“Much of this novel is about queer and trans people fighting to see ourselves as sacred”: An Interview with Zeyn Joukhadar

side by side series of the cover of Thirty Names of Night

Zeyn Joukhadar’s debut, The Map of Salt and Stars, tells the story of two girls living several lifetimes apart, one a Syrian refugee and the other an apprentice to a legendary mapmaker in medieval times. Published in 2018, this lyrical novel is currently being translated into twenty languages after winning the Middle East Book Award for Youth Literature. The Thirty Names of Night, Joukhadar’s second novel, out today, also includes Syrian characters and narratives split across time, and it continues The Map of Salt and Stars’s lyrical delivery while also surrounding it with a sensory barrage, fabulist elements, and the literal and symbolic use of birds in all varieties and manners.

Five years after his mother’s death, Nadir is still grieving. While looking after his grandmother Teta, the ghost of his mother often joins them at the table for tea. As Nadir struggles through this period of mourning, he explores the soon to be demolished Syrian community buildings nestled in New York, where he finds an artist’s notebook hidden in the wall of a condemned flat. At that moment, the mystery of Laila Z. begins. A prominent artist who disappeared from the public eye long ago, Laila Z. somehow shares a past with Nadir’s mother, connected by immigration, art, and an obsession with cataloging the birds of the city in notes and illustrative renderings. One bird in particular, Geronticus simurghus, becomes the crux of the mystery for Nadir, as it has been sighted and recorded only a handful of times, including once by his mother and another time by Laila Z. During the search for what seems almost to be a mythical bird, and for an explanation as to how exactly this disappeared artist and his mother are linked, Nadir also begins searching for his transgender identity—a separate and daunting migration all his own.

The landscape created for these searches is detailed and engrossing, and Joukhadar achieves this by coating his fictional spaces in the sensory. Olfactory, auditory, and visual layers give us a distinct picture of this Syrian Quarter buried in the boroughs of New York. The voices of the people who populate it are clear and resonant. We can smell the food simmering, the tea boiling. The architecture carries us through the city, and the artwork too, both fictional and real, is described in such a way that we can fully assemble it in our minds. These sensory layers, surrounding each scene of the novel, bring the characters and the community to us, painting the culture of Joukhadar’s cast so thoroughly that even if we don’t intimately know this Syrian community, we come to feel a part of it.

Joukhadar makes great use of fabulist elements to render a unique landscape for the mysteries of the novel; the appearance of the birds who populate The Thirty Names of Night, for example, mark pivotal moments: “Tonight, five years to the day since I lost you, forty-eight white-throated sparrows fall from the sky,” he writes. “Tomorrow, the papers will count and photograph them, arrange them on black garbage bags and speculate on the causes of the blight. But for now, here on the roof of Teta’s apartment building, the sheen of evening rain on the tar paper slicks the soles of my sneakers, and velvet arrows drop one by one from the autumn migration sweeping over Boerum Hill.” They appear, too, just after Nadir has buzzed his hair for the first time, reflecting a transition to having less stereotypically feminine features: “There is a thud on the glass, and something wet splashes my cheek. I gasp and jump; Aisha lets out a muffled scream. A swallow has run into the window, leaving a smear of feathers and blood.” The arrival and departure of birds become an indicator of change or transformation.

The birds, however, serve an additional symbolic purpose beyond marking these pivotal moments in characters’ lives. They evoke connections to flight and escape, to a community forever pushed to move—they are an embodiment of migration: “The elders in my family have always said the birds went before us, long before the first of our families set off across the sea.” This symbolism is ripe in Nadir’s story as well, like when he is still experiencing his period—“The ruby-throated hummingbirds appear with the morning light as though they’re a part of my bleeding”—or later, when the idea of a bodily border is invoked: “I bend forward, a force of habit, and hope my loose tee hides the fact that I’m using the shapewear she gave me to flatten my chest, rather than smooth the belly and hips Teta thinks I’m self-conscious of. I take a breath, and the cloth pulls across my ribs. This, too, is a border I am transgressing.” In this beautiful novel, language is a border, gender is a border, and the migration of its characters is tremendous to behold. The Thirty Names of Night is steeped in Syrian culture, the communities of oppressed people, and the vast ways in which human beings attempt to transform, the world indeed “a series of infinite migrations.”

J.A. Tyler: Where did the book begin for you? What was the seed of its inception, the kernel of its beginnings?

Zeyn Joukhadar: When I first started drafting the novel, the story revolved around a young queer Arab American person in New York City finding his chosen family, but it wasn’t until I started work on the second draft that the novel really started to take shape. Right around that time, I visited an exhibit on the Little Syria neighborhood in New York City put on by the Arab American National Museum at the NYC Department of Records & Information Services. I was living in rural Pennsylvania then, and struggling with being unable to come out, and I craved access to my history in a similar way that the characters of Thirty Names doI think one of the most damaging consequences of the idea of U.S. sexual exceptionalism is this idea of assimilation into whiteness and the performance of white-adjacent Americanness as requirements of queerness, or at least of outness; this is one of the driving forces behind the narrative that the existence of queer and trans people of color is ahistorical, or contradictory, or inherently unsustainable because we exist beyond the bounds of whiteness. So as I explored the history of Arabs living here, on stolen and occupied Indigenous land, and being pressured to assimilate into or toward whiteness in order to survive, I also began to interrogate the forces that have written queer and trans people out of that history, and which narratives were served by doing so. I wanted to know how we got here, in what ways we resisted, and in what ways we were (and are) complicit, and what we can learn from our presence in the historical archive about our lives today.

JAT: How deep did this research go for you? How much time did you spend with it before (or during) the completion of the novel?

ZJ: My research spanned more than two years; I continued the research process during early drafts of the book. Most of this research was historical. I wanted to better understand Syrian history, the history of Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) immigration to the United States, the laws that sought to limit or stop that immigration, and how Arab immigrants were treated in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, from New York to Detroit. It was important to me to understand the events that gave rise to the attitudes toward race and assimilation that are held by Arab Americans today. I wanted to know how previous generations of Arab immigrants experienced the pressure to assimilate, how they perceived American anti-Blackness, and the oppression they experienced that would eventually lead Christian Arabs to argue for their inclusion within whiteness to gain access to additional rights—which, of course, was complicated and often impossible for later waves of Black, brown, and/or Muslim Arabs and other SWANA immigrants. I did a lot of archival research, and I found oral histories particularly important—much of this research was done during my artist residency at the Arab American National Museum in 2019.

JAT: In a recent interview with Goodreads, you said that though this novel bears some semblance of connection with your own life, it is not autobiographical. You go on to say, “I’m not sure I could ever write an autobiographical novel. I find the whole idea very terrifying.” What is terrifying to you about the prospect of an autobiographical novel?

ZJ: “Terrifying” might be hyperbolic, and of course there are many great autobiographical novels out there. But it is also true that there is often an assumption that everything marginalized people write must automatically be autobiography. This assumption itself bothers me not only because it insults our craft, but also because we don’t lack imagination—quite the opposite. Our ancestors and elders had to imagine a world in which they not only survived the forces that sought to kill them every day, but also one in which they could live pleasure and adventure and joy and a peaceful old age. Those who came before us have fought—and we continue to fight—to make those once-speculative futures a reality.

Beneath this, of course, there lies the thing that makes this dreaming so imperative to our survival, and that is the horror of the traumas we continue to face and the constant pressure for us to display them for the consumption of the dominant culture. I do believe it’s important and can be liberating for oppressed people to talk about our pain, and I do write about grief and trauma in my work, both fiction and nonfiction. I’m sure that I will continue to do this. But personally, I also feel that as a trans person of color living in a world so often voyeuristic of my pain and that of my loved ones, to claim my right to privacy and to write toward collective joy can be a revolutionary act. Which is to say that it isn’t so much the prospect of writing an autobiographical novel that disquiets me, but the fraught expectations that often come, for someone like me, with the undertaking of such a project.

JAT: The Thirty Names of Night opens with 48 dead white-throated sparrows, a ghostly mother, and the discovery of a mysterious artifact, and the book is continually suffused with this tandem of the supernatural and the real. Would you consider this approach magical realism, or something else? And has this type of perspective always been a draw for you?

ZJ: I don’t really use the term magical realism for my work, largely because magical realism was pioneered by Latinx writers pushing back against Western realism and colonialism and I’m writing outside of that specific tradition. I typically characterize my fiction as employing fabulist elements and drawing on SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) mythologies, narrative traditions, and symbolisms. This has always been central to my work, including my debut, The Map of Salt and Stars, and before that in many of my short stories (“The Peaceable Night” and “We Will Tell Our Children” are two examples)Part of this, I think, is that I am interested not only in what “happens” in a story, but in how the characters make sense of what has happened. Human beings constantly filter our lives through the lenses of symbols that we’ve learned through stories passed down in our families, our cultures, and our faiths. This is how we make what happens to us mean something, and conveying that deeper truth sometimes requires going beyond the literal and making whatever lies behind it visible on the page. What is also interesting to me, though, is the way that readers will sometimes call something in my work “magical” when I’m actually being quite realistic. In many non-Western cultures, certain things that might be considered “supernatural” elsewhere are not considered supernatural at all, but an accepted part of life. So when I tell you in Thirty Names that Nadir speaks to his mother’s ghost, I don’t view that as magic or fabulism. His mother’s ghost is a reality. 

JAT: Among those realities of the novel are steep and enchanting uses of sensory elements—the preparation of meals and other scents and tastes are particularly enticing. How do you go about crafting such detailed and invigorating sensory levels?  

ZJ: For me, the inclusion of sensory detail was the bridge between Nadir, a narrator who is well aware of the presence of the liminal and the phantom, and the world that he is still finding a way to inhabit. The fact that the ghostly also acts on a sensory level in the physical world—that ghosts have scents and weight and graying roots—serves to remind the reader of the overlap between these two modes of seeing. It’s a way of saying that the otherwordly is also part of the world, and that not everything that is real happens on the plane of the body, the physical, or even the chronological. One of the novel’s assertions is that both historical and contemporary time are unfolding simultaneously, in a sense: history is always iterating itself on the present. This is echoed in the double direct address of the novel’s form. Laila’s diary was written half a century before Nadir’s narration, but Nadir and the reader experience them simultaneously; Laila writes about someone she loved years ago, B., but B. is very much present for her across those many decades. “I’ve been plagued lately by the strange feeling that the past is not so far away,” Laila writes about halfway through the book, “that things that happened a long time ago are, in some corner of my mind, still happening. Or maybe it’s only you happening to me, over and over again.”

Nadir and Laila are talking to their individual beloveds and their lost, yes, but in some ways I think you can read the novel as Nadir and Laila, in their search for others like themselves as well as in their search for a history and a future, longing for each other. We very much need to know how we got here, that others came before us, that others are coming after us.

JAT: Birds are symbolic throughout, but also literal, and they heavily blanket the landscape of the story in both poetic and scientific detail. How much research did you need to complete on behalf of the birds to feel confident in their full inclusion in the novel?   

ZJ: In terms of Geronticus simurghus, I needed to know just enough to be able to create something that could fit into the framework of the real world without actually existing. I knew I didn’t want the bird to be real, but I wanted it to feel real, to feel as though it could exist, undiscovered. So I had to do a fair amount of ornithological research to understand how I might introduce Nadir’s rare bird, and what form it might take. Eventually, I understood that I wanted the rare bird to be a kind of ibis because of the relationship between the ibis and the sacred in many SWANA cultures. Much of this novel is about queer and trans people fighting to see ourselves as sacred; each of the characters is, in some way, searching for the divine in themselves and in their lives. This is also why the title and much of the book’s symbolism invokes Farid ud-Din Attar’s Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds, which is ultimately about the search for God and the mirroring of the divine within the self. So the birds function on many different levels, symbolizing both the wounded land and its memory—the search to grieve and restore what has been lost—as well as the sacredness of transness, and the grief of having been denied access to the truth of one’s sacredness by a world that refuses to acknowledge it.

JAT: How did you go about the blending of real-life artists and works, like Roman Opałka’s 1965 / 1 – ∞, with the fictional artists and works of the novel?

ZJ: The art in the book, both real and fictional, serves as a portal to escape the limits of language, to escape meanings ascribed to certain kinds of bodies, and to escape time itself. Nadir wrestles with art as a means of accessing the unarticulated and the wordless in order to understand the aspects of his experience that language erases. This approach was important to me in trying to capture on the page what it feels like to be trans, beyond the ciscentric (and infuriatingly oversimplified) idea of transness as a visible and clearly defined transition from one binary gender to another. Nadir, like me, is not interested in what transness “means” to cis people, but in the felt reality that transcends visible, measurable, and medicalized markers of transness and arrives at the nature of existing in a human body in time. I think that to be trans means to be conscious of the limitlessness of one’s humanity. Maybe part of what transition offers is an awareness of the confines of language and of time as an arbitrary construct, as well as a sense of the self as holding multiple realities across time without being torn apart by them, and this is what makes it possible to transcend those confines. This striving for transcendence is what ties all of the art in the novel, whether real or fictional, together.

JAT: Both literal and figurative migrations play a large role in the novel. Which of the character’s migrations holds the most weight for you? 

ZJ: The migrations in the novel can’t exist without each other; they can really only be understood as being in context with one other. This is what gave rise to the novel’s dual narrative structure. What the reader ends up taking from that, I hope, is that migrations are not journeys with endpoints; they very much remain underway, potentially forever. Laila’s relationship to B. continues to evolve long after she has arrived in New York, and her understanding of her own positionality changes drastically over the course of time; in the same way, Nadir’s relationship to his mother, despite her death, continues to grow and evolve. (I do think that many of us have ongoing, non-static relationships with our dead.) Ultimately, the novel is filled with what one might call unfinished migrations. Laila arrives in New York but continuously relives her adolescence in Syria; Nadir’s mother dies but continues to live; Nadir comes to terms with the fact that he, as a nonbinary person, exists outside of any framework that would render him “readable” to the cis people around him. Part of Nadir’s journey is the acceptance that he is making a migration beyond the confines of language, and that he may never re-enter its borders again—that he, in fact, may never desire to re-enter them.

This piece was originally published on November 24, 2020.

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