This was never going to be an ordinary road trip. The Arab American academic and cultural provocateur Randa Jarrar was never going to simply drive around America taking in the usual sights. Instead she uses the opportunity to explore her identity and the hurt she’s experienced as a queer, Muslim, plus-size woman in an empire ruled over by Trump. The result is a thrilling, tender roar of a read about aching to be safe and seen.
People tell Jarrar she might not be an Arab because she doesn’t look like an Arab – her father is Palestinian, her mother is Egyptian but her skin is so pale people often mistake her for being white. As a result she’s afforded the strange privilege of access to other people’s racism. ‘They’ve got Syrians driving the lorries now,’ a female trucker with blue wraparound sunglasses tells her in a service station bathroom. ‘They might as well hire monkeys to drive them,’ she adds. Afterwards, Jarrar is left shaking in her car, aware that the rancid opinions would not have been shared so openly if her heritage was more instantly recognisable. Elsewhere, where her identity is partly acknowledged, the racism is more subtle. ‘You guys are just like everyone else. Hardworking and kind,’ a Republican neighbour tells her. ‘Please don’t act welcoming,’ Jarrar retaliates, ‘this is my country.’
Jarrar refuses to play the role of serene victim, instead she writes with fierce candour, shining a light on the unsettling complexities of oppression and reiterating how the most pernicious of abuses can hide out in the established norms of mainstream society. Salvation is found movingly and unexpectedly in the country’s queer kink sex clubs. ‘Here, consent is queen,’ she writes. ‘For people of colour living in 2019 America, this measure of agency and power can mean the world.’ It’s a reminder of how international conflicts and colonisations affect the most personal of geographies, and how radical social change can commence in the most private of spheres. And if, as Dr César A. Cruz proffered, ‘art should disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed’, then this is art writ large.