Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Rabih Alameddine InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is made possible by Northwestern University Press and their new release More Than Meat and Raiment, poems by Illinois Poet Laureate Angela Jackson. More Than Meat and Raiment draws on imagery from the African American South and the South Side of Chicago, storytelling, the Black Arts Movement, and Hausa folklore. Deftly intertwining narrative and free verse, Jackson expresses the complexities, beauty, and haunts of the multi-layered black voice. Listeners receive a 20% discount on More Than Meat and Raiment or any other title with promo code pod20. This offer is available at nupress.northwestern.edu. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Bianca Stones What Is Otherwise Infinite, a collection of poems which Dorothea Lasky calls legendary, “Written in four sections with incisive and vivid lyrical language, Stone’s poems consider how we find our place in the world through themes of philosophy, religion, environment, myth, and psychology.” Says Eileen Miles, “This is like moral baroque and also an invitation to make things. I feel enclosed by something guiding here in these poems which feels deeply experienced and it may sound corny but I think Bianca Stone is raising the possibility that writing poems (or writing these poems) is an opportunity to give. Does that constitute a philosophy or a craft. She’s making that.” What is Otherwise Infinite is out now from Tin House. Having a conversation with the inimitable, Rabih Alameddine, is a long-time dream of mine and now finally a dream fulfilled that I can share with you today. As you’ll soon see, one of the things we discuss in today’s conversation is the unusual way he positions the writer and the narrator in service of finding the right distance to tell a story that is very important for him to tell. In the process of us exploring this, I mention one of his favorite poets, Fernando Pessoa, who, like no other, has explored narrative distance from self by creating over 70 different heteronyms with their own biographies, whether a bisexual naval engineer in Scotland or a mystical shepherd or a doctor and classicist living in exile in Brazil after supporting a failed royalist coup. All of these heteronyms wrote very different writings from each other. They translated each other, wrote the prefaces for each other’s collections and more. Pessoa is not the topic of today’s conversation but rather something that comes up in passing but it is also what Rabih chose to contribute to the bonus audio archive where he talks about the importance of Pessoa for him and reads from one of his poems or you could say from one of Alberto Cairo’s poems, depending on how you view it. The bonus audio is one of many potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter of the show, including becoming an early reader for Tin House, receiving 12 books over the course of a year, months before the general public to rare collectibles from everyone from Nikky Finney to Ursula K. Le Guin and every supporter helps with the ongoing collective brainstorm of who to invite to come on the show going forward, as well as receiving a resource-filled email with each episode, containing things referenced in the conversation and the best things I discovered as I prepared for it. Head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers and check it all out, and consider starting the new year as part of the Between The Covers community. Now, for today’s episode with Rabih Alameddine.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is writer, Rabih Alameddine, born in Jordan to Lebanese parents, raised in Kuwait and Lebanon, a short stint in England and finally settling in California, his home until recently for many decades. Alameddine did not take a traditional American route to writing either, studying engineering at UCLA, getting a masters of business in San Francisco, tending bar, becoming a well-respected painter, and one of the founding members of the gay soccer team, the San Francisco Spikes, the second oldest inclusive club in the country, a team that won the inaugural Gay Olympic Games in 1982, again in ’86 and when a national gay soccer tournament was formed in ’87, the San Francisco Spikes were regular winners there too. Frustrated with the type of writing, he was seen depicting the AIDS epidemic, Rabih Alameddine wrote his first novel Koolaids in response, a book that grapples with both aids and the Lebanese Civil War, and which was a finalist for the 1999 Lambda Literary Award. He’s also the author of the short story collection The Perv, the novel I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, the international bestseller, The Hakawati, which garnered him the Rome Prize in 2009, and his much lauded An Unnecessary Woman whose protagonist was a blue-haired AK-47 toting, 70-something-year-old Lebanese translator and recluse who never published what she wrote. Winner of the 2016 Prix Femina Étranger in France, a prize decided each year by an exclusively female jury, it was also a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, and a PEN Open Book Award. It won the Arab American Book Award and the California Book Award. His next book, The Angel of History, also won the Arab American Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award, and his body of work has won the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Guggenheim, and recently, a Lannan Literary Fellowship. If there were an award for the most salutary reason to be on Twitter where he curates the most wonderful cascading streams of poetry and paintings, he would have won that too. As he says in one of his bios, Rabih Alameddine currently divides his time between his bedroom and his living room. He also teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia. Alameddine is here today to talk about his latest novel The Wrong End of the Telescope with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, the Library Journal, and Shelf Awareness, rave reviews from everyone from The Guardian to the New York Times Book Review. Rebecca Makkai says, “Rabih Alameddine is a master of both the intimate and the global — and The Wrong End of the Telescope finds him at the top of his craft. A story of rescue, identity, deracination, and connection, this novel is timely and urgent and a lot of fun.” Eileen Miles adds, “The Wrong End of the Telescope is the best kind of prose. Lines break out like poetry and the story muscles on, telling. The setting is real history which I’m hungry for and Rabih Alameddine queers it handsomely with all kinds of love and a feeling that existence is pure experience, not language at all and the shape of this book, right up to the end, is a becoming.” Finally, Dina Nayeri for the New York Times says, “Alameddine’s irreverent prose evokes the old master storytellers from my own Middle Eastern home, their observations toothy and full of wit, returning always to human absurdity. Again and again, our narrator, Dr. Mina, cracks open the strange, funny and cruel social mores of East and West. She shows us that acceptance and rejection exist across borders and often manifest in surprising ways.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Rabih Alameddine.
Rabih Alameddine: Thank you so much. Every time I get introduced, it’s shocking. It’s like, “Is that me they’re talking about?”
DN: Indeed it is, but in talking about you and identity, the narrator and main protagonist of our story is Mina, a Lebanese-American doctor who is trans and a lesbian, and who hasn’t been back to Lebanon in decades because she was disowned by much of her family. She’s heading to Lesbos to lend her medical skills to help with the Syrian refugee crisis that has found the island its focal point. But she herself had no intention of doing anything other than practicing medicine. She didn’t intend on being the storyteller of the book that we have but she’s tasked by a writer who has tried to tell the story and can’t do it. A writer who, while a secondary character in your book, is always persistently in the margins of the book in a significant way as a mystery and an absence. I was hoping maybe we could start with you reading the short chapter You Made Me Do It, as I feel like this chapter sets up not only the form of the book but also raises so many questions about writing and how to write, and also how meaningful or meaningless writing might be.
[Rabih Alameddine reads from The Wrong End of the Telescope]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rabih Alameddine read from The Wrong End of the Telescope. You’ve talked before about how you need a certain distance to be able to write about something. That it can’t be too distant but you also can’t be too enmeshed, something that you’ve called the Goldilocks distance. In light of what you just read, can you talk about the Goldilocks distance and whether this handing off of the story from the writer to the surgeon is part of that process for you with this book?
RA: Sure. I don’t know if it was part of the process as much as it was the process for me. I had been working with refugees for a long time. By working primarily, I mean I was just interviewing refugees. Whenever I went to Lebanon, in the beginning, there were so many and they were all over the place. It was easy to just talk to them, then I did officially a couple of times with UNHCR but then the crisis in Lesbos happened and I went there, and I had some, shall we say, issues. But the whole time I was trying to write something about the refugees, a couple of newspapers asked, and I wasn’t able to. I tried so many different times. I think I successfully wrote maybe two stories, two essays basically. One was the silly thing about just asking refugee kids who they’re supporting for the world cup. I wasn’t able to write it. It was difficult. Everything I wrote was sh*t because everything was just terrible, terrible, terrible. There were many issues I had by the time I went to Lesbos but primarily, it was that I began to see my family coming as refugees. It’s like it was looking at my people coming across and I was on the other side in some ways, so I wasn’t able to extricate myself to see what the volunteers were doing, what the refugees were doing. It became too confusing. Then I was writing this other story, and Mina, the character, was part of that story. It had nothing to do with the novel. All of a sudden, Mina slowly migrated from that story into the novel. Once she came on board, as I like to call it, or she began to tell the story—even though of course, it’s me, I’m not completely crazy—I was able to distance myself. [laughter] Primarily, her character had the ability to actually be separate. I always envisioned her as a surgeon. All these things that the writer would go through, she would go through but she’d be able to put them aside and do her job but as the writer, like most writers, was a little bit too self-involved and just thinks the world ends with his trauma. It was that contrast and her ability to get into the situation, feel the same things but able to write about it. That to me was just the right amount of distance for the book. The distance is a big thing. I’ve always said that if one has to write about one’s family and one is too close or the family is too close, it’s really difficult to write about it, but then if you’re completely the black sheep and just separated, you can’t write about it either. One is you’re too in it to see it, the other, you’re too far away to see it, so it’s this one foot in either or what is the right distance to be able to see something. Yeah, I call it the Goldilocks distance. It’s different for every writer. Every writer has their different way of being.
DN: This choice reminded me of Vivian Gornick’s book The Situation and The Story.
RA: Absolutely. That first chapter, that introduction is brilliant.
DN: It really is. When she’s writing about nonfiction where she puts forth the notion that even memoirists need to create a persona from which to write, from which to take their life material and compose it, that a memoir still has to choose from which one of their selves that they’re writing from and also which vantage point in time even, which may be a different vantage point from the actual time they’re writing in.
RA: That is so true for me but what I also noticed is that each situation in each story that you’re telling requires a different distance. I think being able to know what your distance is extremely important.
DN: She talks about the type of persona in non-fiction as an unsurrogated persona versus the surrogated persona a fiction. What’s interesting about this choice you made that you introduce us to in the chapter that you read is we have the writer character who may or may not be an unsurrogated persona or a surrogated persona, but you invite us to confuse him with you as an unsurrogated persona in so far as he shares many of the identifiable broad stroke details of your life, whether it be his work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon or his fabulous spectacles, so we can connect the secondary character to you. But what’s also interesting is that many of the people you’ve been in conversation with around this book, particularly the ones who know you well in real life, see so much of Mina, the surrogated persona, they see so much of you in Mina. I wondered if maybe you could speak to having these two personas, if perhaps the story is being told through the gaps and the interplay between these two characters, and also between a doer and an observer.
RA: This is, shall we say, a loaded question because a lot of what the novel is about is what can you observe, what can you be witness to, and what can be done as to the interaction between the observer and the doer. That’s always a difficult thing. But yes, I don’t know whether I am limited in my imagination or that this is what works best, but most of my characters are me. The big hint is that I always write in the first person. I’ve had some short stories in third person but for the most part, I write in first person. I inhabit the character. At the same time—I think I said this a couple of times—that when I start to write and when things are working, I become the character. But I also see the character next to me as I’m working, so it’s both at the same time. In this novel, it works that way, as in there is Mina whom I’m inhabiting, then there is the writer who’s me. Although Mina is supposed to not be completely me or whatever but it’s closer to me. This dichotomy of the two of us observing gives a multiple angle or a multiple point of view to what is going on. Again, I don’t have to keep mentioning that The Wrong End of the Telescope, I mean I was thinking that it’s not even one telescope, there should be many, those two points of view. Then there are multiple characters within the book who begin to tell you some things about what happened, so there are those points of view. Most novels do that. In this novel, I tried to show clearly that they’re different points of views. The tension, or sometimes, lack of between Mina, the main narrator and the writer who may or may not be the narrator, I was interested in that the whole time.
DN: It was also really fun the ways that Mina lovingly makes fun of the writer.
RA: [laughs] The trouble was that shall we say I was highly, highly judgmental of the writer. I’m not going to say self-loathing came to the surface but some form of loathing came to the surface. [laughter] It was interesting that I was just smacking into this character the poor thing. Then the more I wanted to strangle the character, the more loving Mina became and the book towards the character. I started thinking, “Oh my god, it’s like my therapist was going to have a field day with this one.” [laughter] At times, I started thinking, “Oh my god, I made Mina not just an admirer of this writer’s works but a fan, a big fan.” As much as she keeps making fun of him, she’s trying to prop him up. I thought, “My god, people would look at it and think I wrote a fan of me into my work.” [laughter]
DN: It doesn’t come across that way though.
RA: That’s the thing. It didn’t matter in the end. It worked. It worked. It was like I felt that it worked. The narrator saved the writer’s character. She’s the one who basically props him up, takes over in some ways. It’s both on the page and in my head.
DN: Perhaps my favorite conversation you’ve had around the book was this really wonderful one with Kara Walker, someone you first met when she was visiting Lebanon in 2010 and because Lebanon is home to one and a half million Syrian refugees and a half million Palestinian refugees, two million refugees in a country of a population of only six million, and also because you have spent a good amount of time working with Syrian refugees there as you mentioned, part of you showing her around was showing her some of these camps. This is what she said about the visit, “I remember almost nothing about the visit—it exists in my mind as a montage of impressions, textures, and gestures—until the moment Alameddine showed me a shantytown of migrant workers whose invisibility was a contrast to the more ‘established’ Palestinian refugee camps.” But you tell her that when you went to Lesbos, which you’ve alluded to in your opening comments, when you went to Lesbos, joining some of your friends who were there to help, you thought that because of your past experience with the Syrian refugees in Beirut, that you’d arrive and you’d hit the ground running, but when you arrived, you instead felt a complete loss of self like you’ve never experienced before. You say to Kara, “I didn’t understand who I was or what I was doing there. Am I a Lebanese? Am I an American? Do I belong with the refugees, or do I belong with the volunteers?” Our writer, surrogated or unsurrogated writer in the book seems similarly unmoored, not knowing how to meaningfully engage with the scenario. But it raises the question that I’m curious about is given your experience working with Syrian refugees in previous to go into Lesbos, can you speak a little bit to what the difference was for you where in one situation, you were unmoored around your sense of self and in another, you weren’t?
RA: Primarily, again, in the beginning, I was in Lebanon. We were all in many ways one people. The difference between Syrian and Lebanese is big but it’s still not the difference between Middle Easterners and Westerners. I did not have the pull of the Western pole saying, “You’re different, you’re different.” But the other, and just as important, is that a lot of my interviews were under the auspices of the UNHCR, which is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It gave me an official position. It gave me a distance that I was able to be separate because no matter what we say and do, and journalists have been trying forever and ever, it is really almost impossible to break the barrier between interviewer and interviewee. There is a wall there. It could be a glass wall but it’s still there. I felt separated. Again, a lot of it is talked about in the book and what the writer goes through. It’s when I did most of my work with refugees for four years or five years, whatever it was, it was listening to their stories. In many ways, stories can be both engaging and can be a defense mechanism. I started seeing not the people but the stories they were telling. Again, that’s one of the ways that humans interact but I found it fascinating when I hit Lesbos. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I wasn’t really interacting with refugees. I was interacting with their stories. That’s one of the things that led me down into the spiral when I got to Lesbos. Yes, all these were separating. The wonderful thing about that interview with Kara—I love her and there’s a reason I love her—is that she started talking about her time helping with, shall we say, the underprivileged in Brazil. She had the same experiences of where she belonged and what walked, and what hid behind. In my early work with the refugees, I was able to hide behind “I’m a writer”. It’s a persona I know really well. I observe. I write. I listen. I almost always want to say, “I swear I’m a good listener, I swear I help people,” but the truth is I’m doing it from a position of power. In Lesbos, I arrived with no backing, with nothing. I threw myself into the middle of a situation that was completely I was just another person. I couldn’t hide. That shook me.
DN: If you had asked me before you answered, to imagine what your answer was going to be, it was very different, like I imagined and I’m curious about it is I imagined that maybe part of the difficulty was the sheer number of volunteers that you would be among in Lesbos versus perhaps in the more established camps in Beirut, there wouldn’t be the tidal wave of volunteerism.
RA: In Lebanon, whatever volunteerism was there was primarily local. But most of my interviews were not particularly in camps. The Lebanese and the Syrians in Lebanon were not officially separated from the people of Lebanon. They were everywhere. I met them everywhere. In Lesbos, there was also this whole thing of the volunteers and who they were, and why they were there, then seeing that the problems that I had with the volunteers were repeating the same behavior. I was there because I wanted the world to see me as someone who is caring, not about the refugees. Again, what happened reinforced that idea that no, I was there to help myself. Now, again, I will repeat that because a lot of people get offended. No, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t volunteer. You should volunteer. I’ve been volunteering all my life for many different things but one has to be conscious about why one is doing it. Being in Lesbos and seeing it so blatant, because they were young, they were open and they were wonderful. I started seeing the other side of volunteering, which is that they’re on vacation. They’re on vacation. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I keep saying it’s better to go on a vacation and help people than go on a vacation to an island by yourself. It’s just a different way of behaving but yes, there was a big difference. After this, I started working with refugees for a while, then I was asked to go to Istanbul to work with this Syrian organization that is helping Syrians. That I thought was one of the healthier models that I’ve seen, which is older refugees helping more recent arriving refugees. It’s a school. It was magnificent. I thought it was wonderful.
DN: The book opens in a really interesting way. It opens at a moment on Lesbos where the weather has turned bad. That’s when Mina’s arriving. The moment that Mina arrives, there actually aren’t a lot of refugees arriving simply because of the weather, but the island is awash with a lot of restless volunteers, milling about with no one to “save,” so it really highlights something that’s going on the island too. Some of the volunteers are like Mina, they’re medical but many of them as you mentioned are on vacation. They’re hybrid tourist volunteers in a sense. You said to Kara that you kept saying to yourself that the volunteers were great people but you also wanted to kill them, [laughs] but that you also said something that you just spoke to but I want to read the quote from this too because it’s so interesting. I also think it returns us back to identifying both as a refugee and as a volunteer, at the same time yourself, that you kept telling yourself you were a good person. That you were there with good intentions. Therefore, because of that, whatever you did was surely going to be good. Then to Kara, you say, “And then I realized I sounded like the United States of America. It was a stunning revelation, like hitting a big wall. When people ask if it’s a book about the refugees, I want to say, “No, no. It’s about me.” It just feels like there’s so much to unpack in that one line but it also makes me think of the review in the New York Times by Dina where she says it’s really rare in a novel to see the depiction of the ugly side of certain volunteers, and I guess particularly, the humiliations that they sometimes inflict as part of their performance of goodness, and you portray some of that in the book too. I just wondered if you could speak to, you talked about the desire to hide behind a wall but there’s also some people who are reinforcing a wall or reinforcing a distance through their act of charity or disguised as an act of charity.
RA: Yes, again, the difference between what the reviewer said and what I would say is I didn’t see it that much as the ugly side of volunteering. I wanted to kill them but I saw it as very natural in some ways because I was doing the same thing as they were. [laughter] It’s part of being, in many ways, human. We unconsciously or consciously humiliate those who are less powerful than we are. The big thing about, in my opinion, being a good human is to start to realize that, and you do work against doing that but again, these kids, I keep repeating, they were some of the best that humans have to offer. They’re taking time to go and help refugees but at the same time, I mentioned a similar scene in the book, it was the first night and I was in this cafe eating by myself, then there was a switch and all of a sudden, this cafe with all these young collegiate kids became a dating bar, which is when I think about it rationally, it’s of course completely expected. They’re 19, 20, 21 in a strange place. They’re excited because they’re helping people. They want to get laid. Who doesn’t? [laughter] At the time, I was so flabbergasted like, “Wait a second, where am I?” There’s this big disaster happening. These kids, it was their night off. They wanted to get laid. Like I said, when I think about it rationally, this makes absolutely perfect sense. When I was in the situation, it was like, “We’re having a disaster to end all disasters,” then I have to remind myself that actually, during the disaster, to end all disasters, people get laid. [laughter]
RA: This is what happens.
DN: I also wonder if we think about the people who have the most unimpeachable reasons to be there, let’s say Mina, a surgeon, they desperately need her skills. Everything that she’s doing on the island is necessary and meaningful. You still have to think that somebody motivated to become a surgeon, then become a surgeon who goes to Lesbos, I don’t know that it invalidates their service, it might be important to their notion of themselves, that becoming this makes them feel good in some way.
RA: In many ways, one of the major themes of the novel is that no, it does not. This is what I keep trying to say, that’s why I will repeat it. I don’t see them as ugly or the ugly side of volunteering. They’re human. They have many sides. When we started this conversation, I talked about Mina who’s me, there’s the narrator who’s me, there are the volunteers who are me. We are all multiple versions of ourselves. Which ones come to the fore depends on the situation. When I was writing this book, I needed the guy who in real life saved me, who was this Iranian musician who’s Swedish. He kept telling me, “I don’t care what you’re going through. I could put you to work. I don’t care why you’re here. I could put you to work.” He brought up, “Okay, you pull up your britches and you go to work.” We all have that. We all have parts of us that are dizzy and parts of us that want to get laid. It’s all there. What shows up and how that shows up is important. All I ask of myself most of the time is that I become conscious of what is happening. The reason that I had trouble personally in Lesbos as opposed to all the others was it hit me. When I was there, it hit me for the first time that I was not who I thought I was. I wasn’t sure whether I was Lebanese or American or am I a good person? Am I a bad person? All these things hit at the same time. I thought that would make for an interesting novel but I couldn’t write it. I had to create another persona, which is also me to come in and tell the story of me. [laughter]
DN: Which all this, talking about this, all of it makes sense why you love Pessoa so much.
RA: Oh my god, yes. [laughter] He’s my idol. I know I have, at least, maybe 15 personas. He has 72. [laughter]
DN: You’ll get there. [laughs] These questions of goodness remind me of some of the questions that Elisa Gabbert raised in her last book The Unreality of Memory. One of the things she explores is morality in relationship to information overload. If I remember her book correctly, she talks about, at the time of the first colonies in the United States, the first newspaper came out once every month, so that was the speed of the news. One of the thinkers she cites in the book wondered if it were perhaps easier to construct an achievable way to be moral within one’s own valley if you didn’t know all of the terrible things happening all the time, three valleys over or let alone across the ocean. That for most of human history, most of the moral choices we would make would be based on an amount of information, several orders of magnitude smaller and coming toward us more slowly. I also was thinking about Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower where once all of the stability of institutional and governmental structures have disappeared, people form these cohorts for self-defense or quickly, anyone who’s outside of their newly formed group, they would defend against and even kill, simply because there were limits to how many people could be considered “us” and survive in this post-apocalyptic free-for-all that she created. These questions of memory and forgetting, there’s something you tackled most head-on in your last novel, The Angel of History, where Jacob who lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis forgets in order to continue living. That book also engages with the drone wars in Yemen. You’ve said it’s partly a self-recrimination around the way you’re able to go on living in the face of those drone wars but I wonder if you feel that the amount we need to consider is at an impossible scale but also even if you do feel that, it does feel like your book is still suggesting, at least, for yourself but I don’t think just for yourself, that we must face it. We must still consider it. But I’m interested in your thoughts about this perhaps human notion of when in overwhelm, we try to shield what we’re willing to consider ultimately.
RA: Yep. [laughter] I wonder again if it’s only an overwhelm. I mean Octavia Butler’s idea of the sower is the world we live in all the time. We form groups and we form identities. I’m all for, in some ways, if you want to call it identity politics or whatever but we have to remember that by forming these identities that separate us from those who are outside, we begin to behave in a monolithic way that is detrimental to those on the outside. Now, again, there’s this whole thing of course, we have to because the dominant culture is also monolithic and it defines itself in a different way that excludes others, so there’s this whole tension, but we just have to figure out a way of how do we deal with identity itself, who is us, who is them, and why is this one part of our group and that one not. Unfortunately or fortunately, the need to belong sometimes overpowers everything. We sacrifice a lot to belong to one group or one identity. We can’t conceive of a bigger notion. John Lennon was way ahead of his time, “Imagine there’s no nations,” because the world can’t imagine it, we as humans cannot imagine an entire humanity and all of us in one group. We need another basically. We need somebody to be and others to bring us together. The trouble is that we keep creating identities and somebody has to be outside that identity. Those people become the other. We project all kinds of evil and mischief onto them but how much can we consider about the world? I think I wrote this in my first book, and I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like I imagine that the word sane means that thinking that this infinitesimal segment of the world is reality and the rest of it doesn’t exist. That’s how we have to function because the world is way too big. Yes, it’s getting bigger with all the technology that we have. We get to see more stuff. We have to protect ourselves because I cannot see how we can live in a world with so much sorrow and be able to go on, but at the same time, we can’t think about it or, at least, I guess most people can. I haven’t been able to. I don’t know how to protect myself and I don’t know how to extend myself to be able to do anything other than watch. But I cannot see how it’s like we’re getting crazier and crazier or maybe we’ve always been, I don’t know, but I don’t see how one can ignore so much injustice, just so that you could watch good TV.
DN: I want to take this question of scale into the realm of storytelling because I think you do take this question of scale into the realm of storytelling in this book, which ultimately becomes a question of how to engage the reader. I’m going to read something from Gornick as part of this question. She’s describing going to a funeral in this part of the situation in the story, “A pioneering doctor died and a large number of people spoke at her memorial service. Repeatedly it was said by colleagues, patients, activists in health care reform that the doctor had been tough, humane, brilliant; stimulating and dominant; a stern teacher, a dynamite researcher, an astonishing listener. I sat among the silent mourners. Each speaker provoked in me a measure of thoughtfulness, sentiment, even regret, but only one among them — a doctor in her forties who had been trained by the dead woman — moved me to that melancholy evocation of world-and-self that makes a single person’s death feel large. The next morning I awakened to find myself sitting bolt upright in bed, the eulogy standing in the air before me like a composition. That was it, I realized. It had been composed. That is what had made the difference,” and this notion of making a single person’s death feel large is one of the great strengths of The Wrong End of the Telescope for me, but it also feels like one of the coping mechanisms for Mina, the protagonist. As she’s administering to people on Lesbos, she becomes particularly invested in the fate and the story of one family where the mother figure has late stage cancer, and is soldiering forward, hiding it from her kids as she tries to get them to Europe before she dies. The book’s scope, like Mina’s, comes down to the scale, to the fate of one family. I guess I wondered if this for you was a storytelling technique, so a reader could take in the scale where questions of dignity are on a level that one could parse and digest.
RA: Definitely. The one thing that struck in the last thing you said is that it’s a storytelling technique. I don’t know if it’s a technique. It’s how stories are told. No matter how big the story, it’s always the story of individuals. The story of a country is the story of its people, individual peoples. I assume it can be done and I can’t think of anything right now but there are of course macro stories that tell the movements of people, and those are interesting, but not really. It is individuals. Now, we can go back to yes, of course, the story of one person is a story of people. Again, the personal is political. The story that I tell becomes political because it is a political story but it’s really the story of one person. Now, there are many other stories in the books of different people but I’m interested in people. I might disapprove of the political regimes here or there or whatever but I’m more much more interested in how that regime affects people. It’s like if I interview Syrian refugees, it’s not to solve the political problem, it’s to hear the story of people. Again, going back, I don’t know a storytelling technique that doesn’t involve singular stories.
DN: That’s a good point.
RA: Go back to a Thousand and One Nights, which is this big thing but whenever you read it, you remember it’s just the story of this person, then it’s the story of this person. You can tell a bigger story but it’s singular people.
DN: But there is a sense, I think, of bringing things down in moments in the book to things where meaning is on a level that is easier to engage with. For instance, another one I’m thinking of is when the writer encounters a group of boys, refugees who don’t have the fare to get onto the ferry to go to mainland Europe and he isn’t able to pay the tickets for everybody but he’s able to pay the tickets for some. He can get some of the people on the boat. In this sense, can make a measurable visible difference in perhaps other ways, he’s unclear what he’s doing.
RA: That difference isn’t much, unfortunately. That’s one of the scenes that happened to me. It broke me because there were like 100 boys and all of them, 15 maybe 16 at most and you can’t help them. You can’t. What does one do? But again, not doing something is worse than doing something but yes, it’s like that scene in the novel is important to me. It was important in real life because they were both a collective and individuals. Seeing them as individuals. I remember their stories, again, I make a joke about it in the novel but I talked to at least six or seven Muhammads in a group of ten. It’s like they’re all called Muhammad, [laughter] yet at the same time, they were all individuals. Again, in my head, I remember the guy in the lamb’s wool jacket. They kept explaining to me that he’s a shepherd but he can do anything. He was 13, 14 at most by himself but again, it’s both a collective thing. You can see them but maybe you could help one or two or 10 or go into credit card debt for a while.
DN: That scene really reminded me of my conversation with Jenny Erpenbeck. She too is writing about refugees.
RA: Oh, I know. I love her.
DN: Yeah. But she’s puncturing the narrative of what happens when refugees arrive in Europe as if arriving in Europe was a happy ending. I think that’s probably what you’re alluding to when you say it’s not much even getting them on the ferry, I mean if we were to look at the numbers of refugees allowed into Germany, certainly compared to North America but also compared to many countries in Europe, you might call Germany’s immigration policy generous. But she tells the story of a refugee whose father was burned to death in Nigeria and he ends up in Libya after that, where black Africans were literally being hunted openly in the streets. He’s forced onto a boat with his family to escape and his two children die when the boat is capsized, then when he makes it to Europe, despite being quite skilled, he isn’t allowed to work. She writes in his obituary, “If you aren’t allowed to work, you can never really arrive.” Most of the refugees aren’t really allowed to arrive. As I imagine these boys arriving on the boat with the help of the writer, I imagine that they’re not going to be allowed to arrive. I guess the impossibility of the situation or the absurdity and the Camus sense of absurdity of the situation made me think of an interview where you’re talking to John Freeman where you paraphrase a line from Calvino. I found Calvino’s original words too. I liked your paraphrase and I liked the original, so I’m going to read both. Your paraphrase, “The entire world is inferno, and to live well, you find people who are not inferno and you hold them close, In Calvino, “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” To me, I imagine this is like an Alameddine ars poetica, but I want to hear your thoughts about being better than the not doing, which is thinking of Camus again, of the doctor in that town during the plague.
RA: I repeat that in the novel, the doctor who dresses up as a woman to go back up, It is a Camus-ian thing. The weird part of this, that whole quote I put in the middle of my third book I, the Divine, it’s snuck in the middle of it, just in case anybody doesn’t get what I’m trying to do in the book. It’s an amazing thing. It’s funny because I had to re-read the book only two weeks ago because I’m teaching it in class, Invisible Cities. What I completely forgot was that this quote is the last paragraph in the book. Everything in the book, its tangents, its weird architectural structure is to lead to that one paragraph. I was floored the first time I read it, I was floored the second time, then the third time. But this time, it was like, “My Lord, this is probably what he’s been writing about all his life.” I know that it’s what I’m writing about. I assume it’s what a lot of writers write about, is how you make what makes us human endure, how you make what we treasure a treasure. I think it’s an issue that I think every writer does or, at least, I hope every writer does. We all do it very differently. I hope I do it with a sense of humor but yes, that’s how to make what is loving in us endure in spite of all the inferno that goes around. It’s like for most of us, it’s been a hell of the last four or five years. It’s been really, really hell. I thought it couldn’t get worse than the refugee crisis. No, no it can get worse. How do we keep going in a pandemic when people are insane? Let’s call it what it is. When people are reverting to fascism to outright fascism, how do you make what you love endure? It’s a difficult thing.
DN: Could we hear the chapter How to Make Liberace Jealous?
RA: Oh my. That by the way is also true.
DN: The story you’re going to read?
RA: Yeah. I met this woman. She had a Liberace pantry. She was amazing. She was amazing. We only talked for 15 minutes but I loved her. She was so happy that I loved her pantry. I went full camp mode. She was like, “Oh my god, we’re sisters.” [laughter]
[Rabih Alameddine reads from The Wrong End of the Telescope]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rabih Alameddine read from The Wrong End of the Telescope. If the only reason to hand the writing of the story from the writer to the surgeon was to create the Goldilocks distance, it begs the question of why have the writer character at all because you could create that distance, just by writing as the surgeon. But, at least, for me, the secondary presence of the writer, not only enriched the storytelling, the reading experience of the story but it also raised a lot of questions about what storytelling does or doesn’t do. On the one hand, you’ve talked often about the limits of empathy. That even if a writer achieves empathy, there’s no saying that feeling empathetic while you’re reading is going to lead to anything tangible in terms of action or change. Then perhaps in that light, when John Freeman asked you who your ideal reader was for you, you said, “F*ck the reader,” and that writing for you isn’t about communication. That you write for yourself and that you have something to say to yourself. But on the other hand, it does in fact seem like the reader is on your mind. For example, in the same conversation with John, you say, “I couldn’t care less if you empathize with my characters. I don’t want people to read about AIDS and go, ‘Oh, that’s nice. Pass the beer,’” then later you say, “How can I get a reader not to feel what I would call pre-existing emotions?” You’ve also talked in many places about wanting to break the wall between the reader and the subject, which I imagine might be related to your notion of pre-existing emotions, and in the novel itself, there’s this rare moment when the writer gets pinned down by the main characters in the book because he’s always escaping being accounted for in the book. But at one point, he gets trapped into a conversation in a restaurant that Mina describes what he says as follows, “You tried to find a way to write about refugees and break the wall between reader and subject. You said you wanted people not to dismiss the suffering, not to read about the loss and sorrow, feel bad for a minute or two, then go back to their glass of overly sweet chardonnay. But you failed, of course. And then the first crack in your veneer. You said, in a whisper, that the only wall you broke was yours.” I guess I’m wanting to hear you talk about this seemingly contradictory stance between, “F*ck the reader, “ and “How can I get the reader to feel something other than pre-existing emotions?” and also what pre-existing emotions are in your mind in relation to this.
RA: Let me talk about pre-existing emotions because that’s the easy part. [laughter] We’re all programmed. We see certain things. We feel certain things. It’s like all I have to do is mention the holocaust. We all have these pre-existing feelings about them. It is the rare writer who could break through and tell you something new, and make you feel something new about that. Same with AIDS. It’s like the joke among writers for a long time is if you want the reader to care about your character, give them a dog because we all know and have these feelings towards dogs that are pre-existing. It’s like it’s there, I mean it could be for cats or whatever, but it’s a rare writer who could tell you about their love of their dog and make it brilliant. I keep thinking of My dog Tulip, J. R. Ackerley’s book, which is that the dog is such a disaster but the writer actually thinks that it’s the greatest dog in the world. It introduced something completely new to the equation. That’s what I think every writer wants is some form of connection. In the interview with Kara, I mentioned the first time we met when I told her about the accident that my young nephew had at the time. Her reaction was so swift and so, for lack of a better word, genuine, that I felt right away a strong connection to her. She had a strong connection to the story. In my opinion, a book should do that. To have something authentic or genuine or original or whatever we want to call it, as opposed to the familiarity of feelings, which is what almost these days most writing is, is just familiar, it takes you down roads you’ve been before. It’s comforting. It is lovely, I’m not suggesting it’s not. It’s just we’ve seen this before. You know it makes you feel comfortable. It’s like wearing a nice sweater on a cold day. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it but I’m not interested in that. In my opinion, that is not the province of literature. That’s the province of writing. Literature is supposed to induce something different. Like great art, it’s supposed to take you places you haven’t been before, emotionally and intellectually, but emotionally primarily. That’s that. The “F*ck the reader,” and “I want to f*ck the reader.” [laughter] Yes, it’s a dichotomy. It’s two ends of a line or a continuum or whatever. My first response is always, “So what?” I contradict myself all the time. In the first section that I read, I say that. Yes, I want to f*ck the reader because most of the time, I don’t care. I’m tired of writing that it’s supposed to please, make everybody feel happy, like I said, and comfortable. At the same time, I do care because it’s like I can’t get a hold of a reader and slap them silly, so my next best thing is to write a book that does. I don’t mean it as if this is a book that will, but to wake up some people, to wake up someone, to have something new, to have a frisson of excitement as opposed to this feeling of comfort and escapism. Again, I keep saying that it’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to escape and reading to escape. It’s absolutely necessary. I keep thinking I want to write a superhero dragon book that is predictable and makes everybody feel good. I love them but that’s not exactly what I go for. I want to f*ck with the reader. I want to f*ck the reader. [laughter] My favorite books have f*cked me over completely. Completely. It’s like we’re just talking about Invisible Cities. Here I am, I’ve read it now, 35 years after the first time I did it and it f*cked me up. The Kafka quote, it’s to break the frozen sea within you. Now, again, not every book should be that. Sometimes, I get asked, “What do you read?” I read everything, including romance novels and vampire novels. Anything. I love fiction because it makes me feel comfortable. It removes all the troubles of the day but when I really want to read, I want something that will f*ck me up.
DN: Maybe in that spirit, I want to talk about Satan.
RA: Oh god, yes, let’s talk about Satan. [laughter]
DN: Who was a character in your last book but not portrayed the way we would normally have Satan portrayed. This is the Satan who will not bow down to Adam because Satan only has love for God. The Satan who says, “All of those who say no, follow me.” You call him the saint, not just of gay men but of all outsiders, and you’ve talked about the thing you most identify with in terms of identity is not being gay or Arab-American, it is being someone not belonging anywhere or of being a misfit; that you’re attracted to writers, like Pessoa, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin who are also strange on the inside and the outside, and who understand what it means to be odd, which you described as, “To choose a life where one foot is in the world and one foot is in your own psyche.” You’ve also said that having one foot in two cultures, Lebanon and the US is part of how you find the Goldilocks distance, and a way you’ve described in your first book Koolaids as, “In America, you fit but do not belong and in Lebanon, you belong but do not fit,” but thinking of Satan in this light as a patron saint of the outsiders and back to what writing can and can’t do, when you were on the Arabology Podcast about five years ago, you were talking about books of yours that were accepted for translation into Arabic, then dropped due to their discovery of what you were actually writing about or controversies that came up around what you were writing about. You said, “Whenever there is censorship, one must get censored, otherwise you’re just diddling around.” You’ve also said that you’re with Kafka when he says, “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.” It feels like your topics, whether it’s AIDS or drone strikes or Syrian refugees are very much in that spirit of speaking to power but you also have been disturbed that these very same books by you have been embraced and celebrated or, at least, been disturbed by how they’ve been embraced and celebrated at some point. That your best selling The Hakawati would be put forth as somehow representative of an entire culture as one reviewer said, “As a bridge to the Arab soul.” But then when you wrote An Unnecessary Woman in response as a way to create a protagonist who couldn’t be more different and couldn’t be less concerned about audience or public opinion, that book too was embraced and loved, and perhaps even more so and perhaps this even more defines you or, at least, is one that people think about you with. You have this great essay in Harper’s called Comforting Myths where you look at the way America metabolizes other voices and puts them forth as what you call the cute other, the other that it becomes the purveyor of Comforting Myths, perhaps even unwittingly. You talk about how America celebrates global writing, not by reading or foregrounding writers that are truly from different places but almost exclusively writers, like Salman Rushdie or Junot Díaz or yourself who are Westerners, who are living in the West, who are connected often to academic institutions in the West and you call these people the cute other. I guess this is my long way of asking as a follower of Satan of saying no, of being an outsider, and someone who wants to read and write books that will wound us and stab us, yet as someone who fears they’re getting metabolized as the cute other nonetheless, if you could just talk about this a little bit more.
RA: It’s just like, yes, yes, I could talk about it. I could spend years talking about it. Let’s start with Satan. Again, every group needs another and we other it, and so on, but primarily, for me, with Satan is that he just refused to go along. He had different ideas. He gets vilified for that. Then we start, not we, but all of religion start projecting all kinds of evil onto the person. There are a number of offshoots of religion that talk about not Satanist or Satanism as a religion but the idea of what Satan or Iblis stands for, which is for me, the ability to say no. When we’re living in times where God is a fascist in all senses of the word, it’s this, “Only through me you get to heaven, and that following Satan or saying no to that, saying, ‘No, I refuse to be like you, I refuse to live in inferno,’” makes one appreciate Satan, as I called him in the book, the first revolutionary. It’s like all those who say no. There’s that. Yes, I fight or I want to write in opposition to the dominant culture. It’s in my nature. When I was a young boy, my friends used to call me the refusal front, which was a faction of the PLO that said no to everything because whatever they suggested, I would say no. “Do you want to play soccer?” “No.” [laughter] My tendency is to go against what the group wants. There’s that. At the same time, like I said, I can hold two opposing points of view. I am in many ways two opposing things. I do want to be accepted. I do want to be read and validated. I want to be loved. If that means having to be the cute other, okay, I’ll take it. I have that in abundance. Like we said earlier, I’m, at least, 15 different personas, not 72 yet but I’m working on it. Yes, there’s that as well. It’s a constant clash of wanting to reject everything and wanting to be accepted. There’s that. As terms of the essay, I like that essay a lot. I think about it all the time. For most Americans and for most readers, and critics, I am the other as a writer, yet the truth of the matter is I’m an American. Not just that I’ve been here since I was 17, so that’s 45 years ago, but that most of my education, even when I was in Lebanon, it’s basically an American education. All the things that I accuse American literature with, I accuse myself. I am American literature and not “I am a part of American literature.” [laughter]
DN: Not yet. [laughter]
RA: I intend to take over Satan and I will one day rule American literature. [laughter]
DN: I hope so.
RA: Unless you wait, somebody will use that quote. [laughter]
DN: Watch out.
RA: Watch out. That’s what my whole thing about the essay is that I am being othered even though I am part of the culture. Could you just imagine what happens to writers who are actually other, who are actually outside of the Western culture? They’re either completely ignored or hated. We don’t allow that literature in at all. Yes, there is a part of me that wants to be the outsider and a part of me that wants to be the insider. I believe we all do it just with different points at the scale.
DN: Let me quote something you’ve said in the past that is related to this. I’m curious about whether it applies to your latest book. You’ve said, “One of the things that happens with me is that, so far, every book I write is not just in response to the last book, but it is rebellion.” Is The Wrong End of the Telescope a rebellion against The Angel of History? If so, how?
RA: Let’s put it this way. It is the least rebellious against the former book. I felt really guilty about that when I was writing this. When I was writing The Wrong End of the Telescope, I kept feeling, “Goddamn it, I’ve done this before.” It wasn’t as big of a move but it was definitely a rebellion. The Angel of History, even though it takes on a big subject, it’s smaller in scope. It’s about a writer. Yes, it’s about his friends and what happened. It’s about the drone wars. It’s about AIDS and all that but it’s really just the internal life of one person struggling to adjust to a weird world. Satan keeps telling him that it’s not you who’s crazy. It’s the world that’s crazy. In this book, it’s, shall we say, outwardly directed. That’s I guess why it didn’t work. The writer is having his trauma or drama. Sometimes, it’s the same thing, but Mina is engaging the world. She’s engaging characters. She’s engaging people in situations. In The Angel of History, she doesn’t. It’s smaller scope. It’s a big story within someone’s head in some ways. This is a big story that was in the narrator’s head but Mina does not allow it to continue to be so. Yes, it is in rebellion but it wasn’t in great rebellion I keep saying because really nobody read The Angel of History.
DN: Oh, really?
RA: Like I said, every book does well. When it does well, I rebel against it.
DN: Maybe this one wounds or stabs in a way.
RA: The Angel of History at that time I thought was my best work. It was well received by critics and stuff that it didn’t do well, it was too gay, too queer, too sexual and strange, and Satan was a joy as opposed to the evil person that he’s supposed to be. I don’t know how much it sells. I never figured but I don’t think it sold much. I didn’t feel a need to rebel against it that much but I did. [laughter]
DN: Satan’s a joy in the Milton too.
RA: Oh god, yes, he’s the best thing in Milton.
DN: Yes by far. I wanted to talk about writing from a perspective that isn’t your subject position as a Lebanese-American gay man, something that you’ve long done and you’ve often expressed surprise that people themselves are surprised that you would be able to create protagonists who are women. You are asked about this a lot. In fact, most of the times that I’ve watched or listened to things with you, this is a topic that comes up. Sometimes, from simple curiosity but sometimes, it comes from ignorance where readers imagine there are not strong women in Arab cultures and thus are surprised to see strong women in your books. You’ve said that the whole notion of “write what you know” is not just boring but wrong; that it seems like every novel now has to be a memoir. It makes me think of the Zadie Smith piece Fascinated to Presume where she says, “The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane. This principle permits the category of fiction, but really only to the extent that we acknowledge and confess that personal experience is inviolate and nontransferable. It concedes that personal experience may be displayed, very carefully, to the unlike-us, to the stranger, even to the enemy—but insists it can never truly be shared by them,” then later she asks, “What would our debates about fiction look like, I sometimes wonder, if our preferred verbal container for the phenomenon of writing about others was not ‘cultural appropriation’ but rather ‘interpersonal voyeurism’ or ‘profound-other-fascination’ or even ‘cross-epidermal reanimation,’” and she’s also mentioned elsewhere that it’s her character Alex-Li who’s half Chinese and half Jewish that she feels is most like her, a person who is neither Chinese or Jewish. It also makes me think of something that I brought up with Abdellah Taïa when he was on the show. I just watched him do a reading prior to him being on the show where he was about to talk to Colm Toíbín and he got up to read first, and he prefaced his reading by saying that he was going to read in the voice of Zahira, which was his female prostitute protagonist, which was not him but then he stopped himself and said, “No, actually, she is me.” That he couldn’t write except by pulling all that he knew and all of who he is into any character, including a female prostitute. I guess I just wanted to have my long non-question introduce this question of the fiction and the other, if you could talk to us about this, particularly in relationship to this book where our main character, while Lebanese-American, is a trans woman Lesbian doctor.
RA: Sure. I can talk about it, although why would you want me to? Because goddammit, Zadie is so much more eloquent than I am. [laughter] It was really well done. I’ve said it now, I’m very rebellious. You tell me to stay in your lane, I say f*ck you. It’s as simple as that. The thing with me is that I actually rarely go out of my lane that much. Like I said, all my characters are a variation of me. I had a lot more issues with this book, writing about Mina as a surgeon than I did about Mina as a trans woman lesbian. Surgeon was a much, much bigger obstacle in many ways to imagine what the life of a surgeon would be like as opposed to the life of a trans woman lesbian. I spend almost all my time with trans women lesbians. It’s not quite difficult. [laughs] It’s not that difficult to imagine for me what it’s like to be that out of the dominant culture. I could make so many jokes about this and I know people take this so seriously but really I am a trans woman lesbian in a gay man’s body. [laughter] It never occurs to me to question whether I could write that. I spent hours and days questioning whether I could write about her as a surgeon because that is so difficult for me to imagine. I had to talk to all kinds of people. I had, at least, seven different doctors advising me the whole time. About trans women, I had two of my close friends. They tell me yes or no but the idea that you can’t or you’re not allowed just goes contrary to everything I believe in. Now, a lot of the appropriation conversation is important to have. Yes appropriation is a problem because it’s an issue of power and who gets to speak, and who doesn’t get to speak. Most of the people who are anti, anti, anti-appropriation who believe that they can write about anything they want are wrong. They can’t. The reason they can’t is because they’re terrible writers for the most part but it’s difficult because it’s difficult for them to imagine what it’s like, I mean let’s pick one controversy about American dirt. There was a big problem of appropriation there but it wasn’t about a white woman writing about a Mexican woman. It’s about a white woman writing badly about a Mexican woman, as in she was incapable of imagining what it was like to live as a Mexican woman, so she had to come up with stereotypes of just truly astoundingly bad stereotypes. When John Updike writes a book about an 18 year old Egyptian-American and calls it terrorist, it’s a terrible book. There’s nowhere in anything that Updike has experienced, I mean I don’t know what he lived his life but he was not able to imagine what it’s like for an 18 year old Egyptian-American. Now, I would have a lot of problems writing about rabbits. It’s not only not part of my experience, it would be difficult for me to imagine. That doesn’t mean I’m staying in my lane. It means I know where I could imagine. I would have to do a hell of a lot of research to write about straight white successful men living in suburbia. I cannot imagine anybody wanting to live in suburbia. For me, that is out of the question. Writing about somebody who lives in suburbia would be so much more difficult for me than writing about a trans woman. It’s about knowing, at least, how good our imagination is. The problem that I see right now is in this culture really, it is becoming a fool for, is that we have a poverty of imagination. It’s like all you’d have to do is go see movies now. It’s like all the movies that come out of Hollywood are the same thing. Nobody can even imagine another movie being successful anymore because we stopped being able to imagine. Books tend to be personal confessional, If they’re personal confessional that you can’t identify with, forget about it. It has to be a personal confession of what’s the topic du jour, what drama is happening today. That’s what’s happening. It’s not about appropriation. It’s about a limited imagination that we’re going through. That’s a problem. Now, again, that doesn’t mean that appropriation should be ignored. On the contrary, we should talk about it because for the most part, most people who object to this whole discussion, they don’t want to be criticized. If you write a book about somebody who’s not like you and you do a terrible job, you are supposed to be criticized. You’re not immune to it. The trouble is, are you able to do it?
DN: Despite being a proponent of writing the imagined or in addition to having this position, you did use sensitivity readers in the book.
RA: Of course.
DN: You do thank Susan Stryker, the scholar and theorist of transgender studies who’s also your friend.
RA: I stole her story. [laughter] A lot of her backstory is Mina’s backstory.
DN: Oh, interesting. Maybe the answer to this question is going to be both or neither but do you see the use of sensitivity readers as a way to avoid inadvertent harm or as a way to make sure you’re getting the details right?
RA: Again, that inadvertent harm thing rankles a little. I am not responsible for someone else’s harm. We’ve gotten to the point again where everybody becomes a victim and, “Oh my god, my feelings were hurt.” or “Well, honey, get over it.” Again, my feelings are my own. I’m responsible for them. That doesn’t mean that you’re not an assh*le if you insult me but that’s your problem. It’s not about inadvertent harm. It’s about making the best novel that I can. I don’t give it to sensitivity readers. I give it to people who can help me edit the novel. Susan, it’s like there were some things that she corrected that I would not have known. She’s someone who is trans and has gone through experiences that I cannot even begin. I would miss so many things if not for her but I don’t see it as sensitivity. I hate that word. I’m not sensitive. [laughter] I see it as making my novel better, making my novel more true or to feel more true, making it better. I showed it to at least three different doctors. Like I said, nobody goes, “Oh my god, they’re sensitivity readers.” No, no, they’re actually harsher than most trans women I know.
DN: I liked Susan’s comments about the book about how she found it particularly gratifying that your portrayal of Mina was understated in how it handled her identity, and that you didn’t make her transness a battlefield for the culture wars, it was just an unproblematic perspective from which you told the story. She says it was refreshing to encounter trans characters in the book whose gender identity wasn’t their overriding story and that their transition wasn’t centered as the only story about them. But the thing that left out also was she liked that because trans people are so often portrayed as deceptive or as deceivers, to see trans people in The Wrong End of the Telescope doing deeply moral humanitarian work seemed noteworthy to her. But while you don’t focus on Mina or the other trans characters in relationship to their acts of transition or you don’t focus on their acts of transition in a way that Susan Stryker found admirable, there are motifs of crossing borders in the book that aren’t about transness. I’m thinking of the cross-dressing Greek man on Lesbos who continues as a secondary background character in the town but also the story which you referred to earlier in Syria under Daesh where Daesh isn’t allowing male doctors to treat women, so the doctor does two calls to the same house, one dressed as a man and another dressed as a woman. Can you talk about the presence of these non-trans characters who are nevertheless crossing boundaries, what role do you see their presence is playing or their stories playing within the book?
RA: Again, in many ways, the whole book is about crossing boundaries, going from one place to the next. It’s like whether they’re trans or not trans or whatever, we are constantly moving. It is not incidental to the novel that Mina is trans but at the same time, her transness is not what defines Mina. Susan is one of my closest friends. I literally think of her as trans. She’s not my trans friend. I have many. They would kill me if I said something like that. [laughter] It’s like yes, her transness is part of who she is. It’s a big part of who she is but her story encompasses more. It never occurred to me to make the story about Mina’s transness that in many ways would be a limited and boring story. It’s about her engagement with the world, so you include other characters. Now, this is a trick as opposed to the earlier, and I learned it from one of my earlier books, if the character is a minority or is outside of the dominant culture, when the dominant culture reads the book, they will assign all the qualities of that character onto the rest of the population. If you write about a queer Arab and that character behaves in a certain way, the dominant culture and reviewers in general will start assigning that character’s behavior to an entire class of people. All gay Arabs behave that way. What needs to be done in terms of storytelling is if I’m writing about a trans character, I don’t want everyone to believe that the reason she does this or that she’s able to work with this person is because she’s trans. What you do is you just include variations of different things. For me, one of my favorite characters is Emma who’s also trans but she’s almost the complete opposite of Mina. I wanted a predatory, fun trans woman who wants to f*ck every straight boy there is. It’s like yes, I could see that. [laughter] That’s not Mina. One of the things that I said I start thinking is if there is Mina in a long-term relationship, married for over 30 years, that there’s not much that is sexual about her. I didn’t want anybody to assume that trans people can be sexual, so you have Emma that comes to the rescue and reminds people, “Oh no, we can have sex.” [laughter]
DN: That makes me think when I read Rebecca Makkai’s blurb for your book and it ends with, “And it’s a whole lot of fun,” or something like that. I don’t know that I would call The Wrong End of the Telescope fun exactly.
RA: You should. You should call it fun. It sells more books.
DN: But I do think it points to something that doesn’t get captured when we discuss just the broad topics of the book. That the book is warm, full of love, and entertaining. I do think that’s the prominent tone of the book. I’m thinking of one conversation about your life in San Francisco during the worst part of the AIDS crisis where by the mid 90s, half of your soccer team had died. You mentioned how the lesbian community was incredible, how they were continually showing up in meaningful and unexpected ways. When I think about that in relationship to all of our discussion about the limitations of writing or the limitations of empathy or the limitations of being a volunteer or the impossibility of making a difference, it wouldn’t be right to not mention the many really heartening and heart-opening relationships in this book.
RA: It actually makes a difference.
DN: That do make a difference. I think of Mina and her brother, which is just this remarkable relationship on the page and I think about Mina and her relationship with her partner, Francine, back in Chicago. You could say she’s a minor character but their relationship does not feel minor in the book at all.
RA: She’s not a minor character. No. Again, she’s in the background but she’s not a minor character. Like I said, I’m full of contradictions. I actually believe we make no difference, then at the same time, if we make a lot of difference, I mean all you have to do to get me crying is to mention my lesbian friends at the time who just at our worst moment, they showed up. They showed up in full. I cannot talk about it without remembering like, “What the f*ck, where did they come from? Where are they? Why?” When nobody else wanted to be around, they came. No, no. Sorry, it’s a difficult time but again, it’s like yes, yes, we can’t make a difference in terms of crisis but then seriously, look at the volunteers who went, I mean the number of people who went to help refugees is amazing. The number of people who all of a sudden became fascists and closed the borders, and stuff, there’s a lot more of them but you can’t forget that as bad as I sometimes talk about the volunteers. They’re amazing. They actually think that they can make a difference, yes.
DN: Mina’s brother is amazing and Mina’s partner is amazing too I think.
RA: I don’t know why I insisted on Mina being surrounded by love and that she’s such a loving person. There was no way she needed to have that. She needed her brother’s love as a story. She needed to be in a solid loving relationship so that to contrast in some ways, what happened to the writer and how she was able to extend to him what he didn’t seem to have.
DN: Let’s return to the title of the book, which you alluded to earlier on, because many of your titles are references to writers. The Angel of History comes from Walter Benjamin’s famous engagement with the Angel of History, An Unnecessary Woman is in conversation with the way Bruno Schulz was considered a necessary Jew, kept alive during the war, so he could complete a mural for a Nazi’s daughter’s bedroom wall, and The Wrong End of the Telescope, if I’m to trust your Twitter account, comes from a quote from D. H. Lawrence goes, “It’s easy to love America passionately when you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope.” Talk to us about why The Wrong End of the Telescope is the right title for this book.
RA: Part of the answer to the question is inexplicable, as in it just felt right from the beginning, but it does come from that quote. But to me, D.H. Lawrence, that was in the book Studies in Classic American Literature, which is a brilliant book that I think he wrote while drunk in five days because he needed money. It’s probably in my opinion his best book. It’s like this small, but it says about the writers who love America. It says, “It’s easy to love America passionately when you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope.” But for me, this book is not about America per se. It’s not about looking at America through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s that we look at everything from the wrong end of the telescope. It is one of the things that keeps us sane is to distance some things and to look at it as if it’s the other. In this book, it’s the right title because even though I am looking at the refugee situation, and in the beginning of this talk, you used the word the book grapples with something and I thought, “Yes, I grapple like Jacob and the angels.” It’s grappling but you don’t ever get a hold of it but it grapples with the refugee situation but it really is the story of Mina, the story of Sumaya, the story of the narrator who is not me but me. Once we start looking at people as people, not as the other and not as a collection or a class, it changes things. I hope it changes things. I wanted to look at the refugee situation but I did not want to look at the refugee situation. I wanted to look at the refugees again, as single stories.
DN: There’s a moment when the writer character decides he’s not going to write another book about refugees for Western entertainment and a friend of his suggests something that’s brilliant that maybe he could write something that would allow the displaced people, the refugees to inhabit the skin of Americans, allowing them to walk around in their fashionable clothes, empathize with their boredom and their angst, and where they could drama, shop, and go crisis touring themselves. Just so amazing to imagine. If this real writer, before me today, is not going to write about refugees either, do you know how your next book is going to rebel against The Wrong End of the Telescope?
RA: [laughter] I have to start into the next book. Like I said, most of my books are rebellion. That kind of book was An Unnecessary Woman about a Lebanese woman living in Beirut. Even though she translates Western literature and stuff, it has nothing to do with America. Would Americans read it and feel some empathy towards non-Americans? I always wondered but apparently, they do. They do. It still stuns me at times to listen to people going like, “It’s such a tragic situation she’s in. She lives in such a patriarchal society.” I look and think like, “And we live in what kind of society?” [laughter] It’s like unless she’s married or has kids, then she’s ignored. That’s not the case over here. Yes, I’d do that. I don’t know what my next novel is. What I am working on right now doesn’t seem to be coalescing right now. I’m blaming the pandemic still, I don’t know. If something will come up, yes, it will be a rebellion most probably and I’m hoping it’s a smaller book, like do I really have to tackle the refugee situations? Can I just write a little nice book about two people who have lunch?
DN: I love it. [laughs]
RA: Me too, without Satan coming. [laughter]
DN: Could we end with a reading of the chapter The Cave of Shanidar?
RA: Oh my, okay. The hopeful chapter.
DN: Yes and no.
RA: It’s straight answer with me.
[Rabih Alameddine reads from The Wrong End of the Telescope]
DN: Thank you so much, Rabih, for being on the show today.
RA: Thank you so much for having me.
David Naimon: We are talking today to Rabih Alameddine about his latest book, The Wrong End of the Telescope. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Rabih Alameddine can be found at rabihalameddine.com. If you are on Twitter, be sure to seek out and follow Rabih’s incredible curation of paintings, and poems there. Rabih adds a short discussion and reading of Fernando Pessoa to the bonus audio archive. This joins supplemental readings by everyone from Garth Greenwell and Victoria Chang to Jorie Graham and Teju Cole, craft talks from Jeannie Vanasco to Marlon James and much more. To find out how to subscribe to the bonus audio and about the many other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.