Pursuing the Unattainable: A Conversation with Zaina Arafat

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The early buzz for You Exist Too Much, Zaina Arafat’s debut novel, was so great that I knew I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. You Exist Too Much was blurbed in most anticipated book previews everywhere from The Millions, to Reading Women, to BuzzFeed, and described as a book about love addiction, queerness, mental health, coming out, and being caught between identities. It’s forthcoming from Catapult on June 9.

Zaina Arafat is a Palestinian American journalist and fiction writer, who writes works about the Middle East and Arab communities in the diaspora. Later on in this interview, she says to me, “Being a part of a diaspora can often feel like being a part of nothing. You are neither this nor that,” which sums up the alienation and internalized shame portrayed in her novel so well.

You Exist Too Much follows a bisexual, Palestinian American woman as she struggles to come out to her very traditional mother and seeks unattainable love in all forms. The narrator ends up in a mental health treatment facility for love addiction, but she struggles to overcome past traumas and heal her relationship with, well, relationships.

Arafat wrote this novel while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her narrator ends up in Iowa as well. As an Iowan myself, I had to know about her experience there. Many thanks to Arafat for sharing insight into her writing process, day jobs, the questions she grappled with while writing You Exist Too Much, and more.

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The Rumpus: What was the writing process for developing and crafting You Exist Too Much?

Zaina Arafat: The writing process began with a question for me. It was something along the lines of: why is it that what’s off in the distance and unattainable is so much more appealing than what’s directly at hand? Thinking about that question, I started by locating the idea in love. Why is a person whose love is unattainable more appealing than the love you do have? I did a lot of reflection on this question and started writing my way through it.

Then I started to think of the question in terms of being Palestinian, and in terms of culture, and identity. As a Palestinian you exist in a space of constant longing for statehood and self-determination. And your desire for a state to call your own is unattainable.

These things started to speak to one another. Through that investigation, I jumped back and forth between macro and micro. I started to question, what kind of person pursues things that are unattainable? and that brought me to think about the inner life of my narrator and her family situation. I began to understand how her experiences could create this desire in her.

Rumpus: You mentioned “writing your way through it”—what do you mean by that?

Arafat: “Writing my way through it” meant following my character in the day-to-day of her experiences in the treatment center, and understanding what was revealed to her, and about her, by the other characters in the treatment center. Those daily interactions spoke to elements of her past. An interaction would trigger a memory, and then I would write that memory alongside the present-day scene. This revealed how much a person’s past can affect their present. I allowed those moments to exist alongside each other.

When I say “writing my way through it,” I mean I discovered a lot as a writer while writing. I didn’t know what the narrator was going to discover until it was revealed to her. I could only discover that by writing the scenes and reflecting on them off the page.

A lot of my process was actually running and reflecting. While running, all my ideas that have come to me throughout the day writing get an opportunity to ruminate together in my mind.

Rumpus: I love that you mentioned running—very Murakami! Has running always been part of your process?

Arafat: Yeah, actually it has! I write so much while I’m running. The mind is so much looser in some way. And I think a lot of writing is surrendering control and allowing characters to take over. Allowing stories to take over. That happens to me when I run.

Rumpus: So, let’s start at the beginning. This book opens in Bethlehem, when our main character and narrator is a twelve-year-old girl. She is being scolded by a group of men for exposing her legs in a biblical city. Why did you begin the story there?

Arafat: I began the story there because to me it seemed like one of the initial moments of shaming that the narrator experiences. So much of the book is about internalized shame, and shame that is projected onto you. This shame can be about culture, gender, sexuality, alienation, anything. The shame the narrator experiences in this opening scene comes not just from the men, but also from the narrator’s mother.

I chose this moment as the initial shaming moment, and because it captured so much about what the book would explore from religion to culture to sexuality. It also represents how the little moments of a character’s past and childhood can resonate so deeply throughout their life without even realizing it.

Rumpus: A lot of your work, including this book, is about the Arab diaspora. Can you tell us about that positioning?

Arafat: Much of the book is set outside the Middle East. Being in a diaspora is its own sense of alienation. It causes a sense of detachment. It’s also another thing the narrator can’t attain. She can’t attain Arab culture, or her homeland. She lives outside her homeland, but it’s still very present in her life. She still visits and has to know how to navigate that world. Her mother is still very emblematic of the Middle East. And yet, she lives in a totally different country and culture, which she also feels outside.

Being a part of a diaspora can often feel like being a part of nothing. You are neither this nor that. It would be one thing to be Arab and living in the Middle East, or to be American and live in the United States, but to be both can be painful because you always feel called to the other.

Rumpus: Is there background knowledge about that experience, or crucial history you wish more readers knew going into works about the Middle East and these diasporic feelings? A book you would recommend everyone read?

Arafat: One of the most interesting and essential books on the notation of Arab diaspora is Orientalism by Edward Said, because it speaks to the gaze that is put upon the Middle East and the way Arabs internalize that. The idea of there being a gaze projected onto an entire population is crucial to understanding this writing. And in the book we even have the narrator projecting her own gaze onto a whole host of other women. So that idea of how we project a gaze upon populations and people is essential.

Rumpus: What questions have early readers asked you about the book?

Arafat: First, I get asked whether or not this is a coming out story. And to me it is. The reason there is ambiguity around that is because the narrator is in a relationship with a woman at the beginning of the book, but it’s a secret relationship. And so much about the book is about the process of coming out, and the experience of being closeted. So much of the narrator’s personality and likability—or unlikability—is about the reality of being closeted and being consumed by the self-loathing that comes from internalized homophobia.

This leads to another question I get asked a lot, which is, “why is the narrator so painful?” And I think the answer is that this is the reality of internalized homophobia. It’s what being abused looks like. It looks like a constant inclination to sabotage yourself and project that self-loathing onto others, and thwart your ability to find love, which is the only thing the character really wants. It was meant to be an unflinching look at how these conditions can manifest in human beings.

Rumpus: Let’s dig into that. The narrator’s childhood memories are full of trauma. And of course it’s not just memories; the daughter’s relationship with her mother remains fraught throughout the novel. Can you talk about this complicated relationship and why it is so central to the story?

Arafat: This was definitely something I discovered while writing the book, that the relationship with the mother is the central relationship of the story. It’s the central unattainable love. So much of the narrator’s behavior in relationships, or her behavior in general, is shaped by her relationship with her mother and her constant search for approval. And, constantly having that approval withheld from her and being berated for who she is. All of the other relationships in the book are little satellites that orbit around this central relationship of the narrator and the mother.

Specific to this character and this mother, the mother is larger than life. She’s beautiful, and embodies all the narrator cannot possess and doesn’t embody, including her own Arab culture. In general, the relationship between mothers and daughters often does speak to a lot about your future relationships.

Rumpus: And the narrator’s anxiety about being split between identities comes out in a lot of ways. Can you talk about those breakages of identity and how they exist inside her?

Arafat: It’s definitely part of her immigrant experience. Another question I actually get asked a lot is, “is this an immigrant story?” and I think it is. One kind of immigrant experience is being a first-generation child of immigrants. It’s the initial break from your homeland. And that break trickles down into a lot of other fractures that exist inside you.

In the case of this narrator, she’s in between sexual identities and gender identities. She has these contradictions, and I didn’t want to reconcile them. I wanted that to be a theme: what it looks like to embody contradiction. Because in the twenty-first century, many people are in-between. The lines aren’t as clear when it comes to identities, and I wanted to get at that messiness, and how that messiness manifests on a psychological level.

Rumpus: As these anxieties bubble to the surface, the narrator seeks psychological treatment. She goes to a treatment center for “love addiction,” but it is not the first time she has sought treatment, and she has previously struggled with an eating disorder. Can you discuss how love and eating are intertwined in the novel?

Arafat: Both are about appetite! There’s an impulse for the character to suppress appetite. Anorexia is her specific eating disorder, and that is both a way to suppress appetite, and it’s a form of self-negation. It’s a way of diminishing the self to exist less. When it comes to love, it’s similar. She wants to lose herself within these women. There’s a line where she’s speaking about a love interest and says she “wants her life,” and that she “wants to live her life while still living her own.” So it’s about negating the self, and disappearing.

Love and eating disorders also both speak to control. An eating disorder is largely about control. When the narrator goes through her first major breakup, she develops an eating disorder as a way to harness control over something, since she has no control over the other woman’s feelings.

It’s similar with the other women she falls for throughout the book. She chooses women who are unattainable because it’s safer, and you don’t have to deal with the reality of being with them. That’s another way of struggling for control.

Rumpus: At what point did that layer find its way into the story? Was that something that came out in writing?

Arafat: It actually did come out in the writing process. There’s a part in the book where the narrator identifies appetite with shame. And when I thought about that shame, I started to see that eating and love are related by appetite. And for this person, appetite is a shameful thing, as her wants are forbidden. As an Arab Muslim girl, desiring another woman is forbidden.

Rumpus: So I’m from Iowa, and I immediately recognized where your narrator goes after the treatment center. She attends a writers workshop, much like you did in Iowa. Were you working on this book while in Iowa?

Arafat: Of course! I love Iowa with all my heart. 

Rumpus: Can you talk about the workshop, Iowa City, and writing this book?

Arafat: Having really smart people and amazing writers around to critique my writing was integral for this book. Iowa gave me the time to ruminate because I was in the MFA program. Being in an MFA program gives you time to write, and read. And I read everything. I think of this book as being idea-driven. The book actually started with philosophy, and it used to be very steeped in nineteenth-century existentialism. Now it’s just a story that’s rooted in that, but I read tons of philosophical texts and also novels while in Iowa.

Iowa also gave me headspace, too, because it was such an unfamiliar location. I didn’t know the Midwest; I had never been. I grew up in between Washington DC, Jordan, Palestine—these are places that look nothing like Iowa. Being away from everything I knew, and being in Iowa, allowed me to access a different part of my brain. And it set different expectations for me, or stripped away other daily expectations that my regular life demanded of me.

Rumpus: It’s always recognizable to me when a character ends up in Iowa! I’m reading and suddenly Prairie Lights Bookstore or George’s bar jumps out at me and I know we’re there.

Arafat: That must happen to you all the time. So many writers who go to the workshop end up setting things in Iowa. I was just reading Andrea Lawlor’s book Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl that won the Whiting Award, and it did just that. I recognized the Midwest in it.

Rumpus: Oh yeah, it happens all the time. While you were writing this book, did you have a writing “day job” that you had to balance with creating the book? This comes up in the novel, as your character is a moonlighting DJ, hates her office job, and aspires to write. How did you negotiate your other work and writing this book?

Arafat: My main day job as a writer has been teaching. I taught rhetoric at Iowa, and I’ve taught a lot of creative writing courses, too. Teaching is the best job for writers because you read and write all the time. And through the class discussion you learn so much about writing. You’re really going on the journey with students.

And the best part about teaching is it gets you out of your own head and it’s social. If you’re extroverted— which I am—it can be hard to be a writer and be alone so much. Teaching has always been the best writing day job for me. I’ve done other things, like working at art organizations, and more office-type things, and those were hard because if I’m sitting at a desk I just want to work on my writing! I much prefer teaching as a compliment to writing.

Rumpus: Was there anything that surprised you while you were working on this book?

Arafat: Two things, which are kind of the same. One was when I would have a discovery about this character and her motivations. I would see how a memory bumped up against a present scene, and how well they would speak together.

Along that line and also surprising, was how much the characters would just take over, especially the narrator. I couldn’t control them. I would leave my desk at night and return in the morning, and in the time in between I would be so excited to find what would happen next.

There were times I was writing when I would feel so frustrated with the narrator, and I wanted her to do the right thing. I felt like it was painful to watch her, and I wanted her to do something different. But I also couldn’t allow myself to exert that level of control over her. I had to allow her to be true to herself, and allow her to arrive where she needed to on her own time frame. In the end I think she did, and I have some hope for her, but along the way I was really watching as she took on her own life.

Rumpus: Is there something you feel you are constantly fighting for with your fiction? A void you’re trying to fill with your work, or something you want to bring attention to?

Arafat: I write characters that are Middle Eastern, and often living in the diaspora. Something I’m at once trying to do, and at once trying to resist doing, is to give voice to characters from Arab backgrounds. And to not only three-dimensionalize them but also to subversively thwart misperceptions and stereotypes. And that’s especially my goal with fiction. When writing nonfiction or journalism you don’t have as much room to be subversive. But with fiction, I’m trying to portray Arab characters in a different context than readers are used to seeing them. In a different way than readers are used to seeing them in the past, in the news, or even the way my narrator encounters them on television when she’s a child.

But at the same time, I need to not speak on behalf of all Arab people, or all bisexual people, or all queer people, for that matter. This character is just one person and she doesn’t represent everyone from these identities, and she shouldn’t. I think all ways of existing should be represented and that’s the job for us as writers.

So that can be a task—to represent, while also thwarting stereotypes. To give characters a voice, without pigeonholing them or making them feel like they have to be the spokesperson for all within their community. And all this without overly explaining things, either.

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Photograph of Zaina Arafat by Carleen Coulter.


Emily Stochl is a writer based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She hosts and produces Pre-Loved Podcast, a weekly interview show about vintage and second-hand fashion, and she is an advocate for sustainable living, conscious consumerism, and climate action. Find more of her work across the internet: she's on Instagram at @brumeanddaisy and Twitter at @brumeanddaisy. More from this author →