The Rumpus Book Club chats with Randa Jarrar about her new memoir, Love Is an Ex-Country (Catapult, February 2021), writing the “anti-road trip road trip memoir,” the power that comes with speaking the unspeakable, and more—and, Randa shares photos from her time on the road!
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Morowa Yejidé, Melissa Febos, Lilly Dancyger, Mariana Oliver, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Randa Jarrar about her new memoir, Love Is an Ex-Country! I am so excited to discuss this book.
Randa Jarrar: Hi, all! Looking forward to this chat.
Marisa: Thanks for joining us, Randa!
Etta Madden: Hi! I got wrapped up in the book in a way I didn’t expect after the first few essays…
Emily Unwin: So excited!
Katie: Hi Randa, and all!
Marisa: Randa, I thought maybe you could start us off by talking a little about the book’s title (which is beautiful). When did you know this would be the title, and how did you land on it?
Randa Jarrar: For a long time i called the book “X Cuntry,” haha. I knew I wanted it to be about my past, thus the “ex.” Plus, the cross in crossing the country is another “ex.” I like ”x” as a non-binary femme, too. The alternate title was “What Love Is,“ so i felt that the current title connected both of these.
I’d love to share some photos from that time in this chat, in case there’s interest.
Marisa: Oh, yes! That would be awesome.
Katie: Much interest.
Randa Jarrar: These are pics from the WA state segment:
Marisa: I love the ferry photograph!
Marisa: Randa, how did you decide to structure Love Is an Ex-Country? Did it always have the form we see in the finished book? Do you think of this as a memoir-in-essays, or conceive of its form otherwise? I’m super curious about the form in “Cities vs. Women: A Body’s Scorecard,” too.
Randa Jarrar: The structure is meant to mimic memory, and my own body.
Etta Madden: Can you say more?
Randa Jarrar: I wanted the book to be nonlinear, and to work the way memory works: sometimes you’re having a lovely day and then a traumatic thought or trigger intrudes. I wanted to include all of that. My editor was really great at picking up on that and encouraged me to be even more nonlinear, albeit cohesive.
I wanted this to be an anti-road trip road trip memoir, to show how for many folks like me, a straight fun road trip is just not possible.
Etta Madden: Yes. That’s exactly how the “road trip memoir” surprised me!
Emily Unwin: I was going to ask a similar question on how you decided to structure which essays where—I’d also love to know more about your process!
Marisa: It’s remarkable how well you achieved that nonlinear flow but also how each piece also stands alone as a fully functional essay.
Randa Jarrar: The essays were always going to be chapters, with the unifying themes being me and my body, domestic violence, being Muslim, being queer, and sexuality.
But thank you! I really admire stand-alone chapters.
Marisa: I almost felt like I was reading poetry, if that makes any sense? But with a clear narrative. It was exhilarating, to see all the ways linear, traditionally narrative storytelling was kind of pushed out of its comfort zone (and into yours!).
I read poetry almost exclusively these days.
Marisa: SAME. For the last year, Rumpus Book Club aside, I’ve read almost entirely poetry.
Do you worry much about genre when you’re writing? You’ve published a novel (A Map of Home, 2008) and a story collection (Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, 2016) prior to publishing Love Is an Ex-Country. Do you know at a project’s start what genre you’re writing into, or does the writing lead you where it needs to go?
Randa Jarrar: I usually start with fiction. But with this book, I knew I wanted to challenge myself to create a book-length piece of nonfiction. So many times, people have read autobiography into my fiction, too. This book was also meant to be a reply to that.
I’m writing screenplays now—they’re stories I couldn’t do as literary fiction.
Marisa: Oh, I am very excited for the screenplays you will write.
Emily Unwin: I’m so intrigued! Why do these stories lean themselves towards screenplays instead of fiction?
Randa Jarrar: Screenplays are easier to write than novels. Ha!
I have become more and more interested in performance. And so, screenplays became a natural next step for me.
Marisa: I heard you read from this book, I’m pretty sure, at Tin House Summer Workshop in 2018 (you were faculty and I was a student that summer). How long did it take to get this book down on the page, and then see it through to publication?
Randa Jarrar: It took seven or eight years, give or take. Some chapters came faster than others. The trauma took me the longest to write about.
Michelle Awad: Thank you for this book, Randa. As a queer Egyptian, I’ve never felt as seen as I did reading A Map of Home or Love Is an Ex-Country.
Randa Jarrar: Thank you Michelle! It’s for you.
Michelle Awad: What was your favorite part about writing this book?
Randa Jarrar: My favorite part was probably the healing and empowerment I felt setting these stories down. It was so powerful. To speak what I’d been told was unspeakable. And, to travel to where I thought was closed off to me, both physically and spiritually.
Michelle Awad: That’s beautiful.
Katie: Why did you choose to use only initials and was there any significance to revealing Raed’s name only once at the end?
Randa Jarrar: I wanted to protect people’s privacy. And for Raed, I wanted him to have a shoutout, as someone who has his own story alongside mine. He endured so much during our upbringing.
Marisa: Did you speak with, or share sections of the manuscript with, those people who were going to appear in the book? Did your parents read the book in manuscript form, or have they now that it’s published? How do you approach that personal aspect of memoir writing?
Randa Jarrar: I asked many lovers if I could share their stories. Some asked me to before I could even ask them! Ha. For others, like the Egyptian American woman who was dealing with her family’s abuse, I told her I’d added it to my memoir and asked her if it was okay. She said yes, and that I’d helped save her. Which, I had no idea…
For my parents, I asked them not to read the book at all. It’s a firm boundary for me.
Marisa: I love a firm boundary.
Randa Jarrar: I did not ask permission from abusers. Obviously, because they never asked me for it.
Marisa: YES. So much yes to that.
Randa Jarrar: I’ve changed a lot of their characteristics to protect them anyway, and myself.
Marisa: Does your son read your work? (My kid is six now, and I think a lot about when he might read my work that touches on trauma, specifically childhood abuse.)
Randa Jarrar: My son does not. He’s an adult, but I think my work is the farthest thing from his mind! He’s been to many of my readings, since he was a small child, and he knows about my history. We are a very open and communicative family.
My brother is reading the book, though.
Here are the Utah tubs:
And the ticket I received from Officer Teal:
Marisa: Did traveling to these places and taking this road trip change anything for you about how you see this complicated, often downright horrifying country, and/or yourself within it?
Randa Jarrar: Yes. Every place I visit in the book changed me, which is why they made it in. I am also a human who is very attuned to my surroundings and enjoy observing everything. So, leaving my house often affects me!
I would say as a highly visible fat femme whose ethnicity is often made invisible, it was interesting to see how I am seen and how different that is to who I am.
It was also very moving to see the ways people in this country fight, survive, and celebrate each other. Often through horrifying conditions.
This is my parents’ first apartment in Chicago:
And New Mexico!
Michelle Awad: Was it stressful having your dog with you the whole time? Or, overall comforting?
Randa Jarrar: It was overall comforting. She’s a special needs dog and there were moments when i worried about her but she’s my greatest love!
Travels with Charley is such a fun book, Steinbeck crossing the country with his dog. I quoted a line from it in A Map of Home, my first book. This memoir is kinda the fat femme Muslim version, with a cute blind dog as the companion.
Marisa: What were you reading, listening to, watching while writing Love Is an Ex-Country?
Randa Jarrar: I was listening to so much! I love live music, and got to see so many incredible women perform the years I was writing this book—Megan Thee Stallion and Kelsey Lu being high points.
Marisa: I miss live music SO MUCH. Like, the mention of it makes me weepy.
Randa Jarrar: I miss it, too!
My playlist from the road trip itself was pretty eclectic: Fairuz, Tegan and Sara, Kacey Musgraves, Nicki Minaj, old soul and R&B, lots of cheesy 1980s stuff.
And, I was watching everything. I’m a TV junkie now after spending the first thirty years of my life watching nothing.
Marisa: What’s been your favorite pandemic show to binge-watch?
Randa Jarrar: Ooooh! The Queen’s Gambit, I May Destroy You, Bridgerton, Ramy, Raised by Wolves, and Lovecraft Country!
Marisa: What are you reading now? Any new and forthcoming books you want to shout out and are especially excited for?
Marisa: We are just about at the end of our hour.
Randa Jarrar: Thank you all for being here!
Marisa: Randa, thank you for your time this afternoon and for THIS BOOK. I truly love it, and will absolutely be gifting it to many people.
Randa Jarrar: Thanks so much, Marisa!
Marisa: And thanks, too, to all the members who joined us and for your thoughtful questions! I hope everyone has a restful evening.
Photograph of Randa Jarrar by Wajiha Ibrahim. Additional photos courtesy of Randa Jarrar.