Zaina Arafat’s debut novel, You Exist Too Much, follows a Palestinian American teenager as she becomes an adult, navigating her queerness and love addiction. It follows her romantic relationship as well as her recklessness on the side, and where that may have come from. Finally, she admits herself to a treatment center that will make her question her need for what she considers to be love.
The novel is told in vignettes, moving from the girl’s childhood in the Middle East to her adulthood in various cities. You Exist Too Much asks what the difference is between desire and addiction and obsession, and what it means to question love because of family and religion.
Zaina Arafat is a Palestinian American writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, The Believer, The Washington Post, and others. She holds an MA in international affairs from Columbia University and an MFA from the University of Iowa and is a recipient of the Arab Women/Migrants from the Middle East fellowship at Jack Jones Literary Arts. She grew up between the United States and the Middle East.
I spoke with Zaina Arafat about how childhood memories affect adulthood, desire and insatiability, and overcoming trauma.
Arriel Vinson: The protagonist is very consumed, for good reason, with her mother’s opinion of her queerness throughout You Exist Too Much. Her mother is worried about how their culture will judge her, how the Quran will judge her. Tell me more about why her mother’s shame was so prominent in this novel.
Zaina Arafat: The mother is mostly concerned with how her daughter’s queerness reflects onto her, more than with her religious convictions or cultural expectations. The protagonist’s humiliation and shame are so prominent in the novel because she sees herself through her mother’s eyes; it’s her mother’s approval that defines and drives her behavior.
AV: Early in You Exist Too Much, we learn about the protagonist’s struggle with anorexia, and later put a name to her love addiction as well as see her in a treatment center for it. Why was it important to explore all of these struggles?
ZA: The protagonist’s eating disorder and her love addiction are related insofar as they both entail shame when it comes to appetite, along with restricted desire and insatiability. They both stem from a place of great pain, longing, and unfulfilled need, and each exists as a form of control. In the case of her anorexia, food is the central instrument of control, and in love addiction, it’s her romantic obsessions.
AV: Desire and obsession are at the core of You Exist Too Much. We move through each of the protagonist’s affairs and obsessions in the novel, her making the same mistakes and being left in ruins. Why did you choose to display recklessness and lack of self-care in relation to showing desire?
ZA: I wanted to illustrate how internalized homophobia can lead to destructive behavior and self-sabotage. This protagonist’s desire has been consistently shamed and deemed unacceptable throughout her life, and though she tries to suppress it, it still seeps through and manifests in unhealthy and harmful ways.
AV: You Exist Too Much is written in vignettes—-moving between the protagonist in the U.S. as an adult and in the Middle East (Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine) as a child/adolescent. Tell me more about that decision.
ZA: I wanted to use involuntary associative memory to show how seemingly insignificant moments in one’s past, especially one’s childhood, can have great bearing on one’s adult self, their behavioral patterns, and present-day reality. I leapt between these vignettes to illustrate how the protagonist’s responses and actions in the present are influenced by the past, be it her own personal memories or collective cultural ones.
AV: There’s a moment where the protagonist says she was loved from a distance, and that’s the safest way to be loved. How does grappling with loneliness, even with lovers around, play a part in this novel?
ZA: The protagonist puts herself in situations where love is “safe,” which means she doesn’t risk being seen too closely and rejected. She pours attention and affection into people who can never really know her, and who she can’t really know, for that same self-preserving reason. Of course, when you’re in a relationship with someone and loving at someone outside of the relationship who doesn’t love you back, it’s very lonely. But she’s willing to trade the risk of being seen and potentially hurt for loneliness.
AV: The protagonist in You Exist Too Much often reflects on her parent’s abusive relationship and realizes that her mother had trauma of her own. It takes the entire novel for her to make sense of that trauma and how it shows up in her life. What about her mother, and how she deals with relationships, does she see in herself?
ZA: Recognizing her mother’s past traumas allows the protagonist to forge empathy for her. She sees her mother’s wounds as being integral to the way she exists in the world, and recognizes her mother’s patterns in herself. She realizes that she is destined to repeat these patterns if she doesn’t change.
AV: Towards the end of the novel, she realizes she felt fulfilled by dating someone who was just like her—emotionally unavailable, addicted to loving others who weren’t her. Someone encourages her to find healthy love. Why is this an important note to end the novel on?
ZA: When faced with decisions throughout the novel, it was often painful to watch the protagonist continuously choose such destructive options. I felt it was important that she eventually make progress toward less harmful behavior, even if she slips along the way, especially since we’ve followed her on this path of trying to heal. She may never fully overcome her traumas and her demons, but she can identify that by choosing healthy love, she is also choosing to love herself.