disempowerment and subjugation of another nation. The characters in the novel are Iranian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Israeli, and American, and it’s impossible for the encounter between them not to be informed by the geopolitical crisis of the Middle East and the dynamics of colonialism that have (mis)shaped it.
LN: I was struck by the metaphors and symbolisms in the novel: the young boar, the yellow Speedo, the main characters constantly cleaning and scrubbing . . . Where is the limit of telling and when to rely on metaphors to let readers do the work?
AVVO: That question is really about pacing. My sensibility as a writer is to give space for introspection, and different readers or writers have different levels of tolerance for that. In Savage Tongues, I was interested in blurring the boundaries between interiority and exteriority. The cleaning of the apartment, the wild boar, the swimsuit—those are all things that carry Arezu’s trauma, but they are outside her body. Trauma puts you in a cognitive state where you can’t tell where the boundaries of yourself end and the world begins. That’s how it disempowers you. Those elements were important to me because I was writing trauma; I wasn’t writing about trauma—for me, that’s a very important distinction. Savage Tongues isn’t a book where a character is reflecting on a trauma long resolved; it is about being immersed in the excruciating process of confronting and healing trauma. The reader might feel claustrophobic at times, but that’s instrumental; that’s the process the narrator and the characters need to go through to decolonize their minds and bodies from colonization, from the logic of patriarchy. That’s where the cleaning comes in as metaphor: removing, stripping away all that learned self-hatred.
My sensibility as a writer is to give space for introspection.
LN: What place, piece of art, writer, or artist did you draw inspiration from while writing Savage Tongues? Was there any material that you kept nearby to help construct that intimate setting or stay close to Arezu’s psyche?
AVVO: Two books were alive to me while I was writing. Marguerite Dura’s The Lover, and an early book by Elena Ferrante called Days of Abandonment, where the protagonist is also trapped in an apartment. It’s like a fever dream. Also, the architecture of the Alhambra in Spain—doors that lead to other doors, passageways that lead to courtyards and more doors, arcades and ponds—informed the way I was thinking about the novel. It’s a space that is enclosed and confusing but that keeps unfolding too. That’s the novel’s structure: You’re trapped in a space, but all these other spaces keep unfolding within it.
LN: In the novel, Arezu finds language “divine because it’s capable of naming that which has been made to disappear, of articulating the unspeakable.” Like her, you are Iranian American and multicultural. You have lived in Spain, Italy, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, and speak four languages. What role has language played in your own life as a writer and a nomad?
AVVO: Because I was raised speaking four languages simultaneously—Farsi, English, Spanish, Italian—and because I lived in an immersive way in those languages, I am very aware of how the boundaries of who we think we are are entirely shaped by language. How much vocabulary a language has for grief, or how much tolerance a culture has for speaking of grief, or love, or happiness affects your emotional landscape entirely, because however much language you have for articulating something, that’s however much space your self has, your imagination has. The boundaries of my identity shift depending on which language I speak and operate in. When I’m writing in English, it’s a work of acrobatics to bring all the generosity and the capaciousness of those other languages, Farsi and Spanish especially, into the work’s emotional charge.
LN: Arezu wants to stay clear of the traditional narrative of victimhood by parsing out the violence against her from the pleasure she had sought. She insists she has “no interest to obliterate the contradictions.” Can fiction and Iranian characters that are layered bring nuance to the simplistic portrayal of Iranians and Iranian politics and society in US media? Can such stories or protagonists help create a space in the tense Iran-US discourse?
AVVO: Arezu is a very intelligent, self-aware (at times to a fault) character and has been tracing the political rhetoric exchanged between America and Iran her whole adult life. She feels hemmed in by that rhetoric and the ensuing ethnic violence it instigates. Her brother is attacked early on in the novel by a white supremacist; she witnesses the attack and is unable to help him. It’s the ’90s in America and the hate crime, which was ethnically motivated, is not recognized as a hate crime by the authorities; the attacker is absolved of all responsibility after completing a few hours of community service. This is the defining event in the novel, the event that primes her for the violence she experiences later on, with Omar in Marbella.
Sadly, we are seeing a lot of similar political dynamics at play right now; the extreme polarization, the rise of white supremacy. The US functions in opposition to an “enemy” nation; it is dependent upon the rhetoric of self-defense, fear, and suspicion, which is especially evident in the way that Iran is addressed and discussed, but has been used in the past to diminish other nations as well. That stance toward the rest of the world comes from its own divided and divisive reality on the ground, from its abundance of unresolved historical conflict and failure. America is a lot of great things, a place of limitless potential, but there is a core part of America that suffers from cognitive dissonance and dissociation, a kind of willful denial and amnesia.
These are complicated subjects, and they intersect with the ethics of representation of brown and Black bodies, queer bodies, female bodies. My ambition with Savage Tongues was to write characters that can exist on the page with all the completeness and dimensionality of a real person. I was very aware of the real dangers of writing characters that affirm the “western” gaze, or the notion that the “East” and the “West” are two distinct and oppositional hemispheres. And I didn’t want to take readers on some kind of literary tourism that is, aesthetically speaking, adjacent to affirming that gaze.
I am very aware of how the boundaries of who we think we are are entirely shaped by language.
LN: Earlier this summer you taught a class on intimacy and setting at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Do you have any advice on building settings that get under the reader’s skin?
AVVO: In that class, we talked about how we are taught to think of setting, landscape, and character as separate elements of fiction. I’m trying to talk about how the self is nested in landscape, and landscape is nested in the self. I teach how the style and voice of a novel, its atmosphere, its mood, is generated from that intense nesting and relationship between place and self. It’s a more visceral, intuitive way of thinking about these questions, rather than thinking of them as elements of fiction, which can make writers shut down because, in reality, we don’t experience space or self as two separate distinct entities—they are always intertwined.
LN: Was there a craft element that you struggled with in writing this book?
AVVO: It was challenging to weave together the political questions in the book with the personal story; likewise, to weave together the historical background with the present moment of the story. We know these dimensions of reality are interconnected, but in storytelling we’ve been taught to separate them, to say this is the backstory and this is the present story unfolding. That worldview—that kind of spatial and temporal sensibility that separates the past from the present—doesn’t speak to me as a person whose identity is plural, who grew up with a more layered and elliptical understanding of temporality. I don’t have a linear sensibility of time and neither do my characters. They are always negotiating the past, forgotten histories, the parts of themselves that were suppressed; they exist in multiple tenses at once.
LN: What writing advice do you often give your students?
AVVO: The only advice I think is useful to give is to show up to your writing every day, because that’s the only way your writing is going to know that you’re there. Language is alive; it has its own consciousness and you’re entering into a relationship with it, so you have to show up regularly. You can’t show up occasionally and expect language to show up. You wouldn’t expect that from a person!
LN: Authors often talk about their writing rituals: wearing a particular clothing item, lighting a candle, using essential oil roll-ons etc. Do you have a writing ritual?
AVVO: I have pets, and I don’t start writing until they are settled and in the room—ready to sleep at my feet or on the bed. That stillness that you can share with an animal, that’s the space I need to be in. So, the dogs will get walked, the cat will get fed . . . and once they’re settled, then I’m ready.
Ladane Nasseri is a journalist and writer. A former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News where she led Iran’s news coverage, Ladane has reported from Tehran, Dubai, and Beirut. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Businessweek, The Nation, The U.K.’s Telegraph, and France’s Liberation. She holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University and an MFA in literary and narrative nonfiction from The New School in New York. Find her on Twitter: @LadaneNasseri