How Do We Put Words to The Experience of Gender?
Zeyn Joukhadar on his new novel "The Thirty Names of Night" and the sacred journey of trans lives
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Transgender authors have long been put in specific boxes, but Zeyn Joukhadar’s second book, The Thirty Names of Night, has no time to dwell with such limits. The book wrestles with questions of selfhood and how one fits into the culture around them.
The story begins with Nadir, a closeted nonbinary Syrian American, as he steps forward into a new phase of his life. Still wrestling with the loss of his mother, Nadir turns to art, and chance brings him into the path of the journal of an artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. The two stories swirl and tangle as unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies.
I sat down to speak with Joukhadar to discuss writing about historical queer identities, wrestling with the cis gaze, and making space for ones-self.
Parrish Turner: Much of The Thirty Names of Night is about what it is like to be out of step with the society you are in and the need to translate these experiences and form an identity. There’s an out-of-step-ness and search for authenticity, which can be true of both the immigrant and first-generation American experience as well as the trans and queer experience.
Zeyn Joukhadar: In terms of the book, there are so many examples of people feeling out of step, whether it is being trans or of color or Muslim, an immigrant or just generational gaps. There’s a generational difference that changes how someone feels they need to live one identity or another. Nadir feels very differently about those things than his grandmother or his mother would.
Obviously when it comes to Nadir’s other intersecting identities like his queerness, his transness, those things get really knotted because you can’t really separate them. For queer and trans people of color, those aren’t separable experiences. The way that one experiences one’s queerness or one’s transness is indelibly imprinted and affected by one being of color or an immigrant or disabled or neurodivergent or any number of things. But especially when you find yourself in a society where you are in a marginalized community that’s already beset with various sources of oppression, that becomes really fraught.
Other people who have power over you do expect very specific performances of various identities. Unfortunately, those are the people that have the power to reward or punish what they see as authenticity or lack of authenticity.
Any time you are writing about any marginalized community or character, especially when you are a part of that community, let’s say you have to be aware of what the expectations are of those who don’t share those identities. And then you have to decide, “If I do go about this in a certain way, am I satisfying that reader’s expectation or am I subverting it? And to what end?” Ultimately, the only thing you can really do is tell the best story you can and it really is that simple. But it doesn’t often feel that simple.
PT: I have written down the word “legibility.” The words “legibility” and “authenticity” are very different, but intimately related ideas of “How do I get people to see me and treat me.” Especially in that intersection of queerness and race.
ZJ: It’s been said before that whiteness is a prerequisite to any legible gender performance. And the gender binary is designed that way. To be seen in a gendered way, [people of color] have already failed before they’ve begun because the lack of whiteness will always affect how a person is gendered as a racialized person.
For people who have genders that are not binary, there is also this sense that there is no way for me to ever be legible in the way I want to be, especially for nonbinary people who are not white. The nonbinary people in my life are constantly having to invent new modes of experiencing ourselves, playing with different concepts, combining different pieces of gender performance.
I keep running into this feeling that there must be some immediately knowable truth about who or what I am. And maybe I feel that also as a biracial person. For me to be read and be placed in a gender and racial identity, that difficulty is very jarring for cis people and espcially cis white people, in a way that is often dangerous to me. In order for me to live in this body that is not always legible or is not always readable in the way I experience this body, I can’t overly value the way that other people read me and I can’t overly invest in the idea that there is necessarily any sort of one fixed unchangeable place. Maybe my gender does encompass many types of gender expressions and maybe that’s okay.
I have to, on the one hand, divest from the idea that I am one thing that is readable all the time and also invest in the idea that things like gender markers and a very binary gender expression will never fully be able to hold me, and can’t hold a lot of people.
PT: I am facinated by stories about queer Muslims and the hijab. And wonder in what ways do we want to perform, gender, race, even spirituality?
ZJ: When I was on tour for The Map of Salt and Stars in 2018, I had taken an overnight train to Ohio and we arrived really early in the morning. It was during Ramadan and I wanted to pray. I did Wudu in the Amtrak bathroom and found a quiet corner to pray. And I remember this really vividly, I had this moment of, do I cover my head? Because I wasn’t out in public, but I was out to myself as a boy. And if someone sees me praying and I’m not wearing hijab and they look at me and think that I am a cis girl. Do you know that meme of this person doing algorithms in their head? I didn’t know what to do with the fact that I could not control how other people looked at me. I realized that just being Muslim and inhabiting my body like I was could be read as unacceptable. And there was nothing I could do about it.
In the end, I just said whatever, I’m gonna do me, but that also takes a lot of courage because when cis people are confused that is when violence happens for a lot of trans people. That has been my experience; their confusion often gives way to anger.
PT: Right, this is a conversation about public perception, but also a conversation about the place on nonbinary identities in ancient religions.
ZJ: This idea that nonbinary identities have always been present is such a fascinating one and one I was trying to delve into here in the book too. One thing that really fascinated me about the research that I did was how you can always find queerness in the historical archive; it is just that you often have to read between the lines or you have to look for things that get easily missed. Sometimes it is things that are intentionally coded or they’ve been erased or the person who is actually writing the record wasn’t able to talk about everything.
I was an artist in residence at the Arab American National Museum in 2018 and I did some research in their archives. There were all these oral histories of auto workers in Detroit. I was listening to one recording in particular of someone who described herself as a female autoworker and used she/her pronouns for herself, to the best of my knowledge, right? I was listening to this person’s voice and I felt this sort of recognition in that how this person was speaking reminded me of the ways that I heard queer butch women and people who are AFAB and who have masculine identities. This person’s cadence and tone reminded me how other folks in my life have spoken and I felt this strong recognition of, Oh maybe this person was queer. This person obviously doesn’t say anything at all about being queer, but what has this person gone through, what can this person say, and what can’t they say about their experiences and themself? Even if that person wasn’t queer, there must have been people who were queer and who were there. Just the knowing that people were there and the knowing that, whether or not they were able to leave behind formal record of their queerness, their queerness still existed.
PT:. How we manifest and talk about our queer identiies are so heavily shaped by culture and our place in history. How do you approach writing historical fiction about queer characters?
ZJ: What I was trying to do throughout the book, in both timelines, was to articulate an experience of transness and or queerness that went beyond contemporary labels. On the one hand, I am aware that they can change, and do change and evolve all the time. For myself, the moments in my life where I first understood my transness, I didn’t have that word in a way that I could apply it to myself. Partly that was due to being transmasculine and not seeing a lot of transmasculine folks, but [also] as not being someone with a binary gender.
What I tried to do was put words to that first wordless experience of transness and try and talk about a character coming to terms with his gender being something he doesn’t quite know how to describe and having that being a very beautiful and potentially sacred thing that leads him to a place of beauty and freedom that is only describable in the context of art. That there is this beauty within that experience.
Labels are really useful for helping people find ways to talk to each other. It makes it easier for us to find each other and talk about our experiences. But I do think that when it comes to putting it down on the page, and especially spanning different time periods, I much prefer trying to get at what the wordless experience was so that it can be something that lasts and something that, if the language does change or when it changes, will still be accessible and recognizable to those who need it.
PT: I think that is one of the challenges of talking to cis pople about trans experiences. These are not linguistics based experiences. That is why I am excited about what is happening with trans fiction right now. A lot of what we had has been limited by this cis-gaze. Now trans writers are confident that those experiences have been covered and we can move onto something else.
ZJ: You are right in saying that we are confident certain things have been articulated on the page and therefore, this frees us up. For a really long time we had to conform to specific narratives about ourselves. We are now putting words to what being transgender is actually like. My hope and my feeling is now, or eventually, cis people will be able to read some of the literature that trans writers are making and actually see themselves in that gender matrix and be able to say, “this applies to me too.”
Editor’s note: The introduction originally described Nadir as a trans boy, but Joukhadar has clarified that the character is nonbinary.