You Exist Too Much: an analysis on gender and identity

You Exist Too Much: an analysis on gender and identity

As one may know, not all works of fiction that deal with the idea of race do it directly. Some novels, like the one written about here, discuss other themes of sexuality, gender, mental illness, and religion, which also play a crucial role in the otherness of the narrator. In the novel, You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat, the author uses flashbacks to various memories that had built up leading the narrator to admit herself to a rehabilitation center called The Ledge. Zaina Arafat deals with the idea of race through the narrator’s memories of otherness in America as well as in Palestine, being a Palestinian-American. As the narrator was born in and lived in America, when she went back to Palestine, she was greeted with some hostility due to the color of her skin and her “American ways.” Even though the idea of race is not heavily discussed in this novel, there are still some passive-aggressive experiences that the narrator describes which end up playing a big role in her addiction to love that sent her to rehab in the first place. Her sense of not belonging led her to the use of attention to feel a sense of belonging within her many partners that the audience finds out about within these memory flashbacks.

To start, the narrator, Zaina, feels otherness in America due to her race through experiences around America and in The Ledge. When Zaina is first being admitted to the rehabilitation center, she is on the phone with Nicole, the receptionist at The Ledge, and is asking her about meal times because Zaina has been recovering from an eating disorder for years. To this question, Nicole replies that dinner is always at five in the afternoon because “Here, we’re all Americans” (page 44). This subtle comment about the dining time being so early blows past Zaina because she is used to hearing these comments but the reader picks up this comment because the author purposely springs it out of nowhere. This backhanded comment made towards the narrator shows the idea of race in America because even though she did not use the word “white,” She did use the word “American” which shows the otherness of Zaina being Arab. While Zaina was at the rehabilitation center, she had discussed a memory of a trip to South Carolina a few years back and had noted the amount of Arabs around her, saying “I’d felt completely strange there, like the only Arab for hundreds of miles, maybe thousands” (page 50). She feels this otherness when on vacation because she sees nobody who looks like her which makes her feel uncomfortable, even if there are other Arabs in other places, she feels out of place. When it was someone else’s turn to speak about a life experience in rehab, Zaina thinks “I stared at the clock as the minute hand eclipsed the hour hand for the third time and decided that only a white man would feel comfortable taking up so much space” (pages 63-64). This thought of a white man taking what he wants is true throughout all of history. The general white man runs the United States even to this day, which is why Zaina has this thought that is not at all wrong. The last example of Zaina feeling her otherness in America is when she is having another flashback and says that “Other Arab women have been mutilated by knives, shrapnel, acid, and bombs” (88). This quote is powerful to the development of the idea of race because Zaina can pass as white most of the time in America so she has not been overly attacked by the ethnicity of her descendants. This idea just goes to show that white people are racist just by looking at someone’s skin tone. Overall, Zaina has had mixed experiences with her otherness while in America but feels like a total outsider in Palestine.

While Zaina flashbacks to many visits back to her extended family in Palestine, the reader can see the hostility that her family and other Palestinians have towards her due to her being a Palestinian-American. The prologue starts off with a memory of when she went to Palestine as a child and got yelled at for having shorts on that did not reach her knees. She was unaware that it was not acceptable to wear clothing like that because she had grown up in America and had not known that it was something to not do in this city. On one of her summer visits to Palestine to visit her cousins and other extended family members, she was called out for being “the American cousin” (page 60). This comment from one of her family members shows her otherness even within her own family. Since she was the only cousin who had grown up in America, that has automatically justified her as different and not like the rest of the family. This memory further develops the idea of race even though it does not directly discuss race. This memory develops the idea of race connecting it back to nationality because these are both sections of identity, showing that it is possible for a family to point out someone’s otherness and use it as a target on them. Targeting someone due to their race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc is not a valid reason to dislike someone or make them feel unwelcome in a family. Later on in the novel, Zaina is describing the different stereotypes of Arab people, tying in with what was mentioned before saying, “Stereotypes exist for the inhabitants of different Arab cities. People from the Syrian town of Homs are reputed to be dim. Tulkarem in the West Bank is made up of hillbillies- fellayin, the Arabic word for peasants. Folks from the village is Isdud- now the city of Ashdod are cheap. ‘They heat up their leftover salad and serve it for dinner,’ the expression goes. In Gaza, the girls are all lesbians” (pages 74-75). This quote indirectly develops the idea of race because of the stereotypes of the people in different Arab cities. The author used words like “dim,” “hillbillies,” “peasants,” “cheap,” and “lesbian” to insult people of different locations. These words are used with a negative connotation (while some are not always negatively seen) showing that these people will work their entire lives to be anything but those stereotypes, just like black people do in America. They work against the stereotypes made against them to make themselves feel like equals with white people in America. Even though these examples show otherness and the idea of race in Palestine, they are easily carried over to things that happen in America as well.

Overall, Zaina Arafat helps the reader to further understand and develop the idea of race through her use of flashbacks not only to around America but as well as her visits to Palestine. These flashbacks contribute by showing the observations that people make while being categorized as other, meaning not white and not fully American. Zaina feels as though she does not belong in either America or Palestine, as the reader begins to learn more about the narrator. This novel is a great example of the idea of race being indirectly developed through the themes of a Palestinian-American’s life experiences.

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