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Celebrated novelist Rabih Alameddine’s long-awaited new book An Unnecessary Woman, released last month by Grove Press, is a stunning character portrait, an astute snapshot of contemporary Beirut, and a lyrical testament to the power of literature. The novel maps the peculiar inner-life of a reclusive Lebanon-based bibliophile, Aaliya Saleh, while also “revealing Beirut’s beauties and horrors along the way. “
Alameddine took some time to talk with Lambda Literary about his new novel, gay life in Lebanon, and the joys and disappointments of hanging out with other writers.
Do you have an “ideal reader” of your books?
My usual joke is “someone like me, only younger, cuter, and taller.” By that I mean someone who is as excited by a book as I am. I usually write a book that I want to see out there that I’m not seeing. In my mind, my reader is a person who is like me, [a person] that is looking for a book they are not seeing, and hopefully my book will fulfill that for her or for him.
In your new novel, An Unnecessary Woman, Aaliya, the main character, translates novels into Arabic but none are ever published. How do you feel about translation? Have you ever had something translated but not published?
I love translation. The Hakawati [Alameddine’s previous novel] was translated into 17 or 18 languages, and so was I, the Divine. Into Arabic, only I, the Divine has been translated. So far I don’t know if this one will yet. The only language into which every one of my novels has been translated is Bosnian. I’m big in the Balkans. In Spain, I’m read and do well but they have not translated Koolaids. Koolaids was translated into Arabic but the translator refused to put his name on it. He was terrified–they wanted to censor it and I refused and it never came out.
Here in the West we often hear that Lebanon is a kind of “gay mecca” of the Middle East. How often do you get back to your native country, and what is gay life like there?
I go back to Lebanon at least twice a year, most times three times a year. In some ways, I also consider myself to live there, even though I really don’t. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “gay mecca.” When I grew up the only gay café/bar was the only open one I’d ever seen, in that it was right on the street. You weren’t openly gay, everyone knew that–this was the early ‘70s. Over here all the bars were basically unseen: from the outside you could not see in. Almost all the bars were like that–in Lebanon they weren’t.
Right now there’s a big gay rights group that does amazing work, there’s magazines…the clubs? Forget about it: the best dance club in Lebanon is a gay dance club–straights go there to be cool. Is this a gay mecca? I don’t know. I don’t consider any place a gay mecca. Even in San Francisco, I think it’s not great to be gay. Anyway I am no longer gay–I’ve transcended that. I’m creating a new sexual and political identity: I’m grumpy. Its post-post-post gay. I want a parade where I walk down and I tell people how much I hate them. I definitely want a grumpy center, where I show art that I hate, poets that I heckle, and a flag, I’ve got a grumpy flag–I’m thinking burlap. The Grumpy Cat–that’s my mascot. We won’t be exactly a group. We’d be grumpy solitudes. We’ll just be grumpy together.
A lot of it has to do with the feeling…I mean, of course I’m gay. But am I gay like everybody else is? I feel like more of an outsider than I feel “gay.” The more the gay community gets co-opted by the dominant culture, the more I feel like a double outsider. As an example, it’s funny: now when I go through TSA, through this whole book tour with painted fingernails, TSA will let me pass just like that–whee! Because I’m no longer a threat. As an Arab I’d be more of a threat to them. And I’m thinking, when did we, when did I, become so acceptable?
An Unnecessary Woman is a number of different things at the same time: it is a character study, a portrait of Beirut, a love letter to literature–but all these parts come together seamlessly. How did you accomplish that?
If I knew how to do it, I’d become rich teaching it to MFA students. Really, my intention was to make the novel work. When I’m sitting down to write, what I think about is, ‘is this working?’ Everything else is secondary.
Usually I’m writing about outsiders. I could be writing about anything – two cats in heat–and the main theme would be about outsiders. In this book the main theme about loving stories comes through because this is what obsesses me. I would never say I want to write a book about a woman who is an outsider because I don’t know that I’ve written anything that isn’t (about outsiders).
Someone asked me, “Did you think of the book as political?” and of course it is. This is what interests me. I could be writing about two hamsters running on a wheel and it becomes political. Maybe not overtly so, but those are the things that are interesting to me. So do I set out to put all these things in the novel? Yes, in the back of my head I do. But I will drop whatever it is if the novel will work (without it) or I will add whatever it is to make the novel work.
Each of your books is different in terms of form and narrative structure. For example, the intimate scale of An Inconvenient Woman is totally different from the sprawling multigenerational canvas of your previous book, The Hakawati. Can we assume that this is intentional? In terms of writing, do you start your next book right after finishing your last one, going from one thing to another?
Each of my books is so different it makes it difficult to market me. Each book is a reaction to the previous one, and the story itself dictates the form the novel will take. I spend years with the characters writing the book. I’d get bored doing the same thing over and over.
I usually have a decompression period, but this book was finished quite a long time ago. It came out in Spain about a year and a half ago, so it was finished two years ago. Now I am in the middle of doing something else. It took a long, long, long time. And yes, it’s completely different.
In your new novel, Aliyah says that she’d love to invite Serbo-Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kiš over for a cup of tea and to sit down for a talk. Are there writers you’d like to invite over?
I would love to have Danilo Kiš over, but he’s dead. I’m really lucky in many ways that I know quite a few writers, and that is one of the beautiful things, yes. I love that, and sometimes coming over and not talking about literature, coming over and gossiping about everybody. It’s a fun thing. I picked novelist Colm Toíbín up off the street and invited him over. He was crossing Market Street here in San Francisco and I went, “Oh hi, would you like to have a cup of tea?” and he said, “Yes!”
In many ways what Aliyah talks about is what I dreamed about when I was a kid, to be in the company of close friends that I have over for dinner. Not necessarily to talk about art as much as to talk about things that mean something to us, and I am grateful that I get to have that.
But sometimes meeting other writers can be so disappointing. Sometimes people meet me and think I’m one thing and it turns out I’m a complete dork, which I am. I’m disappointed by me.
Photo via rabihalameddine.com