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Kieron Devlin

A Conversation with Rabih Alameddine

Rabih (pronounced Rabee) Alameddine makes covering distances look like a ballroom dance quick step: from Jordan, his birthplace, to Kuwait, Lebanon, England, to San Francisco in the United States, from engineering, to painting, to writing fiction. This mercurial touch, rooted in an eye for the absurd, the comedy in suffering, is apparent in his latest book I, the Divine (WW Norton, 2001). This is written as a cross cultural memoir. Sarah Nour el-Din is Arab/American. Like many who come to remodel themselves in the new world, she has difficulty finding her focus. Her Lebanese father rejected her American mother for a more traditional woman. She becomes a successful painter, but Lebanon haunts her, comes back to her most as she is furthest away. The past, as Salman Rushdie says, is also a country we all emigrate from. Whatís intriguing about this novel is its unique structure: It begins, and then just keeps on beginning. Page 296 announces yet another Chapter One, eschewing easy reliance on neat conclusions - itís a novel that by definition has no end, and may even sidestep the need for character development. While I, the Divine has less of that sniper fire impact and aphoristic fervor of Alameddineís first book Koolaids (Picador, 1998) which dealt with a young gay Arab Samir who suffers from the double conflict of AIDS and memories of the civil war in Lebanon, it has a greater rootedness, breadth and a gentler sense of humor. Sarah appeals to us, because she just canít get beyond beginnings. Sheís a maker of false starts, born and reborn into a confused world where layers of national identity wear worryingly thin, and the past breaks through. Samir in Koolaids summarizes this paradox Ė "In America I fit, but donít belong. In Lebanon, I belong, but donít fit." Sarah tries to fit too many times and realizes perhaps that the search for individuality itself may be an illusion, she is nothing without family. Alameddine cites his most obvious influences as Naipaul, Nabokov, Borges, Kundera, Rushdie and Patrick White- a list that transplanted individuals would recognize instantly, but he also confesses to an addiction for Harold Robbins as a teenager.

KD: What are your impressions of America?

RA: I grew up infatuated with America. I had wanted to come for as long as I can remember. I first came when I was 17. I was young, alone and I could do whatever I wanted. I made sure to sample quite a bit. I grew up in an upper middle class family. I went to a high school that was founded by American missionaries a hundred years earlier. As a child my imaginary friends were all American. They were also gorgeous, fabulous and had impeccable taste in friends. I was fourteen when I saw Death Race 2000. I loved it, though it was incredibly sick. I could fit where people had that twisted sense of humor. Years later, I was fortunate enough to become friends with the twisted director himself, Paul Bartel.

KD: What started you off as a fiction writer?

RA: I have always wanted to be a writer, but was never able to write. Too afraid. For years I would try to write anything, a science fiction story, a fantasy, anything that would not make me feel uncomfortable if it were read. I was never able to write more than a couple of lines, and terrible lines at that. One day, when I was breaking up with my lover, I was so upset that I decided to write a novel. Sounds weird now, but it made sense then. I ended up writing Koolaids. I still think revenge is a great reason to write.

KD: How did you feel in 1998 about the reception of Koolaids?

RA: It got some wonderful reviews. I would have loved to have had more, but for a first book, and a non-traditional one, I think it did fine. Many writers complain that books with gay content have more problems being taken seriously, but I am not sure I can say that. Itís not as if I can take out the gay content and see how it will do without it. The reception to The Perv in 1999 was disappointing. It was ignored by practically everybody. Maybe it was the gay content! My feelings depend on the time of day. In the mornings, hungry before lunch, I am upset that I have not been awarded the Nobel Prize. After lunch, I feel grateful that my books get published.

KD: Could you talk about Beirut and the Civil war. Koolaids suggested that it marked your life.

RA: Itís not as if I donít remember growing up in the desert of Kuwait, but most of my fond memories, my formative experiences, were in the Lebanese mountains. I think the any question about war should be: How did it not affect you? It permeates every corner of my life. I canít seem to write about anything else. The war taught me how to deal with impermanence, how to sharpen my sense of the absurd, and how to function in a chaotic world. Wars and disease bring one closer to mortality. But whereas with disease, especially terminal illness, you can always delude yourself into believing the situation, your life, is controllable, it is impossible with war. War is the antidote to the new age movement. Even Deepak Chopra would have trouble finding inner love while dodging bullets.

KD: Bill, the fantasist in The Perv says "Remembering is the disease I suffer fromÖ the persistence of memory is killing me". Could you talk about how you see him?

RA: Bill is the pedophile who interacts with the narrator, although I did leave it somewhat ambiguous. He isnít necessarily playing roles. That is not to say Bill is real. The story is about self-creation, self-delusion, and the absurdity of human interactions. The idea that we know whom we are interacting with is in many ways a protective illusion.

KD: Now to I, the Divine. This seems more ambitious than anything youíve done before. How did Sarah Nour el-Din come to you?

RA I had decided to write a book about someone who wants to write a memoir but keeps abandoning it before reaching a second chapter. Sarahís character was determined by that. She is the kind of person who would do such a thing.

KD: Does she have a prototype?

RA: Sarah is a composite of myself and of different women I know, cousins, sisters, friends. In the class above me were two girls, the only girls in class. They had incredibly different personalities. One was down to earth, rarely wore make up, had the look of a budding intellectual, made model buildings out of empty Marlboro boxes and was very political. The other looked like a sexpot, never left the house without tons of make up, dressed in sexy outfits, could not care less about politics and could recite every fashion article verbatim. They were both academically brilliant. I used them, but Sarah and her friend Dina are still different. It was always naturally Sarahís story: it was never about whether she should be male or female, just Sarah.

KD: How did you arrive at the idea of a novel in first chapters?

RA: Italo Calvino of course. If on a winterís night, a traveler is one of my favorite books. I wanted to have the same writer doing different chapters, struggling to find a voice. It allowed me to experiment with forms. The idea of inventing and reinventing oneself has always appealed to me. It enables the narrator to figure out which incidents and people were the primary determinants of who she is. Every writer does that when writing a memoir. Itís important for setting the tone of the story.

KD: How far do you see the form serving the purposes of the narrative, how successful is it at rendering the cross cultural dilemma?

RA: The form determined the purpose. I chose Sarahís character and hence her narrative specifically as someone who does not complete projects. Yet she has an urgent need, a neurosis really, to make something of her life. Once I had that, the form seemed best for her character. I donít see her as being that different from others. Most writers can identify with abandoning projects before figuring out what it is they really want to write. So itís not so much a reflection of a mind fragmented by civil war. Not particularly Lebanese. Yet how she writes each chapter, where she leaves off, is caused specifically by her background.

KD: Did you consider doing it without the first chapters device?

RA: It wouldnít be the same book. It certainly would not be Sarah writing it. She would not be able to finish. I could have written it differently about Sarahís life, but that would not be Sarah writing it.

KD: Do your ideas come from the study of painting, or from trends such as the novel in short stories?

RA: Iím not fond of the novel in short stories. All the different chapters of I, the Divine donít fit that mold. They cannot be excerpted from the book. There is a definite arc which makes it really a novel. Some of my narrative ideas come typically from literature. Others come from painting. Not anything visual per se, but patterns of formal experimentation.

KD: Could you talk about your working methods?

RA: I wish I had any. I am so undisciplined. I can go for days, even months not writing a thing, only using my computer for solitaire and e-mail. When I am inspired, I can write for days on end.

KD: The dilemma for Arab Americans has gained more attention since 9/11. Do you think itís possible to create good and humane Arab characters where the world wants to see only the fundamentalist militant type?

RA: I rarely worry about how the world perceives characters. If I am writing about a lesbian character, I do not consider what a homophobe might think of her. I credit readers with a level of intelligence and empathy that is higher than the general population. I may be mistaken, but assuming that readers of literary fiction can empathize with characters not of their everyday experience works for me. I never understood writers who think their work is above their readers. To work from the assumption of enlightening readers is detrimental and makes writing didactic.

KD: How many Muslim Arabs are able to stand for a secular, humanist view of the world?

RA: I assume most Arabs. Letís switch it around. How many Christians were willing to speak and contradict Falwellís statement that feminists, abortionists, homosexuals and the ACLU were responsible for attacks? Quite a few, but were they heard? As a society, we like the drama of extremism. Most Christians know that Falwell does not represent them or their views, but whether CNN or The Times want to present a Christian view, heís the only one that gets called. Arabs come in many shapes and sizes, many beliefs, many religions, yet everyone assumes that extremists are representative. That man who has to work a double shift to support his family, the woman who worries whether her career will take off, the father who wants his son to get good school grades, to get into university, never make the news. They do not make a good story. Extremists do.

KD: You distinguish Druzes from Muslims? How important is it to you that the public realizes the difference?

RA: Actually, I donít distinguish. Sarah, in I, the Divine, does. Some Druze consider themselves Muslims, some donít. Most religious Muslims consider the Druze as heretics. I am an atheist. Therefore, itís not much of an issue for me. An American friend of mine calls me the Druze Muslim Lite! It is important for Sarah and for her grandfather. She struggles between her Western and her Arab self. I felt she could neither be Christian or Muslim. At the same time, I would love readers to know more about the Druze. We get so little press.

KD: Do you think that novels such as yours help to avoid stereotyping of the Arab/American experience?

RA: Iím not sure. I write about a small segment of experience. Again, letís switch that around. Does the work of Philip Roth help to avoid the stereotyping of the Jewish/American experience? The work of Toni Morrison, the African/American? Edmund White, the gay male experience? And whose novels help to avoid the stereotyping of the white male American? If we are able to read a combination of say different Jewish American authors, we can get a better picture, not a whole one, but still better. Maybe my work does help a little, but the Arab experience is so immense and diverse that to think my novels are representative terrifies me. A Lebanese reader once accused me of perpetuating the stereotype of Lebanese for Americans. I assume he saw Koolaids as not Western enough! He was probably right. His Lebanese experience was different from mine.

KD: Sarah says, "who am I if not where I fit in the world... how the individual participated in the larger organism, to show how I fit into the larger whole?" Do you believe there is no escape from family, no existence to the personality outside relations to others?

RA: Most of my friends would find it difficult to comprehend that I donít believe in solipsism. I am very self involved. But itís true, in some ways, I donít believe in it. Relations to others are paramount, but this notion is difficult to state unequivocally. I find that Western culture tends to overly prize independence, whereas in Arab culture, separation from family is taboo. Probably like Sarah, I view Western independence and individuality as a hypocritical illusion.

KD: Are any of the stories in The Perv practice runs for I, the Divine?

RA: I tried different methods of telling a story in The Perv. In Grace and My Grandmother, the Grandmaster, I used memoir as a form. The narrators tell a straightforward story relating events that shaped them. The story Whore is closer perhaps. Itís about a woman, a painter who tries to figure out where she fits in her family and the world. They are different women, but the one was a precursor to the other.

KD: How important is directness and brevity to your style?

RA: Itís a reflection of the way my mind works. I try different methods and styles, but the brevity and probably the fragmentation seem to be constant- at least for now!

 

Kieron Devlinís short fiction appears in the recent anthology Erotic Travel Tales by Cleis Press, Full Body Contact by Alyson Books (December 2002), and Harrington Gay Men's Fiction Quarterly (forthcoming). Essays and reviews and interviews appear in Harvard Lesbian & Gay Review (forthcoming), LIT magazine, Publishers Weekly, Village Voice, pifmagazine and smackdamedia.com. He is writing a novel and a collection of short stories.

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