“The Thirty Names of Night” by Zeyn Joukhadar, tells the story of a closeted Syrian American nonbinary character in his early 20s in New York City who is haunted by his mother’s ghost and the mystery of a famous painter who painted the birds of New York City. .
The author of "The Map of Salt and Stars" weaves two different stories progressing throughout the book (Atria, 304 pp.,★★½ out of four) at the same time.
One is of the main character, who is a young and nonbinary and who sheds his given name for a new one, Nadir. As Nadir leans into his gender identity, which is not strictly male nor female, he recruits friends to find the painter's long-lost masterpiece. All while the ghost of his mother haunts him, interrupting his thoughts with cutting glances and sympathetic looks.
The second story revolves around the famed and mysterious Syrian American painter, Laila, who came to the United States in the 1930s with her family to the now-nonexistent neighborhood of “Little Syria” in Manhattan.
Nadir finds Laila’s diary and learns from it the story of her immigration, first love, second love and all the wonderful birds that fly in and out of her life. And to his surprise, Laila’s story is interconnected with many of his own family's secrets and holds clues to a famous missing painting of a legendary bird.
“The Thirty Names of Night” has multiple themes at play at any given time – grief, gender identity, immigration, gentrification and ornithology – sometimes all in one page. It can feel overwhelming but conveys the same sensation Nadir feels.
Joukhadar, who is trans himself, doesn't try to pander to the reader's experience but focuses instead on Nadir's gender identity struggle. He links all the moving parts of the story together while highlighting the ignored history of people who are transgender.
The author writes in a tweet: "I intentionally focused more on wordless experiences of embodiment rather than labels when discussing the character’s gender. But that’s also what the book is about—the complexity of that." In a follow-up tweet, he notes: "We don’t all often have the language for things like this right away."
I get why this could be confusing—Nadir uses he/him rather than they/them pronouns, & I intentionally focused more on wordless experiences of embodiment rather than labels when discussing the character’s gender. But that’s also what the book is about—the complexity of that.
— Zeyn Joukhadar, PhD (@ZeynJoukhadar) November 24, 2020
At the start of the novel, Nadir is in the midst of grief, artist block and a growing threat of eviction all while dealing with gender dysphoria.
At times the connection between Laila's diary and the effects it has on Nadir are not clearly stated, but as Laila's story reveals her own queer identity and her relationships with transgender people in her Syrian Americancommunity, Nadir feels empowered to start owning his true self.
Joukhadar's beautiful lyricism throughout the novel will be familiar to fans of “The Map of Salt and Stars.”And despite juggling many themes, “The Thirty Names of Night” reminds us that the stories of queer people are stories of survival that span generations.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Review: 'The Thirty Names of Night' delves into nonbinary identity