You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat is a striking coming-of-age story about failed communication, complex mother-daughter relationships, and the difficulties of cultural differences. Although the book isn’t a memoir, as a queer, Palestinian-American woman, Arafat resonates greatly with her protagonist. The story follows a Palestinian-American woman, who remains unnamed, as she navigates feeling stuck in a perpetual state of uncertainty while on the precipice of an enormous life change. From the very first page, I was absolutely wrapped up in her story. This is the kind of book that reads so smoothly that turning the pages feels like less of a chore and more of a reward.
Although the blurb for You Exist Too Much tells of our main character’s eventual “love addiction,” I did not expect love to feature so prominently. But don’t be mistaken, this book is a love story: a story of self-love, growth, learning how to love others, and flourishing in the face of familial and cultural pressures.
Throughout the entire book, Arafat takes the main character on a journey of intense self-discovery. It’s as if she’s unpacking her trauma in real time and we’re all being made to watch. It’s brutal, but the honesty is refreshing. For example, while the protagonist is in therapy for her “love addiction” she has this thought: “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.” The book covers extremely sensitive topics (be sure to consult content warnings before reading), yet Arafat treats these issues with poise and delicacy, using them to further the story rather than just letting them settle within the plot. Every decision within the book feels intentional, meaningful, and necessary to further the protagonist’s characterization and storyline. At one point, the protagonist aims to explain the cultural implications of being a queer woman in Palestine: “To be a woman who desired other women seemed even worse, especially shameful and shocking in its lack of reverence for the male-centric culture. Why would you want to exclude men, the stronger, better gender, from the equation?”
The highlight of Arafat’s novel is that it provides a safe space for cultural learning without any stigma. Though it’s important not to treat this novel like a history textbook, Arafat doesn’t shy away from mentioning historical and cultural elements relevant to Palestine and the main character’s life. The reader is able to indulge in the main character’s perspective of Palestine and Jordan through the eyes of a child. To do this, Arafat traces the main character’s growth through a series of flashbacks within each chapter. She crafts such vivid depictions of the main character’s hometowns, Aman and Nablus, and paints a picture of deep familial bonds that serve to demarcate the main character’s summers in Palestine from the rest of her time in the United States.
Additionally, Arafat manages to articulately convey the significance of race, nationality, and sexuality, and how they affect the main character in her journey towards self-discovery. The protagonist’s experiences as a queer, Palestinian woman are full and complete –– Arafat doesn’t aim to separate her love story from her intersectionality. Throughout the book, Arafat adeptly weaves in references to the main character’s Palestinian heritage and not only displays it in a brilliant light, but also shows how it influences her daily life. At one point, the main character compares her parents’ relationship to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. This comparison serves to illustrate her mother’s frustration “at being stifled” and her father’s refusal “to meet her most basic needs”. By no means does this book aim to explain or justify the political conflicts that have occurred and are occurring currently in Palestine; instead, it shows how these events have molded the identities of the main character and the people in her family.
Although Arafat’s protagonist is never named, the reader is able to form a deep bond with her from the very first page. It is difficult to create an informed opinion on the main character in the beginning of the book, as her life experiences, reasonings for her actions, and thought processes are only explained through successive flashbacks in each chapter. As the reader becomes more informed of her past and more invested in her future, we watch a hopeless, scared young girl transform into a resilient, witty young woman. This book is remarkable in the sense that the reader is able to go on a journey of growth and discovery along with the protagonist.
Arafat doesn’t shy away from expressing the more difficult aspects of her journey. Often, Arafat uses such vivid, poetic language to convey the simplest emotions – especially when it comes to descriptions of self-love. One passage begins: “We stepped outside the café, and I felt overwhelmed as we walked off in different directions. I wanted her, I wanted her life, I wanted to live inside her life while still living inside my own. I wanted, above all, for her to like me.” In another scene Arafat explores another side of the protagonist’s desperation for love: “Besides, I didn’t need a partner to feel loved: I was a DJ! I was loved from a distance, the safest way to be loved.” These passages transport the reader into the emotional state of the main character, fostering empathy for and understanding of the protagonist’s complex character.
Each chapter follows a clear formula that provides the reader with both a sense of familiarity, and a beautiful rhythm to fall into. Arafat will begin with a canonical, almost anecdotal, situation which furthers the ‘present’ narrative of the story. This anecdote then opens up a window into the main character’s past, which Arafat uses to expand upon one of the main character’s past loves and relationships. The joys, but most often the follies within the relationship create a passageway through which Arafat inserts a story about the main character’s childhood, relationship with her mother, or something related to her Palestinian heritage. Finally, Arafat circles back to the initial anecdote that opened up the chapter to close out the mini narrative that she created. As such, each chapter constructs a holistic view of the main character by unifying her past, present, and cultural background. This unique format provides a kind of unified and informed characterization that is rarely seen in many coming-of-age stories. This method prevents the reader from jumping to hasty conclusions about the protagonist, as they are forced to see the full picture of who she is.
In an interview with Electric Literature, Zaina Arafat gave her final thoughts on the main character: “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.” This perfectly sums up the feeling the reader is left with upon finishing the book. Even though the ending leaves the reader slightly in the dark about the future of the protagonist, there is no doubt that the protagonist grew throughout the narrative. This book is such a must-read because it displays the beauty and pain of a life well lived: one filled with love, mistakes, and growth. What else could you ask for?