Thirty Names of Night book cover

7 Books on Trans Joy, Complexity, and Love to Read Right Now

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The Thirty Names of Night began as an intergenerational story about found family, Arab American history, and the silences of our ancestors. I wanted to write about the borders faced by those who came before us: borders of citizenship, yes, but also of language, conditional whiteness, and gender. I wanted to talk about the performance of assimilation, American racism, and the fraught idea of belonging. I wanted to tell a love story in which love was not synonymous with sacrifice. In a world that rarely affords trans people the luxury of existing in their complexity and wholeness, I wanted to show a person of color stepping out of the binary regime of gender without being forced to choose between their Arabness or Muslimness and their queerness. I wanted to inhabit the glorious stretches of open ocean that lie between the casting off of a birth name and the choosing of a new one.

Racialized gender determines the language with which we learn to talk about not only our own embodiment, but also our dreams and our feelings of if we’re worthy of love and connection. It determines how others perceive us and whether we have control over the choice to be visible—which means that to write as a trans person is to interrogate not only what it means to be human, but also who is granted or denied their humanity. Written out of history, queer and trans people have studied the archives and found ourselves painted over in plain sight. We have written ourselves into the silences, reinventing the machinery of the narrative in order to inhabit it.

These were tasks I took seriously during the writing of The Thirty Names of Night. At the start of the novel, the nameless protagonist scribbles out the name that appears, by force of literary convention, at the top of every chapter. Nadir is aware of the (cis) reader’s desire for his deadname. In a counter-erasure that serves as a foil to the scribbling out of a lover’s name in the diary of the Syrian American bird artist Laila Z, Nadir critiques the reader’s desire for disclosure by refusing to acquiesce to it. There is an intimacy to these crossed-out names, each one hand-scribbled by me, that invites the reader to see Nadir as he sees himself. Through this deliberate objection, Nadir turns a would-be oppressive erasure into the very means of his own liberation. Only there, in the space made by this refusal, can he reclaim his power and name himself.

We are living in a time when trans writers are claiming the space to tell our own stories on our own terms. We are seizing the freedom to interrogate and reject narratives that describe cis people’s experiences of us, rather than our own experiences of ourselves. We want more than performative allyship—we want to speak, in order to shape a future where we might thrive. In the face of record violence against Black and Latinx trans women and increasing legislation criminalizing being trans in public spaces, it is no small thing to write stories about trans joy, complexity, and love. It is an act of defiance to say that trans lives and transness are sacred. The novel is a site of possibility, and in claiming it for ourselves, trans, Two-Spirit, and genderqueer writers—who are creating some of the most exciting and innovative literature of our times—are only just beginning to explore its potential as a tool with which to dream our freedom.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here are six varied and celebrated novels (and one anthology) to read right now.

Small Beauty
by jia qing wilson-yang

Narrated by a mixed-race trans woman returning to her cousin’s cabin in Southern Ontario after his death, jia qing wilson-yang’s SMALL BEAUTY is a luminous and moving exploration of queer and trans lives lived in rural places, the process of piecing one’s life back together in the face of grief, and the human, animal, and otherworldly forces that anchor us to life itself.

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Small Beauty
jia qing wilson-yang

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MENTIONED IN:

7 Books on Trans Joy, Complexity, and Love to Read Right Now

By Zeyn Joukhadar | December 4, 2020

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Confessions of the Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg

This is a thrilling metafiction from Jordy Rosenberg, one that posits the historical record as its own kind of technology. Dr. Voth, an academic researcher, uncovers new evidence that the infamous rogue thief of eighteenth-century London, Jack Sheppard, was transmasculine—and soon finds that the hidden history he’s discovered has him in over his head. As Dr. Voth goes on the run with the manuscript, others unfold their own sinister plans for his rare text.

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Confessions of the Fox
Jordy Rosenberg

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MENTIONED IN:

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Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
by Andrea Lawlor

The first thing the reader finds out about Paul/Polly, the protagonist of Andrea Lawlor’s PAUL TAKES THE FORM OF A MORTAL GIRL, is that Paul is a shapeshifter—but is Paul the only one? In this 90s gender-bending, punk road-trip reimagining of Orlando, Lawlor takes us along on Paul’s thrilling, sometimes hilarious, and often erotic adventures—from leather bars to lesbian camping trips, across the country from Iowa to Provincetown to San Francisco—as Paul explores love and desire in a world constantly trying to force us all to be only one thing.

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Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
Andrea Lawlor

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MENTIONED IN:

Editors Recommend: 10 Sizzling Reads for the Summer

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Freshwater
by Akwaeke Emezi

The protagonist of Akwaeke Emezi’s debut, Ada, is an ogbanje, an Igbo spirit born into a human body. This novel not only decenters but also discards cis-centric and Western trans narratives, exploring ideas about the multiplicity of the self and what it means to be both human and deity. FRESHWATER is a brilliant novel, one that explores what shatters us and pieces us back together, along the way exploding the very idea not only of gender but of what it means to have a single, unified self.

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Freshwater
Akwaeke Emezi

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An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon

Rivers Solomon’s debut science fiction novel AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS is set aboard the generation ship Matilda, carrying the novel’s Black and brown cast—many of whom are queer, nonbinary, and/or neurodivergent—who must fight for their survival amid the biting cold of the lower decks, assaults by the guards, and forced labor and gender policing that serve the privileged, largely white upper-deckers. As Aster works to understand the mysterious illness that killed her mother, she stumbles on a discovery that could liberate them all, risking everything she loves in the process.

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An Unkindness of Ghosts
Rivers Solomon

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MENTIONED IN:

7 Books on Trans Joy, Complexity, and Love to Read Right Now

By Zeyn Joukhadar | December 4, 2020

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When We Were Magic
by Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey’s YA novel about a group of witchy friends begins on a picture-perfect prom night—with the exception of the boy whose penis Alexis has just accidentally exploded. When a spell to get rid of the body goes horrifically wrong, the friends must work together to hide the evidence, and Alexis is forced to figure out what to do with the feelings causing her magic to hurt herself and others. As unexpected side effects of their spell begin to arise, Alexis and her friends must fix things or risk losing the parts of themselves—and people—they hold most dear in the process.

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When We Were Magic
Sarah Gailey

A moving, darkly funny novel about six teens whose magic goes wildly awry from Magic for Liars author Sarah Gailey, who Chuck Wendig calls an “author to watch.”

Keeping your magic a secret is hard. Being in love with your best friend is harder.

Alexis has always been able to rely on two things: her best friends, and the magic powers they all share. Their secret is what brought them together, and their love for each other is unshakeable—even when that love is complicated. Complicated by problems like jealousy, or insecurity, or lust. Or love.

That unshakeable, complicated love is one of the only things that doesn't change on prom night.

When accidental magic goes sideways and a boy winds up dead, Alexis and her friends come together to try to right a terrible wrong. Their first attempt fails—and their second attempt fails even harder. Left with the remains of their failed spells and more consequences than anyone could have predicted, each of them must find a way to live with their part of the story.

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Love after the End
by Joshua Whitehead

LOVE AFTER THE END deserves a place on this list for the brilliant and tender way its authors imagine not dystopia, but utopia. After all, as editor Joshua Whitehead says in the introduction, “we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present.” LOVE AFTER THE END puts Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people living on Turtle Island at the forefront of imagining a future in which Indigenous people—and indeed all of us—are liberated, flourishing, joyful, loved.

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Love after the End
Joshua Whitehead

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MENTIONED IN:

Editors Recommend: 10 Sizzling Reads for the Summer

By Off the Shelf Staff | July 27, 2021

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The Thirty Names of Night
by Zeyn Joukhadar

THE THIRTY NAMES OF NIGHT is a remarkably moving and lyrical novel following three generations of Syrian Americans who are linked by a mysterious species of bird and the truths they carry close to their hearts.

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The Thirty Names of Night
Zeyn Joukhadar

Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2020 by PopSugar and The Millions

The author of the “vivid and urgent…important and timely” (The New York Times Book Review) debut The Map of Salt and Stars returns with this remarkably moving and lyrical novel following three generations of Syrian Americans who are linked by a mysterious species of bird and the truths they carry close to their hearts.

Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria.

One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to officially claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.

As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.

Featuring Zeyn Joukhadar’s signature “magical and heart-wrenching” (The Christian Science Monitor) storytelling, The Thirty Names of Night is a timely exploration of how we all search for and ultimately embrace who we are.

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MENTIONED IN:

Editors Recommend: 10 Sizzling Reads for the Summer

By Off the Shelf Staff | July 27, 2021

10 Crowd-Pleasing Books That Are Easy to Love

By Chris Gaudio | July 26, 2021

9 Mesmerizing Books for Fans of All the Light We Cannot See

By Emily Lewis | July 22, 2021

5 Reasons I Moved Fredrik Backman to the Top of My TBR Pile

By Holly Claytor | July 21, 2021

Small Towns, Big Secrets: 7 Gripping Novels Rife with Scandal

By Anna Bailey | July 20, 2021

10 Debut Novels Making a Splash This Summer

By Alice Martin | July 19, 2021

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