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The Skin and Its Girl

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A young, queer Palestinian American woman pieces together her great-aunt’s secrets in this “enchanting, memorable” (Bustle) debut, confronting questions of sexual identity, exile, and lineage.
 
“As beautifully detailed as a piece of Palestinian embroidery, this bold, vivid novel will speak to readers across genders, cultures, and identities.”—Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Fencing with the King

A THEM BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR


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 vibrantly, permanently 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 their lore, Aunt Nuha, believes that the blue girl embodies their sacred history, harkening back 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 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 and 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 immigrate to the United States. 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 wield even 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.

ISBN-13: 9780593499559

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Publication Date: 04-23-2024

Pages: 368

Product Dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

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 other publications. She is from a Lebanese Christian family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife.

Read an Excerpt

Postmortem

Imagine this. In the final hour before dawn, the doctor pulls a baby through an incision under a woman’s belly. Everyone is doomed to this first unhousing, one way or another. And as he lifts me from the dark warmth of my mother’s body and unwraps the cord from around my neck, everyone here begins to work as hard as they can. They work for several minutes, until the outcome is obvious. Someone looks at the clock, announces the time.

My mother might be to blame—she refused to push—or the doctor, so hard on himself, so ready to take responsibility for real and imagined mistakes. All their medical instruments agree: this is not a beginning, but an ending.

When my mother has been taken away, her blood still marks the floor, the room’s metal surfaces, and the doctor’s gown. He and the nurse, who have stayed behind to clean the body, are angry—at my mother, yes, but mostly at themselves because they made promises to her and to the adoptive parents that my birth would be routine.

But at this moment, my skin is a pallid version of my mother’s wheat-colored complexion, fading to the flat yellow-gray of death. Blood vessels ruptured in my face during asphyxiation by the cord, and now, fine blue filaments around my mouth cause the doctor’s hands to shake as he wipes the waxy film from behind my stiff ears. The nurse hands him another rag. When their work is finished, they will swaddle my body and offer my mother and the adoptive parents a chance to speak with the hospital’s chaplain.

The doctor checks the time of death with the nurse but gets no answer.

“I said, was it six thirty-eight?”

The nurse is staring at my body with a frown.

Imagine their surprise: a vein pulses on the crown of my head. And imagine, as I have many times, the strangeness of what they see happening to my face. It is turning blue. No, not an airless blue. Like a fine network of roots, cobalt filaments are wiggling outward from lips and eyelids, webbing together under the skin across cheeks and forehead. The broken blood vessels seem to multiply with every branching. They grow in density, too, coloring my face. Down my neck, across my chest, underneath my fingernails, and between my toes. Soon my entire body is an even, lustrous blue like a creature from a fairy tale.

The nurse asks the doctor, “Have you seen anything like this before?”

Later, in his report, he will make a fuller description which will be filed away and forgotten among the handful of other strange cases in the hospital’s history, reread only by me a few decades later when the hospital is about to purge its archives. But just now, he can only stare, stranded between curiosity and shock.

The nurse sets the bell of a stethoscope on my bare chest and says, “There’s a heartbeat.”

The doctor ignores this observation and gropes for the EEG leads. Yet no doctor in the world needs a machine to prove what anyone’s eyes can see. My whole body is alive and blue: the pure cobalt of a gas flame. The color is most brilliant on my thighs, belly, and cheeks. On a normal baby, the pattern would indicate a healthy flush. My blue eyelids twitch, my blue limbs move, and I sneeze.

My birth comes over two centuries after our family first exalted the glories of the color blue, Auntie, but you taught me a few rules of interpretation. Everything depends on context. I will get around to why I am here at your gravestone, but first, let me try again to understand how you came to my bassinet on my first day in this world.

You taught me stories so old they were last repeated when today’s aunties’ aunties were still small enough to run barefoot around the soap factory. The curse of the despicable woman, they said, is to give birth to stones, to puppies, to a piece of cannibalistic dung. In that world, there are crones and magic rings, red-eyed ogres and water-dwelling djinn. Back then, everybody knew that Aladdin meant the Glory of Religion (Ala’ ad-Din, if you want to break it down) and that every tale is an allegory.

To be clear, ours was no longer that world.

Yet we found ourselves one day with an uncanny pure thing on the top floor of a middling Portland hospital. Here we had, somehow, me—a blue baby—and, soon, three fairy godmothers.

Births in the Rummani family had always been newsworthy, so it was unusual, that morning, for only one blood relative to attend: my maternal grandmother, Saeeda Rummani. During my nine months in utero there had been a divorce, the resurgence of a mental illness, the decision to give a baby away, even a lie about a miscarriage—nothing to be proud of. The birth deserved no pomp, and Saeeda had left her husband in the care of his home nurse and gone, without much optimism, to her daughter’s bedside the way she might attend a shotgun wedding before a justice of the peace.

In the hospital courtyard, under a metal saint splattered with pigeon dung, Saeeda unknit seven rows of a baby blanket she was making, searching for the error. Harried, she stuffed the project back into her purse. Her daughter had embarrassed her. Fighting her labor, fighting the doctors, monopolizing everyone’s time and worry. Brazenly making a scene, until it turned into a big emergency and the doctors evicted Saeeda from the bedside and exiled her to the waiting room and adjacent garden. Now she made the doctor wait at the doorway a long time as she gathered her things to come see this baby, because her hands did not seem to be working right in the morning cold. She apologized a dozen times on the way, but it was as though this doctor didn’t even hear her.

She did not know I had died and come back to life. Her daughter, my mother, was still asleep. And when they came to the delivery ward, not even the doctor could explain to Saeeda what had happened to make me, her granddaughter in the clear-sided isolette, such a dense shade of blue.

“She is on the small side,” the doctor said, “but her weight is good. Oxygen saturation is normal. Apgar, eight out of ten. We can’t say what’s wrong. I mean, medically nothing seems wrong, but you can see . . .” He trailed off, assuming that this woman with the accent would certainly not understand what he was trying to say. He stood beside her, staring mutely at his newest patient, then promised her that the nurse would tell her when her daughter was awake.

Not many other machines were present, which reassured Saeeda. The incubator was an uneasy object, but otherwise, no one seemed to be paying me much attention.

The shock of a blue granddaughter: it felt like a counterargument from the old country. A silly tale come to life. After the doctor was gone, she pulled out the blocky little cellphone her husband had programmed, in better days, with the short list of family numbers she was still welcome to call.

That her sister-in-law remained in the contact list was a matter of habit. Theirs was a mythically long and convoluted history, straining back to earliest childhood. Like a buzzard, both in her baldness and in her keenness for the scent of blood, this woman had landed on Saeeda’s happiness long before Saeeda’s first marriage and had been picking at its entrails long after the first husband had died. Remaining, technically, a sister-in-law. Seven months ago, she’d locked her talons into the family’s newest pregnancy, but after my parents’ marriage had come suddenly and spectacularly apart, the only thing Saeeda could do to chase the old bird out of her daughter’s business was to tell her that Tashi had miscarried. Don’t visit. Give her space. Let me do it, for once, because she can’t handle a fuss right now. It was the sort of management Saeeda had not wielded over her daughter’s life in twenty years, and it had given Tashi the time she needed to make a most unreasonable plan: adoption. Make the baby, like her marriage to my father, vanish. By Rummani standards, it was as terrible as what Saeeda had done when she had sold off the soap factory in Nablus, as well as all their land, to a rival family. Terrible, and also astounding, since her daughter was so unlike her in almost every other way: and what a trait to share, this propensity to make a mess when it is least expected.

The line rang through in Oakland. A flutter ran through Saeeda’s stomach. As she held the phone to her ear, her breath fogged the glass between her face and the room where her blue granddaughter slept, curled up tight like a delphinium bud in the white blankets. She had seen the papers, too, the ones Tashi would sign to give this baby away to strangers. As best she could tell, the situation that had brought about this unreasonable plan was unchanged.

After six rings, the call went to the machine. How was it that at seven-thirty on a Friday morning, a seventy-eight-year-old misanthrope with no nuclear family and an increasingly housebound group of friends was somehow not at home? Saeeda left a message, one of the more startling ones in memory.

“Walek waynek? Yalla I need you in Portland. The baby isn’t really dead. She’s here and you have to stop your niece from giving her away.”