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
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
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
KD: Now to I, the Divine. This seems more
ambitious than anything youíve done before. How did Sarah Nour el-Din come
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
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
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
KD: Did you consider doing it without the first chapters
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
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
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
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
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
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.