In Zaina Arafat’s debut novel You Exist Too Much, released on June 9, the unnamed narrator—a queer Palestinian American woman—describes romantic love as “the homeland that validated my existence.” This is a novel that draws out the ways that love can rupture and reform an existence, while also posing questions about how to love when love has been refused. Arafat’s narrator loves intensely and obsessively, but it’s always from a distance. Her love objects—a professor, the wife of an international ambassador, a counselor, straight(ish) friends, and roommates—are largely incapable of returning her feelings, if they’re even aware of a romantic veneer glossing over their connection. This conflicted and self-protective way of loving brushes up against histories of colonization and occupation, bifurcated cultural identity, internalized homophobia, and the thorny processes of recovery.
Arafat, who began writing You Exist Too Much in 2012 while she was completing a Master’s of Fine Arts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said that the novel flowed out of an investigation into the idea of unattainability. “Why it was that, for some people, things that are off in the distance or unattainable can be appealing, often more appealing than what is attainable,” she told Bitch. “That question was the guiding question that started this novel, and I took this question and located it in this character and her romantic pursuits: setting her sights on unattainable women. From there the book kind of echoed out into involving a cultural aspect, and also unattainability when it comes to being in-between cultures: being Palestinian and having this unattainable state.”
The narrator of You Exist Too Much describes that “it’s the idiosyncrasies of culture that keep me as an outsider, and leave me with a persistent and pervasive sense of otherness, of non-belonging.” She feels she cannot be truly out among her Palestinian family (especially her mother) but is also alienated within America’s racist matrices. The accretion of the narrator’s feelings of split subjectivity and non-belonging translate into habitual behavior. She seeks out completeness in romantic relationships that are doomed to fail, in which she is a secret, plugs a void, or acts as a citation in another person’s flirtation with queerness. Convinced she is undeserving of more stable relationships, she becomes intoxicated by the volatility of infatuation—a cycle that causes her only more pain.
This pattern is also shaped by the complex maternal dynamic that scaffolds the book. The narrator’s distant, beautiful, and sometimes cruel mother, Laila, informs her impossible longing for unconditional affirmation. Yet Laila’s own existence—informed by being born between the 1948 Nakba and 1967 Arab-Israeli War (the Naksa); an early marriage that burns out in the United States; unrealized personal aspirations for education; displacement and the yearning for homeland—is also one in which love and longing sorely intersect. While a strained but vital love links mother and daughter, the ways that their experiences echo one another also pulls them apart; it’s a distance exacerbated by the narrator’s queerness.
For Arafat’s unnamed protagonist, the pleasures of unrequited desire are emotional responses to feelings of being othered, which have accumulated over a lifetime. “She’s so alienated as a character, because of her cultural in-betweenedness and because of not belonging to either culture in her queerness, not belonging to any queer community,” Arafat said about her narrator. For Arafat, using a nameless narrator reifies and deepens some of these ideas “because one of the themes of the book…is about this feeling of taking up too much space, inhabiting unacceptable spaces, and trying to find ways to self-negate.” You Exist Too Much is able to hold together what can be a challenge in contemporary fiction: introducing a protagonist who’s fully formed and also a repository for a set of ideas. Often, these ideas are built up and teased out through dialogue (Sally Rooney’s novels, including 2017’s Conversations With Friends, are prime examples of this).
While ideological abstraction can serve its own rich purpose, narrative fiction that explicitly emphasizes concepts can sometimes leave characters behind. Conversely, the first-person diaristic reflection of You Exist Too Much intimately fuses the conceptual with the personal. When asked how her journalism background impacted her approach to fiction, Arafat said, “As a journalist I found it frustrating that you could only ever tackle these topics head on. I felt as if I could get to the end of my life and have written 1,000 things, if I wanted to, about Palestine and Israel, and none of it would’ve affected any change. I thought, in this case, if I created characters who happen to be Palestinian, I could subversively shift attitudes for Palestinians.”
Like Ocean Vuong’s 2019 bestseller, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Arafat’s debut presents an impactful, reflective character study and transposes larger ideas—here Palestinian statehood and self-determination, queer identity, intergenerational trauma, addiction and recovery—into her character’s actions, behaviors, and desires. Arafat says that she thinks of the novel’s narrative as radiating “like circles. The book started with a small circle and then grew into all these bigger circles around it, going all the way to Palestine.” What’s most impressive is the way that Arafat’s writerly compassion allows these narrative circles to vibrate against one another, letting certain details reverberate in her readers’ imaginations—key images that we can turn over in our minds and consider under multiple, overlapping lenses.
Part of this nuance is facilitated through the novel’s stylistic flow between past and present episodes in the narrator’s life, with childhood lapsing seamlessly into adulthood. You Exist Too Much doesn’t so much jump around in time as it treats temporality as a stream, placing the reader in potent proximity to the narrator’s subjectivity, a closeness that gets painfully amplified by her many moments of self-sabotage and desperation. Alongside its unspooling personal histories, You Exist Too Much also weaves together multiple settings. The novel begins in Bethlehem during the narrator’s childhood. From here, key events in her life occur in the West Bank, Jordan, France, and Italy and across multiple states in the United States. The narrator’s childhood memories quickly flash forward to adult life in New York, where she’s working as a DJ and sharing a home with Anna, her long-term partner whom she met while they were both in a rehabilitation facility for people with eating disorders.
The banalities of this stable relationship are vaguely aggravating for the narrator, whose life soon implodes: Her mother visits, resulting in a humiliating, painful coming-out made worse by its exposing of a longstanding lie about a boyfriend. Then, Anna discovers the narrator’s years-long obsessive romantic fantasy carried out over an e-mail correspondence with a pregnant, straight, and married professor of French literature. Anna’s break-up letter to the narrator uncovers a number of hard truths: “You’ll no longer have to deal with any reality that comes with us and you can live happily ever after with your obsessions….I want you to really sift through your baggage and face it, and feel a fracture of the torture I feel as a result of this.” While the narrator is aware she loves in self-destructive ways, irrevocably hurting Anna catalyzes her wanting to change.
In the wake of her heartbreak, the narrator turns to the internet, discovering a recovery facility in Kentucky called the Ledge. After a short phone call, she has booked a stay to work through a self-diagnosed love addiction; the move is an impulse born of desperation that instigates the book’s central action. Recovery facilities occupy an odd place in literature, with abounding institutional tropes. Yet Arafat dodges these tired constructs to craft the Ledge as an absurd, almost satirical place that has cheesy, inspirational posters quoting Proust (“the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”) and whose staff spouts cringey psychiatric slogans (“secrets keep us sick,” reiterates relentlessly upbeat psychiatrist Richard). While You Exist Too Much centers the pain of its principal character, it’s primarily in the Ledge where Arafat’s use of sharp satire illustrates her skill of bringing together multiple literary styles and strategies.
“The Ledge is ridiculous, the name is ridiculous, you shouldn’t call a [recovery] place ‘the Ledge,’” Arafat points out, viewing the literary creation of this space as a hub for subversive comedy. “Rather than her being in a treatment facility being a serious, heavy aspect of the book—because I feel that can often be the case—by making this place somewhat ridiculous I wanted to allow for some levity.” Because the Ledge is a temporary space where, according to Arafat, “sometimes the professionalism and boundaries of the place are a little vague but warm and endearing at the same time,” it becomes a liminal zone: Characters from varying experiences who would never otherwise connect suddenly have to share lodging and intimate details in group therapy. It’s not an idealized coming together. Arafat’s protagonist is thrown in with a misogynist, a Zionist, and a roommate whose vulnerability triggers her own hardened exterior. Is anything about spending time in therapy with this group helpful for the narrator? For Arafat, yes. “Everything is reduced to that shame level and there’s a connection,” she says.
Compellingly, many of the protagonist’s love interests also go unnamed or are nicknamed according to archetypal tropes: the Professor, the Ambassador’s Wife, the Sacrifice. This stylistic choice reflects historical paradigms that Arafat wanted to underscore. “Those characters sort of exist in the realm of fantasy, and are largely contrived in [the narrator’s] imaginings of them,” she says. “They were intentionally not given actual names but these other names to also suggest a kind of objectification and projection upon these women, in the same way that…projections are rendered onto [Palestinians and] the Middle East—just basically colonial-era mentalities—I wanted to take that idea of projecting, and objectifying in a way, and have her sort of do that.”
Love is like letting yourself be seen, and seeing yourself.
Obsession serves a two-pronged function in queer stories. On the one hand, it can be pathologizing when levied against queer people. On the other, for queer readers, obsession is a familiar strategy—one linked to fantasy—that protects the self and facilitates the imagining of better experiences. But when does self-protection harden into self-imposed alienation and prevent connecting with community? Arafat agreed that, for her main character, obsession is a means of escape. “Escaping a self that this character deems to be not worthwhile, unlovable; escaping a self that is internally homophobic. Escaping a self that is terrified of opening herself up for real to another person,” she says. “And so, those obsessions are basically the receptacle for all of those feelings, and I really wanted to get at the kind of self-loathing that comes with internalized homophobia and how that manifests.”
You Exist Too Much plumbs intense feelings and experiences, but it is not interested in prettifying them. While the narrator’s perpetual capacity to sabotage her own health and happiness can activate the reader so forcefully that we nearly wish we could intervene, Arafat is committed to giving her narrator autonomy over her own story. Ultimately, You Exist Too Much is a tender gift to its narrator: as readers, our observation of the narrator’s vulnerability, humor, and intensity means that we love her deeply in moments where she can’t hold love for herself. “Even though the character barely arrives at something resembling healthy love….I wanted through the telling of the story to show precisely that love has to be an end in and of itself in some way. Or it has to be something that is an equivalent to compassion,” Arafat said. “The book ends with compassion, and that compassion is where the love lives. Love is like letting yourself be seen, and seeing yourself. Love is letting yourself be seen, love is letting yourself be loved.”