Zaina Arafat’s debut novel You Exist Too Much tells the story of a Palestinian-American woman caught in a seemingly endless cycle of addiction and self-destruction—all while navigating the intersectionality of her cultural, religious, and sexual identities. The novel’s title derives from a particularly affecting scene when the nameless protagonist tells her mother that she is queer and her mother retorts, “You exist too much.”
Published in June 2020, You Exist Too Much captures our universal desire for love and for a place to call home. Pangyrus Associate Fiction Editor Indu S. Guzman asks Zaina Arafat about the experience of writing her first novel, 19th century existentialism, the psychology of addiction, and representation in publishing.
Indu S. Guzman: I understand the inspiration for You Exist Too Much came from a question you asked yourself about longing for things that are unattainable, like love. Can you describe how you developed this idea into a novel?
Zaina Arafat: I started with the question of why is it that things that are off in the distance and unattainable are sometimes more appealing than what’s right in front of us. From there, another question I posed for myself was what kind of person would set their sights on the unattainable versus what they have. While I was investigating that question, I began to think of it through the lens of love, because I, myself, am interested in love stories. And, I thought about unattainability as unrequited love. In this case, the unattainable is the woman that the protagonist can’t have. Then the question became, why would she do that? And what is underlying her habit and pattern? Then I zoomed out from that micro level and began thinking about her background as a Palestinian American and thinking about unattainability in the context of Palestine. Palestinians are in a sort of perpetual state of longing for self-determination, statehood, also basic human rights. So, that’s how the particular plot points and the narrative grew around that larger question.
IG: What inspired your decision to leave your protagonist unnamed?
ZA: The reason that she’s unnamed is because of the title and the theme of “you should exist less.” So, the fact that she doesn’t have a name is a way to show how she tries to take up less space in the page by self-negation. That’s a struggle. She tries to erase herself through eating disorders and one-sided relationships where she’s obsessing and pouring out to these people who don’t recognize her as much. Yet, she also takes up so much space in the book, because there is so much of her soul on the pages. The unnamed aspect is precisely speaking to the theme of existence.
IG: I read that 19th century existentialism turned you to writing fiction, especially Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Does your novel’s structural arc embody 19th century existentialist philosophy?
ZA: I don’t know if the structural arc embodies the philosophy as much as the character and her choices do. Maybe it’s reflected in her trajectory of coming from a place of inauthenticity, not being true to herself or to the people around her. Because of so much internalized homophobia, she shuts down with self-loathing and shame. Coming from there to a place of living in authenticity is where existentialist ideologies manifest. With authenticity, there’s self-acceptance, self-respect, and self-love. The choices that she makes and the consequences that she faces are what existentialism is about—choice. The fact is that there is no external committee evaluating those choices, so you are the one bearing the consequences of them whether good or bad. That affects her in ways where she eventually changes her choices—sort of. She doesn’t go to a place where she’s perfect, but she makes better decisions by the end of the book.
IG: The novel is written with flashbacks, which makes sense since your topic is past trauma. Could you share any writing suggestions on how you made flashbacks effective?
ZA: I wrote all the flashback scenes each on individual pieces of paper. Then, I taped the whole book to the walls of my apartment. I spent a lot of time trying to determine where each flashback should go and how it’d speak to what came before and what came after. I didn’t have overt transitions. But I had lines just before the end of one scene that’d point to why we were in this moment. And, then when we returned to the present, why this flashback came before. So, I tried to create links between the flashbacks and the present-day text and narrative. I was trying to explore how the thoughts in your mind, even the subconscious, speak to the present. Thoughts jump back and forth. And, memory is not always fully present in the mind. It’s there like a bad feeling but we’re not sure why and we may not fully recognize it. That’s why I felt it was important to not have too many strings.
IG: Your characters are authentic, real, and complex. Is there anything from psychology that helped you portray trauma or issues of identity?
ZA: I researched addiction quite a bit such as how and why people struggle with addiction. There are underlying causes that are universal to everything such as childhood trauma. I started thinking about how much of the character’s struggles are connected to her parents. Then, I began thinking about their trauma. Then, I began thinking about collective cultural trauma. I researched how trauma is passed on and carried along with cycles of abuse. So, I studied psychology, as well as sociology. I feel that that’s essential when writing a book about addiction and trauma. I spent a lot of time reading these topics.
IG: You Exist Too Much presents many binary oppositions or contradictions, which drive conflict. For example, the protagonist is in-between two worlds. Being in-between two worlds could be: Palestinian identity vs. American identity, tradition vs. modernity, and then desiring intimate love but also wanting a distance. In today’s world, many people feel like they fall in between two worlds. Does your novel reveal a conclusion about the state of being in-between two worlds?
ZA: Great question. So much of the authenticity aspect of this book is the fact that no easy solutions exist. I’d say no. I allowed for messiness to exist where there isn’t a resolution or ways of making sense of being between Palestinian and American identities or wanting love and hiding from it and being bisexual. The being in-between brings up many contradictions such as: if you want love, why are you standing in the way of it and preventing it? The resolution comes in all of these instances by letting go of fear and shame that exist among all these contradictions. There is shame. There is fear. There is alienation. Finding community and self-acceptance is a way to subvert all the pain that comes with these in-between states. Even recognizing that it’s okay to have both within you is a way to heal wounds.
IG: The protagonist eventually chooses to confront her afflictions by checking into The Ledge, a treatment center in Iowa, where she opens up about her painful past. What does the Midwest represent in your novel?
ZA: The Midwest represents this place where the character has a chance to start over. She’s from Palestine, grew up on the East Coast and lives in New York City. The Midwest is unfamiliar; therefore, it’s exciting in a way. It’s a place where she goes to put her skills to use. It’s also a safe place where you can’t get into that much trouble or so she thinks. But as the narrator proves, that’s not always true.
IG: BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ writers often have this question in mind—will publishers or agents look beyond sellable points, and see the story for what it is? With publishing, there are always issues or concerns about representation. Did you feel pressure to conform to LGBTQIA+ or POC stereotypes or genre expectations?
ZA: Of course, there was a lot of pressure! The whole point of writing this novel was to subvert and challenge stereotypes. That’s how I arrived in fiction, or actually writing. There’s limited representation about queer people, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians. The character embodies traits, but she’s allowed to exist outside the identities (without being judged as inauthentic) and be a fully realized person that’s multidimensional with desires and longings that don’t fall into a reader’s expectations of what an Arab, Muslim, or queer person looks like. I felt a lot of pressure. There were other agents that wanted more spices in the marketplace, more women in hijabs, and even more camels! I didn’t want to do that. Yet, I didn’t want to speak for all Arabs or queer people. My protagonist is just one person who does all these things. That way I hope I can give different views than those that are flatly depicted or shown in limited ways.
IG: Recently, I heard Wayétu Moore, author of She’d Be King, say something in a book talk that caught my attention. She said, imagine an author writing a story taking place in a cul-de-sac. If it were a white author, the focus would be the story arc and character arc. If the author were a BIPOC, the emphasis would be whether the characters faced racism in the cul-de-sac. For a LGBTQIA+ author, the emphasis would be if the characters came out of the closet in the cul-de-sac.
ZA: So hilarious, but true.
IG: What kind of misconceptions do you think people have of LGBTQ Middle Eastern individuals?
ZA: The main misconception is that they don’t exist. Or if they do, they’re miserable or persecuted. Or that they can’t live comfortably. I can say that as someone queer, Arab, and Muslim, it’s definitely a struggle. It’s a struggle but to think it’s only that–well, it feels like this collective pity for you that’s suffocating, and it makes you want to get out from underneath that. Asserting that I can have a good life is important.
Zaina Arafat is a LGBTQ Palestinian-American writer based in Brooklyn. Her debut novel, You Exist Too Much, was selected as an Indie Next Pick for June, and has been praised by O Oprah Magazine, Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, NPR, LitHub and Good Morning America. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications including Granta, The New York Times, The Believer, Virginia Quarterly Review, VICE, BuzzFeed, Guernica and The Atlantic. She holds an MFA from Iowa and an MA from Columbia, and was awarded the 2018 Arab Women/Migrants from the Middle East fellowship from Jack Jones Literary Arts. She teaches writing at Long Island University and the School of the New York Times, and is currently working on an essay collection.