Author: Saleem Haddad
Rating: 3 STARS
Adult Fiction | 368 pages | Published by Other Press
Mini Review: An ambitious work of LGBT fiction that aims to explore what it means to be a gay man in a Muslim country, but falls short of reaching its full potential.
Disclosure: I received a free eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Guapa is the kind of book I am always open to reading and also the kind of book I root for to succeed. When I hear about a new novel that illuminates the experiences of nonwhite, non-western LGBT people, I want to spread the word. So when I got a chance to read a copy of Guapa before release, I was thrilled!
The narrative follows Rasa, a young gay man who lives in an unnamed Arab country steeped in political turmoil. He returns from America with a college education that doesn’t appear to offer many benefits in his home country, and in the end joins a couple of friends in starting a small, floundering translation company. His mother ran away from an unhappy marriage long ago and his father has been dead for over a decade. This leaves his grandmother, Teta, as his only family and for years she was the moral compass through which Rasa saw the world. Unfortunately, Rasa soon discovered that living under Teta’s hyper-traditional regime was stifling.
Thankfully, Rasa had Guapa, the titular bar that he and some of his friends liked to frequent; it proved to be a sanctuary where men who love men and women who love women can be themselves in a world that doesn’t allow them to do either.
As the story begins, we meet Rasa soon after Teta finally uncovers his secret when she finds him in bed with another man. But it wasn’t just any man: it was Taymour, the love of his life and only source of happiness in his bleak existence. This discovery summons forth a strong sense of “eib,” or shame, hammered into him by his grandmother — the shame of doing something forbidden and the fear and anxiety that comes with wondering what other people will think. This idea of shame is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Ultimately, Rasa must either reject this notion or live a life devoted to avoiding his true self.
Although I enjoyed the novel overall, I never reached the point of genuinely caring for and understanding Rasa and the small cast of characters. I believe my feelings of detachment came from the vague and unnamed setting and political events that comprised the world of this novel.
The author has gone on to say in interviews that he purposefully set the story in unnamed Arab country because he didn’t want his novel to be seen as an anthropological study of one specific country and that the unknown nature of the setting would allow the story to take on a metaphorical nature. I understand and respect his idea. I also understand that as a person from a mixed racial background (his background is Palestinian, Muslim, Iraqi, Lebanese, German, and Christian), he knows what it’s like to not wholly belong to one place or country and Guapa appropriately reflects that feeling. However, as a reader I wanted to understand Rasa and his world on a deeper level. The unnamed Arab country experiencing vaguely described political turmoil never felt real to me and so I felt permanently detached from Rara’s story. I felt like a spectator to a narrative that never felt quite authentic, which was personally what I was looking for and didn’t allow me to enjoy the story fully.
There is much to like about Guapa as well. Chiefly, I enjoyed the sharp, eloquent, and fast-paced writing. The subject matter was also simultaneously refreshing and familiar– reading about the life and struggles of a young gay Arab man is not something I get to do every day, yet Rasa’s story is one that LGBT people can relate to. This novel also serves to further expand the idea of what it means to be gay, to be a gay man, and to be a gay man in a Muslim country, which is important work. For that, I am thankful to Saleem Haddad.