The Center for Fiction welcomed Sarah Cypher for a discussion of her lush and imaginative debut, The Skin and Its Girl, a magic realist family saga centered around a young Palestinian American woman piecing together her great Aunt’s secrets. The story begins in a Pacific Northwest hospital far from the Rummani family’s ancestral home in Palestine, where the heart of a stillborn baby begins to beat and her skin turns a vibrant, permanent cobalt blue. Decades later, Betty returns to her Aunt Nuha’s gravestone faced with a difficult decision: should she stay in the only country she’s ever known or should she follow her heart for the woman she loves, perpetuating her family’s cycle of exile? Cypher was joined by Zaina Arafat, author of Lambda-award winning novel You Exist Too Much and a key figure in the renaissance for queer literature of the Middle Eastern diaspora. The two writers discussed Cypher’s novel of magic, sexual identity, exile, lineage, and family.
Photos by Macy Castañeda Lee
The Skin and Its Girl
By Sarah Cypher
Published by Penguin Random House
A young, queer Palestinian American woman pieces together her great aunt’s secrets in this sweeping debut, a family saga confronting questions of sexual identity, exile, and lineage.
In a Pacific Northwest hospital far from the Rummani family’s ancestral home in Palestine, the heart of a stillborn baby begins to beat and her skin turns a vibrant, permanent cobalt blue. On the same day, the Rummanis’ centuries-old soap factory in Nablus is destroyed in an air strike. The family matriarch and keeper of all Rummani lore, Aunt Nuha, believes that the blue girl embodies their sacred history, harkening to a time when the Rummanis were among the wealthiest soap-makers and their blue soap was a symbol of a legendary love.
Decades later, Betty returns to her Aunt Nuha’s gravestone, faced with a difficult decision: Should she stay in the only country she’s ever known or should she follow her heart for the woman she loves, perpetuating her family’s cycle of exile? Betty finds her answer in partially translated notebooks that reveal her aunt’s complex life and struggle with her own sexuality, which Nuha hid to help the family emigrate to the U.S. But as Betty soon discovers, her aunt hid much more than that.
The Skin and Its Girl is a searing, poetic tale about desire and identity and a provocative exploration of how we let stories divide, unite, and define us—and even wield the power to restore a broken family. Sarah Cypher is that rare debut novelist who writes with the mastery and flair of a seasoned storyteller.
Sarah Cypher has an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where she was a Rona Jaffe Fellow in fiction, and a BA from Carnegie Mellon University. Her writing has appeared in the New Ohio Review, North American Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. She is from a Lebanese Christian family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife.
Zaina Arafat is a queer Palestinian-American writer and the author of the novel You Exist Too Much, an Indie Next Pick for June. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications including Granta, the New York Times, the Believer, Virginia Quarterly Review, VICE, BuzzFeed, the Atlantic and NPR. She holds an MFA from Iowa and was awarded the 2018 Arab Women/Migrants from the Middle East fellowship from Jack Jones Literary Arts. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
Photo Credit: Carleen Coulter