The National Book finalists were announced last month, and on the shortlist for fiction is Rabih Alameddine’s latest novel An Unnecessary Woman. In the lead-up to the announcement of the winners next week, we’re revisiting a conversation with Alameddine when he spoke at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in January.
Rabih Alameddine is the author of Koolaids, I, the Divine, The Perv, and the international bestseller The Hakawati, an ambitious re-telling of the Arabian Nights in 21st-century Beirut which was described by the New York Times as “a wonder of a book… genius.”
This is the short version of the bio. The long version involves a life as an engineer, a painter, and a writer whose humor and experimental prose crackles with exuberantly pensive characters who at times seem to be masters of their own fate, most visibly through the varied forms of their stories as fragments, first chapters, myths, and musings.
Rabih Alameddine’s latest book, An Unnecessary Woman, born into the English speaking world with bright acclaim, has at the core of its praise the main character Aaliya, whose voice moves us through the internal landscape of an aging woman in Beirut. Aaliya’s thoughts Publishers’ Weekly names as “tiny, wonderful essays,” and Daniel Alarcon calls her “one of the more memorable characters in contemporary fiction.”
Aaliya arrives into our lives at 72 years of age with accidentally blue hair. She wills us into her life; she chooses us to read her, just like her sister-in-law, the hungry, amorous and devastating Hannah, chooses her. Aaliya knows and understands and dreams of Hannah after reading her diaries. She uncovers her over and over again, the way she does the books that she translates and which overflow and inhabit her maid’s room. Just like the lines from novels, philosophy, poetry, and theory that resurface as hauntings, assurances, and reminders of who she is and what she believes. Aaliya’s internal landscape often mirrors the external only through associations. The moments in front of mirrors are rare. There is only one mirror in her apartment. And it needs cleaning. Instead, the reflections function like fractals.
And that’s where Beirut appears, just past the landing, below a changing sky. It exists as an extension of Aaliya’s mind. The city is given its own map, outside of nation-states, it breathes through living rooms, alleyways, and a makeshift bookstore crowded with stuffed animals. In sweeping descriptions of life during, before, and after several warscapes and varied versions of political moments, Aaliya situates us in the tornado of activity that exists outside the apartment that appears to have grown around her. A flurry of neighbors—women she calls the witches who provide entertainment and familial milestones—and occasionally intruders who she does not hesitate to chase away with an AK47.
Somewhere halfway through the book, as we wander through the desolate museum at the center of the city, longing to be “normal” like the museum guard who belongs “to the world he resides in,” crying in the humid hallways, moving between crowds of tourists and thrones that make us question whether we are necessary humans, a goddess or a betyl, a sacred stone, we begin to understand that we, too, have chosen Aaliya as our companion.
The following is an edited conversation with Rabih Alameddine that took place at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in January.
Youmna Chlala: I’m going to begin with mothers, okay? There’s an incredible moment in the book in which Aaliya’s mother shows up with her step brother-in-law and when her mother sees her, she begins to wail hysterically and fight and to scream. I think the phrase is, “she screams like a sick cow,” which is an unusual way to describe your own mother. Aaliya is very shaken up by this and spends quite a long time trying to understand how her mother could have responded to her in such a way and arrives at the conclusion that it’s all the fault of psychology. She blames psychology for the demise of the Western novel. You have an intimate and profound stance between mothers and psychoanalysis. I was wondering if you wanted to expand on that a little.
Rabih Alameddine: Sure. Aaliya quotes Alain Robbe-Grillet who once said that the problem with the modern novel is psychology and that readers today, ever since Freud basically, have been assigning a certain motive to the character so that if you don’t have motives in novels these days, and clear motives, then you’re in trouble as a writer and as a reader and that’s what she criticizes. Which, in some ways, I do agree with. Her mother is, of course, a big deal. She might not appear as much, but she’s a big presence in the book. And it started for me with why she did what she did from looking at this amazing terracotta sculpture of basically the death of Christ. It’s sort of piéta with lots of people. I don’t know what you’d call that. But there was one woman who was looking at Christ and screamed which for me, looking at it, was so powerful that I could just imagine what it could be like if somebody was standing and faced that sort of a primal scream. The pain of that scream was not physical, but spiritual and more soul-like. And I wondered what would happen to somebody, especially someone who is as reserved as my character, to be faced with something like this. And let alone that it’s her mother.
Mothers are often protagonists in your novels, yes?
Well, I’m one of those writers that actually thinks that nothing happens outside of the nuclear family. You can look at a nuclear family and see the dynamic of the entire world. So whenever somebody says, “how do you solve the problems of the Middle East?”, I say, “I don’t know. I can’t even talk to my mom, let alone figure things out.” So, yes, practically everything for me is stuck in the family. Whether from I, the Divine or Hakawati, or Koolaids, it’s the idea that whether we’re embraced by the family or we think we’re the black sheep, we will constantly form this unit.
You almost feel like the three women who gather upstairs to have coffee every day are an extension of family just as much as her own mother, if not more so. And a lot of that kind of eavesdropping I relate to a little bit; maybe… can we call it theft? In the sense that there’s a culling of knowledge that happens almost through thievery, through her voice. I feel like this is something that has always existed in your work. Koolaids is fragments, some of them your own, some of them not. And then there’s a number of ways in which, when you first read a book like Koolaids and when you first read Aaliya, there are moments where you can’t tell whose voice is hers, internally, and whose voice is the voice of the greater whole or the people she’s kind of stealing from. I wanted to know about that process for you because I think it’s very devious in its becoming.
Someone described it as a meta-narrator—there’s a narrator and there’s narrating the narrator, which is partly true—as in, I can have Aaliya be a unique character, but at the same time I can speak through her and the novel can speak through her. I think a lot of writers do that. The theft… see, for me the whole idea of her listening to the neighbors is the distance she keeps from life. So there’s a reason she’s a translator, a translator of translation, there’s a reason that she lives in the city that is teeming with life and she keeps herself slightly separate. And I’m interested in experimenting with that and figuring out where that goes. From that, the idea that there is this active building that she lives in—that she’s lived in for 50 years—that has had people having full relationships, including full families that she’s both part of and not. And I’ve always been intrigued by that—I look at my life and I’m both part of life and separate. I think everybody has that… just the degrees and how separate we want to keep ourselves. So, is it thievery? It’s whatever you want it to be, yes. Yes, let’s call it thievery.
So, Aaliya often quotes from books as if they’re an extension of her own mind and I was wondering if in the process you didn’t actually want to give credit to all of the authors that she cites or…
Oh God, yes! I plagiarize regularly. And I did it in Koolaids as part of conversations, but I… no I don’t call it plagiarism… I steal. Plagiarism is when you take something that belongs to somebody else and it’s still theirs, but you’re using it. No. I steal. It becomes mine. And there’s a big difference. And it’s funny because sometimes I think, “Oh, I took that sentence from such and such.” And I look back at the original sentence and it’s nothing like what I had in my mind because once I take it, it belongs to me. In this book, in particular, there were lots of quotes and because of how she lived her life, she needed these quotes so they had to be exact. There was some discussion with the editors about whether we put these quotes as in-quotes or they become part of her speech. And, no, we kept it in quotes because it was… not just convention but it sounds better. But no. She incorporates and so do I. She incorporates, I steal. I’m proud of my stealing.
Good. Like a good Lebanese. Which brings me to this. So the Lebanese are notorious for their peacock nature. They like to flutter. Lounging about the pool. And one would assume that when you spend that much time taking care of yourself, being aware of the way you project yourself in the world, you don’t care so much about what everyone else thinks, but it’s quite the opposite, which is, the gaze is constantly on you. And your own gaze is constantly on everyone else. You chose a protagonist whose gaze was never quite on herself. So I wanted to know how gaze functioned in this book for you.
Well, you can say in one way that the gaze—her gaze—was never on herself, in another way you can say that she’s one of the most narcissistic people around. She’s always looking at herself. So it’s neither nor … it’s a little more complex than that. I mean, she’s a much more complex character than going, “oh she cares about what others think of her.” I mean there’s this whole discussion at the end with her and the woman as to whether she fits…and, you know, they see her one way, every one of them sees her a different way. And that makes for a full character. Yes, the Lebanese are definitely vain, silly, vapid. They will dress up as if every day they go to the coiffeur, and this is part of the Lebanese. Aaliya doesn’t live that necessarily externally, but I’m not sure that she’s not vain in her own way. Again, for me, she’s a lot more complex than just saying, “oh she is an old woman with blue hair,” “oh she is vain,” or “oh she doesn’t like people,” or “she’s a misanthrope.” To me, she’s a lot more than that. And, you know, you can say that she’s Lebanese or you can also say that she’s the antithesis of Lebanese. And she’s both.
Well, she’s deeply rooted. There’s no question of that, actually. Was there ever a moment where you were not going to set the story in Beirut?
Oh, it didn’t start with Beirut at all. When I first wrote the novel it was set in Kuwait. This old woman goes to Kuwait to figure out her dead husband’s business. You couldn’t own property in Kuwait so he had to have a partner. So she’s going to try to reclaim what her family is at the same time the Americans were going into Iraq for the first time. So, I had this novel set in a hotel where on one side are the Lebanese, Kuwaitis, and on the other side are the Americans and, you know, I tried it and it was going well and all of a sudden everything starts falling apart except for this one woman. She was there but was not there and that was what I was interested in. So, no, it’s not always in Beirut. It just ends up in Beirut because really that’s what I think about all the time.
This is a bit about the burden of the author, but once you write this story, how much do you have to go back and explain? Because there’s a lot of moments where the translation is then your burden. It’s really a book about translation.
Well, it depends what you mean by “explain.” I try not to “explain.” I think part of the trouble with a lot of, shall we say, books that are set outside of America is that people expect explanations; someone says they want a tourist guide, somebody to hold your hand as you walk along, and I don’t do fucking tourist guides. I just don’t. So, I don’t really explain in that sense. Of course, there has to be an explanation and sort of an exploration of the story itself and that’s a different thing.
You know, I’m lucky that I have a good editor and good readers, but part of the problem I have is that my mind is, like Aaliya’s, in a world all its own, so sometimes I think that I am making complete sense and then somebody reads it and is like, “I have no clue what you’re talking about,” which happens quite often – more often than I would like to admit. One time I submitted a novel that was 1,300 pages thinking that somebody should read it and somebody said, “I will never read that!” I’m not naming names. So, there is that. What I think is okay might not be, but explaining… I don’t even like the word. I might explore something. In Elizabeth Costello, which is an amazing book… Elizabeth Costello tells this African writer that you write for a Western audience and you end up explaining so much of your culture to them so how can you go into any depth if you have to explain? I’m not sure if anybody is as clear as Coetzee, but that’s another story. And I thought that’s it—this is the trouble we have. So, I never explain from the beginning and I don’t care to.
Most of the interactions in An Unnecessary Woman are mediated through books, letters—through the relationship to literature. And this happens not just in this book, but in a lot of your work, usually through the object-ness of literature, not just through literature. I wanted for you, as a painter, to talk about that a little.
Speaking for all painters, actually the reason there’s an object is I don’t go out much. So all of my interaction is with my books and my other things. If I can get myself to go out more then I’ll have more people in my novels and there’ll be more action. So until that day I will mostly write novels of ideas, of interacting with painting or with objects, with books, with stuff like that. Really, I am fabulous, but I live a very sedate life. The fabulousness was really pretend. I’m actually one of the most boring people… I get up, pretend to sit at my desk, you know, the exciting thing is, “Ohh I can read this book now! Yes!” This is my life. This is what excites me. It’s sad when people say, oh she lives such a sad life and I go, “Yes. She does.” This is really me. But this is not just my life. This is the life of a lot of people that I know. People say she’s misanthropic, and I say, “No. People deserve to be hated.” It’s that simple. She prefers books to people, who doesn’t? So, yes of course she has a relationship to objects. As it should be!