Debut Authors / Fiction / Interviews

History worn on the skin: Q&A with Sarah Cypher

Bloom spoke with Arab-American author Sarah Cypher, whose debut novel The Skin and Its Girl is out today. 

Leah De Forest: First, congratulations!

Sarah Cypher: Thank you! I’ve been working on The Skin and Its Girl in some form since the early 2000s, and parts of it have grown up with me as a writer. Seeing the finished book in the world seems like a fable come true, in some ways—but in part, too, the publishing industry has evolved enough that it was possible to find a home for an unconventionally plotted novel about queer Palestinians. Although I don’t want to spend so long on another novel ever again, there is something to be said for allowing yourself to learn how to write a challenging project, and also for believing in it enough not to compromise its core identity just to fit an artificial bandwidth of “the market.” I’m not just celebrating this book, but all the changes that (often indirectly) made it possible for it to be published.

LDF: The Skin and its Girl is about so many things: family, belonging, queerness, and coming of age … and its protagonist has blue skin. Can you talk a bit about how this character came to you, and what her appearance came to represent?

SC: When I was writing a very early version of this novel, one of my characters gave birth to a cobalt-blue baby. I’d been reading a lot of Gabriel García Marquez, so I let the event remain undefined in the narrative—something about that decision felt right. Blue, as a color, doesn’t have the cultural index that it does in SWANA-region cultures (or India, of course, if you’ve read SJ Sindu’s Blue-Skinned Gods). In an American context, a blue daughter worked best as an uncategorizable space in which other characters reveal their natures by trying to explain it. For me as the writer, I treated blueness as a zone of meaning in my own thinking about the project without trying to pin it down, and there’s something very queer about that approach—something both welcoming and productively unstable.

The instability is also mirrored in the family situation, and in the larger geopolitical context of the story, which begins in 2002 after 9/11 and during the Second Intifada in Palestine. In The Skin and Its Girl’s opening scene, infant Betty is stillborn and has her mother’s typical skin tone, but she comes back to life and turns blue. The color implies the question, “What now?” It embodies this idea of aftermath that runs through the novel’s other subplots. For instance, her nuclear family has already split apart. Her father has already cheated on her mother, prompting a divorce. Her grandmother has already sold off the family’s ancestral soap factory in Nablus, and there’s a decades-long feud. Things are so broken that the characters’ identities are tangled up in the fractures.

It’s into this situation that Betty’s larger-than-life auntie, eighty-year-old Nuha, inserts herself and prods everyone start to answer the question, “What next?” She is the family storyteller, the family’s sense-maker, and posits storytelling as a form of agency.

LDF: I was really taken with this element of the story: the way your characters hide things from themselves and each other.

SC: That’s a really good observation. It picks up on the double-edged nature of storytelling. When you are using that power to create space for yourself, especially as a character like Nuha does, the conventional narrative holds the temptation of simplification. Who makes a likely hero? What motivations are honorable? How does an outsider speak up for their humanity from a position of diminished power? Some of my main characters can “pass” in situations that would normally label them outsiders (whether because of class, origin, or in Betty’s mother’s case, mental illness). These characters are likely to hide behind their stories in order to fit in. Others cannot pass, like Betty, and her relationship with storytelling is more of a search for self—“Is there a precedent for people like me? Can I revise old stories to give myself a place in them?” These are the questions most tied up with the novel’s revisions of storytelling forms like the parable, the traditional Arabic folktale with its repetitions and variations, the origin story, and so on.

LDF: The Rummani family’s key connection with their former home in Palestine is with a soap factory in Nablus. Can you talk a bit about what role that plays in the novel, and how you went about researching that element?

SC: I’m bothered by the bad-faith rhetoric about “there was no such place as Palestine”—the classic, anti-Indigenous fable that exists in some form in America’s nationalist story too. In traditional Nabulsi olive oil soap, however, I found an object lesson in people, place, and history. For some 600 years or more, it was a pillar of a booming regional economy: existing because of local olive trees in local dirt, with local ash from a particular local plant tended by the Bedouins, cooked in limestone quarried from the local hills. There’s a whole Palestinian history implied by a simple object, and even though the occupation and present struggles have badly damaged that economy, it is still manufactured today. The deeper I got into writing about soap and its connection to the (fictional) Rummani family history, I needed to put my body in that place, walk through those streets, enter the factories, walk on the land.

When I’d chosen to rewrite The Skin and Its Girl from scratch during my MFA program, I knew I couldn’t write a whole novel in only a semester or two. I was able to get a grant that let me take a leave of absence for a semester, dial back on my freelance editorial work, and travel in the West Bank for a little while. I recognize that this is an extraordinary privilege—not just the grant and work flexibility, but also to visit a place that is often inaccessible to people who have much closer family connections there than I do.

LDF: There’s a story in the novel about Rummani family’s ancestors dyeing their skin with their soap. What was the inspiration for that?

Who makes a likely hero? What motivations are honorable? How does an outsider speak up for their humanity from a position of diminished power?

SC: This was purely a storytelling decision, and it has no historical inspiration! Betty comes from a family that has manufactured soap by these traditional processes for centuries, and she’s born on the same night their ancestral factory is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on Nablus. I wanted the family to have a strong basis for accepting her for her strangeness, and it helped to have her auntie reference this (possibly apocryphal) story about a Rummani boy who’d fallen in love 200 years before and tried to impress his crush by making a batch of indigo-blue soap. It doesn’t go as well as he’d hoped—in fact, it goes so poorly that it becomes a tale the family tells for centuries. This was all very fun to write.

LDF: Another theme that stood out to me in your novel is intergenerational trauma. The way that Betty, who was raised in the US, carries the history of her family … in a sense literally, on her skin.

SC: That’s exactly right—the frame for The Skin and Its Girl mirrors the family’s situation living in the Palestinian diaspora. Betty is a second-generation Palestinian American, and her immediate family was committed to making all things possible for her. As a result, she is happy with her adult life in the Bay Area. But she narrates the story from indecision because she’s fallen in love with a woman who wants her to emigrate to another country in order to continue the relationship. Part of Betty’s resistance is personal—she is afraid of how othering that experience will be—but she also has an ingrained resistance to ultimatums that essentially say, “You’ll lose either your home or your loved ones, so pick.” This theme comes up in other Palestinian stories, especially in the diaspora. It was done beautifully in the film Farha, where the protagonist chooses to stay and is forced to realize that once everyone she loves is gone, her village is just a dead shell of a home.

Blue door, Nablus. Photo: Sarah Cypher

LDF: I’d like to talk a little now about your journey as writer. You’ve been writing for a long time. Can you talk a bit about your experience with that? What challenges have you encountered, and how have you overcome them?

SC: I took a lot of workshops as an undergraduate, but while so many of my peers went on to get their MFAs right out of college, my internal compass was pointing me away from formal institutions. It was right after 9/11, and I was thinking a lot about identity—also trying to get the courage to come out. My family was (and still is) rooted in the Pittsburgh area, and in looking for places to gain some distance, I knew I didn’t have money to go to New York City. I didn’t know how to break into the publishing industry as a first-generation college student. But I knew I just really enjoyed working with manuscripts and fiction, and I moved to Portland because it was beautiful and inexpensive and I didn’t know anyone there. I started my freelance editing business, The Threepenny Editor, within a year of graduating from college.

Since then, editing has given me an opportunity to see a lot of manuscripts and think about their mechanics, so when I finally did return for my MFA at Warren Wilson from 2017 to 2020, I felt like I brought that with me. But the MFA nudged me to read more intentionally than I ever had before, and the Warren Wilson community is also big on modeling good literary citizenship. It wasn’t until after having all those pieces in balance did I feel like I could begin to figure out what I was doing with my own writing.

LDF: You’ve written in your newsletter on Substack about your first experience with getting an agent and having a novel that didn’t sell. What was that experience like for you, and how has it informed the way you think about the launch of this novel?

My wife Erin and I are each other’s biggest supporters, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that getting The Skin and Its Girl done and published is as much her achievement as mine.

SC: Oh, it was devastating, as it always is when that happens! I’ve had so many friends in that boat and its heartbreaking. But it’s not a career-stopper unless you let it be one, and it certainly forces you to ask how much writing matters to you, and why. It usually means having to start again with a new project or revisit an abandoned one no one else has seen.

In my case, it got me back to the idea of getting an MFA and got me to pick up this project again—and when I did find an agent for The Skin and Its Girl, I went in without a lot of illusions. I actually felt it was more likely for it not to sell. So the best thing I did for my mental health was just to articulate what I could control and what I couldn’t, and be very intentional about the factors in my control: good communication with my agent, being thorough about edits, standing up for my vision, and seeking feedback and advice from my community. My thought was, if this doesn’t go well, at least I know I did everything I could. And if it goes well, I can celebrate it with a lot of people.

LDF: All writers experience challenges in their personal lives; I might observe that as we get older, one of the key challenges is that life gets fuller. You have a busy life as an independent editor and a military spouse, which has involved—among other things—a lot of moving around. Can you talk a bit about how you’ve managed those competing demands on your time, and how you’ve been able to keep working and writing over the long haul?

SC: Honestly, partnership is a huge part of my creative life. Ursula K. Le Guin said something about writing and marriage that I’ve always kept close to my heart, something to the effect of, you don’t have to marry money, but just don’t marry resentment. My wife Erin and I are each other’s biggest supporters, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that getting The Skin and Its Girl done and published is as much her achievement as mine. We constantly talk about our dreams, our difficulties in a day, and the problems we’re trying to solve—and she’s also much more of an optimist than I am. Even though we’ve both taken on a lot more in our careers these past several years, we try to balance each other’s stress with humor and generally keep a positive mental attitude about situations that seem especially difficult. And I’ve gotten better about discerning who and what deserves my energy, and what doors to simply close without guilt: that’s been a gift of age.

Poppies on Mt. Gerizim, West Bank. Photo: Sarah Cypher

LDF: What’s next for you?

SC: Tonight is the big launch event at East City Bookshop in downtown DC, which is both virtual and in-person! Along with some virtual events for Arab American Heritage Month, the Epigraph Literary Festival, and a craft talk at the Writer’s Center, I’ll be doing hybrid and in-person events at the Center for Fiction, White Whale Books in Pittsburgh, and the Books in Bloom Festival in Maryland. After that, although I am strongly envisioning myself off of social media for a few months and floating on a paddle board on a lake with my dog, the reality is that this final year in Washington, DC, will go quickly. I will be returning to my next novel at a Vermont Studio Center residency in June, and then teaching a few virtual classes and workshops at The Loft. Editorial work always keeps me busy at my desk, too. But I’ll probably find myself some time to be offline in the sun, too!

LDF: Thank you so much for your time, and congratulations again. I’d like to finish off with a left-field question, which I hope won’t be too awkward. Here it is: If you could meet your protagonist, Betty, in the real world, what is the first thing you would say or do?

SC: What a fun question! I’d probably invite her to the best Middle Eastern restaurant in the area so we could critique the stuffed grape leaves while talking about the coolest things she’s found in the museum archives.

Sarah Cypher is a freelance book editor and author of The Skin and Its Girl, forthcoming from Ballantine on April 25, 2023. She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where she was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Creative Writing Fellow in fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, New Ohio Review, Majuscule, North American Review, LEON Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, and others. As a writer, Arab American, military spouse, and queer woman, Sarah is interested in how people define and identify with one another’s differences.

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