Zaina Arafat on queer love, desire, and Palestinian identity

Zaina Arafat on queer love, desire, and Palestinian identity

2020’s breakout author — The author’s powerful debut novel, You Exist Too Much, follows the story of a bisexual Palestinian-American with a penchant for unattainable women.

“Why are things more appealing when they’re off in the distance?” asks Zaina Arafat, author of the new queer novel, You Exist Too Much. “I found myself thinking about unattainability and why it’s so attractive.”

Primarily a non-fiction journalist, this story of potential and unrequited love is Arafat’s debut novel. Her unnamed protagonist is a young bisexual Palestinian-American with a penchant for unattainable women. She stands in the centre of various Venn diagrams of identity; never fitting fully into one side or the other, and feeling uncomfortable in the space in-between. We watch as she attempts multiple relationships, grapples with addiction and misplaced desire, and battles with her unaccepting mother.

Politics and romance go hand in hand for Arafat. “As a Palestinian,” she says, “there’s the unattainability of statehood and the unattainability of having a well-defined homeland. I chose to take that theme of unattainability and apply it to romance and these unattainable women circling through this narrator’s life. I’ve always been interested in this idea of unrequited love as this more powerful and more interesting, almost, form of love. And I wanted to locate that in a queer narrative.” As she gears up for the novel’s US release later this month, we caught up with her to find out more. 

You Exist Too Much deals in doubleness in terms of sexuality, race, religion and love. How did the idea of doubleness grow for you?
Zaina Arafat: The idea of doubleness as a core narrative idea comes from this in-between status of the character. She’s both American and Palestinian. She’s both gay and straight. In some sense, she’s both; and in another sense, she’s neither. I found myself interested in the ways a person can embody contradictions. I think it can be a very confusing, alienating place to exist, this space of double.

The book deals with various sexual and romantic relationships, but the central relationship is the strained one between the protagonist and her mother, who does not accept her daughter’s bisexuality. Why did you choose to focus on this relationship?
Zaina Arafat: The desire for a mother’s approval is what drives so many of us, and being denied that approval at a young age can send you looking for approval in unhealthy ways, and mistaking that for love. It can shape your attachments going forwards. So much of these unrelenting, painful, unrequited romances are related to her relationship with her mother.

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Her mother suggests that as her daughter is bi, she could choose to be with a man, and is doing the family a disservice by being with a woman.
Zaina Arafat: Yeah. Being gay is its own struggle, but being bi can seem like a choice, and that can hurt people in one’s life who are not accepting of any form of queerness. It can also confuse the person themselves, so it’s a very interesting space to exist sexually, and to locate a character.

Why does the protagonist have no name?
Zaina Arafat: I think it spoke to the idea of existing too much. ‘You exist too much’ is an accusation that says you need to exist less. I think that imperative relates to a lot of the narrator’s self-effacing behaviour – particularly as having an eating disorder is a way to try to erase oneself – and so part of why she doesn’t have a name is that imperative. If you don’t have a name, that’s even less of a presence on the page.

She grapples with a sense of guilt, that she isn’t doing enough politically. As a Palestinian-American writer, do you feel a certain expectation or pressure to represent a particular voice?
Zaina Arafat: Initially, I did feel the weight of that expectation. I felt that I was being restricted to writing about politics and the occupation and the ongoing refugee crisis and conflict – and I did that for some time – and then I felt like Arabs, and Palestinians specifically, were being reduced to their politics.

When you say the word ‘Palestinian’, most people think ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, or worse. A way to subvert that dominant narrative of Palestinians is to show a human story where the character happens to be Palestinian. There was an effort to subvert the narrative and create a story outside of the typical frame that you get, and to three-dimensionalise Palestinians with longings and vulnerabilities that go beyond their politics. It felt like a love story could be more effective than a hundred op-eds.

But at the same time, in the process I started to see how even love could be related to politics, and how your political reality can shape a lot of what it is that you seek in your romantic relationships.

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What would you tell young women, particularly young queer women of colour, who are told that they ‘exist too much?’
Zaina Arafat: I would encourage them to exist even more. Visibility is so essential to fighting the denial of queer women of colour. It validates a way of existing. I’m seeing more queer women of colour in literature and I find that so validating and refreshing, and I wish that had always been the case. There’s still a lot of room for more.

What about lockdown: how have you been handling this period?
Zaina Arafat: In terms of writing and productivity during the lockdown, I’ve been up and down. I find that having anxious energy around me can be distracting, especially since I have so much of my own anxiety right now. But blocking that helps, as does waiting until later in the day to check the news. I’ve also been turning to art – books, mainly – as a way to escape. My advice is to do what you can to find that one bit of time each day where you can block out all the noise and stress and fear and access your creative mind, as much as that’s possible. If all you have is five minutes, then embrace those minutes. Also, be kind to yourself. There are days when it’s simply impossible to focus on writing, or anything at all, for that matter. Allow yourself that.

Zaina Arafat’s Lockdown Recommendations

Nonfiction: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hongzaina arafat

Poetry: ( a virtual nightly poetry reading, with a different poet each evening).

Nonfiction: Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Fiction: Severance by Ling Ma

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Podcast: Still Processing, a New York Times podcast hosted by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris.

Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much is released in the US on June 9.

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