Zibby Owens: Zaina Arafat is the debut author of You Exist Too Much: A Novel. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Zaina through the Center for Fiction during part of their Inside and Out 2020 Pride event series, which was fantastic. Zaina is a Palestinian American writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications including The New York Times, Granta, The Believer, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, VICE, and many others. Her work has been an anticipated book for June of 2020 by O, The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Lit Hub, and so many others. She has an MA in international affairs from Columbia University and an MFA from Iowa. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, The School of the New York Times, the International Writing Program, and Sackett Street Writers, as well as abroad in Jordan, Egypt, and Eritrea where she taught creative writing as part of a US State Department International Writing Program delegation. She has also led workshops for dreamers and DACA recipients through the Writer’s Guild Initiative. As an editor, she also curated a portfolio of prose and poetry in response to the travel ban and a Q&A series with Muslim writers for The Margins. She also served as the managing editor of VinePair, the largest online publication on wine news and culture.

Hi, Zaina.

Zaina Arafat: Hi. Lovely to be here.

Zibby: Me too. How fun to virtually be talking to you. I wish it was in real life, but such is life these days. Congratulations on You Exist Too Much. I know this is my advance copy, but this awesome cover for everybody watching. Your debut novel, June 9th, it just came out. How does it feel to have a book out in the world, especially now?

Zaina: It’s exhilarating, to be honest. Of course, I couldn’t have predicted the global circumstances, the world that the book would be arriving into. As a Palestinian, I feel as though resistance is such a part of my experience and my background that it just felt kind of right to be putting a book that has Palestinian characters in it out into the world at this time. That’s been nice. It’s been exhilarating and exciting and everything, really.

Zibby: We were chatting before this started about maybe there are some perks to doing a whole virtual book tour. You get to save a lot of exhaustion from traveling all over the world despite the disappointment of not being able to be in those places.

Zaina: Oh, yes. Absolutely. It’s great to have this virtual platform because you can connect with people and readers and writers that are everywhere in the world. That’s really the plus side, I think.

Zibby: Let’s back up to your book a little bit. I know you’re going to read a little bit to introduce everybody to your beautiful, beautiful writing. As you know, I’ve picked this as some of my top books in the Good Morning America article and all the rest. I think your book is fantastic. Read and give them a little preview.

Zaina: Okay, excellent. Thank you so much for all of that support. It’s meant a lot to me. I’m going to read from — it’s cool because it shines when you put these little amazing things, these stripes. I’m going to read from the very opening of the book, just a few pages. No setup needed because these are the opening pages.

In Bethlehem when I was twelve, men in airy white gowns sat at a three-legged table outside the Church of the Nativity. They ran prayer beads through their fingers and sipped mint tea in gold-rimmed cups shaped like hourglasses, steam floating off the surface and up into the bright blue sky. I walked past them with my mother and my uncle as we wandered through the holy city. One of the men called out, “Haram!”

Forbidden. For the especially devout among us, it’s haram to eat meat unless the animal has been killed in a specific way. Haram to drink alcohol. Haram for a pubescent girl to expose her legs in a biblical city. It occurred to me then that I wasn’t a flat-chested kid anymore, that curves had begun to appear along the length of me. I was no longer indistinguishable from a boy child.

“What should we do?” I asked my mother. I felt a pulsing lump take shape in my throat as I noticed her jaw extended and temples shimmering. My great-grandparents’ house was where we were staying and where all of my clothes were, thirty-six miles and three checkpoints away.

I should’ve had more sense than to dress in such a way when we were visiting the birthplace of a prophet, albeit not our own. My mother had and still has a native’s knowledge. She knows the rules instinctively in that part of the world, I only ever learn them by accident.

“Baseeta,” said my uncle. It’s okay.

We approached the main door of the church, and the men hissed again. My uncle ran the tips of his fingers across his mustache, then looked to my mother and me. “Come,” he said. “I have an idea.”

We followed him into a gift shop just off Manger Square. He dropped a few coins on the counter, then asked the shopkeeper if we could use his bathroom. My mother grabbed a Kit Kat off the shelf and tore it open, breaking apart two sticks without a second thought. My uncle dropped three more coins on the counter. The man pointed toward the back. My uncle thanked him and led the way.

His master plan was that he would trade me his trousers for my Roxy surfer shorts. He went into the bathroom first, and I could hear sounds of fumbling, his belt jangling as it hit the floor. He opened the door slightly and handed his pants to my mother so she could administer the swap. She then stood in front of me while I took off my shorts. “Yalla,” she said, her most frequently used word. Hurry.

I pulled on the pair of pants. They sagged on me. I had to tighten the belt buckle all the way up to the last hole and then roll the waist so that they wouldn’t fall off leaving me even more exposed than I had been before. I stepped out of the bathroom and looked at my uncle. I examined my new curves against his pasty legs, gangly and covered in sporadic patches of hair, my shorts tight against his thighs. It occurred to me in that moment to question why, as a man, his bare legs were somehow less troubling than mine. It was a double standard, a shame I had simply accepted until then. In acquiring my gender, I had become offensive.

But as I stood in front of him, an unexpected pride began to swell inside me. I liked the way his trousers made me feel, like I could get attention from boys, from girls. I felt, for once, seen.

“Inti walad, willa binit?” – Are you a boy or a girl?

A security guard at the InterContinental hotel in Amman, Jordan, had once asked my cousin Nour this question when deciding whether to lead her into the curtain-shrouded “women’s check” for an intimate pat-down before she could enter the lobby.

“Binit!” Nour had responded. Girl! She’d been insulted by the question, the uncertainty it revealed. But not me. Not that day. Wearing my uncle’s baggy trousers, I enjoyed occupying blurred lines. Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space.

I’ll stop there. Thank you.

Zibby: Beautiful. I have to say, when I first started reading this, I kept flipping to the cover. I was like, wait, is this a memoir or is this a novel? Is this actually what happened to her or not? Not that you have to go into every detail, but in general, how did you come up with the idea for this book? Was it, in some way, autobiographical?

Zaina: The elements of the book that are, in fact, autobiographical are the protagonist’s identity markers. She’s Palestinian American. I am too. She is queer. She’s bisexual. I am too. One of the first reasons for wanting to create this book was to see those identities reflected on the page because I hadn’t encountered a lot of literature with bicultural, bisexual characters. All of the stories within the book are fictional, but those identity markers derive from my own life. Did you also ask where the idea came from, or did I imagine that?

Zibby: I think I asked it. I don’t know. I jumbled a bunch of questions into one. Zaina, where did you come up with the idea for this book?

Zaina: The book really began with a question pertaining to unattainability and why it is that things that are off in the distance could be more appealing than something that you had right in front of you. I tried to imagine what kind of person would set their sights on something unattainable and why they might do that. I initially located that question in love and the character setting her sights on people, primarily women, that are unattainable for various reasons. In circling around that question and drawing those storylines, I tapped into a larger unattainability both in the context of her relationship with her mother, and her mother as a force in her life, who is very unattainable in so far as she’s withholding and also kind of from a different world because she’s an immigrant and the daughter is first generation. Then also, a larger more political, cultural element of Palestinian-ness and being part of a community where your existence hasn’t been validated. Palestinians don’t have statehood. They don’t have the right to self-determination. There were these multiple levels of unattainability. Basically, the process of writing was very circular where I just began in one circle and then moved to another circle and found connections between them.

Zibby: I found one of the first interactions between the mom and the main character who goes unnamed, but the main character — I’m not going to say you. If I do, smack me around. The main character and her mother, she was afraid given the mother’s lack of acceptance of her lifestyle or what she imagined would be a lack of acceptance — she hadn’t told her mother that she had a serious girlfriend with whom she was living and that she was in love and wanted to spend her life with someone and all the rest. Of course, the girlfriend was not happy about that, especially after she’s pretending that her boyfriend is off on a business trip all the time. Anyway, then the mother comes and they have a meal at a restaurant. The main character gently asks, “If I were to marry a woman, how would you feel?” The mother’s like, “I would be very upset.” It becomes a whole big, explosive thing where the mother runs out. The two women are left sitting there. It’s a whole thing. Just tell me a little more about that moment. I feel like it’s probably something that a lot of people have gone through in any similar — for this reason, for other reasons, when they’re afraid that their partner won’t be accepted by their parents in some way, which is a very common occurrence.

Zaina: Absolutely. There are many ways to look at the trajectory of the book. For me, this entire book is about this character coming out to her mother. That moment of going to dinner with the girlfriend and the mother and deceiving the mother into thinking that the girlfriend is just a friend is something that in the context of the book sort of sets — I wanted to show what the stakes were, to show the resistance that this character was facing when it came to gaining acceptance from her mother. On a personal level, of course there is — especially given my cultural and religious background, gaining that acceptance is and remains a journey. There are many ways that parents react to it, at least in my experience of friends and members of my community. I wrote it in such a way that would allow for this journey to persist where the mother remains in the narrator’s life. The narrator is really close to her and wants her approval and wants her love. How does she go about being true to herself and being honest and authentic and gaining that approval and love? Can she? Are these things compatible? That was a question that drives that narrative.

Zibby: You also had this theme of eating disorders that ran through the narrative as well. That’s actually where the protagonist and her girlfriend at the opening had met and keeps coming up over and over again. Tell me about the decision to make that one of the central parts of the book as well.

Zaina: By the way, I close my eyes sometimes when I talk. Don’t be alarmed. The eating disorder component speaks to appetite, essentially. This book, in many ways, the character struggles with or feels the need to suppress appetite, both in her romantic longings as well as in a literal sense of starving herself. That’s why that history of anorexia exists in the book and in this character’s backstory along with the fact that so much of her impulse is to sort of erase herself and to self-negate because of the shame and internalized homophobia that she is living with. You mentioned that the narrator has no name. That’s an intentional decision to have her exist less on the page. There are some relationships in which she doesn’t even have any dialogue, where we never hear her speak. An eating disorder like anorexia is also a way to kind of try and exist less, to negate oneself. That’s why the eating disorder is part of her backstory and her experience.

Zibby: I feel like it also dovetails with this whole notion of deception which you’ve already touched on, deceiving the mother, the whole secrecy behind having an eating disorder and that you have to keep it very — you’re hiding what’s going on, sometimes in plain sight, but you’re trying to hide the mental anguish you’re going through by an external manifestation of it. You had one quote in the book that said, “Secrets keep us sick.” It was presented within the context of a group therapy type of situation. I feel like that’s something that sort of pervaded the whole story. Talk to me about your relationship to secrets and why you put it in the book and how you feel they affect our lives as well.

Zaina: I’ll just say for me as a queer woman growing up in a rather unaccepting culture, and family I suppose, a lot of my experience has been hiding. My own personal journey has been coming from a place of hiding to coming to a place of existing louder and authentically, really. It’s been a journey that the end goal is authenticity. I think that for this character, so much of her behavioral patterns, which are really destructive and painful to watch, are motivated by this urge or this feeling she has that she has to hide who she is because of the fact that so much shame has been projected onto her. Some people would reject that. In her case, she internalizes it. Her behavior is motivated primarily by hiding. By locating love in these unattainable women, she’s sort of pouring herself into them without any — she’s not really even involved in those relationships because they’re asymmetrical. Her journey, and I guess she has a sort of epiphany when she hears that quote of secrets keep us sick, is that the way out of these destructive patterns is to be honest with not only the people around her, but with herself. She can’t even face herself. That’s a huge part of her pain and struggle.

Zibby: Did you go through a situation similar to this in that you had to tell your family or that you kept it secret? Tell me about the most emotional parts of your life telling about your sexuality to your family. Go ahead.

Zaina: To be honest, of course it’s been a journey. My own journey of coming out followed a different trajectory than this character’s journey, and even so, with her family as well. There’s homophobia around us everywhere. What is interesting to me and what I relate to is the way that homophobia can be internalized. It can lead to such negative, painful repercussions for a person. I understand that experience. The way that it manifests in her life is different than the way that it’s manifested in mine. The way that her family responds is different than the way that my family responded. However, it’s not been easy for either us.

Zibby: I’m sorry to hear that. I’m also sorry to pry.

Zaina: No, it’s okay. Of course, I would never write a character who was — it makes sense that I would share some of her experiences.

Zibby: How did you feel once you got all of this down on the page? Is this a topic that you had tried to write a lot about? I know you’ve been a journalist for a while. You have an MFA and all the rest. Is this something you kept going back to to try to crack? How did it feel to get this version of it on the page?

Zaina: I think fiction was a perfect vehicle for this kind of story for a number of reasons. One, I wanted to be subversive when it came to creating characters that were Arab, and specifically Palestinian and Muslim, and to challenge stereotypical depictions of Arabs and Muslims. Similarly, I wanted to challenge stereotypical depictions of queer people as well and to really just three-dimensionalize, which I felt I had more room to do in fiction. Getting the story on the — it was very hard to write the story and to communicate the precise nature of her struggle because of the fact that so much of it was coming from within. In many ways, she was up against herself more than anyone else. Trying to really capture the psychological dynamics, I just remember the moments of epiphany when I would realize, ah, yes, this is exactly where her shame lies. This is exactly why her shame exists as it does. This is exactly why she’s destroying this potential for a healthy relationship. Understanding that was, at once, revelatory and really a breakthrough and also really hard to depict in writing or hard to depict in a way that was artful. It was in part exhilarating and difficult.

Zibby: How long did the whole book take to write? Where did you write it? Did you outline? I know you had talked about these concentric circles, essentially, but did you outline any of it? At what point did you see the whole thing coming together?

Zaina: The book took six years to write. I wrote a lot of it while I was in Iowa in my MFA program. The process of writing it, because the book involves so many flashbacks and memories that are placed within the present-day scenes as a way to suggest how one’s present reality is impacted by one’s past and collective cultural trauma as well as personal trauma, because the book has that structure, it was really hard to put that all together. I spent a lot of time — I was actually just looking through my photo album on my phone. I found all these pictures of pages that I would — I taped all the pages of the book to the wall and would move them around and figure out what should go where and what memories spoke to which scenes and how to transition into them without being heavy-handed. That was a huge part of the process, was figuring out the structure of the book, for sure. The circles, each circle had a sort of question attached. I would often find the question and then just write it on a notecard and tape it above my desk and hope that it would trickle into the story and close my eyes and allow it to infuse my brain and just marinate in my head. It’s weird, all these weird tactics. It wasn’t a straight-through process. Although, there were big chunks that I wrote in one or two months at a time. It took a while to write this book because there were just so many parts that I wanted to fit together.

Zibby: What about the journey to getting it published?

Zaina: That journey was also interesting. What was the journey? That was a journey. I was thinking about this yesterday. There is an expectation when you’re writing a book and the character is, let’s say, Arab or the character is Muslim or the character is queer. If readers, editors, or agents, they don’t feel that that expectation is being met, they’re uncomfortable with that or they want more. For example, I would hear a lot of feedback from agents saying things like they wanted more spices from the marketplace, things that were particularly emblematic of Middle East. I was not trying to do that because I wanted the Palestinian-ness of the character to be just woven into her and to the story and to not have it be this — I was trying to challenge these traditional images anyway. Similarly with creating a queer character, there was a host of expectations and limits as to what kind of queer characters you can write. This queer character defies a lot of those expectations and transcends a lot of those limitations. When I found the agent that read the book as a story, just a human story with a series of love stories and one primary love story, that was the right agent. She wasn’t reading it in the context of just reducing it to those identity markers and what the expectations around them were. That was so important to me. I felt like she saw the book the way I wanted her to or I would hope that a reader would. It was the same with my editor. That was my criteria, what I hoped for. Finding that was part of the process and in the end was that much more rewarding because both my agent and editor saw the story first. That was what I really had hoped for.

Zibby: It just goes to show that having the right agent and editor makes all the difference because then you end up with a book as good and authentic and honest and open and believable as yours. That’s why it seemed so much like memoir. The characters were so real. It felt like you were living somebody else’s experience. It’s like watching a play. The background, the setting, it’s just the setting. It’s not about the curtains and all the rest. That’s just where the drama takes places.

Zaina: Right, precisely. That’s exactly what I wanted, and to have those elements be a part of the story but not driving the story. I wanted her to be human rather than being othered, which is what happens with members of marginalized communities when they’re depicted as characters in literature. They’re often othered in some way. I just didn’t want that to happen.

Zibby: We can buy a bunch of cookbooks with all the spices if we want to experience those markets.

Zaina: I’m going to staple a spice pack to the front of every book. I’m just kidding.

Zibby: I love it. That’s perfect. How do you feel with all of this hard work and these years of time and attention poured into this manuscript that it’s out in the world? The night before it came out, were you worried? I know this is a weird time. I know we talked about this at the beginning a little. Just the feeling of having to let it go and having to let it set sail on its own out there, how do you feel about that?

Zaina: I keep using the word exhilarating. It was at once terrifying and exhilarating. As you said, this book was here for a long, long time. Then it would gradually be here, like with my agent, then editor, then ARC. Really letting it go off to college, I was nervous. I was scared. I felt emotional. I was excited to see. What’s happened since then has just exceeded my imagination in terms of what to — I’ve never published a book before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Having people reach out and say that the book meant something to them and specifically telling you the ways that it did was everything I could’ve hoped for. That’s the best part. I think the beautiful part about books as a writer is that process of writing the book. This period now when it’s in the world is also beautiful and a beautiful payoff. At the same time, I feel as though my connection to the book hasn’t broken. I was afraid by sending it off, that’s what I’m trying to get at, that by sending it off I would just sort of lose something that was so close to my heart. Now I feel like by sharing it and by connecting with readers it’s become that much more close in a different way. I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s .

Zibby: You know those paddles you used as a kid where the ball was connected by a string?

Zaina: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: You would hit the ball. I feel like you just hit the ball out, and now it’s coming back to you because you’re bringing with it all these —

Zaina: — That’s the perfect metaphor. Right, that’s exactly what it is.

Zibby: It’s all coming back. So have you been writing since this book has been shipped and sealed? Have you worked on something else? Did you work in quarantine on another project? Or have you been like, that’s enough for now?

Zaina: No, there’s never enough. You think it’s going to be enough, but it’s never enough for some reason. I’ve been writing essays. I’ve been writing another novel, which is very different than this novel and centered — it’s very different. I’ve been writing a collection of essays as well that also similarly, the characters in the essays bear a lot of the same identity markers as this protagonist, but it’s not about — the essays have queerness as an overarching theme, but they’re human stories. That’s been my goal. I find I keep returning to love for some reason. I do write a lot of essays that explore love in different contexts. That’s been really fun and very different than writing a novel, of course. I do work on that second novel a little bit every day as well. I’m afraid of losing momentum. I think that’s one of my biggest fears is losing momentum. I always insist on going full speed ahead.

Zibby: Good for you. Might as well. I’ve heard advice that just even opening the manuscript every day can help even if you don’t work on it. You have to keep getting back in there.

Zaina: Sometimes you just stare it, honestly. That’s part of the process. You have to be easy on yourself. Also, we’re going through some really challenging times. There’s so much happening in the world. You can’t block all of that out, and you don’t want to. Sometimes you’re just focusing on all of that instead, and that’s okay.

Zibby: I do feel sometimes the more the world feels unstable in and of itself with everything changing from where you’re allowed to go from one day to the next and different rules and different — it’s just insane. Clinging to love like you’re doing in your essays is sort of the most fundamental place you could possibly write from right now because that’s really what binds us as humans that makes us different from everyone, that feeling of connection. When we can’t be with people — it’s so central to everything. You said, I don’t know why I did it, but it’s great that you’re writing about love.

Zaina: I think it’s true. In these last few months, if anything has come forward, it’s love, truly. The way that people reconnect, the way that I watch people outside interacting with each other, the generosity, comradery, the community, if anything, that’s been one of the most beautiful aspects of all that’s been happening. Why not think about love?

Zibby: Why not think about love? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Zaina: Yes, I do. I teach writing, actually. I’ve been teaching writing for nine years. I have lots of advice, but I’ll limit it. First of all, read, obviously. Reading is the best instruction for writing. I’ve found it to be so. Two things. One is to exercise that muscle as often as you can and to make it a routine where it’s like every morning even if you only have fifteen minutes to try and do a few reps, or if it’s once a week, but just really stick with a routine where it becomes a part of your life. So much of writing and becoming an author is writing. That’s really the only training there is for it besides reading, or the best training that there is for it. Another thing that’s really useful is to find community as a writer and to find places that help forge a sense of community around books and literature like the Center for Fiction or to find a writing group or to find a reading group. Because writing, it can be a lonely process with many hurdles, having support from others is just so important. I think persistence is sixty — I don’t want to put a percentage number on how much a percent it is of the process, but persisting is a huge part of writing. Having community helps with persisting.

Zibby: Very true. I knew you taught writing. I didn’t even know that The New York Times had a writing school or whatever until I saw that you taught there. I was like, how great is that?

Zaina: I do indeed. Yeah, I know. A lot of people don’t know that they have a school because it’s a relatively new thing. It’s fun.

Zibby: Excellent. That was it.

Zaina: Thank you so much, really.

Zibby: Thank you so much. That was fun.

Zaina: That was so fun, and for everything. It’s been lovely. Melanie, thank you for hosting this. Thank you to the Center for Fiction.