Queer Arabs Taking Up Space: An Interview With Zaina Arafat

Scrolling through Instagram for book recommendations in early quarantine, I stumbled upon Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much. The writer’s debut novel tells the story of a bisexual, love-addicted, Palestinian American woman, toggling present life in New York City and flashbacks from childhood trips overseas. Giddy at the prospect of LGBTQ Arab representation (which can be hard to come by, to say the least) I immediately pre-ordered the book.

The unnamed narrator in You Exist Too Much brilliantly sheds light on the murky overlaps between cultural traditions, intergenerational trauma, and LGBTQ identity. She’s witty and self-deprecating, at times chaotic but always genuine, in a way that feels overwhelmingly human. It was easy to fall into the world of this book and into the inner workings of the narrator’s in-betweenness. To me (and I imagine that to other LGBTQ Arabs) it’s a story that felt overwhelmingly relatable.

Literature and media often fail to portray the multiplicities of Arab culture, instead relying on one-dimensional tropes of violence and decay. Yet, these moments of violence frequently become the moments where Arab culture penetrates the mainstream – the recent blasts in Beirut have continued to keep the state of the region on people’s radars, and in June, news and social media covered the suicide of Sarah Hegazi, a lesbian Egyptian activist. You Exist Too Much nods at the persistence of homophobia and transphobia in the Arab world, but goes beyond being merely a book about identity. Arafat uses this cultural context to explore and inform the way a body exists, feels and loves in the Western world.

I had the privilege to chat with Arafat, and we covered an immense amount of ground – from Arab parents not even knowing the word “lesbian” to finding possibility amid trauma. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

a Palestinian American woman in a white v-neck t-shirt stands in front of a wall with a half smile, her face turned just slightly away from the camera. she has light brown, straight shoulder length hair, dark eyebrows and a red lipstick smile

Zaina Arafat via Carleen Coulter

Sarah Sophia Yanni: Your protagonist’s story is the furthest thing from one-dimensional – she deals with hyphenated identity, familial disarray, queerness, love addiction, infidelity and eating disorder recovery, among other struggles. What was the process like of developing this character? Was there a specific aspect of her story that served as the starting point?

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Zaina Arafat: The starting point for the story and the character was thinking about somebody who would set their sights on something unattainable – a woman who set her sights on unattainable women. And this became an almost safer way to love. It spoke to her shame around being gay or being bi, her choices colored by this internalized homophobia.

From there, I began thinking about her cultural background as a Palestinian, and how unattainability exists in that realm of her life, being in between cultures and not being able to fully attain either one or a sense of belonging. Then on a more political level, as a Palestinian, thinking about her quest to attain statehood and self determination, which are elusive for Palestinians. And the eating disorder also grew out of those quests and pursuits…her one-sided love relationships where she’s sort of disappearing into people without getting anything back from them.

SSY: The narrator remains unnamed throughout the whole book. I interpreted this as a reflection on silencing, or the tendency to shrink oneself down. What informed this choice for you?

ZA: The namelessness did indeed come from a sort of silencing, the first level of silencing coming from the mother. There’s this quote (and of course, it’s the title of a book) from the mother, where she tells the daughter “You exist too much,” which is essentially a way of saying to somebody “You should exist less, take up less space.” So her having no name was a way for her to really take up less space on the page and then try throughout the book to come to a place of taking up more space, letting go of that impulse to self-negate, to silence. And in some of her relationships, she doesn’t even have any lines of dialogue, like you never hear words directly from her mouth, so that’s another part of the silencing. So that’s part of the journey – to feel entitled to one’s existence and one’s voice and place.

SSY: Another aspect that largely goes unnamed is sexuality itself – the narrator shies away from labeling herself as lesbian, gay, queer or bisexual. How do you connect this ambiguity to some of the mindsets and traditions of Arab culture?

ZA: For one thing, in Arab culture – at the risk of sounding simplistic – there isn’t really even a concept of like gayness, let alone lesbian, bi, trans…like all of those categories, they just don’t exist. So for her, part of this ambiguity and non-definition comes from the fact that it’s just not even recognized, at least in her specific community. So part of the struggle is that – not having any form of external validation; it all has to come from within. And I think there’s also just this impulse, at least for her, and even for me as a writer, to resist categorization. There’s so many overlaps and intersections and messiness that is intentionally constructed as such. I sometimes wonder if I even use the word like bisexual – I don’t know that I did. Readers use it, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I guess she is bi!” But yeah, the answer to the question is a desire to resist categories combined with the fact that these categories don’t even exist. Which is almost worse than somebody being mad at you for being bi or gay – the notion of somebody completely denying your existence, because it isn’t real for them. So she has to find validation from within.

SSY: The book features flashbacks, largely of the narrator’s time in Palestine as a young girl. I think for a lot of us – people raised by immigrant parents in the US – these long, childhood trips to see family in the “homeland” can be some of our most vivid memories, something we carry into adulthood. Was this part of the reasoning behind the decision to pepper in the flashbacks throughout the book? Why not tell the narrator’s story chronologically?

ZA: Totally, it’s exactly that – I wanted to really get at the way that these seemingly innocuous memories or experiences matter so much to who you are as an adult. So much of one’s time overseas is spent just watching – it can just be you at your grandmother’s house all day, but there is so much nuance to those experiences, and they’re so weighted and full of impact in a way that seems barely recognizable. I wanted to explore the significance of that upbringing and those memories and how that impacts the person in their present life.

SSY: One of the most striking parts of this book is the narrator’s relationship with her mother. It’s a relationship that veers into toxicity, but at the same time, she wants her mother’s approval so badly. How does this dynamic speak to notions of intergenerational trauma?

ZA: Part of the journey for the narrator is to understand that dynamic, and part of what that involves is understanding her mother’s trauma. I think of it as trickle down trauma, because it’s the mother’s trauma from growing up under occupation, in between wars and surrounded by violence, and this impacts the mother of course, and it impacts the way she exists in the world, the way she raises her children. And there are wounds associated with these traumas that the mother hasn’t processed, so they trickle down onto the narrator. I think that’s what often happens with immigrants and the first generation – there are traumas, whether from the process of migration or in the reason why they’re even migrating in the first place. And I think for me, that was so interesting to explore and also so essential to understand, because it was how the narrator could come from a place of anger and hurt when it came to her relationship with her mother and arrive at a place of empathy and compassion.

SSY: A large part of the book also centers on the narrator checking herself into The Ledge, a facility for addiction recovery. It’s not her first time in a rehabilitation center. Although these ailments aren’t explicitly culture-related, how do you think mental health struggles differ for first-gen / immigrant children?

ZA: Basically, there’s a denial of mental health. It’s like “Mental health struggles? So American! We grew up under occupation and war, what do you mean mental health? What do you have to be mentally unsound about?” So there’s the obstacle of the refusal to acknowledge it as even a thing. And I think that’s why the narrator resists the treatment center, and why when she’s in it, is so observationally snarky and resistant, until she realizes it is actually real. And whether or not the facility can really understand her specific family background, I knew that I wanted to humble her and create this place of unlikely community for her. Because in some sense, even though she seems different than the others and thinks of herself as different because of her cultural baggage, she’s not. They’re all tragic in similar ways. That’s the thing with the first generation – we have really nuanced issues and we also face a lot of cultural resistance when it comes to anything related to mental health and mental wellbeing and mental illness. But at the same time, we can forge a sense of community in a setting with other people who don’t share that background. It’s very humbling and humanizing.

SSY: In their review of the book, NPR wrote: “This is not a happy story.” And in many ways, it’s not; it isn’t some grand coming-of-age story where things are clean and simple. It’s a reminder of perpetual otherness that is the reality for many of us. It is also a reminder that lots of us come from families, countries, religions, etc. where queer embracibility is incredibly far from being mainstream. But while it may not be a happy story, there still seems to be a sense of hope; small interactions, moments, or conversations that push your narrator forward. What was your relationship to hopefulness when writing the book? How did you balance being culturally realistic with maintaining a sense of possibility?

ZA: It’s funny that you say that it’s not a happy story, because even though obviously there’s a lot of unfortunate struggles and destructive behavior, I think of it as the happy story. I don’t think you have an unhappy story.

SSY: Okay, well, it’s not necessarily unhappy, maybe just not as gung-ho as other books.

ZA: No, totally, I think that’s right. And the number one most important thing for me in telling this story was that everything be authentic – that the representations of Arabs and Arab women be authentic, that the character’s addiction be authentic and that her ability to overcome be actually realistic and authentic. Which meant that I couldn’t control her. Even though I wanted her to make the right decisions and take the healthier path, sometimes she didn’t, and I couldn’t force her. She’s up against a lot of obstacles, and her journey is to overcome those things, while the mother’s journey is to come to accept her daughter, and those two have to meet in the middle at some point. So staying true to what was realistic in terms of a Palestinian Muslim mother and what was realistic in terms of this narrator who had all these traumas and all this baggage and all this internalized shame and homophobia, I could only get them so far. But I think that they did make progress by the end, even though it was not major. It’s not like there was some like big gay wedding where the mother was administering the service. But clearly, there were inches that were moved, maybe even more than inches, keeping in mind the parameters of culture and her own inner limitations and traumas.

SSY: How do you generate possibility in your own writing practice? Has quarantine changed your writing practice or relationship to creativity?

ZA: I think what’s actually changed my relationship to my writing practice and possibility has been publishing a book, and the reality of what that is. It has been liberating, because not only is this book out, but it’s also not as scary as I thought. And seeing that, and watching the way that readers connect, it’s been freeing to me and given me more impetus and liberty to take on the new writing that I otherwise would have been intimidated to. At some point I felt like I’m never ever going to write anything risky again, but now I’m like, you know what, I am going to keep taking risks and writing and going to weird places.

SSY: Lastly, can you recommend any artists or writers who engage with similar themes?

ZA: Because there’s so many authors that come to my mind, I always draw a total blank cause I feel overwhelmed but okay, I’m a huge fan of Garth Greenwell. He writes really explicitly and honestly about gay sex. Also T Kira Madden is another whose work I really admire, and she writes a lot about being a queer person of color. And Randa Jarrar – she’s Palestinian, and she has a memoir coming out about being a queer Arab.

Sarah is an LA-based writer, poet, editor, and educator. Find her on IG @sssaritahh.

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7 Comments

  1. I loved this interview, and especially this part: “…like all of those categories, they just don’t exist. So for her, part of this ambiguity and non-definition comes from the fact that it’s just not even recognized, at least in her specific community. So part of the struggle is that – not having any form of external validation; it all has to come from within.”
    Adding this book to my list!

  2. Just finished this book (loved it even though I also wanted the protagonist to make some decisions she wasn’t ready to make) and this interview makes me want to go back and read it again.

    It also did feel like a happy book for me in the end, but maybe that’s because I was either reading this book or the news.

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