Despite watching many Fast & Furious movies and understanding family is something a person more often finds than is born into, I’ve always wanted biological queer elders. In this fantasy, an uncle or grandmother or second-cousin-twice-removed catches my eye at family dinners — humoring my feelings of disconnect from the everyday antics of the heteronormative nuclear family structure. They’d bring me to my first Pride, take me to an annual screening of Paris is Burning, let me be the flower girl at their gay wedding, and give me formative LGBTQ literature when I needed it most. To some extent, they’d be proof I was not an anomaly.
Like any fantasy, it’s a frothy confection worthy of interrogation.
Who could say I would get along with this imagined relative? That we’d share the same politics? Love the same queer poets or cringe at the same Drag Race contestants? That they’d be willing to mentor me at all? And saddest of all hypotheticals: what if I actually already have a queer elder and will never know it thanks to the historical closet or a very valid modern fear of being out?
I found myself returning to these fantasy-haunting questions as I read The Skin and Its Girl by Sarah Cypher.
In Cypher’s debut novel, a narrator speaks to her dead auntie in the hopes of gleaning some insight about a life-altering decision on her horizon. Elspeth, affectionately referred to as Betty by her late Aunt Nuha Rummani, must choose whether to follow the love of her life to another country or remain near her troubled mother.
If the stakes don’t seem high enough yet, consider that Betty is a queer woman born with skin as blue as the soap her Rummani family once made in Palestine. Consider that her greatest ally has been long dead, her mother’s mental health is in decline, and her existence is one of exile — national, emotional, sexual, and generational. In this moment of need, Betty leans on a queer elder.
But when one has a sprawling family capable of holding grudges and secrets with equally strong death grips, finding answers or advice isn’t simple.
Cypher takes the legacy of the Rummani family, once wealthy and powerful, and distills it in Betty. Through gradual epiphanies and prose that has a mythological quality, Cypher’s protagonist comes to understand the true weight of familial history and the untapped power of her singular future.
This is a story which understands the (terrifying) power of storytelling. That a family can define a person’s entire sense of self through a series of seemingly harmless anecdotes. You may always be the cousin who wrecked their very first car. Or the otherwise obedient daughter who jumped out of a treehouse. Or the father who never remembered the names of your children’s closest friends. The wrong story can lead you through fatal chapters of life and on to unhappy endings.
But a loved one also has the power to describe you back into yourself, buoy you with personal myths and fables that lend you courage and comfort. The phrase “there is no truth but in old women’s tales” is repeated throughout the novel to drive home this point. Betty returns to her aunt’s grave — despite their differences, despite her aunt’s stubbornness and repression, despite time — because Nuha gave her a necessary story. Gave her stories like a second skin to deflect the narrative nonsense of daily life.
The Skin and Its Girl has provoked some readers to lament its nonlinear timeline. But this novel embodies magical realism so well because of its frequent time-hopping. The magic comes from Betty’s skin (as well as seductive gazelles, burning but unharmed boys, and the Tower of Babel), while realism is found in its frayed and knotted narrative threads. By some measure, Betty cannot proceed forward until retelling the story of her life. She cannot continue without knowing her family history, no matter how interwoven it is with pain and loss.
As Aunt Nuha used to tell her beloved niece, “…a piece of yarn stretched out in a straight line is a waste of wool.”
I finished this novel while making some rather big decisions about my own future. It helped me understand the balance between what we owe to those who raised us and what we owe to ourselves. I don’t (to the best of my knowledge) have a queer elder to reckon with, but I’m proud to have taken some of my personal myths back into my own hands. For the first time in years, I’m telling my story in a way that makes sense, even if it is only to myself.
- The Skin and Its Girl is available through Ballantine Books as of April 25.
- Listening to Phoebe Bridger’s cover of “Friday I’m in Love” once a week.
- Texting people you love out of the blue, no matter how long the blue has been.
- Bill Cunningham’s On the Street — a coffee table book filled with gorgeous (and funny) shots of street fashion that capture what I love and miss most about NYC.
- Paying a couple dollars more to try a new food from the grocery store. I am now happily enthralled with Califia Farms’ limited edition Mint Chip oatmilk coffee creamer.