I am an American, Chicago-born,” Randa Jarrar writes in her memoir, Love Is an Ex-Country, echoing the opening of Saul Bellow’s 1953 picaresque The Adventures of Augie March. It’s a reference, or an appropriation, that is by turns cheeky and pointed. In echoing Bellow, after all, Jarrar is both claiming and rejecting him—as well as, by extension, the white literary patriarchy he represents. Bellow, remember, is reported to have asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” (“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” the Black journalist Ralph Wiley would later reply.) Jarrar, then, is positioning herself both as a critic and as a participant in the conversation about which stories, and whose, receive exposure. It’s a vivid and necessary point of view.
“To be a woman in America, a mother, and a descendent of North Africans and West Asians is to be the opposite of an amnesiac,” she declares. “It is to be reminded in your bones, your muscles, and the twisted strands of your DNA, every moment of every day, of war, of fear, of expulsion, of discrimination, and of others’ fear, dehumanization, and murder, of you and of people like you.”
This, in other words, is writing for survival. How can Jarrar exist if she can’t tell us who she is? She establishes the terms from the outset, invoking the Egyptian dancer Tahia Carioca, who in the 1940s drove from Los Angeles to New York “with her new Caucasian American husband.” What, Jarrar wonders, was it like for her?
For Jarrar, this is no idle question. Like Carioca, she is planning a cross-country trip. The time is 2016, “that deeply troubled and troubling election year.” Early in the journey, she awakens one morning in Santa Fe to news of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. Later, she gets pulled over for speeding in Missouri—on the same day that Philando Castile is murdered during a Minnesota traffic stop. The chronology leads Jarrar to ponder her own privilege; her skin, as she has told us, is light enough “to pass for white.” It’s a stunning observation because of how it implicates everyone, even Jarrar, in the dislocation at the heart of the American experiment. “I went along my way, alive,” she writes. “In one piece.”
Jarrar is getting at a kind of doubling, which grows in part out of the differences between who she is and how she is perceived. She is a large woman, sex-positive, with dark hair and light skin. She is a professor and a writer, a single mother, the “bad Muslim” daughter of an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father. The latter beat her throughout her youth. To call Love Is an Ex-Country a book of reconciliation, however, is to miss the larger point.
Yes, she eventually comes to some resolution with her father, who has also denigrated her writing and the quality of her love. But if this is important to the memoir, it is not the only focus here. Jarrar, after all, has nothing to prove to her father; if anything, it is the other way around. What interests her is how these elements, these aspects of her identity, come together and break apart. She highlights this by way of the road trip, which is less a narrative on its own terms and more the framework for a series of interconnected vignettes. This allows her to move around in time as well as space, shifting fluidly from childhood to adulthood, from her experiences in the Middle East, where she spent many of her early years, to those in the United States.
Nowhere is this doubling more powerfully rendered than in regard to her mother, whose experience Jarrar recapitulates in certain ways. In Chicago, she visits the apartment where her parents lived when she was born, struck by the odd experience of traversing the same streets as her mother, lonesome and a long distance from home. It was during her mother’s time in Chicago that her own mother died, although her family chose not to tell her because she was pregnant with Jarrar.
“Years later, in a sushi restaurant,” the author tells us, “we were a little drunk, and my mother said she thought I was her mother. That I am her reincarnation? I said, but my mother said, no, you are my mother.” The moment lingers because of its subtext—that in the end, Jarrar has no choice but to mother herself—and also because of her wish that it were otherwise. As she writes of her parents’ building in Chicago, “I only wanted to stand in the lobby…and breathe and remember what it must have been like to be carried and swaddled by my mother, by my father, and the moments we stood in this same exact spot, bracing for the cold to come.”
The remarkable thing is that this longing is utterly unsentimental; Jarrar understands she can’t go back. “I had almost crossed the entire country,” she writes toward the end of the book, “and I felt nowhere near home.”
This lack of resolution may be discomforting, but it is also inevitable: the double vision of the memoir once again. If home, as they say, is where the heart is, then there is no other option, Jarrar is saying, but to create it, again and again, over and over, everywhere we go.