The Lebanese-American author on the dangers of writing what you know, the constant fear that he’s destroying his career, and why he believes that much of contemporary U.S. fiction is “not adventurous enough.”
Image by Benito Ordonez
Rabih Alameddine, author of the new novel An Unnecessary Woman, is not an easily categorized man. He is sometimes called a Lebanese writer, sometimes an American one, and often there are hyphens involved. He splits his time between San Francisco and Beirut, but doesn’t own to living in any particular place. He revels in the attention that comes with having written an international bestseller (2008’s The Hakawati), but cherishes his misanthropic streak. The contradictions make any summary of Alameddine’s life and work difficult, but they also seem to fuel his creativity. He considers his new book, for example, to be a reaction against the success of his earlier work. “I worried,” Alameddine says, “that people saw The Hakawati as a cute book: ‘Isn’t it cute, these little Arabs, they’re so exotic and they tell little stories to each other…’ With An Unnecessary Woman, I wanted to say, ‘This is also me, my world, what happens in Beirut.’”
An Unnecessary Woman gives us Aaliya, an elderly Beiruti woman armed with an AK-47. She is one of the more striking fictional heroines in recent memory. She is solitary, but not ascetic; a lifelong translator who has digested the great works of world literature so thoroughly that they’re almost an extension of her body. When she declares Hemingway a bore or W.G. Sebald “exquisitely disconsolate,” she seems to feel the assessment running up her spine. The result is a novel that manages to be both quiet and voluptuous, driven by a madcap intimacy that thoroughly resists all things “cute” or “exotic.”
Alameddine spoke with me on Skype from Seattle, where he was enduring another snowy leg on his launch tour before returning to California. In conversation, he was effusive and tireless. He seemed to smile throughout the hour we talked, with a special glee reserved for moments when the conversation turned deprecating, especially self-deprecating. He moved fluently from Bruno Schulz to the relative merits of Seinfeld versus Frasier, from his views on the damaging legacy of MFA programs to his own uncomfortable fit in the American literary canon. Like his latest narrator, Alameddine often seemed to have just emerged from a long stay in a dark apartment, with a few opinions that needed venting.
—Dwyer Murphy for Guernica
Guernica: The narrator of your new novel, Aaliya, is quite an eccentric—an elderly shut-in with a trove of unpublished translations and, occasionally, an AK-47. She’s probably a difficult woman to get along with, but it’s clear you have a special affection for her. Was that feeling there from the beginning?
Rabih Alameddine: I don’t like to admit it, but this is probably the most autobiographical novel I’ve written, even though she’s a blue-haired 72-year-old woman. I read reviews that said, ‘She’s a mean person… Who would love her?’ Probably that’s accurate enough, but my first reaction to that is, ‘Fuck you.’ I’m the same kind of misanthrope as Aaliya. I function better in some ways, but that need she has to pull away—that’s mine. So this might sound narcissistic, but I was in love with her from the outset. I can’t speak for all writers, but I would find it difficult to create a believable character if it were not love. Sadly, Aaliya would probably hate me, or at least avoid me. I talk too much. I ask for a lot of attention.
If I hadn’t been a writer and still had these neuroses, I’d be ignored. I’d never get laid.
Guernica: Tell me about the idea of an unnecessary person, which is so central to Aaliya’s story.
Rabih Alameddine: Like many, I’ve always been fascinated by Bruno Schulz and by the story, or myth, that Schulz was classified a “necessary Jew” and was kept alive during the Holocaust by a Nazi commander who wanted a mural for his son’s bedroom. What makes a person necessary or unnecessary? That term is fascinating and horrifying. From the story of Schulz, I began thinking about what makes a life worthwhile. And I thought of Pessoa and Kafka. We look at the lives of writers and consider them important, but what if we never discovered Pessoa’s trunk of books? What if Kafka’s work was never published? Would their lives have been worth living? And I thought of my own strange neuroses. My friends take them for granted, because I’m a writer, so I’m supposed to be this way. But if I hadn’t been a writer and still had these neuroses, I’d be ignored. I’d never get laid. My narrator has a lot of the same idiosyncrasies I do, but she’s not a writer. She translates books, but nobody knows about her translations. So what happens? Is she a productive member of society, and how do we decide what kind of life is worth living?
Guernica: Did you feel any hesitation in writing from a woman’s perspective, a worry that readers or critics would be skeptical of the project?
Rabih Alameddine: I’m surprised how often I’m asked about being a man with a woman narrator. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last. It’s been done forever, but we seem to forget that. The whole notion of “write what you know” is not just boring, but wrong. Lately it seems like every novel has to be a memoir. I’m a boring person, but I’m a writer with a relatively vivid imagination. And when people ask me about how I find the voice of a woman, I tell them that my life is run by women. I’m very close to my family—my mother and my sisters. In some ways too close. When I’m around them, we can’t be separated, and then I want to kill them and they feel the same about me, in a good way. We interfere with each other’s lives regularly and I like that. There’s my agent, Nicole Aragi, too. I jokingly call her my dominatrix. If I don’t do what she says, she just calls my mom. All these women—in some ways, Bruno Schulz and I have a lot in common, and I’m talking here about his drawings and not his writing.
Guernica: In the past, you’ve been careful to disentangle yourself from your fictional characters, but with this book, you seem to welcome the autobiographical connection. I’d like to ask about the parallels. For example, Aaliya’s sense of humor, which is one of the most striking aspects of her story, is that yours?
Rabih Alameddine: I like a little more slapstick, silly stuff, puerile jokes. But essentially, Aaliya’s sense of humor is mine. I grew up with Monty Python, the British comedies, Woody Allen. For me, Take the Money and Run is an all-time favorite. For the books that make me laugh out loud, I’d have to go to Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, and the Jeeves novels. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read was Blue Heaven by Joe Keenan, who wrote Frasier. I loved Frasier. It’s both silly and has that elitist humor where you’re putting people down. I hate to admit it, but that makes me laugh. I never found Seinfeld or Friends or most other comedies on TV funny, but Frasier did it for me. A lot of it had to do with two allegedly straight guys who were more gay than anyone I knew.
Guernica: What about her reading? She’s spent decades in her Beirut apartment with just these books to keep her company. Has she read things that you haven’t?
Rabih Alameddine: Most of the novels of course I’ve read, but some of the philosophers she’s read are beyond me. Emmanuel Levinas, Schopenhauer, Heidegger. I’d love to be able to read them someday.
I love a lot of American writers, but I think that for the most part the scope of what’s accepted as great American writing is very limited. There’s not enough engagement with the world. Our literature’s not adventurous enough.
Guernica: I’ll quit sidling toward this and just say that Aaliya has some strong and negative opinions on the state of American literature and I’m curious if you feel the same way she does.
Rabih Alameddine: I wouldn’t take it down as much as Aaliya, but, yes: I love a lot of American writers, but I think that for the most part the scope of what’s accepted as great American writing is very limited. What we have is good, but it’s limited. There’s not enough engagement with the world. Our literature’s not adventurous enough. The influence of MFA writing tends to make things repetitive. The idea that writing can be taught has changed the whole conversation in the U.S. Aaliya mentions the divergence in American literature, how it’s followed Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but not Faulkner. And that might have come about because you can’t teach Faulkner in class. You can’t say, “Write like Faulkner,” the way you can with Hemingway. I don’t dislike Hemingway as much as Aaliya does. I’m not a fan, but really I just needed a foil for her and Hemingway was perfect.
Guernica: What do you mean when you say that Americans don’t engage with the world?
Rabih Alameddine: We pick one writer from every country and think that’s what that literature is. Colombia—Gabriel García Márquez—yay! Chile—Roberto Bolaño—yay! One writer from each country begins to represent an entire worldview. I should tell you now, I represent all Lebanese. No—all Arabs. Read my books and you’ll understand what all Arabs are like. [a thoughtful pause] If I am supposed to represent the Arabs, we’re in deep shit.
Guernica: Do you feel any responsibility, if not to represent all Arabs, to bridge some cultural gap? The New York Times review of your last book opens with a pretty bold line: “If any work of fiction might be powerful enough to transcend the mountain of polemic, historical inquiry, policy analysis and reportage that stands between the Western reader and the Arab soul, it’s this wonder of a book—a book not about a jihadi but a hakawati (Arabic for storyteller).”
Rabih Alameddine: I don’t want to criticize that line, because I am grateful to the reviewer, but take “Arab soul” and put in “American soul,” or “black soul,” and tell me how it would sound. Lorraine Adams, who wrote that, is amazing and one of the most international Americans. But it’s fascinating to me that we could talk about an Arab soul and one book being a bridge to it. I don’t think she’s saying, “Read this book and you’ll understand,” but there’s an implication that something is different about the other—that Arabs are not like us—and that if you read this book, you’ll understand.
Guernica: Is that a problem you run into often, being asked to explain Arabs?
Rabih Alameddine: I get to a reading and the first question is: “Do you think there’ll ever be peace in the Middle East?” How the fuck would I know? No one asked Updike. It happens to others, too. Yiyun Li is a Chinese writer. Daniel Alarcón is a Peruvian writer. He was raised in Alabama, for crying out loud! I was a jurist on the Neustadt Prize a few years ago, and of course they called me Lebanese, because it’s an international prize. Norma Cantú was on the jury, too. She was raised in Texas, but they called her Mexican. To consider us as foreign representation is fascinating to me. I love it, because it sells books, but at the same time it keeps us exotic, distinct from the Updikes, the American writers.
Guernica: But is that idea of being an outsider important to your writing?
Rabih Alameddine: It’s important to me to have a certain distance, though it has to be the right kind of distance. I need to have one foot inside and one foot outside a culture to be able to write about it. For example, I couldn’t write about the gay culture if I were wholly inside or outside of it. Finding that distance is always interesting. I jokingly say that when I’m in America, I write about Beirut, and when I’m in Beirut, I write about America. A lot of my friends in Beirut think I’m more American than Lebanese. Here, my friends think of me more as Lebanese.
Guernica: In the spirit of engaging with the world, can I ask you about the state of affairs in Beirut? There seems to be a feeling that it’s getting dangerously close to the brink again.
Rabih Alameddine: As someone who represents Lebanon and the entire Middle East and all the Arab population of the world…
Guernica: That’s a hell of a good preface.
Rabih Alameddine: The real preface is that this is my opinion as a human being, not as a writer. Yes, Beirut is more tense. I still think it’s safe, but right now people probably hate each other a little more, which is not abnormal for Lebanon. But the tension is palpable and maybe that’s why I’m not excited about going back. I don’t know what the solution is. The problem with Lebanon is that it’s so weak in many ways, and maybe it has to be in order to survive. We’re surrounded by crazy people. Of course, we the Lebanese are completely sane… That’s a joke. But you know we’re surrounded by Syria, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. They’re just insane. It’s a competition as to who is the most fucked up. It’s unwinnable. They really all are fucked up. That’s the conclusion of the educated psychiatrist in me—it’s just fucked up.
Guernica: Have you worried about the reception your books would get in Lebanon? The subjects of some might be considered scandalous.
Rabih Alameddine: When I published my first work, I thought I would never be able to go back to Lebanon. I thought they’d arrest me at the airport. I thought I would change literature as we know it. I thought I’d have men lining up at my door wanting to be my boyfriend. But later I discovered that no one read the book. Or no one cared. Right now, I have only one book translated into Arabic. Someday, maybe if the Syrian regime falls, there will be others, but probably another regime will come into power and it will employ just as much censorship.
Guernica: Do you feel different social pressures when you’re writing in Beirut?
Rabih Alameddine: When I’m writing I don’t feel any pressure. It’s after I’m done that I start freaking out. But really, when I’m in Lebanon, I don’t write much because I’m surrounded by family. I feel immersed, or enmeshed, in too many currents. I love that, but it’s not conducive to writing. In San Francisco, nothing interferes with me but my cats.
I’m Lebanese, but not that much. American, but not that much. Gay, but not that much. The only thing I’m sure of, really, is that I’m under 5'7″.
Guernica: Like many Beirutis, Aaliya’s a polyglot. How did you hear her voice? Did it come to you in Arabic, English, French?
Rabih Alameddine: I think in Arabic at times, but when I’m writing it’s all in English. And I don’t try to make my English sound more Arabic, because it would be phony—I’m imagining Melanie Griffith trying to do a German accent in Shining Through. It just wouldn’t work. But the language in my head is a specific kind of English. It’s not exactly American, not exactly British. Because everything is filtered through me, through my experience. I’m Lebanese, but not that much. American, but not that much. Gay, but not that much. The only thing I’m sure of, really, is that I’m under 5'7″.
Guernica: Is Aaliya telling this story to anyone in particular? She’s a recluse, so the question of an audience is an interesting one.
Rabih Alameddine: That’s actually one of the bigger questions I worked with for a long time. In some ways, I think the audience is no one. She’s just writing these thoughts down to record them, kind of like a diary. Who do we write a diary for? I’m not sure.
Guernica: You began your literary career a bit later in life. Before that you were a painter. I’ve read that you felt like a fraud as a painter. Does the worry still nag at you with literature?
Rabih Alameddine: I only feel like a fraud half of the time with literature. With the painting, it was quite bad. Not the paintings themselves, but I arrived at them without much control. I felt that whatever acclaim I was getting was not deserved. A lot of my friends are painters, and they could paint circles around me, and I just felt like a fraud. Really, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, even when I wasn’t writing. Looking back, I stopped painting the minute I started writing. Now I do art projects, but I don’t show. Yes, yes, Aaliya is me in many ways.
Guernica: Would you prefer not to publish, like Aaliya, if you could still make a living, get laid, and all that without it?
Rabih Alameddine: No, because I have this attention-seeking side. I want the acclaim—it embarrasses me, but I admit it. In many ways, Aaliya is much better adjusted than I am. She’s what I aspire to be.
Every time I write a new book, I think that I’m destroying my career.
Guernica: An Unnecessary Woman is a very different kind of book than your last, The Hakawati. There’s less action swirling around, no fantastic tales. Were you resolved to do something very different with this book?
Rabih Alameddine: With An Unnecessary Woman, I wanted to stop trying to dazzle. The Hakawati was fireworks. The whole book was in some ways a tribute to storytelling. It was painted with exuberant colors. This time, I wanted to try to write a book that was not fabulous. I wanted a quiet book, a book about someone who is not interested in impressing. It was in reaction to The Hakawati and the reception it got that I wrote this book. As much as I loved that book, I wanted to shake the world and say, “This, too, is the Arab world!” I’ve worried that people saw The Hakawati as a cute book: “Isn’t it cute, these little Arabs, they’re so exotic and they tell little stories to each other. How fun!” I like escapist books, but I don’t want mine to be one. It was fascinating to find that for many people it was just a fun, exotic book. So with An Unnecessary Woman, I wanted to say, “This is also me, my world, what happens in Beirut.” Maybe this is more a personal issue of mine than reality, but I don’t want to be read as the other. Although I am the other, in more ways than people can imagine.
Guernica: The cover of An Unnecessary Woman announces that this book is from the author of the international bestseller The Hakawati. Was that a frightening decision, setting up your new book as a reaction to your bestseller?
Rabih Alameddine: Every time I write a new book, I think that I’m destroying my career. I’m doing it now, with the thing I’m working on. I always think it’s so wrong and the book will suck. Every book, I sincerely believe that no one will like it. I am stunned whenever someone’s willing to publish me. But then I sit down to write and I’m fine.
Guernica: What’s the new thing you’re working on?
Rabih Alameddine: Let’s just say the book opens with an interview between Satan and Death. It’s a personal story, you see—a memoir. By the time I’m finished writing, I don’t know if the scene will still be there. My next novel’s going to come out and it will be about two women having lunch in Paris and everyone will wonder, “What about Satan?”