Zeyn Joukhadar’s follow-up to his The Map of Salt and Stars, which was a 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist in Historical Fiction and won the 2018 Middle East Book Award in Youth Literature, is a multigenerational novel about Syrian immigrants in New York City.
Its protagonist, Nadir, a young trans man grieving the violent death of his mother and struggling to find his identity, discovers a journal left behind by Laila Z, a mysterious Syrian bird artist who disappeared decades before, in a soon-to-be-demolished building in Little Syria.
By switching between the journal and chapters narrated by Nadir, Joukhadar tells a story of love and loss that begins in Syria in the 1960s and winds its way into Nadir’s present in Brooklyn. Through Laila Z’s journal, Nadir comes to understand that people like him have always existed, even if they had to live their lives in secret.
Throughout it all are birds, both real and imagined. They drop from the sky, land on window ledges, and provide one of the central mysteries of the novel: Did Nadir’s mother, an ornithologist, and Laila Z see the same elusive and unsubstantiated species of bird decades apart?
While Joukhadar untangles the story of Nadir’s mother’s death and Laila Z’s life, he explores the interior life of a young trans man wary of coming out and the larger implications of gender, secrecy, and identity.
Joukhadar spoke to Goodreads contributor Samantha Schoech from his apartment in Sardinia, Italy, where he is sheltering-in-place with his Italian partner during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their conversation has been edited.
Goodreads: Congratulations on the new book. What’s it like to have a book coming out in the time of COVID-19?
Zeyn Joukhadar: It’s definitely weird. I do feel lucky that it’s coming out later in the pandemic because I think we have a better handle on doing virtual events and that kind of thing. We’ve figured out how to connect with readers.
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GR: Before you became a full-time writer, you earned a PhD in pathobiology. First, what exactly is pathobiology, and second, how do you think it informs your writing?
ZJ: I was focused on epigenetics. I think that did come into play when I was writing this book because some of what I was studying was the way that things that happen to us when we are in the womb affect us later on. If your grandmother was pregnant with a child with ovaries, that child already had the egg that would eventually become you. So, the things that happened during your grandmother’s pregnancy also happened to the egg and to us.
We know that trauma is intergenerational. But when you look at resilience and survival, maybe those things also can get passed down. When I was looking at queer and trans ancestors in this book, those were things that I was thinking about—that in a way our ancestors are present with us, maybe more than we can even know.
GR: The protagonist in your book is the grandchild of Syrian immigrants to New York. Even in the present-day New York City of the novel, there is a strong current of culture and history and Syrian identity. Did you grow up with this type of cultural awareness?
ZJ: I think it’s difficult to grow up in diaspora as a person of color in the United States without being made aware of who you are and where you come from. Even if that place is New York, if your ancestors come from somewhere else, you’re not allowed to forget that.
When I was researching this book, and finding out about the existence of Little Syria [in New York], even though this neighborhood was almost entirely torn down to build the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the fact that it existed at one time really got me thinking about the fact that there were these people who were living there who were trying to find their own belonging in New York City. There was something really powerful about that. Even though I didn’t grow up in a predominantly Syrian American community or even a predominantly Arab American community, I did live in a community where there were a lot of immigrants.
GR: Do you think being Arab American influences the kinds of stories you’re drawn to telling?
ZJ: I think that that’s always going to be part of my lens, you know, just like for any writer, because that’s my experience. It’s always going to be present, and I think that’s something we should all embrace. Nobody comes to the page without a lens.
GR: OK, back to this novel. There is so much loss in this story—actual death, but also lost love, loss of country, and the loss of an unwanted identity. How do you see these things in relation to one another?
ZJ: Obviously, this book is about someone grieving the loss of his mother, but at the same time there is a realization throughout the book that the mother is very much present in his life and that our ancestors are very much present in our lives.
Grief over somebody dying is a very different thing from transition, and I think that part of the book was also disentangling those.
One of the things I was trying to hold in my mind and heart when I was writing this was the way that something can feel like loss when it’s not really lost. Oftentimes, transition gets framed by cis people as a kind of loss, and sometimes the people around a trans person will react to someone coming out as if it’s a loss, not realizing that the person is still very much the same person and that the only thing that’s happened is that something has been gained, something has been found—a new agency and joy and the ability to actually take joy in existing and in living more fully. I think that that’s a big part of the book.
GR: And what about birds? They’re everywhere in this book. They are both real and symbolic. They are in art and in omens. How did you come to that? Why birds?
ZJ: As I was writing, I started to think about the piece that inspired the title, which is a long Sufi poem that in English translates to “The Conference of the Birds.” The gist of it is that there are these 30 birds that are seeking God and eventually realize that they are reflections of the divine. It became sort of a theme for me in the writing.
I wanted to write something about finding one’s way to a feeling of holiness or sacredness. As a trans person or queer person, we don’t get to feel sacred or feel that we are a reflection of the divine. Nadir is searching in the book for himself. He’s also searching to find the sacred and the divine in himself and to feel like he is whole and loved. I think that that’s where the birds come in.
GR: What kind of research did you have to do to write this book?
ZJ: One of the great sources of information for me was going to see an exhibit about Little Syria at the New York City Department of Records in 2016, before I’d even written a draft. Then, in 2019, I was an artist-in-residence at the Arab American National Museum, and I took the research further in their archives.
Some of it is just knowledge of the times and being able to wonder, “Well, what if this kind of person had lived? What if this had happened?” When you look at queerness and transness in the historical record, you realize quickly that you have to read between the lines to find us. Either queer and trans people get erased outright or they weren’t able to be out. In a lot of ways, it’s very frustrating and sad and difficult. But what’s wonderful about it is that you can look at a period of time in history and know that there were queer and trans people there. It gives you this wonderful freedom to imagine how people lived and loved and had their lives in any time period and any place. And it might have been really difficult, but they must have also known lots of moments of beauty, too. And that’s a complicated feeling, but it’s also a wonderful one.
GR: Who are the writers who really influenced you as a fiction writer?
ZJ: I would say Toni Morrison, for sure. Her fiction, for sure, but I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately for comfort, and I was reading The Source of Self-Regard. It’s brilliant. She writes a lot about craft. She talks about how she chooses her opening sentences and her final sentences. There’s this piece where she talks about Moby Dick and how the author might have been talking about the idea of whiteness in a way that he couldn’t express any other way. I feel like reading her has really made me a better writer.
GR: What’s some of the nonfiction you’ve been reading?
ZJ: I was reading Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I have been reading memoir and essay collections. I think that as writers, we have this impulse to make meaning out of things that happen. Obviously, that’s part of our craft whether in nonfiction or fiction, right? And I think that it’s been frustrating, for me at least, to not be able to do that yet. We’re in a thing that we can’t see the edges of yet, and maybe reading memoir and essay gives me the tools to try to make sense of what’s happening to me.
GR: Would you call The Thirty Names of Night an autobiographical novel at all?
ZJ: No, it really has very little to do with my own life. I mean, obviously there’s a trans protagonist from New York, and I’ve lost a parent. But other than that, it’s not autobiographical at all.
I’m not sure I could ever write an autobiographical novel. I find the whole idea very terrifying.
GR: OK, one final question, and I know this is a hard one, but what are the books that you wish were assigned in high school and university courses?
ZJ: It’s really hard to answer that. I definitely wish that when I was that age I had read Love Is an Ex-Country that I mentioned before. I still have to read Laila Lalami’s most recent book, Conditional Citizens; I’m really looking forward to that. But The Other Americans was a really important read for me. And, of course, I wish there had been trans writers that I had been able to read. There’s so much good stuff out now by trans writers.