This reading group guide for The Thirty Names of Night includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Zeyn Joukhadar. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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In The Thirty Names of Night,
a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one five years after the death of his mother. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost began to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend. The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria.
One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare
As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.Discussion Questions (12-15)
1. The novel begins with the sentence “Tonight, five years to the day since I lost you, forty-eight white-throated sparrows fall from the sky” (1). How do these words set up the themes that will continue throughout the book?
2. Two primary story lines emerge—that of Nadir and that of Laila, one in the present and one in the 1930s and ’40s. Why do you think the author chose to highlight these two characters and these two eras? What does the historical perspective add to the contemporary story line?
3. Early on, we learn the story of Hawa, who builds “a flying machine out of a bicycle and two sets of linen wings” and flew for a short distance before crashing in a field (13). What does this story represent? How does it contribute to the theme of AFAB people (those who were assigned female at birth) resisting the burdens placed on them by the gender binary?
4. The sense of an unseen city beneath the visible one permeates these pages with the remark that “Manhattan is invisible now, a city that lives only in the memories of those of us who were there” (20). What does this say about both New York City and Nadir’s reactions to the gazes of others as the novel unfolds?
5. Nadir’s sections often invoke the “you” of his mother. Why do you think the author includes this, and how does it mirror the “you” referenced in Laila’s letters to B? How does his mother’s ghost influence Nadir’s actions? How do the characters understand themselves through their relationships to the people they love?
6. Language and the act of naming are great concerns of the novel. How does naming things, from Geronticus simurghus
, to love (ta’burni), to Nadir and others themselves, affect these characters’ understanding of themselves and their environments? How does Nadir claim himself in choosing a new name?
7. Found and chosen families play a major role in this novel. Reflect on Laila’s relationship with her mother, Khalto Tala, and Ilyas and Nadir’s relationships with Teta, Reem, Sami, and Qamar.
8. Sami explains his work, which draws attention to overlooked injustices and traumas within his community, by saying “I use the knots to mark where things happened. Marking a thing is a kind of witnessing. The past is already bound to the ground where it took place. I’m just making that bond visible” (104). If the characters were to apply this principle to their lives, what knots would they make?
9. What does Laila’s interaction with Mrs. Theodore reveal about the immigrant and artistic experience in New York City at the time? How do both gender and race impact Nadir’s and Laila’s artistic careers? How do they impact the career of Benjamin Young?
10. As Nadir struggles with his identity, he notes that “my truth isn’t inscribed on my body. It lives somewhere deeper, somewhere steadier, somewhere the body becomes irrelevant. . . . If I am in a state of becoming, it has no endpoint” (136). Consider the ways that transgender people are reduced to their bodies in society, and how this strips them of their humanity and complexity. How is the body treated in this novel, in both the ways the characters think of their own bodies and how others perceive them? In what ways do the characters resist being reduced to their bodies?
11. Nadir notes that “Teta doesn’t like to tell stories quite the way they happened” (158). What does this say about Teta’s life and the storytelling in this novel? In what ways might members of a marginalized community be forced to keep silent about the things that they have endured to survive? Do you think there is a generational difference between Nadir and his teta in how they choose to speak (or not speak) their truths? In what ways does Teta honor her truths, even if she does so differently from Nadir?
12. “Many species of birds have been shown to have memories of their roosting or mating sites that persist over generations,” the novel notes (212). In what ways do the characters in this novel engage with memory, the weight of history, and generational trauma?
13. In the end, what do you think Geronticus simurghus
symbolizes to both Laila and Nadir?
14. What power does Nadir claim for himself in erasing his birth name from the text? Why do you think the author chose not to tell the reader his birth name? If you found this frustrating, why do you think that is?Enhance Your Book Club (3–5 questions)
1. Read Zeyn Joukhadar’s debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars
, and discuss what similarities the two share despite their very different settings.
2. Take out a map to trace the neighborhoods and communities—both historical and contemporary—mentioned here, including Little Syria, Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, and Dearborn, Michigan.
3. Although Laila Z’s work is fictional, honor her story by researching the work of Arab women artists, including Etel Adnan, Simone Fattal, and Madiha Omar (all referenced in the novel).
4. Visit the author’s website to learn more about his work and upcoming projects at zeynjoukhadar.com.Author Q&A (8–10 questions)Q:
In both The Thirty Names of Night
and your debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars
, you find important uses for mythical creatures—the roc and the simorgh. How has the folklore of the Levant and of greater southwest Asia influenced your work? A:
Myths, folktales, and folklore are often used to signal thematic concepts in literature. In any culture, folklore conveys meaning, history, and commonality. Growing up in the United States, I was often exposed to Western folklore in the literary canon without understanding it as context; it isn’t universal, though it was presented to me that way as a student. Once I began to read work by other Arab authors, I understood that we possessed our own cultural, mythological, and folkloric language, and began to employ this in my own work. For me, writing in English and in diaspora in the US, this represents an important decentering of the Western literary canon.
It’s interesting that the roc and the simorgh, which are based on the same creature and are shared across several Asian cultures, not only Syria and the Levant, appear in both books. I am starting to find, as I write, that I continue to develop concepts across my novels. I’m always working something out on the page.Q:
Like your debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars
, The Thirty Names of Night
features both a historical and present-day story line. What draws you to the dual-narrative structure? A:
Partly I think this is because the interweaving of multiple story threads is part of my cultural heritage; traditional Arab oral storytelling makes use of similar structures. Two or more stories, when told together, make various aspects of each one visible by contrast, by similarity of themes, or by telling the same story in different ways. Partly I think it’s also because for me, history informs not only my work, but also my life. As a person of color, as a queer and trans person, and as someone who was assigned female at birth, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring history. I have to know where I come from and how my ancestors resisted in order to survive.Q:
You did a tremendous amount of research about the Syrian diaspora, both in neighborhoods of New York City, like Little Syria and along Atlantic Avenue, and in places like Toledo, Ohio, and Dearborn, Michigan. Did anything you found in your research surprise you? A:
The thing that surprised me the most was probably the oral histories of Arab auto factory workers in Dearborn and Detroit, which I was lucky enough to have access to while I was an artist in residence at the Arab American National Museum in 2019. I was struck, in particular, by a single voice. The person was described as a woman autoworker; she spoke about the misogyny and racism she experienced while working in the auto industry over many years. But it was what I heard in her voice that surprised me. Queer and trans AFAB people (those of us assigned female at birth) have a way of recognizing one another by our voices and our way of speaking, things that cis straight people typically don’t pick up on. We developed this as a means of surviving and finding one another while remaining hidden. I heard this quiet signal in this person’s voice, even at a distance of years. We have always, always been here.Q:
Many of the characters have a connection to visual art. What artists and pieces inspired you? A:
My father was a painter, and I’ve also always been a visual artist as well as a writer. I spent a year or two as a freelance scientific illustrator after earning my doctorate. I was always inspired by nature art, but I was also acutely aware that white cis men were taken seriously as artists while people who fell outside that narrow definition were not. I’ve always loved the art and writing of Etel Adnan, mentioned in the novel, and I’m excited about so many contemporary queer and trans artists of color. I think the future of contemporary art is bright.Q:
There’s a tremendous knowledge of bird species apparent in this novel. How did you decide which kinds of birds—like the Geronticus
genus or the yellow-crowned night heron—would have special meaning for the characters? A:
I’ve always had an affinity for birds, and even studied their languages from the time I was a small child. During graduate school, I lived in Massachusetts, during which time I often went to the Museum for American Bird Art at Mass Audubon. After I took a job in rural Pennsylvania, I found the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg. There is a sketch there by Ned Smith of the yellow-crowned night heron that struck me, one I went back to see many times.
But I also asked myself what it meant for white men to paint birds that lived on stolen, occupied land and be highly compensated and praised for it. Why was their art taken seriously whereas mine, and the art of others like me (nonwhite, assigned female at birth, let alone queer, let alone transgender), was seen as an amateur pastime? I wanted to see, on the page, a protagonist who could honor the birds of their land of origin as well as the land in which they found themselves, and grapple with this. This is why, in Thirty Names
, I decided also to discuss birds that were important as sacred symbols in the Levant and in the SWANA region more generally. This of course included the ibises (Threskiornithidae)
, of which Geronticus
forms a subfamily.Q:
Did you find any major differences in writing your second novel as opposed to your first? A:
My second novel took much longer to write than my first. I took more risks with this second book, particularly in terms of the narrative structure as well as in talking openly about the experiences of transmasculine people. But I like to challenge myself more with each book I embark on. I think, as many others have said, that being a little afraid of a project is a sign you’re on the right path.Q:
Why did you choose not to reveal Nadir’s birth name/deadname in the text? Why was it censored rather than simply left unsaid? A:
Historically, cis writers have treated transness as a “spoiler,” and have misgendered and deadnamed trans characters until close to the end of a book or movie, using the reveal for shock value or laughs. Being called by our deadnames or purposefully misgendered is violence and erasure. In this novel, I decided to use erasure, so often a tool of transphobic violence, as a tool of resistance. Nadir himself erases or censors his deadname in the text, even before he chooses a name for himself. This active erasure was intended to show cis readers that he does not want them to know his deadname, as well as to make them reflect on the fact that cis people are not entitled to know trans people’s deadnames, and perhaps to give them the opportunity to reflect on why they so often feel entitled to knowing them.Q:
What was the hardest scene to write? Which came most easily to you? A:
I would say my favorite scenes to write were probably the scenes in 1930s Syria and New York, though I can’t quite say they were easy, as they required close to three years of research. The scenes in which I describe gender dysphoria (particularly the scenes at the OB/GYN and in the YMCA pool), were extremely difficult to write, even though I had all the information and experience I needed to write them. I wrote the first drafts of these scenes when I was still experiencing immense dysphoria myself. But it was important to me to have a description of dysphoria on the page written by an actual trans person. So often, when cis people try to describe the experience of dysphoria, they reduce it to hating one’s body or being distressed at not “looking like the opposite sex.” Both of these are very flattened and, even for binary trans people, often quite far from the truth. At the time I was writing this book, I had rarely read a depiction of dysphoria in a nonbinary person, written by a nonbinary person, and when I had, it was typically in the context of memoir. If I had been exposed to literature with better representation twenty years ago, it would have changed the course of my life and spared me much pain. I hope other trans people will read these difficult scenes and take comfort in knowing there is a word for what they are experiencing. I hope it will make this transphobic world a little easier to bear.Q:
What are you working on next? A:
I’m working on a couple of novels at the moment as well as some nonfiction projects. I’ve also been collaborating with visual artist Matteo Rubbi on a multilingual, trans-Mediterranean atlas of the night sky, for which we’ve received support from the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.