You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat, published by Catapult Press, tells the story of a twenty-something bisexual Palestinian American woman recovering from growing up with a narcissistic mother. Not only did her mother’s attitude impact upon her ability to stay in a romantic relationship, it also put her into recovery for an eating disorder.
When we meet our lead she’s in the middle of imploding her latest relationship. The pattern is the same each time. She becomes fascinated with another person outside of the current relationship – someone unobtainable and probably not even sexually interested in her. She knows she does it, this self-sabotage, but can’t seem to stop herself.
Arafat gradually takes us deeper and deeper into her unnamed protagonist’s life. We travel through time, across the US and around the world – Jordon, Italy, Lebanon and Palestine – to see her endless quest to belong. When she’s visiting her parents’ family in either Lebanon or Jordon she yearns to be home in the US. When she’s in the US she wants to be in the Middle East.
No matter who she’s with or where she is there’s a level of unsettlement and discomfort. Arafat does a wonderful job of taking us into the roots of her character’s disassociation. Through the telling of her story we learn how to this point she’s spent her entire life trying to please her mother. Twisting and morphing herself into whatever shape is required to make her happy.
However. nothing she does makes her mother happy. Somehow or other, everything always ends up going wrong and she’s never able to please her mother no matter what. As Arafat has her describe the relationship between daughter and mother it sounds like she’s spent most of her life on an elastic tether that keeps snapping her back to her mother no matter how hard she tries to escape.
She could be gone for a year and it doesn’t matter. She comes back to the US and immediately falls into her old patterns with her mother. Of course her sexuality is just another in a long line of disappointments for her mother. At the age of 12 her mother had accused her of “existing too much” – being too visible and causing trouble. Her preference in partners is just another example of her being too much.
Arafat takes us on a remarkable journey of recovery and discovery. When her protagonist discovers she might be suffering from something called love addiction she checks herself into a rehab program in order to try and find a way out. Lumped in with sex, drug and other addicts she’s forced to confront herself and her relationship with her mother for the first time.
Never Arab enough, never American enough and definitely never a good enough daughter, she not only epitomizes the struggles of most immigrant children, she is the embodiment of the displaced person. In spite of her sexuality, she wonders at her feelings of jealousy when she hears about cousins making good marriages. Is she really jealous or is it more those are the trappings of normalcy she has discarded and if she could only put them back on again maybe she could finally please her mother?
In You Exist Too Much Zaina Arafat has created a beautiful story about one woman’s struggle to find her way past the domineering character of her mother to define herself in her own image. It’s an unflinching look at the long difficult process of recovery from abuse and addiction without being polemic or preachy. A masterful accomplishment.