As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Bill Clegg (The End of the Day), Zeyn Joukhadar (The Thirty Names of Night), and Zak Salih (Let’s Get Back to the Party) discussed their new novels exploring the mysteries of self and community, from the bonds and breaking points of friendship across generations, to a closeted Syrian-American trans boy’s search for family, and childhood friends’ attempts to navigate queer culture in contemporary Washington, D.C. Moderated by Adam Nemett.
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Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.
“As usual, Clegg’s prose is simple and graceful, his third-person character portraits precise, but his plotting, with its intricate, keen-minded twists give his writing the cumulative effect of poetic ambiguity and mystery. Clegg’s first novel was a novel of grief; this is a masterly story of an attempt at righting the misunderstandings of the past that is resonant and true to life’s inherent uncertainty.”―The Boston Globe
“The Thirty Names of Night is a multifaceted jewel of a novel and each facet is brilliant in its own way…. Joukhadar is a richly poetic writer… This incredibly courageous novel, full of suspense and discoveries, reminds us of the dignity we all deserve and the pain suffered by those who still feel the need to hide themselves.”―The Washington Post
“Let’s Get Back to the Party is a gorgeous, raw, tender, trenchant novel about men figuring out how to live. At once gimlet-eyed and generous to his wonderfully drawn characters—fallible, lovable, and endlessly real—Salih paints a vivid portrait of the paradoxes of queer life in contemporary America, his characters navigating love and friendship in communities shaped both by freedom and fear, and by trauma that is both collective and individual. This is a stellar debut from a huge talent.”—Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State
Thanks to Charlottesville Pride Community Network for their support of this event.
Thanks to the UVA LGBT Committee for Faculty and Staff for sharing information about this event.
SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to “The Secrets We Keep: Literary Fiction,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop, please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/Give.
Thanks to our sponsor, Charlottesville Pride Community Network, for their support of this event. We also appreciate our community partner, the UVA LGBT Committee for Faculty and Staff, for sharing information about this event.
Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers:
Bill Clegg, author of The End of the Day, is a literary agent in New York and author of the memoirs Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days. Also the author of the novel Did You Ever Have a Family, he has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar.
Zeyn Joukhadar, author of The Thirty Names of Night, is also the author of the novel The Map of Salt and Stars. He is a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers and his work has appeared in Salon, The Paris Review, Shondaland, [PANK], Mizna, and elsewhere. His books have also been honored with the Stonewall Book Award and the Middle East Book Award.
Zak Salih, author of Let’s Get Back to the Party, lives in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Chattahoochee Review, The Millions, The Rumpus, and other publications. This is his first novel.
And our moderator: Adam Nemett is the author of the debut novel We Can Save Us All, and he serves as creative lead and author for History Factory, where he’s written award-winning nonfiction history books. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Thank you all for joining us today. Adam, take it away.
ADAM NEMETT: Thanks so much for joining. Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Jane. Thanks to the Virginia Festival of the Book, one of my favorite book festivals. After a year of this, we’ll all familiar with the virtual format. But for those of us kind of hitting Zoom fatigue because of work or other necessities, it’s really important to make space for art and culture and literature and for these kinds of gatherings, virtual or otherwise. So thank you all online for joining us, and here’s hoping that we’re really close to opening back up and gathering in person for literary events in the near future.
We’ve got three really wonderful books here from Bill, Zeyn, and Zak. And I’m really honored to have gotten invited to moderate this panel. I’m not going to talk very much here. I want to hear from the authors. I’m sure you all do too. And so with no further ado, we thought we’d do a brief intro of each book or characters. The title here is “The Secrets We Keep,” and I’m curious about the idea of secrets—what that word means, especially in the context of these books, whether the authors feel that there are secrets or how those manifest. So maybe as a way of introduction here, we could go through the three books and talk about the notion of secrets.
I’m reminded of a craft talk that I heard once that talks about how, in developing characters, you think about the three Ps: their professional life, their personal life, and their private life. So my thought—and we discussed this before—is to have each author, rather than just give a cover blurb, describe one of their characters and sort of the container of their book in the context of those three Ps. Professional: what they do for a living or for passion. Personal: how they interact with other people. And then private: what they keep to themselves.
So with that in mind—and maybe we’ll just go down the alphabetical order here. Bill Clegg. I have The End of the Day right here. Bill, can you introduce us to your novel?
BILL CLEGG: I’ll do my best. I was saying earlier the book came out in September, and I had written it a fair bit before that. And something about COVID has destroyed my brain. So to the best of my ability, I will resuscitate what I know about the characters. So The End of the Day is a novel set in a small town in Connecticut, very similar to the one that I grew up in, which is in Ridgefield County. And there’s kind of a working middle class in the town as well as, because it’s about two hours from New York, a wealthy weekend population and summer population. And having grown up in a town that had that exact makeup as one of the townees—and this was before sort of social media and all that stuff—I was really obsessed with the New Yorkers who would sort of wing in on a Friday night and then head back on Sunday night.
So the book is about—at the center of it are three women who you meet in their late sixties. And then it panels back quickly to their coming of age, and each one represents a very different socioeconomic background and family life. So the character I would do the three Ps for is a character named Jackie, who grew up—her father was a postal worker in a small town, and she comes from a family that’s been in that town for many generations. She’s the secretary, so her profession is she’s the secretary of the elementary school for the principal and has two kids. When you meet her in the beginning of the book, she lives alone. Both her kids are grown. Her husband had died years ago, so she’s a widow. And at first glance, she’s a respectable, retired secretary from the elementary school who lives a pretty calm life.
So I guess the secret that she may sort of have I think is just probably the secret that most people have. Sort of the truth about their families. Like on the surface of their family, nothing dramatic ever happened in the story, except for maybe her husband dying in a car accident when he was fifty. So that was sort of the big dramatic event.
But within that marriage, there was a great rupture very early on. And after their first child had been born, she was secretly pregnant with their second, and her husband abandons her one evening at a Fourth of July picnic very mysteriously, and she has a big reaction to it. She believes it leads to her miscarriage. And for months, she throws her husband out and doesn’t speak to him. It takes years for that rupture to heal, and that shapes their family.
And that incident that night—the truth of what sort of went on, the reason why he had abandoned her—is part of what gets unpacked over the course of the book between these three women. All three are involved in it. So that’s—I don’t know if I did all three Ps, but that’s who I would put forward as having one surface and behind it another truth.
ADAM NEMETT: Bill, do you want to read a section?
BILL CLEGG: Sure. So this is actually the introduction of that character, Jackie. Here we go:
A vinyl shade slaps the window near the foot of her bed. From the basement, a slow ticking, the bang and shudder of the propane furnace. Outside, old tree limbs creak and pop above the single-story house. Robins and finches deliver the news of morning but more loudly than usual, as if they are greeting sunlight for the very first time.
Eyes closed, cheek pressed into the foam pillow she slept on for decades, Jackie curls onto her side toward the middle of the mattress. She rubs her feet together, circles the pillow with both arms, and burrows deeper into the familiar softness. The lingering fragrance of dryer sheets tugs her gently back across the gap between awake and sleep, where ghost sounds of crowded mornings fill her ears—cabinet doors slamming shut, young voices tangling from the kitchen, a chair squeaking along the linoleum floor. An old, low flame of duty flickers to life: lunches to pack, report cards to sign, laundry to graduate from the washing machine to the dryer, hamburger meat to move from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw, a blouse to iron for work. A rapid-fire volley of shouts, “Give it back! Leave me alone! I’m telling mom!”
A crow’s mad caw fouls the air. Naw! Naw! The shrill holler repeating, repeating. Jackie refuses to open her eyes, though the half-dream of facing a day busy with errands and work and children has done. Naw! Naw! The almost-words feel like rocks thrown at her. She winces and pulls the bedding around her shoulders. The crow continues, its call bossier, more human. Now, it insists. Now, now.
When it finally stops, Jackie listens for the noise of her squabbling children, both of whom have long since grown up and moved out. She tries to will the old feeling of too many demands on her time to return, but she only becomes more awake and aware of the morning as it actually is. The slapping shade, the tick and moan of the furnace, the straining hum of the refrigerator in the empty kitchen. And on the other side of her bedroom door, what is always there: lifeless rooms in a day that does not need her.
ADAM NEMETT: Wonderful. Thank you, Bill. And I think it’ll be a nice segue here. Some of the bird calls that you all just heard.
BILL CLEGG: So sorry for that.
ADAM NEMETT: No, it’s a great segue I think to Zeyn Joukhadar’s novel, The Thirty-Eight Names of Night. Hopefully this is the right direction. It looks backwards to me.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: It looks good over here.
ADAM NEMETT: Okay, good. Zeyn, obviously birds play a very large role in your book, as evidenced by the beautiful bird wing on the cover. Maybe you can share—and again, I think all of these books have multiple characters which will talk about multiple points of view. But maybe you can talk us through your novel a little bit and one of the characters there.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Yeah, absolutely. The book is basically constructed with two intersecting timelines that sort of weave in and out of each other. And the two characters that are narrating those are Nadir, who is unnamed at the start of the book and is living in the modern day. And he is a trans-masculine, non-binary person who is Syrian American, who is Muslim, who is living in New York. And the other character is Laila, who is a Syrian-American bird artist living in the 1930s and into the 1940s and writing from that time period.
So going into the three Ps here, Nadir is—at the start of the book, he’s in the process of choosing his name. And by the end of the book, he chooses the name Nadir. But that’s the only name that we know him by. And he is professionally probably best described as a blocked artist. He’s trained as a visual artist but has been having a hard time painting since the death of his mother five years before in an Islamophobic hate crime. And his mother was an ornithologist, and so he does have this relationship with birds. And not only his own relationship but also with the weight of his mother’s relationship with birds and with a specific bird artist who she was obsessed with, named Laila Z., who is the other narrator in the book, as we find out fairly quickly.
Personally, Nadir is relatively isolated, especially at the start of the book. He’s estranged from his sister as well as his best friend Sami, on whom he has a very sort of angsty, unrequited—what he believes is an unrequited crush, because his best friend defines himself as gay and is a cis man as far as the narrator knows. So Nadir is very unsure as to whether Sami could ever see him as a masculine person.
So essentially, in the process of uncovering his mother’s passion for this Syrian-American bird artist Laila Z., Nadir also ends up discovering that Laila was queer and, also in the process, the history of his own queer and trans ancestors in his own Syrian-American community.
And so as far as secrets go, I’m not sure that the description of secrets necessarily fits a lot of this book. I could see how I think some folks might expect that transness or queerness would be the secret that is kept by these characters, but actually it’s really not that way, and it’s not really the central theme of the book as far as things that are hidden go. If anything, I think that the secret might be each character’s private grief that they carry. Nadir’s was the death of his mother. And Laila, who’s writing to an old love who she left behind in Syria, and their search for sacredness in each other and in themselves.
So, yeah, we might talk about this further later on, but there’s for sure a lot in this book about the divide that a lot of the times is an intergenerational divide between private and public information. What is sort of culturally or family-wise even seen as information that doesn’t need to be shared beyond a certain circle or beyond oneself versus what must be public information, if only because it has to do with the way that we present ourselves and how we need to be seen by other people. But, yeah, so essentially in a nutshell that’s the story. Should I read from it? Is that how we’re doing—
ADAM NEMETTYeah, let’s do a little now that we’re steeped in it.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Okay, cool. This is just a couple of pages. But it’s from the middle of the book, and essentially you don’t really need to know anything except that this, like I had mentioned earlier briefly, has to do with this unrequited crush we think between Nadir and his best friend Sami:
On the nights when I’ve been dancing—which aren’t many—I’ve always loved the girls I couldn’t be: the ones with arms open, those sneaker-dancing, thunderstorms-in-their-blood girls whose soft wisdom was a flood. Sami and I roll up to the bar in Bed-Stuy, an unassuming building next to a masjid and a grocery store, blue neon buzzing in the window. Inside, televisions play music videos full of pastels and neon, and people in bright leather jackets, trucker caps, bangles, and mesh, glitter and hair piled atop their heads, fill the space. Someone slides past me in a purple mesh tank top and glitter eye shadow. Couples make out in the back booths, sipping vodka or soda or some kind of blue concoction dreamed up by the bar staff.
Sami pulls me onto the dance floor, and I don’t protest, though I want to. I’ve become just like the white boys at middle-school dances: the boys by the wall, earthbound boys, wing-severed boys with stiff bodies. There is nothing behind the door in my chest that should uncage the kind of feminine softness I should have, the kind you told me would settle into my chest and my hips. It never did.
“I don’t dance,” I yell to Sami above the music.
“Dancing is a myth,” Sami says.
Sami dips his chest and lifts his hands, and he is not dancing, but trying to fly. He is testing his body in the wind, feeling the weight and breadth of it. My heart is a new bird throwing itself against the space he’s taking up. There are no long-legged white girls around us here, no pale over-cologned boys snicker-flirting with the bartender. Instead, all around us, there are brown and black bodies marked with glow paint and tattoos. There are micro-minis and leather short-shorts and calf-length dresses in pleated faux silk atop unshaven legs. There are bodies with breasts, with thighs, with scars, with canes; people wearing high heels and wearing high tops; large bodies, small bodies, bodies that twirl and shake and fill the room. And, no, this is not dancing, but a becoming of winged creatures.
The DJ turns the music down, and the room stills to listen. Even over the bass beat, the sound of the isha’ adhan next door is loud enough to make itself heard. The DJ has lowered the music out of respect, so that the call to prayer becomes part of the music. The room continues to dance as though this is simply another rhythm to move one’s body to. Once, a friend of yours from Marrakesh played us a recording of the adhan from the streets of the old medina. She said it reminded her that, no matter what she was worrying about, life was fleeting, and one day none of the fears that plagued her would matter at all. I always liked that about the adhan: that a sound could both remind me that I was going to die and comfort me with the reminder that I was still alive, that it could remind me of the ways my ancestors touched their foreheads to the earth. That a single sound could tap that ancient place in my bones and make it sing like a plucked string.
The last time I went to the masjid with you is as alive as though it’s still happening. It is Ashura, and I am fasting. It is a hot day. I put on my abaya, wrap my hijab, walk with you up the stairs to the women’s room. I take off my sandals and set them in the cubby, and inside, the carpet meets my hungry toes. The women burst into the room like eagles, faces bright, their abayats emerald and night-black and ivory and pomegranate. Half the women who greet me look like Teta, like the woman I am supposed to one day become. As-salaamu alaykum, we say to each other as women arrange themselves in rows for prayer, wa alaykum as-salaam. We recite and bow our heads and turn to our angels on either side. And then the day is gone, and we break our fast behind closed doors where teenage girls whip off their hijabs and laugh, sequester themselves from their mothers, tell dirty jokes, oil their fingers with turmeric chicken. Bismillah, we say, and we eat until we are full. In those days, as out of place as I felt in the world, I would have dared anyone to tell me that we were anything less than our own feast.
I haven’t prayed since the day they slid you into the earth. Your grave faces a copse of pines that separates the cemetery from the homes of rich families who don’t want to see the dead and the grieving. We buried not a person but a continent that day. We’re made from clay, after all, aren’t we? And underground springs and threads of copper run in our veins. When this country asks me where I’m from, they aren’t asking for the city on my birth certificate, but whose earth is in my blood.
Then the adhan is over, and I am swimming in the music. I paint the space around me with my body. I think of the last time I used my hands to make something beautiful. As long as my body was not for myself, I stopped allowing myself the luxury of wanting. But here, in this space that smells of sweat and sage and cigarette smoke, anything seems possible, even desire. Sami curves his back, his knees, his neck. He is beautiful, and I am still in love with him, and this is not a mistake.
I bend and untangle and step out of my body, lightening myself into this swollen room where boys like me are arcing and vaulting our unruly bodies, shaking the wet newness from our wings.
I’ll stop there.
ADAM NEMETT: Wonderful. Thank you, Zeyn. That was fantastic. In going with the idea of segues here, thank you for reading a bit of a party scene because we can now nicely transition to Zak’s novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party.
ZAK SALIH: There it is. There it is. Yeah, so Let’s Get Back to the Party is something of an intimate novel in that it really focuses on the relationship between two primary characters. They’re both gay men in their thirties. Their names are Sebastian and Oscar. And they meet at a party of sorts—at a wedding, a gay wedding, in the summer of 2015. And they have this kind of fraught, estranged friendship from childhood that of course their interaction kind of reignites and sends them on their kind of parallel journeys throughout the course of the year. And so you’re not supposed to have favorites, right? But I most certainly do, and his name is Sebastian. And so he’s thirty-five. He is mixed race. He teaches art history and English at a high school in Northern Virginia. He is the kind of person who likes his life very stable and ordered, and so he begins the novel kind of recuperating from the loss of a long-term relationship that, combined with encountering this childhood friend of his, really kind of throws him all a whack. And so his professional, his personal, and his private life of course all bleed into one another, and that’s never good.
His private life—and this kind of ties in with the idea of secrets—is he develops this very dynamic kind of yearning for one of his students who is seventeen, who’s very precocious and very proudly queer, to the point where he says at one point that he’s been out since the womb. So this really kind of just causes this surge of existential distress and emotion in Sebastian about his relationship to himself and his past and his relationship with his community. So much of this novel, to me, is looking beyond coming out and kind of exploring what the coming-into process is for some gay men, in terms of finding your place in a community with a history, with a past, with a future, with people who maybe think very differently about what it means to be gay.
So given that, I’m going to read a small passage from the book. So there are various moments in the novel—in the narrative that’s told from Sebastian’s perspective—where he is encountering a work of art. And given this blending between his professional and his personal life, it sparks a very vivid memory. So I will read one of those short passages from relatively early in the novel.
This is The Shaft Scene. Unknown. 17,000 BCE:
I’m ten years old, in my father’s basement with Oscar. I’m sitting in an old wingback chair, flipping through an enormous book on the history of Western art, trying to stay busy while waiting for my turn on my Game Boy. I toss the thick pages, working my way to the end of the book and back to the beginning. I think the more I concentrate, the more I absorb in my mind what’s directly in front of me, the faster time will pass until our agreed-upon ten-minute rotation.
I come across reproductions of primitive paintings on the rock walls of some old French cave. I stare at the galloping herds, trace the curve of a cow’s brown back with a finger. I turn the page and see a crude illustration of a bull knocking over what looks like a man. It reminds me of the drawings on the blacktop at Cardinal Elementary: the flowers and suns and salamanders in colored chalk, the cuss words and boobs and boners in black magic marker. There’s a slash above the man’s stick-figure legs that looks like a dick. Below the image is a caption: “Photograph of Walls in the Shaft of the Dead Man at Lascaux Cave.” I look up at the back of Oscar’s head, the neck poking out from his sweater, the hair like the fuzz on my father’s tomato plants. I ask, Is it my turn yet? No, Oscar says. I haven’t died. Possessed by an uncanny, inexplicable compulsion (the same one, perhaps, that must have propelled these ancient cave people to decorate their ancient cave walls), I want to reach out and place my hand on Oscar’s neck, to touch each individual hair, to feel that secret warmth. I want to fall in Oscar’s lap and curl up, kittenlike, in those long arms. Considering how much time we spend together, how often Oscar is at my house on weeknights and weekends, it makes a strange sort of sense to me. I’m going to piss, I say. Whatever, Oscar says. I rise from my father’s chair, then pretend to trip on the hassock. I drop the art book on the carpet and throw myself awkwardly onto Oscar’s back. Shit, Sebastian, he says. My game. I know I can’t stay here for long. It’s dangerous. This isn’t what two boys are supposed to do. Maybe brothers. Certainly not friends. Pushing up against Oscar’s shoulder blades, I brush my lips against the back of Oscar’s neck, feel the tickle of near-invisible hair. Oscar stiffens, then he shoves me off. Stop that, he says. Then: Weirdo. He reaches for the Game Boy and resumes playing. We spend the rest of the afternoon in silence. Oscar’s ten minutes on my Game Boy are up, but I let him keep playing, hoping my generosity will make him forget what just happened. I sit in the chair with the art book and think how stupid and strange I am. Will he tell his parents, or someone in class? Sebastian tried to kiss me. Blech. Then I think of how often Oscar tells me he doesn’t like his parents, doesn’t like the other kids at school, and I feel a little relief. Think what you like, Sebastian, but keep it to yourself. Don’t ever do that again. Looking at Oscar hunched over the Game Boy, I daydream of empty caves and echoing wind, of holding someone close by primal firelight. Then my father calls us up for dinner.
ADAM NEMETT: Thank you, all three of you, and thank you, Zak. That was great. And hopefully this is maybe a good opportunity to remind our attendees that in the chat there is a link from New Dominion Book Shop. Go ahead and just right now go buy all three of these from New Dominion, which is a wonderful bookstore in Charlottesville that I love very much. And these are three great books. This is as good a time as any to start making some wise purchases.
But let’s shift now to some questions. I had a few questions, and I’ll ask those, and hopefully they’re broad enough that everyone can kind of approach it in their own way. And then we’d love to open it up to any questions from the virtual audience. So please feel free to ask any questions in the chat, and we’ll compile them and get to them as we get into the Q&A later.
But maybe just to kick it off here, we just heard from all three of our authors a glimpse into one of your sort of main characters. Each of these books jumps into multiple characters’ perspectives with chapter titles from that particular point of view. Process-wise or maybe just to start, why was it important for each of you to tell this story from multiple perspectives? Multiple characters. And then process-wise, I’m curious how you did it. Did you go through one narrative arc and then kind of go back and fill in another character? Were you writing multiple arcs and multiple characters simultaneously? And maybe we’ll go in reverse order this time. Zak, I’m just curious.
ZAK SALIH: Yeah. That’s a good question, Adam. I think for me, the obvious reason is that there’s no one way to be a gay man. So I certainly was very interested in kind of developing that conflict both in terms of alternating between these two narrative voices but making them as distinct and unique as possible, even down to the way they look on the page. So Sebastian’s sections are very constrained. There’s no quotations. There are just these giant, kind of, bricks of text. And I wanted to give the suggestion of here’s a man who is literally trying to brick himself off from the world.
Oscar’s on the other hand are kind of spiky and superficial, particularly because he’s the kind of character who could really care less about the past and for various reasons doesn’t want to dwell on things. So even just kind of crafting those different perspectives. I wanted to make them as different as possible because I really did see this as a kind of duel of two characters.
In terms of writing them, I did not write one and then go back and write the other. I kind of alternated. Selfishly, I get tired of writing in one voice, and then I’d switch to another. Over time, I kind of developed a really interesting rhythm, I think, that I wasn’t prepared to encounter when I first started writing this book. And I really kind of discovered all these kind of different parallels between their two respective journeys, some of which are planned but a lot of which admittedly just kind of evolved through the writing of the story.
ADAM NEMETT: One of your characters—an older kind of an elder statesman kind of character, Shawn, refers to your two main characters—Oscar and Sebastian—in a couple of instances as the sad queen and the angry queen. Was that something you were conscious of in the writing, or did that come later?
ZAK SALIH: It was, Adam. I think of sadness and I think of anger as for various reasons these two very overwhelming and kind of overarching emotions that certainly I and certainly a lot of gay men I know experience. And I would argue they are two very kind of core emotions for queer people. So I wanted to have each character kind of embody that experience and see what happens when you bring the two together. Yeah.
ADAM NEMETT: Thanks. Zeyn, talk us through your multiple characters which exist. Two characters but also two very different periods of history.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Yeah, basically the structure I chose was one in which one character finds the writings of another character, so there’s an epistolary aspect also to the book. And at the same time, both characters are writing to a “you.” Nadir is writing to his mother, who has passed away. Laila is writing to B., who we later discover was, if not her lover, someone that she loved. A woman that she loved.
I chose the dual point of view structure because I knew that the main theme that I was trying to get across in this book was how important it is to understand and appreciate one’s collective history and also one’s personal past in terms of one’s family and ancestors, in order to actually be able to imagine a future for ourselves. And I think especially for trans people—and especially for trans people of color—it’s really important for us to be able to push back against what are ultimately very transphobic and oftentimes also very racist narratives of trans people as something new or anachronistic in some way. But it’s not only that. It’s also that it limits our imagination of what’s possible, and it doesn’t allow us to learn from the past and to build on the past.
So I couldn’t really talk about those themes without having both of those characters. Laila is not trans, but she is queer. So I think it was important for me to show on the page these two characters—sort of their lives compared and contrasted in some way. That they both had had similar struggles but also that there were a lot of—that there were intergenerational differences and that Nadir really needs to understand that he’s not in any way the first of anything.
Oh, and I forgot the process. The process of writing it was more—I suppose I kind of wove in and out of it as I was writing. I think that I have a hard time or would have a hard time trying to sort of separate out—like writing everything of a piece. I think it would be simpler to do that maybe, but it’s never worked for me. So I just sort of try to make the breaks happen when there’s a moment that’s emotionally or thematically salient in a similar way for both characters. So that kind of guided me on where to put the breaks between the chapters.
ADAM NEMETT: Wonderful. Thank you. Bill, how about you? In yours there was maybe seven main characters that we go back and forth. I might be off by one or two.
BILL CLEGG: I have no idea. And there would be more if I was given half a chance and didn’t have an editor or readers. But I wrote two memoirs before I wrote fiction, and that was in the first person. I think by the time I arrived on the shore of writing a novel, I was sort of sick of the sustained first person. And also I keep on going back to the town that I grew up in in a way that’s conflated with other places but at the core of it is this place that I’m from that in some ways I never got over. I think in part because I wasn’t sort of myself there. I was closeted, to the extent that I even understood that I was gay. I knew that there was something sort of different. So I think there’s an aspect of my time there—I left when I went to college—that I’m just always returning to.
So when I think about the town, I’m examining it from all sorts of perspectives, just in the way that I kind of process memory. So I think that that’s been reflected in the fiction that sort of comes from this stuff of that place, and some of that stuff is my experience there.
I think the other thing is that I was a big fan of Jean Stein’s Edie, which was about Edie Sedgwick, who came to New York and sort of had a long flash in the pan of fame and was in the Warhol sphere. And Jean went back, and she knew Edie. She was captivated by her, and she died of a drug overdose. But then Jean went back and interviewed everybody who knew her, and in so doing created a story of somebody coming to New York who was sort of emblematic of a certain period of time and a certain way in which the culture works and was changing at the time.
So I loved that, just the kind of gossipy velocity of hearing one person’s version of a story and then arriving at one very different version of the exact same events, like a dinner party that they may have both been at. So I think as I—the novel that came before that I wrote that is called Did You Ever Have a Family? also takes place in the same fictional town of Wells, and it follows the same method.
In this case, there were these three women. They were in their late sixties. None of whom have seen each other since they were like eighteen and sort of getting to the reasons why. So just going from one perspective between the three was interesting, but then opening it up to other perspectives of people who are in their lives and figured into the story.
So the experience of writing it—getting to the process of it—was as much kind of like me reading Edie. As I would sort of finish a section—a long stretch of writing—from one character’s perspective, my curiosity in some ways sort of drove the process. And then I would impose order and recognize ideas later. But on some level, there was just sort of like the greedy desire to examine the perspectives of characters who were important to the sections that I was writing, but we were hearing about it from somebody else’s point of view. So that was the process. And I think, similar to Zak, I always sort of write until I would exhaust my interest or ability to bring something to the table for a particular stretch of the story. And by that point, usually some curiosity or drive to be examining another perspective would be rising, and so I would leap into that.
And I don’t get to write—I have a day job. So my writing times are very segmented. So oftentimes, I’m very eager to get into a particular perspective. So I’ve thought about it a lot by the time I sit down. So curiosity and kind of desire to know more is a main engine in the writing of the book.
ADAM NEMETT: I was going to wait till the Q&A section, but we have a question from the audience here that I think is a really good follow-on. So to anyone who wants to answer, this is from Cecilia. Would you say that the election of having multiple points of view allows the information that’s being kept safe? Do you think that perhaps switching points of view allows the reader to wonder what’s in the character’s mind as seen by the narrators and thus keep the narrative tension? Anyone have any thoughts on that?
BILL CLEGG: Yeah, without a doubt there are sort of useful storytelling benefits to jumping from one perspective to another. You’re able to get to a certain moment in a scene and then kind of jump away and avoid revealing something, if that’s what you want to do. And I think the further you get away from a character, sometimes the more prominent the desire to sort of know something about what that character was thinking. So, yeah.
I remember reading Edie when I was in like high school and just that kind of acceleration of understanding something circling a truth. That was the experience that I was like hoping to replicate in the novel. Kind of going around and around and examining something from a variety of perspectives. Moving along a timeline as you do, getting to a place of some kind of revelation. But a deeper truth than just one character naming something.
ZAK SALIH: Yeah, I—
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Yeah—oh, go ahead.
ZAK SALIH: Oh no. Please, please.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: No, go for it.
ZAK SALIH: I was just going to say, to me, the idea of having multiple narrators allows for a very interesting way for both the writer and the reader to kind of experience the passing of time. I think about a lot of the novels that I enjoy reading. And as you move kind of from section to section or chapter to chapter, you spend like the first maybe page or two reacclimating yourself to where you are and what’s going on and what’s changed.
I just—for the simple reason that I enjoy books that kind of treat time and narrative that way, I try to incorporate it in this book. And I think given the very visceral secrets that are involved toward the back half of the novel, it certainly helped kind of protect those both from the reader and from the character, who didn’t necessarily need to hear it at the time.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: I was just going to say that I agree with—I think what you both said is very true. And I also think that one thing that’s different maybe about doing multiple points of view where you’re in very time periods—because you’re not able to really reveal multiple perspectives about the same event or about the same—potentially even the things that the characters know are not necessarily the same. It’s not the same set of information that they’re both working with.
So one thing that I find really interesting and fun to do as a writer is, instead of doing those other techniques that you both describe, which are also very fun, what I love to do is if I have two people in very different time periods, I like to put things in for the reader where you can—in the same way that you would charge a sort of event or symbol or object or reference point to create circularity later in the narrative across one narrative and one character or one time period, you can do the same thing across multiple time periods. Where like the thing that you’re sort of emotionally charging is actually taking emotional energy from both timelines. And so you get to show different layers of the same theme or even just same sort of situation. Where you can say this person is experiencing a very similar situation in a completely different context. Or this person is talking about an aspect of family that is—you can see the similarities, but they are talking about it in a completely different way. And so it fleshes out a similar concept but in totally different contexts.
And I think that is a similar thing to—as Bill said very well, that you’re sort of circling around a truth. I think that’s what you said, which I really love. You’re doing the same thing, but you’re doing it from such disparate points of view that the reader doesn’t necessarily know what’s happening until you’ve already grabbed them with it. And they’re like, “Oh, now I understand that you’re talking about the same thing but from a million miles apart.” And I kind of like to sneak up on the reader like that.
ADAM NEMETT: That’s great. You each kind of touched on another aspect of this, which is time and history and in some cases future. And thank you, Cecilia, for your question. If there are more, bring them on.
So without being reductive here, I see the concept of time and history playing a pretty major role in all three of these novels, whether it’s personal history or broader cultural or identity history or even the history of a city or a town or a house, in the case of Bill’s book. How do you view that notion of the past? How does it help or haunt or transform your characters? How did you approach that? Let’s start with Zeyn.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Let’s start from the middle. So I think I sort of hinted at this earlier, but a lot of the book is really about intergenerational differences. That was a big thing that I wanted to delve into. And not necessarily only in the sense of gender but also in the sense of race and assimilation.
One of the things that I really wanted to talk about—and I think the book does delve into this quite a bit—is the sense that not only that trans people are not too, but the sense that whiteness doesn’t have a monopoly on transness or androgyny or queerness. And also that we inhabit all of our identities all the time, and they coexist in our bodies all the time. So there’s never a point at which, in this book, where these characters—for example, with Nadir, there’s never a point in the book where he’s sort of existing only as a trans person and in another moment only as a Muslim person or only as an Arab person. But that said, his experience of the particular intersectional positionality that he inhabits as a trans person of color who is Muslim in America is totally different than the one that his ancestors inhabit or that Laila inhabits.
So I think that was also a really important thing for me to do. Like the reason that I had these two points of view in different time periods and that one is historical was really that I couldn’t really address some of these intergenerational differences even just in terms of the way that people view private versus personal information. The ways that Laila Z., for example, thinks about whether it’s possible for her assimilate. She is also a Christian person. So she’s Syrian American, but she’s Christian. And so her opportunities to assimilate into whiteness are very different than Nadir and his family. And so what she sees as information that is something that should be shared versus kept to herself is also informed by the fact that her family perhaps more broadly has a desire to assimilate into the dominant culture. And so, in that case, maybe you keep some information back about your own queerness out of just fear of further limiting your chances to do that. That’s one thing for her to do as a queer cis person. But for Nadir to keep certain information private means that he will never actually be seen for who he is, and he will never see himself reflected, because he can’t do the same thing with his gender. So, yeah, I think that for me that was the big place that history came into play.
ADAM NEMETT: I also found it really fascinating from the perspective of a city. I was learning a lot in terms of the labor movement in earlier Manhattan and New York and gentrification and the development of this neighborhood. You know, the tenement buildings in this neighborhood of Little Syria that I wasn’t aware of. How did you go about researching that?
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Yeah, I should’ve talked about that sooner, actually.
ADAM NEMETT: That’s why I asked it.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Yeah, thank you. You know, I’m from New York. I was born in New York. And I didn’t know about Little Syria until I was in my twenties. And I just think it’s really interesting that that’s not a history that gets talked about so much in New York. But I did a lot of research in terms of going there and doing historical research. And there’s a lot of archives that I looked at in New York as well as in the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, which I was an artist-in-residence there. But there’s only three buildings left of this neighborhood, actually. The neighborhood was destroyed to build the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in 1946-ish. And, yeah, it is interesting that a lot of these histories—I mean, they’re alive in people that remember. I’ve spoken to some of them, and it’s fascinating, and it’s also really heartbreaking. It’s sad. It’s hard because people have these memories of this place that doesn’t quite exist in the same way. But that doesn’t mean that its legacy is not still present. And in terms of like you were mentioning—labor movements and how things were before gentrification. I think these are all things that I was hoping to sort of go into in the book as things that do get carried along by the stories that we tell each other and by being in touch with our elders and our ancestors so that we don’t forget.
ADAM NEMETT: Wonderful. Zak, how about for you? How did history—your personal or cultural history—play a role?
ZAK SALIH: Yeah, so a great deal. As someone who is especially interested in the individual’s relationship to larger movements of history, I mean—so there are two things. The novel is deliberately set in this year between the marriage equality ruling and the Pulse nightclub shooting because, for me, these are kind of major important moments in the queer community. One a moment of very public celebration and one a moment of very public trauma. And they’re the first moments in history that I could experience and relate to and understand as someone who was a gay man.
I was born in 1982. I did not come out to myself, let alone to other people, until 2005. So my relationship with the history of my community has been something that preoccupies me. What is my relationship to the generation that suffered the brunt of the AIDS plague? I mean, I had no friends who died. I wasn’t aware of myself as a gay man during that time. So what are my connections to that past?
And then on the other end, being a member of this kind of in-between generation. You have these children who are growing up now in many parts of the country, where their past, their childhood is so markedly different from my own. Benefiting from LGBTQ groups in schools and taking same-sex dates to prom. And I don’t want to a paint a rosy picture, but it is certainly markedly different than my own experience in high school.
So I’ve always kind of felt suspended between two kind of very different histories, and so that really kind of bleeds into a lot of the tension between Oscar and Sebastian. I wonder sometimes—and I thought while writing this—I’m not sure that their differences are the result of having different opinions of what it means to be gay. I think at the core what separates them so much is that they have different ideas about what the past should mean to them. You have Sebastian who is someone who is so overwhelmed by the past that he cannot get outside of his own head. And then you have his contemporary, Oscar, who couldn’t be bothered to remember the past.
So that kind of drama in the relationship between a personal past and then also a very kind of public communal past I think really charged so much of the writing of this book.
ADAM NEMETT: Great. And Bill, how about for you? And just to keep an eye on the time, if anyone has any questions, feel free to drop them in the Q&A. Otherwise, we’ll carry it through. But go ahead, Bill.
BILL CLEGG: I liked what Zeyn said about how all the aspects of who we are, we are at once. Like we’re all these things sort of happening simultaneously. And I think the same way about the past, in terms of who we were and how we were is how we are. In the sense that we’re constantly—or at least my experience of it is that we’re in dialogue with those episodes of our lives—those moments. And also was interested in what Zeyn was saying in terms of Little Syria and only a few buildings remaining.
And I chose to write about this small town that I’m from, and the thing about that town is that it’s a very small town. It has a small Main Street and a little green, and there are people who spend a lot of time and effort to keep it exactly as it was. It’s exactly as it was, in many ways, since the late eighteenth century. Like the houses that are there are the houses that were there. They have the exact same color. If you want to change a picket fence or a mailbox color, you need to have a friend on the zoning board and lawyers. I mean, it’s that kind of place.
So to return to it is to return to exactly as it was. There’s a building on Main Street that was my best friend’s family’s—it was a fabric store. And I spent most of my elementary school years and early high school years in and out of that place. You know, spying on people in the apartment next door. Like all the things that kids do. And so I go back to that town; it’s exactly as it was. There’s literally nothing different about that building. And so New York City can be that way in some cases. It’s sort of walking through a museum of your past. It’s like, oh, there’s that apartment building I used to live in.
So in terms of like the novel, you’re meeting these women in their late sixties, and so how they just walk from their bedroom to the kitchen involves—like the passage that I read—involves sort of engaging with a time when that house was filled with children, a time when there were very many demands on this woman’s life. And now there are almost no demands on her time.
I’m a little obsessed with that, just in terms of my own experience and reconciling all the various pieces of a life. And I think, being gay, there were huge swaths of my growing up where I performed being a young, straight man in the world to the best of my ability. And piecing through what was authentic, what wasn’t, and what relationships were authentic, and what weren’t.
So I think engaging with various panels of time in a novel, at least for me, is a way of sort of replicating just lived experience, which is to necessarily be engaged in those periods of time and those former selves and how it shapes us in the present. So that’s kind of how that has worked for me. And I love reading it in other books too. It’s something that really interests me.
ADAM NEMETT: Well, thank you. I think we are getting to the end of our time here, sadly. That went really quickly. We had another lovely question from Cecilia about sort of public and private—how especially the blurred lines that we’re all experiencing right now with interactions via Zoom and everyone seeing each other’s private spaces and things like that. I think it’s probably a little bit too large a question to get into at the end of our hour here. Although, Sarah, feel free to correct me.
But number one, thank you everyone who joined. Thank you to Bill and Zak and Zeyn for your books. Please, please, please check out all three of these books. Go buy them from the New Dominion link in the chat. Support our authors, our artists, our independent bookstores; it’s really important right now, and it’s just a pleasure to read all three of these books. I found all three of them to be very different and very universally powerful. So thank you, all three of you, for writing them and for sharing them with the world during this crazy year.
It is time for us to wrap things up, so thanks to our speakers today, to everyone who’s watching. Please buy these books, again, if not from New Dominion, from your favorite local independent bookseller or the link in the chat. And please check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org.
Any final thoughts, final questions, or final comments? Awesome. Well, thank you again to everyone who joined. Go support other artists. Go support other writers. Go watch other virtual events. And we’re excited to see you all back in Charlottesville live and in person in 2022.
BILL CLEGG: Thanks so much.
ZAK SALIH: Thank you so much.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Thanks.
ADAM NEMETT: Thank you all.