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Randa Jarrar has made the world a sexier and more thoughtful place—and on this episode, she discusses her powerful new memoir, "My Love is an Ex-Country."

Design Matters: Randa Jarrar

Design Matters: Randa Jarrar

AUTHOR / WRITER / PERFORMER

22.3.21

Randa Jarrar / author / writer / the body

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

Randa Jarrar is a powerhouse who puts herself out there in her writing, on social media and in performance. She recently appeared in Hulu’s comedy-drama “Ramy” and in a variety of short films. Her books include a coming-of-age novel set in Kuwait, Egypt and Texas, and a book of short stories. She is a recipient of a Creative Capital Award and American Book Award, a PEN Book Award, and many others. Her latest book, Love is an Ex-Country, is a memoir about joy, queerness, kink, race, domestic violence and love. Randa Jarrar, welcome to Design Matters.


Randa Jarrar:

Yay! Thank you for having me.


Debbie Millman:

Randa, is it true that when you were young girl, you checked into a hotel under the name Madonna Nirvana?


Randa Jarrar:

100%, yes.


Debbie Millman:

What made you choose that particular name?


Randa Jarrar:

I mean, it was like 1991 and I was in New York City, where I knew Madonna had run away when she was 19. I was a fan of hers back then, and then Nirvana had just kind of taken over the airwaves. That was just like the fastest pseudonym I could come up with. I knew that I couldn’t check in under my own name because I didn’t want my family or anyone to know where I was.


Debbie Millman:

We’ll get to that in a little bit. Have you ever used the name again?


Randa Jarrar:

Never, but now I’m like—


Debbie Millman:

Is that your stage name?


Randa Jarrar:

I should.


Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. It’s such a good one. Randa, you’re the daughter of an Egyptian woman and a Palestinian man. Your father grew up in a shack on the side of a mountain in the West Bank, and then fled to Egypt when he was 17, yet you were born in Chicago, IL. When and why did your parents come to the United States?


Randa Jarrar:

My dad got a one-year internship at a firm in Chicago. He was a civil engineer/architect, and it was just an adventure. So my parents had moved to Kuwait and this was going to be their one year of living in the U.S., and it was the first time either of them had come to the United States. So I grew up hearing these amazing stories about how difficult it was, but also how fun it was for them to go to museums and dealing with the snow. I was born in January, I’m a Capricorn, so all of that hilarity I’ve heard about. Stories of bundling me up before we would go outside and how difficult it was for both of them because they’d never dealt with anything under 30 degrees, I would say.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve written about how when you were two days old, the nurses at Chicago Women’s Medical Center asked your parents if they could use you as a model for a bathing demonstration they wanted to share with new parents. And your parents agreed, and you were held naked and chubby in a small, yellow tub as two nurses bathed you. Though you don’t remember the actual experience, I know that you love this story and I’m wondering if you can share with our listeners why.


Randa Jarrar:

I mean, I love the way it’s always been told to me. My parents love telling the story. I love that I’m like a nudist right away. I love that like, you know, being handled by women and that my body was shown to other parents as the kind of example of how to take care of a body. I think because so much of my life, especially my childhood, my body was controlled and punished and all of this, that this particular memory to me is so pure and there’s so much love there. And it’s really ironic that the people involved are people I have never met. These two nurses that took care of me.


Debbie Millman:

Two months after you were born, your entire family moved to Kuwait, and you live there until you were 12, when you moved to Egypt. What made your family decide to move back to the Middle East?


Randa Jarrar:

I don’t think they ever considered staying here. I think they have always felt … I don’t know if my mom felt this way as much, but I know my dad really enjoys living in a country where he’s respected, basically. In the U.S., people make a big deal about his accent, are generally cruel and racist. Whereas in the Middle East, it’s not fun being a Palestinian, but it’s definitely more livable for a Palestinian to speak the language and be surrounded by people who share the culture. I know that my mom really liked being able to have friends who also spoke the same languages that she does.


Debbie Millman:

Your mother studied piano and your father studied engineering, but despite evidence of early talent as a dancer, your dad wanted you to be a writer. Why?


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

I’m actually surprised given your upbringing that he wanted you to be anything at all.


Randa Jarrar:

So my dad is a very complicated person, obviously. I know that he wanted to be a writer. And so the hope was that I would be my mom’s mini me, and when piano didn’t work out—it worked for my sister but not for me—I think there was kind of like a, “Whoa! What’s this one going to do?” And I think the understanding was always, oh, I would get married and the person I married would financially support me. But I also was told at school that I was a good writer and my dad agreed and thought that I was a good writer. He also really like my drawings, told me I could be a good artist. I think my parents are both really, really into the arts, and they’re into this idea that women can make great art, but I was never expected to make a living at it. So I think that’s where it’s like, “You can be an artist, you can be great. You can tell all these amazing stories about our families and kind of like elevate our history into art.” But once I did it, there were problems.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. When you were 13 years old, your family moved back to the United States and you settled in Old Greenwich, CT, which very well may be the whitest place on Earth.


Randa Jarrar:

Correct.


Debbie Millman:

It was just after the start of the Gulf War. And you’ve written this about being an Arab in the United States: “To be an Arab in America is to be a mouse unwittingly dumped into a paint pot of invisibility ink.” What was it like in Connecticut for you and your family?


Randa Jarrar:

It was very bizarre. I think because I’d grown up being told that I was light-skinned … in Arabic, when you say someone is light-skinned, you literally just say you’re [inaudible], which means white. And so coming to the U.S. and realizing that I wasn’t white was kind of a shock, and understanding that people just had no idea. Like, I had grown up knowing so much about the U.S. and yet people here didn’t know anything about my people, my culture, why I was even in America. There was a very cruel, racist streak, I think. I know that, for example, my sister went to school with—this is really funny—Hope Hicks and her sister.


Debbie Millman:

Really?


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Wow. There’s a book.


Randa Jarrar:

Uh-huh, yeah. And my sister dealt with—


Debbie Millman:

Three women.


Randa Jarrar:

Mhmm. Like, how did their lives turned out? My sister got also a lot more because she is darker skinned than I am. And my mom, I think, handled it with a lot of grace. Whereas my dad went to work, he took the train every day, he went into the city, works 12 hours, took the train home and was just sort of a workhorse those 10 years. So it was tough.


Debbie Millman:

You were bullied at school. The boys called you “tits,” the girls called you “Rhoda.” Was that for Rhoda Morgenstern?


Randa Jarrar:

No idea. I have no idea. They just—


Debbie Millman:

Oh, they were making fun of your name.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

I just got it, saying it out loud. Randa, it’s just tragic. It’s just astonishing thinking about the people that I care so deeply about being bullied by people that somehow have it in their head that they’re entitled to do that.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

How did you respond to the bullying?


Randa Jarrar:

When I look back at that time, I know that there was a part of me that understood the power of having the body that I had at the time. I did have really large breasts. There were times when I was amused by how obviously jealous people were about them, but also how entitled boys felt to them. I think that was kind of a mind fuck, if I can say that.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, of course.


Randa Jarrar:

Just trying to wrap my head around that, the reality of my body. I think my No. 1 thing was just getting out. Just keeping my head down, getting good grades so I could go to college. I remember my guidance counselor really … I think this is pretty common for women and people of color. She tried to say, “Oh, you should probably just go to community college for a couple of years.” And I said, “No, I want to study writing and I don’t care if I’m younger.” Because I was very young when I graduated high school, on purpose, because I just wanted to get the hell out of there.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Randa Jarrar:

So I think that’s how I dealt with it, was just finishing as fast as I could and getting out of there so I could reinvent myself.


Debbie Millman:

Does that guidance counselor know how successful you’ve become?


Randa Jarrar:

I don’t know. I wonder if she reads. It’s like …


Debbie Millman:

Fair point.


Randa Jarrar:

Right?


Debbie Millman:

Randa, you had a Quran in your house while you were growing up, but you’ve written about how you rarely saw anyone reading it. Instead, the adults in the house read diet books.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

This put an inordinate amount of pressure on you in terms of how they inspected and analyzed and expected your body to be. Why were they so preoccupied with diet books?


Randa Jarrar:

It took me a while to realize this, but both of my parents have eating disorders. I think that’s really what it comes down to. My dad was always, I think, had body dysmorphia. He thought he was much bigger than he was. And my mom just grew up being very tiny, but when she had children, she got larger. And so she was constantly trying to get herself back to the tininess, not realizing that she was pretty much like that. She was just a kid, that’s why she was so tiny. I think just both of them suffering and struggling with their own body stuff—I mean, they both wanted us to be healthy, but a lot of that is just concern trolling. The thing is I was not a fat child. I was a pretty average-sized, if not smaller than average, child. It was very damaging to grow up in a household where I didn’t know when I was full. Like, I was told to stop eating when I really wasn’t done or I was asked to continue eating when I was done. There was this sort of like mechanical thing that was going on with how much and how little I was supposed to be eating.


Randa Jarrar:

I do have some home videos, and as an 8 year old, I’m dieting. Like as an 8 year old, which is not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be taking care of my body and making sure that I get the proper nutrients.


Debbie Millman:

I know that your mother put you on all sorts of weird diets. There was one where you ate nothing but pineapple, watermelon and strawberries. There were others where dinner was just a single hamburger patty. Why were they so preoccupied with how much you weighed?


Randa Jarrar:

Well, there’s a couple of things. One is perhaps the idea of the family body. The sort of narcissistic idea of like, if your children are large, then that reflects poorly on you. It’s like this idea that your children and you are not separate. So if someone has an eating disorder, that extends to everyone in the family. The second thing is, after I got older and was a teenager, because those diets were when I was a teenager, the severe ones, I put myself on some too. I think those were also connected to my viability as a candidate for someone to come along and financially support me as a wife. The idea that that’s all women have to offer is their slimness and their bodies, which of course I ended up rejecting completely.


Debbie Millman:

How did you feel about your own body at the time?


Randa Jarrar:

I mean, obviously, I don’t think I understood how to take care of myself. I’m diabetic and I had diabetic issues as a 17 and 18 and 19 year old, and having a baby was really difficult. When I was pregnant as a teenager, I had constant borderline gestational diabetes. I think I didn’t understand how my body worked. I didn’t know … I think a lot of us don’t, especially when we’re younger. But when I saw my body for the most part, I was delighted with it. I really, really liked especially my secondary sex organs; my butt and my breasts. Yeah, I liked my skin. That’s one thing I’m grateful for. When I look back, at least I knew that I was lucky that I had a way of being in the world, that I was able-bodied. I love dancing. That was my No. 1 thing, was just moving. Movement and dancing was such a big deal for me, and still is. It makes me so happy. I can dance for hours and I don’t get tired because I’m just in heaven.


Debbie Millman:

It’s so interesting how we are so socialized to be so self-critical about our bodies. I actually have a memory of being in my backyard when I was living back in Howard Beach, Queens. I moved out of Howard Beach, Queens, the very beginning of third grade. So this was well before that. It must have been in either first or second grade. I remember we had a swing set and I was on the swing set with my friend Nancy, who lived a couple of blocks away. She was one of my best friends. Nancy was very skinny. I remember she got off the swings and walked back to the house for whatever reason. It was the summertime. We were wearing shorts. I remember looking at her legs and seeing that her legs were sort of bony and end very different than mine. I remember thinking at that time, “What’s wrong with me?” And I don’t even know where that came from. I mean, it’s a very, very vivid memory. I’ll never forget sort of feeling like, “My legs are bigger than her legs. What’s wrong with me?”


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

As I was reading your memoir, you’ve written about how it’s so socially acceptable to greet friends and family and co-workers with, “Hey, how are you? Have you lost weight?” It seems that any remark on another person’s size has become normalized now. I’m wondering if you have a sense of how that happened sort of anthropologically. You’ve written quite a lot about this, and I’m just wondering if you have the sense of when that became acceptable.


Randa Jarrar:

Especially for women, I think that talking about our size or what we eat has become encouraged in our culture. I think it’s because it’s a way for us to police each other. So it’s a patriarchal shortcut. It’s like, so, great, you just get women to police each other’s bodies, and that’s it. It’s as simple as that. I think that it’s also the easiest thing you can do or say. You look at someone, you imagine the way they look before the last time you saw them, and then you create a quick comparison, and then you say it out loud. I mean, it’s just the most boring, most obvious thing you can do. So I think it’s just like a quick easy way to connect with someone, but unfortunately—


Debbie Millman:

It’s right there with the weather.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah. It’s the easiest small talk, right? But I mean, I do think it’s toxic because it’s so often not true. So many people have asked me, will ask me once in a while, if I’ve lost weight when I’m just basically dressed up. It’s like sort of their way of not understanding that, no, just today I decided to shower and put on something that was more structured than a T-shirt.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Randa, your father not only policed your body. He also hurt it throughout your childhood and adolescence. You write about this very frankly, very candidly, without any bitterness. You’ve said now that your story is actually worth it, so that you can tell it straight. A part of your book centers on the relationship you have with your father, and you described how when you were 15 years old, he began taking you down to the basement of your house to teach you about what was acceptable and what was not in regard to sex. He told you that he had seen the movie Basic Instinct and that it was shameful and wrong for a woman to be on top of a man during sex. Then when he discovered that you were planning to go to a friend’s party, he explained why girls shouldn’t go to parties, then things get worse. If it’s not too difficult, I’m wondering if you could read an excerpt from your new memoir, My Love is an Ex-Country, about what you went through.


Randa Jarrar:

Sure. “When I was 16 I snuck out of the Connecticut basement to see a boy I was dating, a 17-year-old aspiring DJ. He and his friends picked me up from the dead end of our street. They took me to clubs, we ate at a diner, and then we went to wherever. He and I kissed and touched each other for hours. When he dropped me off at home, all the lights in the house were on even though it was dawn. We knew I’d been caught. He offered to let me stay the night at his house. He said his mother would be upset, but that she would understand. He said he was worried about me going in. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t go with him, why I didn’t choose snuggling next to someone who cared for me over punishment. I had never slept next to anyone I was attracted to before. I said no and I kissed him goodnight. I snuck back in through the basement. As usual, took off my clothes and put on the nightie I’d left down there, behind the sofa bed.


Randa Jarrar:

“The sounds of my father’s and mother’s feet thundering down the stairs. And then it began. Like rain lashing at a window. Like a flood. Like a doll cut up into five distinct pieces; legs, arms, head. Like a cardboard box with a sword through it. Like a fist. Like a magnifying glass over something in large print. Like a clap. My body, covered in red marks. My father slapped me, pulled my hair, punched my arms, which I hid my face behind. I was on my period. I bled and bled. My mother did nothing, always did nothing. I said, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ His one hand held both my small hands and his other hand knocked me against the side of my face, like a heavy bookshelf falling on my cheek. I ran upstairs. I wanted to emerge from underground. He ran after me.


Randa Jarrar:

“I ran out. I ran in a circle around our house. He ran in a circle around our house. No one called the police. Our neighbors on all sides were white. I was screaming. Not a single neighbor tried to help. My face was red and my tears covered my face. My father commanded me to go back inside. I don’t know why I did. We were back in the basement. He was kicking me. He was on top of me. He was slapping me. Afterward, he and my mother sat on the cheap corner loveseat and explained to me what life was. That there were rules. That I was a whore. They left calmly, now that all my father’s energy had flashed out of him like fire had burned me.


Randa Jarrar:

“I waited a few minutes, maybe 20. Then, I ran. I opened the basement door to the backyard and ran up the concrete stairs, down the street. I was in my nightie. I could have changed into my clothes, laced my shoes on, but I didn’t want to change anything, didn’t want to alter in any way the scene of the crime, which was my body. I ran down another street, all the way to the bottom, to a pay phone I used to use to call my friends. The pay phone was dead. I ran across the street to the hotel where my parents let guests stay when there was no room at our house, the fancy hotel. I ran to the front desk. I asked a woman there to call the police. She appeared inconvenienced. She called the police and said that a guest had been assaulted. I corrected her and said I was not a guest. I corrected her and said I ran to the closest place where I knew people would have to help me.”


Debbie Millman:

It’s just an extraordinary, extraordinary piece of writing. It’s so vivid. It’s so intense. What happened after that?


Randa Jarrar:

Thank you. What happened after was the police came, they ask me some questions, but there was definitely racist undertones. Like, “Oh, your dad’s Arab. This is not going to be good for him.” I knew that in that, maybe not city, but in that town, people were beating women constantly. I mean, there are also stories of murders that took place in Connecticut in that particular town where women were murdered. But they just happened to have been murdered by white men. So there was this really weird—


Debbie Millman:

So they were out partying.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah. There was this weird thing where I wanted to protect my family, but I also really didn’t want my dad to hit me again. It worked. He never hit me again after that. Because I think he knew that if I called the police again, he would go to jail.


Debbie Millman:

You did have to go to court. He had to go to court.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah, he did have to go to court. It took me until after to realize that I actually wasn’t on trial, that he was the one, that he had to go to court. But I was a minor, so I was with my family. I remember the social worker basically slut-shame me and told me what your dad did might have been wrong, but you really don’t want to be running around with boys late at night. There was an assault on all sides, I felt. I feel like women and people in this country who don’t have … they just don’t have protection. There’s no real safety.


Debbie Millman:

Randa, the excerpt that you read is from your new memoir, My Love is an Ex-Country, which is just a magnificent, magnificent book. It’s just been published. Really rave reviews. So congratulations.


Randa Jarrar:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

In it, you share story of your life while on a cross-country trip, so you sort of go back and forth in time. You leave from your home in Fresno, CA, and then travel to Flagstaff, Sedona, Santa Fe, El Paso, Minneapolis, Marfa, Texas, Oklahoma City, Missouri, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and then back to Connecticut. Why that particular route?


Randa Jarrar:

I had lived in Texas for a while so I had definitely done the more Southern route on drives to Louisiana, etc. I definitely wanted to come back to Texas, but then I wanted to visit some of the other places that I had been reading about in the news. My trip took place a year or two after Ferguson, so I did want to go to Missouri. I wanted to go to Chicago because that’s where my parents first lived. I wanted to go to Santa Fe because I’d heard that the land there basically spoke to you, and I wanted to know what that felt like. And then Detroit and the area around it has such a high concentration of Muslims and Arab Americans that I also wanted to be there during that time before Trump was elected. But I also … in a lot of ways, the book is not a typical cross-country road trip type of book. The road trip is mostly symbolic and the other stops are international. So I stopped in Beirut. I stopped in Istanbul. I stopped in Italy. I wanted to have the kind of road trip that someone like me would piece together. It’s disorienting on purpose because I am constantly disoriented.


Debbie Millman:

I didn’t really find it disorienting. I actually love the play with time.


Randa Jarrar:

Oh, nice.


Debbie Millman:

I loved it. Actually, I think, I’m hoping that it’s been optioned for a film because it would make a really great movie to go back and forth like that with time. Beautiful.


Randa Jarrar:

That’s great.


Debbie Millman:

You also talk about a trip that you were making to visit your sister, where you were refused entry into a country. And I’m wondering if you can share that story with us as well.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah. So I am the descendant obviously of Palestinians, which means that as a child I would go to Jenin, which is my dad’s home town. It’s in the West Bank. And when you go in, you have something called a Palestinian ID and there is record of you with the Israeli government. So I haven’t been back since I was a teenager, so I thought, Oh, I’m an American anyways so I’ll just fly into Ben Gurion Airport. Very naive. I also have a very cheap ticket. So I went. My sister was living in Ramallah. She was teaching refugees, but also teaching at a really cool music school there called Al kamandjati. And so I just like booked my ticket, went. But of course, as soon as I got there, I got flagged. My American passport got flagged. And then the security people there just plugged me into their files and saw that I was Palestinian.


Randa Jarrar:

To them, coming through Tel Aviv was not the correct way to enter. I was expected to enter through Jordan with my Palestinian ID and then to stay in the West Bank. So to ask for specific permits to be able to enter “Israel” outside of the West Bank. I just was flabbergasted. I was like, “What do you mean? I’m an American citizen.” I was just very naïve. “I’m an American citizen. I can come in here. Why can’t I just come in?” And they were like, “No, you’re not an American citizen. You’re a Palestinian.” And when I looked into the State Department—I still had my phone, thank god. And so I looked into the State Department and what they said, and they said, “If you look Palestinian or have a Muslim sounding name, it’s very likely that you will be [inaudible] and possibly denied entry. We cannot help you under those circumstances.”


Randa Jarrar:

So then I understood, oh yeah, it’s real. Like being an American citizen, there’s not just one kind of American citizen, there are tiers involved and tears. And so, yeah, that was just very frustrating and odd and I was denied entry after eight hours of them asking me, like, “Why are you really here?” And I kept saying, “I’m really here to visit my sister and hang out. I’ve never been to Jerusalem. I want to check out Jerusalem. I just want to hang out.”


Debbie Millman:

How old were you?


Randa Jarrar:

This was in 2012, so I was in my 30s. I hadn’t been back in maybe over 12 years, more I would say, since I was a teenager. Yeah, they sent me back. I asked, “Well, can I just go to Jordan and try from there?” And they said, “No, you have to go back exactly the way you came. So we’re going to send you all the way back to California.”


Debbie Millman:

Oh my god.


Randa Jarrar:

When they put me on the plane, they gave my passport to a flight attendant and said, “Don’t give her the passport until you land in New York.” That was where my transit was. The woman just kind of looked at him. As soon as he got off the plane, she gave me my passport. She was like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” I’m like, “Well, that’s how they do it here I guess.”


Debbie Millman:

I’m so sorry you had to go through that.


Randa Jarrar:

It was so painful.


Debbie Millman:

It’s just really, really unjust.


Randa Jarrar:

It really is. And it was a very eye-opening experience to know for a fact that I am not really considered an American citizen, and I am actually considered a Palestinian. And so now whenever anyone says, “Well, you’re not … who says you’re a Palestinian?” I’m going to say, “Israel says I’m Palestinian.”


Debbie Millman:

Right. I have proof.


Randa Jarrar:

I have the definitive answer here.


Debbie Millman:

Exactly. Randa, what made you decide to structure the book the way that you did? With this sort of playful, poignant, unfolding of time.


Randa Jarrar:

I felt that it was the most honest reflection of how time really functions. That it’s not really linear, that it’s circular, and that there is no sort of the beginning and end. It’s an ongoing process. There’s a few steps back, a few steps forward, one, two. It’s a dance, and I think that it’s really hard to capture with prose, but I wanted to take a chance. I wanted to see what would come of it if I did play with structure. I was really lucky. My editor is a woman of color. The first woman of color editor I’ve ever had. She really understood what I was trying to do and was so helpful. I have to give her credit for helping me figure out some of where those pieces would go. Because I was so close to it, but she was able to sort of pull back and see what I was trying to do.


Debbie Millman:

You take us through various parts of your life and deconstruct experiences in a way that I found to be both generous and critical and insightful all the same time. I’d love to talk with you about some of them. You got pregnant at 17 and gave birth to your son at 18. You marry the father of your son, but in analyzing having a child so young, you’ve come to realize that you experienced what is called reproductive coercion.


Randa Jarrar:

Mhmm.


Debbie Millman:

I actually never heard that term before reading your book. Can you talk a little bit about what that is?


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah. Reproductive coercion has so many different meanings, and it looks different for different people. It could be that someone impregnates you against your will. It could be that someone impregnates you and then doesn’t allow you to decide what to do once you’ve been impregnated. It could be someone knowingly impregnates you and knowingly forces you to have a child, both of which you had never agreed to. In my case, it was, I got pregnant unknowing … I didn’t know that I was going to get pregnant. I was young and I just sort of was irresponsible, but I found out later that my partner at the time had done this with several women. He had used faulty condoms or he had, without consent, taken the condom off. But I didn’t know at the time. I just thought, “Oh, I got pregnant.” I’m young and I guess I’m stupid and that happens.


Randa Jarrar:

While I wanted to have an abortion, he terrified me. He said, “Well, you know, I’m going to take care of this baby with you. Don’t worry.” And then when I would go do things without his “permission,” like go get an actual pregnancy blood test, he would physically abuse me and become violent and tell me that he would kill me if I didn’t have the baby. It’s definitely a painful thing and I’m really sad to share the story because I do want my son to know that he was wanted and loved. And that once I had my son, I knew right away, wow! This is really the love of my life and I need to get out of this terrible relationship so that I can raise this child with dignity and in safety. But everything leading up to that was a very negative experience that I didn’t know was common, but apparently is, and a lot of women struggle through it, women and people who can carry babies.


Debbie Millman:

How did you manage to get away?


Randa Jarrar:

There were a few things, and luck was a big part of it. One of the terrible things is that abusers like him tend to want to abuse new women once they do get a woman pregnant and have a baby. So he found someone else, and he did the same thing to her. We were able to find each other years later and talk about it and commune. So even though this woman and I have nothing in common—I mean, she’s a Republican. She’s just like not the kind of person that I would hang out with, but we still were able to have this two-hour conversation, which was very healing, about how difficult it was to be partnered with someone like that. Also, I think my parents at that point, my dad had not been abusive in a couple of years because obviously we’ve said why.


Debbie Millman:

Good thing you have that break.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah. I that they both just wanted to take care of me. And so they were very kind and they said, “You can move in with us until you figure out your next step.” Otherwise, it would have been really difficult because I was in college. I was only working at a library. I didn’t really have a lot of financial anything. So I was able to move out of my apartment before my rent was due. And I moved back in with my parents and did that for a year until I moved to Austin.


Debbie Millman:

You moved to Austin, TX, and got a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and then in August of 2001, you and your son moved into a trailer on a little piece of property in Kyle, Texas. At the time, it had a population of 5,000 people. You started writing a novel, and about one month later, 9/11 happened and you decide that no one will read … I’m going to be quoting you now: “No one will read a novel about an Arab American Muslim girl.” And then you decide, yes, they fucking will and you will keep writing about that.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

At that point forward, you seem to make writing as much a priority in your life as motherhood.


Randa Jarrar:

Absolutely.


Debbie Millman:

How did you manage to do this as a single mother?


Randa Jarrar:

This is really funny. Roxane [Gay] called at [inuadible]. It’s this combination, the goddess of wisdom and cunning. So a bunch of different factors kind of lined up at the same time. One was my mentor that I had mentioned, Leslie Marmon Silko, she had been a single mother and a writer and she knew how tough it was. So she gave me, literally, a stack of checks—12 checks, one for each month for $600, and said, “This is basically my fellowship for you. You just go write, live as cheaply as you can, don’t do an MFA.” I was in an MFA at the time and she told me to drop out, which I did. It was incredible. It was like an outsider, perfect outsider perspective. The perfect person basically came along and just knew that if I had the money and the time, I would write this book. So that happened.


Randa Jarrar:

She also called my parents and said, “Your daughter, she’s 23, she’s raising this baby. You need to financially support her.” They hadn’t since I’d moved out. She said, “Please just send her at least $100 or $200 a month to help her kind of get through this.” I also went on food stamps. The trailer that I lived in was $300 a month, including all utilities. So I just lived on just very, very little. I am so glad I did that, because the way that our culture or society works in the U.S., you tend to spend what you make. You tend to kind of … it’s really difficult to survive here. So without—


Debbie Millman:

More money, more problems.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah, exactly. I think just doing that and also just seeing the ways that women around me were investing in a lot of … they were basically investing in relationships, and I had done that and it didn’t work out for me. So I decided, I’m going to invest in my art and in myself and in my son. And I got to spend so much time with him growing up, which most single moms, it’s very difficult for us to do that because we’re working so hard. So I’m really grateful. I lucked out. I really lucked out.


Debbie Millman:

Though you lived on very little money, you’ve written that your son never knew that you were poor.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Good parenting?


Randa Jarrar:

I hope so. I think it’s a combination of good parenting and cunning on my part. We definitely, we had all these amazing, I would call them traditions. We had Saturday tradition. That was we would go to a bagel shop, we would get bagels and sit at the window and look at people walking by for an hour. That was what? $4. And then we would walk to a bookstore and on the way there, we would sit in hammocks outside a rugged outdoor store and we would just hang out and swing in these hammocks for another hour, and nobody told us that we couldn’t do that. And then we would go to a bookstore and he would read amazing—it was BookPeople in Austin, TX—he would read amazing books and then sometimes we would cross the street and listen to records at Waterloo. All of this was free. You didn’t have to spend a single dollar doing any of this. So to him, he was just like, “Yay! Adventures!”


Debbie Millman:

You got married a second time. But after you got married, this man didn’t want to have sex with you.


Randa Jarrar:

Mhmm.


Debbie Millman:

And you’ve said it was really difficult for you to be with people who actually liked you. That if someone loathes you, you know where you stand.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

This just stopped me in my tracks. How did you begin to break that pattern?


Randa Jarrar:

I thought initially with this partner that I was breaking the pattern because he was actually very sweet and kind, but I didn’t realize that his feelings for me were platonic. Which if someone asks you to marry them, you think, “Oh, this is not platonic.” And—


Debbie Millman:

And it didn’t start out that way.


Randa Jarrar:

No, it did not start out that way. He was not asexual. I know that. I’m definitely not being anti-asexual. This particular person was not asexual. He just, I think, wanted … it’s funny because I think he wanted the security of being with me, but didn’t want the intimacy. So I broke out of that by realizing that I didn’t deserve that, and that I was way too hot to be in a marriage where there was no sex happening. So I think that being kinder to myself and thinking, “You know what? You were better off alone.” I mean, as soon as we broke up, I was almost never alone. I realized that there were plenty of people who would find my body attractive and who I would find attractive.


Debbie Millman:

Your first novel, A Map of Home, was published in 2008. It was released to huge acclaim. Your second book, a collection of short stories, won a PEN Award, a Story Prize Spotlight Award, and American Book Award. Despite the fact that your father wanted you to be an acclaimed writer, after your first book came out, he didn’t speak to you for seven years. So he wanted you to be a writer, but when you became one, he didn’t like what you wrote.


Randa Jarrar:

Yes, exactly.


Debbie Millman:

Was that because of how straightforward you were about writing about sex?


Randa Jarrar:

I think that’s the claim. The claim is, “Oh, this is too shameful. There’s too much sex in this.” But I think ultimately it’s because he didn’t like the fact that I skewer patriarchy and men like him, especially in the first book. I also think there’s a level of jealousy there. He’s always wanted to write a book and never has. The seven years that he didn’t talk to me were the best seven years of my life. I mean, those were like fabulous. So I was not—


Debbie Millman:

I had nine years, nine straight years, without speaking to either of my parents.


Randa Jarrar:

Isn’t it lonely?


Debbie Millman:

I have to tell you, it was liberating. It changed my life to be able to—


Randa Jarrar:

It does.


Debbie Millman:

—not have to ask permission to become an adult and make the adult decisions that I needed to make for me, was just revelatory.


Randa Jarrar:

100%. I think it’s huge. I think people should, as much as possible, have a separate, a nice, separate break from their parents. I practice what I preach. Like my son, he knows that he can come to me for things, but I don’t bug him. Now that he’s moved out, I want him to sort of stretch and be an adult on his own terms. But yeah, I think that my dad just had a really hard time with how centered the book was on me being a woman and me being inside my body and enjoying it. I think at some point he said, “Oh, you just wrote a book about a girl who wants to have sex.”


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Randa Jarrar:

And I said, “Yeah, isn’t that great?” I’m so proud of my book. He’s just like, “Arrr!”


Debbie Millman:

Well, you questioned what happens to young women whose adolescent sexuality is controlled and whose body’s every movement is surveilled. And you go on to state, “Exit strategies and maps, we draw them up and go over the routes. We try the exit sometimes at our own peril too because it’s worth it to know that exiting could work.” Randa, how do you go from having your sexuality used against you to being able to fully enjoy your sexuality?


Randa Jarrar:

I think it’s a really long process. There’s never a time where, “OK, now, I enjoy my sexuality all the time, forever.” There are days where I’m completely not interested, and there are days when I am. I think going with the flow of things, if you will, and knowing that we are a bunch of chemicals and the way that we feel about things is going to change, and to be gentle around that with ourselves. But I think the No. 1 thing was realizing that this was all a scam. I felt that everything that women are subjected to, this is all just a scam to get us to not like ourselves, and therefore spend any money we had in the pursuit of a “better self.” But that better self will never come because there will always be more. The way that capitalism and everything else works, misogyny is you’re never going to be perfect, so you will always be chasing that perfection and spending that money.


Randa Jarrar:

I think once I realize that, I was just infuriated. I just thought, “Oh my god, this is all just to keep us from liking ourselves.” And it’s never the people who shouldn’t like them. It’s always the people who should like themselves.


Debbie Millman:

Don’t you know it?


Randa Jarrar:

It’s just like, “Oh no!” So to me, it just made me so angry that I just was like, “OK, well, from now on, every single day, I’m literally going to look for at least 15 minutes at photos that fat women have taken of themselves.” Women of all sizes, from size 8 to 32. I just want to see people’s self-portraits. I want to see … and this happened around the time that there was a lot of that going on on Tumblr. Thank God for Tumblr. So it was a conditioning. I just thought … every time I leave my house or turn on the TV, there’s going to be a billboard, there’s going to be a TV show where a woman, like you said, like when you looked at your friend’s legs and you thought, “What’s wrong with me?” These things become kind of like mirrors and they distort how we feel about ourselves. I just thought, “Well, I need to fight back against this.” So I just, daily viewing of different women’s bodies, looking at myself in the mirror, which is very difficult for me still, but I will do it for a few minutes every day to kind of make peace with supposed imperfections that my body has, and to offer gratitude to my body for moving me through spaces and giving me my life.


Debbie Millman:

I’m surprised to hear that you find it difficult to sometimes look at yourself because you write in a way that gives me the sense that you’re unashamed of sex and you love being in your body. That is revelatory to me.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

I’m sorry that you still feel that way because I would never have been able to suss that out. When I look at you, I look at sort of the aspiration of what it means to be comfortable in your own skin.


Randa Jarrar:

Yes. Thank you. I think that that’s real and true, but it never lasts forever. There’s always going to be moments where you’re going to slip back into being unkind to yourself and thinking, Oh my god, am I fooling myself? That’s normal. That’s just such a normal part of this. That you can be super confident, but still question once in a while whether you’re lovable or whether you’re desirable and then self-correct.


Debbie Millman:

Talk about the influence of kink and BDSM in your development as a sexual being.


Randa Jarrar:

I really love the way that kink elevates and puts in the foreground consent. And the way that nothing can happen in kink without consent, that everyone has to talk about what is going to happen or what they want or what they need or what they don’t like before anything happens. I just love that. It’s just so safe. And so to me, that’s such a high form of love even between strangers. That’s why kink is so important to me. It’s the centering around consent.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve written about how there’s a stereotype that people interested in kink come from abusive families. Is there any truth to that stereotype?


Randa Jarrar:

I don’t think so. I do think that all of us, as humans, have experienced negative moments of control around our bodies, and that kink honors that and shows us a different way. And shows us ways to heal that by creating our own rules, our own boundaries around what can happen and what shouldn’t happen to our bodies and with our bodies.


Debbie Millman:

How did the notion of being able to tell somebody whether or not they can touch you and how they could touch you or how they needed to ask you if they could, help you determine your own sort of boundaries and sense of freedom?


Randa Jarrar:

Having the opportunity to be a dominant lover made me understand how powerful it is to be dominant, but also what an honor it is for the person you’re dominating, what an honor it is for me that they share what their boundaries are and how they want to be touched. Once that happened, as someone who was expected to be submissive, who’s expected to, especially when I was being abused, to just take the abuse and not resist it, it was a revelation to think, Oh my god. Like, This is so different from that. This is all negotiated and agreed-upon pleasure. I mean, I think I like that there’s all this fun stuff. There’s like … And you don’t have—


Debbie Millman:

Accessories?


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah, the accessories are great. Leather is great, but you don’t have to use leather. I know some people are really snobbish about leather, but some people don’t feel comfortable using leather. But just yeah, the harnesses and the cuffs. I love that the leather cuffs, the ones I own anyway, have such a soft inside part. There’s such a gentleness with the hardness, and I love that. It’s just so beautiful to me.


Randa Jarrar:

Kink was always really great and interesting, but it wasn’t until I went to dungeons that I understood what a beautiful communal experience it could also be. And that friends could play with each other and that it wasn’t this, I don’t know, it didn’t have to be this hugely serious … sex doesn’t have to be this hugely serious connection or this serious, frivolous, oh, you just fuck someone and you leave. That there was this in-between part, where there was respect, there was mutually agreed-upon boundaries, there was a pleasure. There was also voyeurism that you didn’t even have to physically participate in things. All of that was so revolutionary to me.


Debbie Millman:

How did that happen while you were in the dungeons? What did being in the dungeons give you? What was that sort of entry point?


Randa Jarrar:

It gives you a community, because already there are just people who are interested in the same things you’re interested in. In the particular dungeons I was in, luckily, most of the people there were people of color and I almost never have been in dungeon spaces that have cisgendered men. So just being around women and femmes, it’s just been so nice to never have to worry about what a cisgender man wants. Like, period. Just the desire that is so pervasive in the society we live in is cisgendered men’s desire. And the absence of that desire is the blossoming and flourishing of our desire and what it is that we want, stuff that we barely get to center. And here, it was central.


Debbie Millman:

You go on to state this about kink in your book: “Maybe there is not a duality of the self but a hexagonal? Maybe we have so many desires that we also have just as many selves? Maybe having vanilla, one-on-one, straight sex is also a kink? Maybe we lie to ourselves all the time about what hurts and what doesn’t and how much?” Talk a little bit more about what you mean by that. I found it so intriguing.


Randa Jarrar:

Sometimes I talk to women about pain, and we’ll just be talking about something as simple as getting a massage, just an actual massage, nothing erotic, and they’ll say, “Oh, you know, it hurt a lot, but I didn’t say anything.” Or you’ll go to the doctor and they’ll have you hooked up to a machine for a procedure and it’ll hurt, but you won’t say anything because you think it’s supposed to hurt. So the idea of like things, maybe this is supposed to hurt, so that it’ll work. Maybe I’m supposed to be in pain. Maybe no pain, no gain. But maybe that’s all bullshit. Maybe that’s really all very destructive and painful for no reason. Maybe we don’t have to be in pain. Maybe the pain that we experience in kink is the one time we actually get to say, “No, I do want this pain and that this pain actually feels like pleasure to me. And I want it at this level. This is the highest … that’s the highest threshold I can handle. Please don’t hit me harder than that.” So getting to really just understand the ways that we lie to ourselves about what feels good and what doesn’t. The more I talk to people about it, the more common it seems.


Debbie Millman:

How does somebody go about developing their voice when writing about sex?


Randa Jarrar:

I think because we have such weird categorization about erotic writing or sex writing, a lot of us judge ourselves. I think that’s the first step is this sort of sad, self-judgment. Like, “Oh, am I writing …” And then you categorize yourself. When really I think it’s way better to just be gentle with yourself and start to do it and then see what comes of it. So realizing that you may not get it right the first time, but. It’s the same with sex, you’re just going to mess around—


Debbie Millman:

I was going to say, it’s about the same with everything.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah, and with everything.


Debbie Millman:

What do you ever get right the first time?


Randa Jarrar:

Right. You just have to keep playing and you keep writing and … I mean, it’s so bizarre to me that we still live in a culture that’s very anti sex. In the literary world, when we do write about sex in ways that are candid, critics might say, “Oh, this was too much. Was this necessary?” Yes, it’s absolutely necessary.


Debbie Millman:

Well, what is too much? What is too much?


Randa Jarrar:

Exactly, yeah. Just any kind of mention of genitalia is a … meanwhile, men have been writing terribly about sex for centuries. Like, please, please stop. We don’t want to hear about that anymore. Like, yes, you can cum in five minutes. Congratulations.


Debbie Millman:

For anybody that’s listening that’s interested in reading some really good kink, where would you point them?


Randa Jarrar:

There’s a new anthology called Kink that R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell just published. I would definitely check that out. But I’m sure any kind of awesome feminist bookstore will have tons and tons of good erotica and kink for you to read.


Debbie Millman:

Your work is now taking you to some really exciting new horizons. You’ve been doing more and more performing.


Randa Jarrar:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

You recently appeared, as I mentioned at the top of the show, in the Hulu show “Ramy.” What was that like for you? You’re now an actress.


Randa Jarrar:

It’s so fun. It’s really fun. I’ve always wanted to act. I’ve always wanted to make more cinematic work. So having friends who’ve really pushed me towards that and encouraged me. I also did some New York Theatre Workshop stuff last year with friends of mine who are playwrights. So it’s just been really nice to really allow myself to go back into performance, which is the original kind of desire I’ve always had since I was a child. So I can’t wait to do more of it.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. You’ve also written a short film, which is called Yes, Goddess, which is about a Muslim, queer dom and her relationship with a bottom. So tell us more about that.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah. They meet in a class and …


Debbie Millman:

What kind of class?


Randa Jarrar:

A kink class. Like an introduction to kink.


Randa Jarrar:

And I think that I just really wanted to explore what being a woman dom who also a Muslim … Islam is about submission. That’s what it means. It is translates to submitting to God. So I was thinking, well, what’s it like for … what would it be like for a Muslim to submit to a goddess, a dom? And I have some experience with it. I’ve had Muslim lovers. And so there was so much good material that I needed to create. I just really wanted to create something bigger.


Debbie Millman:

Before we sign off, I was hoping you’d read one more excerpt for us. I’ve chosen a piece from an essay you’ve written called “Against Domesticity,” which is just so powerful in its humor and its seriousness. Before you read it, I was wondering if you could share some of the backstory of the piece.


Randa Jarrar:

Yeah. This was written during a time, just post-divorce. I will say, I am now ready for domesticity. But these particular moments definitely always stuck out to me and frustrated me, that I’m about to read to you.


Debbie Millman:

Well, one of the things that I love about this piece was the fact that I think that you could want domesticity and still not want a lot of what you’re talking about at the same time. Like, you can hold both of those things together. And that I think is what makes a great relationship.


Randa Jarrar:

OK. I love that. Thank you for sharing that with me, because I need to know. I need to hear that from other queers. I cannot just be sitting around thinking, “Oh my god, this is impossible.” I love that.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. The duality of this particular excerpt I think is really the definition of, if you can achieve both of these things, you have a good relationship.


Randa Jarrar:

Oh my god.


Debbie Millman:

Ladies and gentlemen, Randa Jarrar.


Randa Jarrar:

“There is a clear demarcation in my mind of when my last serious relationship, a marriage, began to go sour, and that was when we began to live with each other. How can two people remain romantically and sexually engaged and excited by each other when they have to have conversations about who will do the dishes, whether or not they need to pick up toilet paper, and the last time the car [inaudible]? I hated coming home from buying lingerie, obviously carrying a bag full of bras and panties. In order to put the lingerie away, hoping to reveal it in a sexy way later at night, I had to wait for my then-husband to be out of the bedroom. In order to put it on, I would hide in the bathroom. During the reveal, he’d be reading a book about genocide and the cat would be taking up my space in the bed. Not exactly the reaction I’d hoped for.


Randa Jarrar:

“This happened all the time. I would be putting on a bondage-style bra early in the morning while he snored in bed, or he would come into our bedroom while I was one foot in silk panties to ask where the toilet brush was. I never, ever want to talk about the toilet brush with someone I want to fuck. Ever. There is nothing less appealing to me.”


Debbie Millman:

Randa, I think that that is a totally acceptable request.


Randa Jarrar:

Thank god.


Debbie Millman:

Randa Jarrar, I want to thank you for making the world a sexier and more thoughtful place, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.


Randa Jarrar:

Thank you so much, Debbie.


Debbie Millman:

Randa Jarrar’s latest book is titled Love is an Ex-Country. And you can see her in the Hulu show “Ramy.” You can find out more about Randa and all of her work on her website, which is spelled R-A-N-D-A-J-A-R-R-A-R.com. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman