Joukhadar, Zeyn. “The Thirty Names of Night”, Atria, 2020.
Three Generations of Syrian Americans
Five years after his mother was killed by suspicious fire, a closeted Syrian American trans boy searches for a new name. He used to love to paint but has been unable to do so since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. He is his grandmother’s sole caretaker and spends his days up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who is also his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he sneaks out at night to paint murals on buildings in the neighborhood known as Little Syria.
One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds a journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who had dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but in her journal is proof that both his mother and Laila Z saw the same rare bird before their deaths. He sees that Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s and his grandmother’s in ways he never could have imagined or expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story contains the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. He realizes that he isn’t and has never been alone and gains the courage to officially take a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.
Then as large numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the skies of New York City, Nadir asks for the help of his family and friends to learn what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. He follows his mother’s ghost and learns of the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself and finds the family that was there all along.
Zeyn Joukhadar’s book is an exploration of how we all search for and eventually embrace who we are. The prose is lush and beautiful. “It explores loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history.” We are taken on a journey and look at the cost of silence and secrets. We all want to exist and belong and through Joukhadar’s prose, we get a look at a young man who wants to do the same.
We begin with the then unnamed narrator sitting on the roof of his grandmother’s apartment watching birds fall from the sky. His mother had been an ornithologist so he is familiar with birds. He thinks about how everything has changed since her death. He hides the things she left behind and they are his only tangible means of remembering, and of grieving. We are with the boy as he becomes Nadir and his story is the story of transgender people who want acceptance. It is also the story of immigrants who feel exclusion from the rest of society. When Nadir discovers the artist’s journal in an old tenement building, he discovers so much more than he anticipated and begins to see himself as he is. He learns to accept himself and others.