Kayla Bell reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar 

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

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Love is an Ex-Country is part memoir, part essay collection. It touches on a variety of topics, from racism to queerness to fatphobia to Arab identity, while always keeping an engaging, almost playful tone. There are many reasons why it worked for me so well. Before I get into the review, I want to say that as a white, Christian, American that has no interest in kink I am definitely not the reviewer to understand the intricacies of this memoir. I encourage you to seek out reviewers from different backgrounds than me to get a fuller picture of this book.

The memoir is in the form of various chapters examining the author’s travels. It takes place in the summer of 2016, when Randa Jarrar decided to take a solo cross-country road trip through the United States. However, most of the book has nothing to do with the road trip, and is a series of her reflecting on past memories. This book examines the reality of living as a fat woman of color in the United States. Jarrar has experienced a lot, including being doxxed by a mob of alt-right trolls after calling out white feminism in regards to Barbara Bush’s death. I truly respect how open and honest they were about this traumatic experience, even offering examples of the vile, racist hate mail she received. This authenticity carries throughout the narrative.

The first thing that stood out to me is that Jarrar never fails to examine her positionality in the situations that they describe. They are quick to own where they lack and have privilege, and never fail to call out bigotry in the situations they describes. One example that particularly stood out to me was when they were faced with the racism and xenophobia of a white woman at a rest stop. The woman assumed Jarrar was white and spouted off stereotypes about Black people and Syrian refugees. Jarrar did not entertain the woman’s bigotry and swiftly called her out. This book was a great example of how to think about intersectionality.

Another thing I loved about this book was Randa Jarrar’s matter-of-fact writing style. It is so refreshing to read a voice that is so unapologetic in the face of so many people that want her to hate herself, as well as tumultuous world events. Reading this book inspired me to start having more of that self-acceptance in my own life. While the things she did are not always likable, she does make the reader understand her thinking. This attitude makes the writing engaging throughout. At the same time, the unflinching look at Jarrar’s life events makes the parts of the book where they describe being abused and mistreated harrowing. I do not think this is a negative, I think this actually is a strength of the memoir. However, it could be a lot for some readers to handle.

Readers should know before they pick up this book that this memoir describes instances of racism, prejudice against Arabs, misogyny, violence, fatphobia, abuse from a parent and significant other (including child sexual abuse and domestic violence), forced dieting, and eating disorder behavior. It also includes graphic descriptions of sex and BDSM and instances of interactions with the police.

Overall, this book is a great examination of one woman’s experience of the world, made up of small, seemingly disjointed narratives that piece together beautifully. If you can handle it, you might enjoy it.

Danika reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

I can’t resist a book with a Carmen Maria Machado blurb, so I picked this up knowing very little about it. In theory, this is about Randa Jarrar’s road trip across the U.S., inspired by Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip. It took place in 2016 as a way to re-engage with her country, trying to find some connection with it after the alienation of Trump’s election. I say “in theory” because this book actually has very little to do with that trip. It’s an exploration of being a fat queer Arab woman in America through vignettes of her life.

Jarrar discusses what it’s like to be a white-passing Arab woman in the U.S., including having white people expect her to agree with their racist comments. She describes being pulled over by a police officer who is sympathetic, and even trying to convince him to give her a warning–she knows she is safe, being read as white. When she goes home, she discovers that Philando Castile was pulled over that same day. She also traces the history of tropes and stereotypes about Arabs in the U.S., and how that racism has transformed over time, often enforcing contradictory ideas.

While this is a memoir, it reminded me of an essay collection meets poetry: Jarrar often writes in short paragraphs juxtaposing different topics. In the space of one page, she examines dolls from half a dozen perspectives: as playthings, as childhood punching bags, as used in therapy, as gifts, as sexualized muse by certain artists, and being treated as one. It feels like there are spaces between these ideas for the reader to fill in, to actively make those connections.

This is a book that requires a lot of trigger warnings. She includes harrowing details of her abuse, including physical abuse by her father, domestic abuse, and reproductive coercion. She was briefly infamous for a tweet that was critical of Barbara Bush after her death, reacting to her feed praising her, saying, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.” In response, she received a barrage of hate mail, including vitriolic death threat emails that are included in this collection. She was doxed, and her critics attempted to get her fired–unsuccessfully, because she had tenure, but the university put out a statement denouncing her comments.

Jarrar is Palestinian, which informs her politics. She describes trying to visit Palestine, and the terrifying hoops she had to jump through. She spent the weeks before travel studying on exactly what to say to the Israeli border guards, whose names to use, which reasons were acceptable for visiting. She is detained by teenage Israel boys, who seem bored. They are kept for hours for seemingly no reason. Their passports are taken away. After facing a long line of bureaucratic hurdles, they can still be sent back to the U.S. for no apparent reason, unable to step foot in their home, kept out by another country.

Sexuality is fraught in Jarrar’s story, often accompanied by abuse. When she finds BDSM, it opens up new doors for her: “Until BDSM, a lot of sex felt like assault.” In this community, boundaries are respected. Everything is negotiated in advance, and nothing is taken for granted. Kink meant consent and safety, knowing exactly what to expect. Through it, she is able to reclaim sexuality, and finds empowerment both in taking control and being able to safely relinquish it.

This memoir left me with a lot to think about. Jarrar describes suffering through so much abuse in her life, and feeling trapped and powerless. She discusses racism and misogyny and how they underpin so much of American society. At the same time, there is hope here. She is also a proud fat queer Arab woman, unafraid to speak her mind. If you want a thoughtful, challenging memoir that will leave you thinking, definitely pick this one up.

My second husband did not want me to be on top. He made sounds, squirming and uncomfortable, when I was on top. He told me a year after we’d gotten together than my body crushed his. His body was smaller than my body. One afternoon, in bed, he nonchalantly told me that I needed to lose a hundred pounds. To shrink myself for him. (Conceivably) to be his equal. I would marry him, cry for years, and leave him, before I realized he did this because he could never make himself big enough–intellectually, financially, sexually–to be my equal.

Casey reviews A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar


Like many a classic coming-of-age or fictional autobiography, A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar begins with the birth of the heroine.  What you don’t usually see, though, is a screaming match in an American hospital in Arabic between the mother and father after a disagreement about the baby’s name.  If you don’t know any Arabic words, this is an interesting introduction by the main character Nidali’s mother: “Kussy?  Kussy ya ibn ilsharmoota?” “My pussy, you son of a whore?  Don’t concern yourself with my pussy, you hear?  No more of this pussy for you, you … ass!”  When Nidali’s father tries to stop his wife from swearing at the top of her lungs in public, she protests that no one in the States understands them anyway and to prove her point tells a white woman her baby looks like a monkey. The woman nods and smiles.

This beginning sets the irreverent, raw, no-holds-barred tone of Jarrar’s first novel.  Hers is the kind of infectious narrative voice that’s easy to fall in love with; you want to find out what happens to Nidali even before you know much about her.  Actually, just reading the initial description of her on the book jacket should be enough to pique your interest: “the rebellious daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father narrates the story of her childhood in Kuwait, her teenage years in Egypt … and her family’s last flight to Texas.”  The novel is a great mix of what’s now considered history—like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990—and personal experience; it’s not that Nidali’s story is interesting because of the significant world events she’s living through but that her individual perspective can teach us about these historical events and this history sheds light on who she is.

In addition to the combination of history and the personal, the novel is a fascinating mix between serious material and a comic outlook.  I suppose it’s that mentality of ‘if you don’t laugh, you might cry.’  Nidali’s father, for example, is both verbally and physically abusive but the tone that the narrator recalls this in is not what you might expect: it’s the same wry attitude she paints everything with.  Recounting the humiliating experience of going through an Israeli checkpoint to visit family in Palestine, Nidali ends the scene by describing a woman whose shoes mysteriously disappear after the intensive search.  After convincing the soldier to return her stolen shoes, the woman says: “First my land, now my Guccis!  Goddamn it.”  It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time—pretty exemplary of this whole book, actually.

The idea of home is, of course, central to A Map of Home.  It’s a feeling Nidali is looking for throughout the story, not quite sure about her father’s proclamation that Palestinians can carry a sense of home around with them.  She just wants to feel like she belongs to a place, and that it belongs to her, and whenever she starts to feel a connection with somewhere, it is ripped from her grasp.  Later on in the book she seems to make peace with this feeling of placelessness while looking at a map:

I stared at the whiteness of the paper’s edges for a long, long time. The whiteness of the page blended with the whiteness of my sheets. ‘You are here,’ I thought as I looked at the page and all around me. And oddly, I felt free.

Jarrar is a talented writer, as you can see in that quotation, crafting unusual and striking similes like “guilt descended like a fat mosquito and sucked out all our blood” and “the onus of renaming a son after my grandfather was [one] [Nidali’s father] brushed off his then-solid shoulders unceremoniously, like a piece of lint or a flake of dandruff.”  I’m really interested to see what she writes next, in particular to see if she focuses on queerness a bit more.  If you’re looking for a book with a lot of queer content, A Map of Home certainly isn’t it; the character is definitely bisexual and talks in passing about her feelings and narrates one brief same-sex experience, but the different gender relationships take up a lot more narrative space.  I certainly wouldn’t fault the novel for this, especially as it ends when Nidali is only in her late teens, but I would be interested to know how Nidali explores her sexuality more in her future.  It would be especially interesting to see how Nidali’s multi-cultural and racial background play out with a non-monosexual identity.  You know, if she was a real person and stuff and not a work of fiction.