“You exist too much,” complains a mother to her daughter, the nameless narrator of Zaina Arafat’s debut novel. In a time in which the American cultural landscape still appears to be infatuated with the allure of identity politics—or the understanding of one’s self within the demarcations of one’s ethnic, religious, or sexual identities—Arafat’s novel offers a different way of coming to terms with the self. It is a vivid character sketch of a young woman whose existence surpasses the limits of an identity bound by geo-political conflicts, heteronormativity, and intergenerational traumas. While honoring identity and origin(s), the novel also explores desires and mistakes, and ultimately, one’s capacity to exist too much.
Arafat’s narrator is a bisexual Palestinian-American woman who finds herself situated precariously along fractured lines, both national and personal. She belongs to neither Palestine nor America yet feels an affinity with both places. She wants to indulge in her queerness as much as she wants to resist the reality of her desires. Contradictions abound within her.
In the beginning of the novel, the narrator lives in New York City with her girlfriend. They had met at a recovery program for eating disorders and are each other’s first relationship since getting out. The narrator tells us that she repeatedly cheats on her girlfriend; she has mindless affairs with random people and becomes passionately obsessed with women who are very clearly out of reach. After her girlfriend finds out about her infidelities and breaks up with her, the narrator desperately signs up for another recovery program, this time one for love addicts.
The narrator’s experience at the recovery program highlights the fact that stability and desire are at constant odds in her psyche; she can’t have both. This internal strife is what the narrator is asked to explore and get a bearing on during her time at the program. An imperfect healing process unfolds through conversations with the idiosyncratic cast of characters who work at the program or are enrolled in it. Interweaving with the narrator’s accounts of her time at the program are her memories of trips to Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Italy. At the core of these memories, many of which reveal her sexual experiences and intimate moments with other women, lingers the specter of the narrator’s mother. Indeed, the narrator’s mother’s vehement objection to her same-sex desires plays no small role in her infidelity and lack of self-awareness, as well as her ingrained homophobia which she directs not only towards herself but others. The narrator’s struggle with her mother proves how difficult it is to shed the interplay of heteronormativity and intergenerational trauma on one’s being.
The novel works in fragments and layers. Hovering over her mother’s presence and her shard-like memories is the larger history of violence in Palestine and the Middle East. This violence continues to affect the narrator and her mother despite the narrator having been born in the United States. What I found to be one of the novel’s strengths was how geo-political conflicts in the Middle East were neither sensationalized nor centered; rather, they remained on the peripheries of the narrator’s life only to emerge through reflections on her own interpersonal issues and desires. In her memories of travelling through the Middle East, for instance, while she does recount the impact of the intifada and 9/11, the political conflicts become backdrops for how her queer sexuality surfaced in these countries. And like the problem of national borders in the context of the Middle East, I read the narrator’s attempts to grapple with her issues as a project that similarly calls for the negotiating of boundaries between herself and others. Her project of healing then becomes one of redrawing the contours of the self to allow for an expansion within, while protecting herself from the outside.
Half-way through the novel, Arafat shifts into present tense as the narrator leaves the recovery program and joins an MFA program in the Midwest—ostensibly the Iowa Writer’s Workshop which Arafat herself attended. The reader becomes witness to the narrator’s ability, and oftentimes inability, to practice what she has learned. During her MFA, she makes many mistakes, fulfills many desires, and experiences several rounds of heartbreak. Reading this part of the book was almost like watching your friend take your advice and then do the complete opposite; all the while, you are helpless and can do nothing but look on.
And yet, I realized when I finished the book that failure can give way to newness. It can lead to a greater understanding of one’s limits, as well as a reckoning with the vastness that resides within. Failure can also foster compassion and empathy towards others who may have failed us. In a particularly insightful moment, the narrator realizes that her mother, who she describes as having borderline personality disorder, may have mistreated her throughout her childhood and adolescence out of a place of regret and unfulfillment. Maybe, she thinks, her mother was really just an unhappily married woman who migrated to a country in which she was unable to pursue her dreams.
In the end, the mother is not wrong. Her daughter does exist too much. With a strange blend of urgency and hesitation, the narrator divulges to us her secrets and desires like a person who does not want to encounter, all alone, her internal abundance. In her yearning for her mother, in her desire for unattainable women, she finds herself—unfinished, and yet, present.
Noor Asif is a PhD student in the department of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is interested in thinking about diaspora, translation, and desire, especially in relation to literatures from Pakistan. Her short fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in Peripheries, Juked, and Homology Lit.