AILSA CHANG, HOST:
You can get a taste of what Zeyn Joukhadar wants to say in his new novel before you even reach Page 1. It's in the dedication - for those who name themselves. The novel is called "The Thirty Names Of Night." And since writing his last novel, Joukhadar has come out as transgender. The main character of this new book is transitioning as well. Nadir is a Syrian American artist figuring out how to live in his body and how to reckon with the history of his family and his community in New York City. Nadir's story is interwoven with that of another artist, a Syrian immigrant from more than half a century earlier, which Joukhadar told me was an important starting point for this book.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Our ancestors and our histories are always very much present in our lives. And also, that history is always constantly reiterating itself on the present. So we can feel that we are sort of acting independently of how we got here, but I'm not sure that's ever really true. And I think, too, that so often for trans people and for queer people in general, we do often get written out of history. And so it is really important for us to be able to remember that we've always been here. We've always existed...
JOUKHADAR: ...And that we do have a really rich history in - also in our own smaller communities, like the Arab American community, for example.
CHANG: Well, I know that personally, you had not come out yet when you had started writing this book. And tell me, what did it feel like to bring all of that history to light as you were starting your own transition and starting to come out?
JOUKHADAR: For me, it was really powerful to know that I was not alone and that I was sort of held in - this is how I think of it - that I was sort of held in the net of history; that I had all of this history behind me, that there were all of these other Arab American people who had had all of these lives that had led up to mine in some way, that their stories were a part of my story and that as I was trying to envision a future for myself, I had to know this history in order to move forward. I had to know where we had come from in order to know how to move ahead.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, there's also this other binding thread in this book across the different timelines and storylines, and that binding thread is birds. Birds figure in everywhere in this story, not just with the characters like Nadir's ornithologist mother or Laila, the artist who depicts birds. But in so many scenes, you know, birds just sort of appear out of nowhere sometimes. Tell me why. What do birds represent to you?
JOUKHADAR: Well, I think that I wanted there to be a relationship between birds and memory and birds and the sacred. I chose, for example, when I was thinking of this mysterious bird that I wanted to sort of feel real without necessarily being real, I was thinking a lot about the relationship between the ibis and the sacred in many Southwest Asian and North African cultures. And so ultimately, when I think about birds, I think about the fact that Nadir is also sort of the rare bird that, for some of the world, isn't really supposed to exist. And yet, he does. And so a lot of the story talks about the erasure of nonbinary people and how nonbinary people do often get pushed into sort of one binary gender box or another...
CHANG: Mmm hmm.
JOUKHADAR: ...But that that doesn't at all go far enough in describing what it actually feels like to be a trans person or to be a nonbinary person. And I was trying, I think, to get at that sort of wordless complexity that lies in a space beyond language.
CHANG: That's so interesting. I want to talk about how you deal with this idea of erasure when we're talking about names; like, the names that we choose, the names other people choose for us. Throughout this book, the reader doesn't actually know the main character's name. In fact, his name is scratched out at the top of each chapter. But later, he does choose the name Nadir for himself. Can you talk about that choice you made as an author to leave this main character nameless for much of the book?
JOUKHADAR: Absolutely. When I was writing the book, I was aware that there is a long history of nameless or anonymous narrators in the literary canon. But I was also thinking about this character; if this character were a real person, how he would feel if he was faced with, potentially, a book written about him in which the reader wanted a name so much that they were willing to put his birth name or his dead name on his writing or his diary entries, if you think about his chapters that way.
CHANG: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I will say as a reader, it felt, like, almost personally frustrating at the beginning to not know the main character's name. But then I had to examine, why was I so frustrated?
JOUKHADAR: Yeah. I mean, I think that that's actually really what the scribbles - when he scribbles out his name at the beginning of every chapter, I think that's what I'm trying to get at and what he as a character is getting at. He scribbles out his own name because that's the only way, in that moment, that he can take back his power.
CHANG: There are several queer characters in this book who made me think about, like, all the different ways we define masculinity in society. And I'm curious. What are the definitions of masculinity that you wanted to represent in this work?
JOUKHADAR: That's a really great question. I mean, I was really focused on this character - of Nadir grappling with what society presented to him as a prescription for masculinity and trying to wrestle with the examples he had in his own life, not all of which were positive, and sort of reinvent that for himself and say, what am I going to take for myself? What kind of masculine person am I going to be? And what am I not going to embody? What do I want to leave behind?
CHANG: Yes. You can feel him grappling throughout. Like at one point, Nadir says, I have never known men to be gentle. And that made me wonder, you know, what is it like to try to identify with a gender that you are sometimes repulsed by? It's very much, I guess, you pick and choose the traits that you want to embody, ultimately.
JOUKHADAR: I think it's probably very similar to how it is for binary cis men as well. I mean, I think that for any masculine person, whether they're binary or not - cis or not - you, at some point, have to grapple with masculine privilege. You have to grapple with what it means to relate to feminine people, what it means to be potentially read as threatening, what it means to have certain privileges that you may not want to have, but they might be given to you anyway. And what do you do with them?
JOUKHADAR: And ultimately, it is really about, who do we want to be as people, you know?
CHANG: Right. Exactly. This idea of transition - you know, that's something that every trans person, I imagine, can relate to no matter what entails that transition. And I - when I was done with the book, it left me wondering, does transition ever end?
JOUKHADAR: For me personally, I think of my own transition as something that doesn't have an end point because I think that it's true to the experience of being human because we are all constantly becoming all the time. And there's always things about us that are changing or evolving, or we're learning to express ourselves better, or we're learning to inhabit our bodies in a different way. And I guess for me, it also takes some of the pressure off feeling like I ever have to get it exactly right. I always have the ability to change my mind or to grow as a person. And I always want to be growing as a person.
CHANG: Zeyn Joukhadar's new book is called "The Thirty Names Of Night."
Thank you very much for being with us today.
JOUKHADAR: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOSES SUMNEY SONG, "COLOUOUR")
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