Rabih Alameddine is the Lebanese-American author of The Hakawati, Koolaids, The Perv, I, Divine, and, most recently, The Unnecessary Woman, which is about a seventy-two year old woman named Aailya who lives in Beirut and translates books into Arabic, but never publishes her translations.
Alameddine was recently at Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn to read from his new book and be interrogated by his friend, Colm Tóibín. Shortly afterward, Tweed’s editor Randy Rosenthal and Alameddine had a conversation about politics, the literary life, the blandness of contemporary writing, and other topics he spoke about during his reading.
Tweed’s: You’ve said you despise politicians, but also that everything you do is political. How do you correlate these two seemingly contradictory ideas?
Rabih Alameddine: Although I have been known to state diametrically opposite opinions in one sentence, I don’t believe this is the case here. I despise politicians; being one is not the same as being political. I might be playing semantics but I believe we are all political, and everything we do is. I hear a lot of people say, “I am apolitical” or “Politics doesn’t concern me much,” which is understandable, but that stance, in and of itself is a political one. If I choose to ignore politics or separate from the process, I am being political. The city I choose to live in, where I decide to shop for my breakfast or clothes, whether I take public transportation or the kind of car I drive—those are all political choices, whether I make them consciously or not.
I think every novel is political. I’m a firm proponent of ‘art for art’s sake’ and at the same time I consider art to be political, as are the aesthetic choices we make. When my country is sending unmanned drones to kill people in places whose names most people can’t pronounce, and I choose to write about a couple filing for divorce in Manhattan, that in and of itself, is political, whether I do it because I’m ignoring what my government is doing or in reaction to it. What I’m basically saying is that writing about what it means to be human is a political act.
I actually rarely think about politics when I write; all my choices are usually aesthetic ones, trying desperately to make a novel behave. Yet An Unnecessary Woman ends up a political novel. This is a story of a unique woman trying to live her life. She happens to be an aging blue-haired Muslim atheist Arab divorcee who translates books for no one to read. Should we send a drone after her?
Tweed’s: When thinking back on her years a as a translator— she calls them “years of books, books of years”— Aailya says her life work was “a waste of time, a waste of a life.” During your reading, you spoke about the frustration, the bitterness, that arises from recognizing that your mind is being wasted, or that your mind is marginalized, that literary culture is marginalized. But if everyone who bought Lady Gaga albums also bought your books, would you then feel differently?
More than most novels I hear people talking about, The Hakawati seems to have touched readers; it has a special meaning in many people’s lives. Doesn’t this fact negate the idea of your mind being wasted? Doesn’t literature “make the everyday sublime”? Aaliya also explains that while she is translating she experiences a heavenly peak of ecstasy—isn’t pleasure its own reason?
Rabih Alameddine: I believe I mentioned it earlier, but it’s worth repeating: I contradict myself all the time, sometimes in one sentence. Let me do that. I think reading, writing, and the pursuit of literature are both a waste of time and a sublime endeavor. I know I’m slinging large metaphors. I used the Pessoa quote “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life” as an epigraph in The Hakawati. It would have fit just as well for Aaliya. I think most of us use literature to avoid dealing with life, its complexities, and its mundaneness. I get frustrated when I encounter the romanticizing of reading and writing, someone saying that a life without great books is not worth living. When I was younger I came across men and women in the villages of Lebanon who were living full lives without having read much of anything. There are six billion people in the world for whom the fact that Proust finished his masterpiece is of no consequence whatsoever.
Aaliya, the narrator of the novel, admits that literature has meaning for in her life because she decides that it does. I feel the same. We are the ones who choose to imbue art with gravitas.
Of course, I can say that Rushdie’s Satanic Verses changed the world. Liu Xiaobo languishes in a cell as I write this, as does Mohamed al-Ajami in Qatar for reciting a poem asking for social justice. Words still matter. At the same time, the poet Hashem Shaabani was executed on January 27th by the order of Iranian President Rouhani. Who is paying attention?
I did talk about the frustration that my mind is being wasted and that literary culture is marginalized. That was after mentioning the effect on Aaliya and then saying that I have some of those same feelings. Sometimes I do feel that, but I’m not sure it relates to how much I am being read. I think it’s the frustration of writing. Some nights I wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better if I had a more concrete skill, like fixing a car. I would then know that I’ve done something. Look, the car wasn’t working and now it is. The truth is, when I say my work is marginalized, or that literary culture is marginalized, I am basically saying I’m dissatisfied with everything. I am certain that if I sold as much as Beyoncé I would still be discontent—discontent, but with a nice house on the beach; if the Swedes decide to offer me two Nobel prizes— for literature and peace, of course—I’ll find something to complain about within a few months. Writing is about longing—a longing for something unattainable, something ephemeral.
I think there should be a similar word to selfie that refers to one quoting from one’s book. Selfquotie? Here is a couple.
From An Unnecessary Woman: “To write is to know that you are not home.”
From The Hakawati: “. . . a content poet is a mediocre one, a happy poet insufferable.”
Basically, I’m a whiner.
I am truly grateful that Hakawati has deeply touched readers—all three of them. No seriously, it is humbling.
Tweed’s: Thinking about your answer, and your “selfquotie,” perhaps a reason why literary culture is being marginalized is because many writers maybe aren’t discontent, like you. They are satisfied, content, and so the writing is mediocre. Aaliya talks about this, saying how the need for causality has made many contemporary books quite dull and trite—that in fulfilling the desire for explanation, there is a loss of mystery. In fact, one of my favorite lines of the book is: “I should send out letters to writers, writing programs, and publishers. You’re strangling the life out of literature, sentence by well-constructed sentence, book by bland book.” Could you please elaborate?
Rabih Alameddine: First, let me say that Aaliya’s opinions aren’t necessarily mine. Quite a few are, but even then, she tends to be, shall we say, less nuanced in stating them. She has a clearer view on things; I tend to vacillate. But then, I would make a terrible character in a novel.
I don’t know if many writers are content, or aren’t dissatisfied. That might be the case, but I’m not sure if I see it. I actually see some amazing writing here. I consider Aleksander Hemon to be one of our greats. I love Julie Otsuka’s novels. And some wonderful younger writers. Daniel Alarcón’s latest is wonderful, and Rachel Kushner’s is mind-bogglingly good.
But I do think that life is being strangled out of books in some ways, particularly in what passes for mainstream literary. I think a lot of it has to do with the “training” of writers in this country. It’s not just the writing programs, although that’s a big part of it, but what is expected from writers. As an example, I did not hear the cliché “Write what you know” until after I wrote my first book. It confused me. Of course, I wrote about what sustained my interest; it also happened that I wrote about some things that I had cursory experience with. However, if I restricted myself to writing what I know, I’d write nothing because, truly, I know shit. I write to find things out, to discover and explore, and even after I’m done with a book, I still know shit. I’m told that’s not what is meant by the phrase, but the underlying message is still: writers should not write about things they know little about. I call bullshit. I had never heard or seen a hakawati in my life, yet I wrote about one. I knew little about pigeons—my favorite Chinese restaurant makes a wonderful minced squab—but I wrote about their wars. Writers do that. We call it imagination. It seems many readers now expect that all stories and novels are “memoirish,” and unfortunately, quite a few writers fall into that trap. They write about what they know. The problem is that most writers, if not all, lead boring lives—we were the dorks, nerds, and geeks in high school, the losers. If a writer doesn’t unleash her imagination—dullsville.
And yes, writing programs aren’t helping. To be able to teach writing, we are standardizing the methods. We end up with fairly homogenous novels. Take a look at the Best American Short Stories series and compare it with the Best European Fiction put out by Dalkey. The scope, breadth, depth, and heterogeneity of the latter makes the American seem as if it were written by one writer, a damn fine one most of the time, but still limiting. What’s great about writing programs is we get less bad writing; what’s bad is that we rarely get the idiosyncratic. I love thinking about what would have happened had Calvino submitted Invisible Cities to be workshopped, if Proust (Do we really need so many walks?), or Melville (I don’t feel the whale. What’s its motivation?).
In one of Franz Wright’s new poems, he bemoans the effect of writing programs, among other things. He ends it with “The poet will come, no matter what they do.” I think that’s just wonderful.
Much of American writing has become a bit too self-absorbed for my taste, much navel-gazing. A few years ago, when the secretary of the Nobel committee said that American lit was too insular, there was an uproar. The general sentiment is true, though. He might have been considering only a limited view of what American writing is, but so do most people. Yet I recently met Jim Lewis online and reread his The King Is Dead and was blown away once more. Last week I read a short story by Claire Vaye Watkins, “The Diggings”, and loved it. There is some great writing out there, and at the same time, there’s a lot of mediocre stuff.
How’s that for vacillating?
Tweed’s: For me, the most striking image from the novel is that Aaliya sleeps with an AK-47. A 72-year-old, blue-haired woman, sleeping with an AK-47! I’ll always remember that. But what’s even more striking is that when she goes to shoot out her window, her landlord/neighbor Fadia also has a gun and fires from her window, just as if she were watering flowers in a window box. It sounds fantastical, but it says so much about the situation in Beirut. Where did you get the idea for these women and their AKs?
Rabih Alameddine: It might sound fantastical, but isn’t. I know no one, man or woman, who fired an AK47 from a window or balcony, at least not anyone who wasn’t already a fighter in the war, yet most owned some kind of gun. My father used to sleep with one under his pillow, just in case. I remember noticing some rifle in the corner of the walk-in closet in my parents’ bedroom that could be accessed easily if needed. I don’t know what kind it was. I didn’t ask. I couldn’t imagine Aaliya not doing whatever it takes to protect her apartment. Hence, an AK47, and if she did it, then Fadia upstairs would definitely have one, the maenads and their semiautomatic thyrsi.