Rabih Alameddine (The Wrong End of the Telescope) discusses his latest novel, a transporting new novel about an Arab American trans woman’s journey among Syrian refugees on Lesbos island. In conversation with Allison Wright.
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ALLISON WRIGHT: All right, welcome. S,o my name is Allison Wright. I’m the executive editor and the publisher of the Virginia Quarterly Review here at the University of Virginia, and I also teach journalism and media studies. And this is Rabih Alameddine. And I’ll give you a much more in-depth bio in a minute. But I just want to welcome you on behalf of everyone at Virginia Humanities, who produces the Virginia Festival of the Book. I am so excited to be back in person after more than two years, I think, of doing these events. So really, welcome to this event. It’s my first of this festival, but I’ll be doing another one on Saturday, so maybe I’ll see you again. In the first or second row, even. It’ll be so exciting.
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And then the masks, which we were laughing about earlier—you all have lovely masks on. No scary faces on your masks. Just your beautiful faces. Please keep them on the whole time just out of an abundance of caution. We have both taken rapid tests immediately before this, and they came back negative.
And then finally, I’m going to reiterate this throughout, but there are book sales. All of these books are available, or at least a majority of them that I can see. But especially the one we’ll be talking about today, whose cover I have removed because I do that with all of my hardback books so that I can tear them apart and do things like this. Because I’m a reader and a book lover. They’re all available for sale, and I really encourage you to support our independent bookstores and the Festival and especially our authors by purchasing the books, if you can, or checking them out at the library. Requesting them at your local library. Doing anything you can to support the authors.
And I will ask for questions from the audience in a little bit, so please think about any questions that you have as we start this conversation and continue.
It is such a pleasure to introduce Rabih Alameddine, who is the author of a story collection and six novels and hopefully will tell us if there’s anything new in the works later. Those novels include An Unnecessary Woman, which was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the California Book Awards Gold Medal for Fiction. Also, The Angel of History won the Arab American Book Award. I think that was the second book to win that award. It also won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. The Wrong End of the Telescope has been shortlisted for the 2022 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and I’m sure many more accolades to come for this book. He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and the Dos Pasos Prize, among many other honors. Too many to list here. And he is currently—our students are so lucky—the Kapnick Foundation distinguished writer in residence here at UVA. Please help me welcome Rabih Alameddine.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Thank you.
ALLISON WRIGHT: I would love to start with maybe a little excerpt from this novel.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Sure. We’ll pretend that we haven’t talked about this before. You want me to read? Okay, so this is from the novel and it’s self-explanatory. I’ll pretend I’m drinking.
Sumaiya and her family rode the bus while Emma, Rodrigo, and I followed in the car. Luckily, we decided not to take my Opel this morning. Emma’s rental Honda was much more comfortable. In the back seat, I suddenly felt exhausted and sluggish. Drowsiness overwhelmed me. Talking to me through the rearview mirror, Emma suggested that I close my eyes for a bit. It would be at least half an hour before we reached Moria. I fell asleep before she finished the sentence.
I dreamt of my mother, of my father, of sitting before them as an adult, all of us underwater in the Mediterranean, something like that, everything fleeting and hollow. I heard strange knocking noises, as if I were in an aquarium with some child knocking on the glass, my head echoing back. And indeed it was a child who woke me—or rather five of them—four boys and a little girl, all in clothes that had seen better days if they’d ever had a good one. The kids stepped back from the car as soon as I turned, all of them giggling. I’d slept for hours, my head leaning against the rear window.
I had a text from Emma explaining that she thought it would be best to let me sleep, that I should come to the camp when I woke up and call her. I stretched my arms, used the car’s roof as support, which made the children laugh louder. I got out of the car, asking them in Arabic if there was something wrong or if they found me generally amusing. The eldest boy, no more than eleven, clad in a multiyarned sweater, explained that I was snoring loudly. He could hear my snoring through the car window, he said, but not his friend and lieutenant, pointing to a younger boy, because his ears were filthy. His ears had so much dirt, the eldest boy said, that you could grow wheat in them and make bread. The other boy, whose ears did not seem any dirtier than the rest, was not amused.
The children asked me where I was from, then introduced themselves. The leader, his lieutenant, and another boy were from the Aleppo area. The fourth boy was all the way from Pakistan and didn’t speak Arabic, but he was fun nonetheless, and the blond girl clad in strident colors was from Iraq and didn’t say much because she was shy, but she had to be in the club because the leader’s mother would beat him up if he didn’t allow girls. And what did their club do? Well, it was formed only this morning, so their objectives were not entirely clear yet, but the main reason for the club’s existence was mischief making, as in his mother told him to take his friends and make trouble for other people not her, if he knew what was best for him, and of course he knew. Could they take me into the camp to meet my friend? Of course, they could, and not only that, they would explain things to me since I was obviously new, but it was going to cost me. No, not money but a whole chocolate bar, or two since there were five of them, and of course they knew I didn’t have chocolate on me. I didn’t even have a purse, but I could buy candy at one of the cantinas over there, the boys said. The big one facing the gate had the best chocolate; the owners had given them two bars that morning for picking up all the paper cups and putting them in a garbage bag. Had I ever had coffee out of a paper cup? And it was hours ago since they had chocolate and there were five of them and it was only two bars, and they could tell me all kinds of things about Moria, the camp to my right, not the city in The Lord of the Rings, but they could even explain the movie to me if I wanted to, so I should buy them chocolate bars, of course I should.
Cars and vans were parked bumper-to-bumper on both sides of the narrow road. The Iraqi girl took my hand in hers. I thought she was following the universal edict of handholding when crossing the street, but then one of the boys grabbed my other hand. They were escorting me across, guides safariing me through the frightening savannah, making sure I wouldn’t be attacked by a feral car. We passed a couple of wobbly snack trucks parked along the road; the boys called them cantinas. Apparently, there were gypsies the day before, selling new and used clothing out of the back of the truck but nothing nice. We had to maneuver around the numerous cantina patrons, primarily Syrians as far as I could tell but at least two African men and one South Asian, almost all smoking and drinking coffee. Quite a number of them were charging their cell phones. The cantina sold everything anyone in the world could ever want, the boys explained. Did I need a phone, a SIM card, coffee, sugar, a sandwich, a foul-tasting banana ice cream, a much-too expensive soccer ball, a Messi t-shirt, anything my heart desired. And chocolate bars, I said.
I bought them five. I had to. The Greek owner, a woman in her forties, suggested that I shouldn’t have because they’d had too much sugar. She’d given them each a bar that morning, free of charge, after which they began to persuade her customers to buy them more. She’d lost count of how many bars they’d devoured. The little tricksters preened. I expected to find canary feathers stuck to the chocolate smears around their lips. When I asked the Iraqi girl how many chocolate bars she’d had, she put up four fingers.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Thank you. So, because you chose to read that selection, I’m going to go straight into this question about the comedy in your book. Because it’s a book about the humanitarian crisis that is the vast number of refugees in the world, whether they’re climate refugees, conflict refugees, political refugees, right? All these types of refugees that we find ourselves confronted with at the borders.
And in this book certainly we have just a multiplicity of immigrant perspectives. And this scene alone from the camps, right, introduces us to this with a Syrian boy, an Iraqi girl alone. And yet we have comedy. And I think you’ve said elsewhere that you wish that you were more of a serious writer, but the humor creeps in. And I wonder if you might speak to that.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Sure. I come from Lebanon, where making fun of everything is a national pastime. But it’s more than that. It’s been my experience that during the civil war, when bombs were falling all over the place and people were being shot, the only sort of thing that people could get to is humor. And you’ll see it in every warzone. I bet you that the greatest jokes right now are being told in Ukraine. It never fails. I mean, I have a Bosnian friend who had the best jokes during the war. But it was also the same during the AIDS crisis. It’s sad that we have to go to—it was the only thing we had to fight against. And that was humor, if you want to call it.
But at the same time, it’s not. It serves a purpose. How do I get people to let down their defenses? Lots of writers do different things. Because one of the worst things I think about writing and reading books is the ability of books to actually make—to allow us to escape as opposed to actually feel something. And there’s nothing wrong with escapism. I’m a big proponent. I love the Avengers. They’re the best. But again, this is not literature. And no offense. Like I said, I love it.
But for literature to work, it has to be able to break the wall between the book and the reader. And if I was to write a straightforward refugee story with all these just horrible things happening, it might be a good book and people would go, oh, this is so sad and this is so amazing, and they’ll go on with their life. Not that this can do something else, but it tries. It tries to penetrate that wall that we put in, that sort of defends us against feeling and defends us against seeing something.
One of the ways that I do it is through humor. You’re laughing, you’re laughing, and then I just punch. But different register, different way. So, it’s just a—again, the other more important thing is that I just have not been able to tell it straight in my life.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Well, you’re writing the full humanity of a person.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yes. But there are lots of humans without a sense of humor. So, you can do it otherwise. Just imagine Trump writing a book. No, I don’t.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Some would argue that he has.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Please.
ALLISON WRIGHT: I may not be that person. So, you’ve spent some time in refugee camps.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yes.
ALLISON WRIGHT: And some time on beaches as refugees arrive.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yes.
ALLISON WRIGHT: And I read in an interview with you that you referred to that time as trying to find the Goldilocks distance.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yes.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Which is such an interesting phrase, such a compelling phrase. Can you describe for us what you mean by that?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Sure.
ALLISON WRIGHT: What you were trying to achieve.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Well in my opinion—I tell my MFA students that you have to figure out who’s writing the book. When is the narrator writing a book? I mean, even if it’s nonfiction. Who’s writing? When are you writing? And what time one is writing.
The trouble with writing and with life in general is to be able to have the right distance in different situations. Like there are situations we all know—do them naturally. There are situations where you’re very intimate with someone, and there are situations where you have to put a distance, and everything in between.
We do that naturally, especially for those of us like me who are sort of socially intelligent and they’re able to gather. But for writing, one needs a certain distance. What that distance is depends on what one is writing and who the writer is. I always say this. If I am really close to my family, which I am—if I am among them, I cannot write about my family because I will not be able to see them. I am way too enmeshed. If I am all the way over here and they are all the way in Lebanon I cannot write about my family because I do not see them. So, what is the correct distance both physically and emotionally that one can write about? I call that the Goldilocks distance.
With this book in particular, there were a lot of problems because I have—I mean, it’s no surprise to people who know me. I have issues—a lot of issues. So, I have worked with refugees for about five years beforehand. And I talked to refugees. And then I went to Lesbos, and I assumed I’m experienced, I’m fabulous. I’d be just able to sit down, come in, and help. And I wasn’t able to. I had what some would say a nervous breakdown. But this was after working for a long time. And I couldn’t figure out what was going on. And the worst part was I was trying to write about it, and everything that I wrote was shit.
ALLISON WRIGHT: How did you know that it was shit?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Oh, I know. They pay me to know. And I tried writing many things, and it didn’t work. Actually, our mutual friend John Freeman forced me to write an essay, and I did. I didn’t particularly like it, but you know it made a question, this essay. And he did it again with another book. Anyway, I hated everything. Everything was just wrong. I couldn’t see that I was too enmeshed, I was too involved with the refugees, particularly in Lesbos. And because I wasn’t able to distance myself enough, and I couldn’t figure it out. I was working on this other short story with Mina the narrator, and it was a completely different story. Completely different.
And then all of a sudden, this narrator migrates into the novel. And when she did, everything fell into place. I had been working on this novel for like three years, and everything was horrible. She moved in, and it worked. Because she had the right distance, or at least in my mind she had the right distance.
I made her a surgeon, and so she—in my mind, surgeons are able to see all the psychological problems but work through them anyway. Because writers are just a little too self-involved.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Any surgeons in the audience? No. Just writers. So, what was the novel without Mina? Was it the unnamed writer character who bears some resemblance to you?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yes. What he went through. The same story, except that when they happened to Mina, she could deal with it. When they happened to me, I had issues.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Paralysis.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yes.
ALLISON WRIGHT: So, there’s a scene near the end of the book—the sort of very end of the book. And I’m not giving anything away here, but it’s a question of audience. So, Mina and her partner Francine talk to this unnamed writer who appears throughout the book—
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Who is not me, no.
ALLISON WRIGHT: No, it’s not. Sure, it’s definitely not. Bears some resemblance but is not. But they talk about writing a story for a suburban American couple, right? But it brings up this issue of audience. How do you write a story about refugees and make it palatable, if that’s what you want to do, for a we’ll say white Western audience?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: I’m beginning to smirk, so yes, go ahead.
ALLISON WRIGHT: I think that’s the point of the scene, though, right? This question of what is the point of telling this refugee story. Do you want to make your reader empathetic? Do you want to be a writer that a Western audience—do you want to appeal to a Western audience? Do you want to appeal to a Lebanese audience?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Well, I’ve said this, and part of the problem of doing interviews is that I get too—it becomes—like I repeat myself so often. But I’ve said it in many an interview that in Lebanon they think I write for an American audience. In America, they think I write for a Lebanese audience. And the truth is I don’t give a shit about either one of them.
And when you say who’s your ideal reader, I’ve said it many times—f*** the reader. I think part of the trouble with American literature in general is that it is directed to this sort of ideal kind of reader. And I find that not just offensive but stupid. Because usually what it is directed at is the people who read the same thing over and over and over and over again. And that’s what I’m talking about with how do you break through. Because if you’re reading a book about—like everything these days we have sort of the same story, but this time it’s held in Mexico City and they’re eating chalupas. And then this one they’re in Greece, and they’re eating spanakopita. And it’s the same f***ing story over and over again. And people like that because it’s comfortable and familiar. I don’t like comfort, and I hate familiar.
So, I don’t think about a reader. The trouble is that I also do because I also want not people to read me but people to have a sort of deeper understanding of a refugee’s situation, of novels in general, of literature. We know it, etcetera, etcetera. The thing that’s important—and I’m realizing it as I age—that those who will get it will get it, and those who won’t, won’t. So why the f*** should I worry about who my reader is? That’s the nice me. Wait until you meet the really bitchy me.
ALLISON WRIGHT: So, part of what propelled me through this book I think along with the story was the pacing. It’s masterfully paced. And I wonder if that, at this point in your career, is just your inherent ability to write a novel and the craft of storytelling that you have honed so well, or was it an intentional shaping on your part?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Everything is both intentional and instinctive. I rely on instinct a lot, but I was lucky in that I was born Lebanese, and we’re a culture of storytellers. I could tell a story when I was four. You’re trained. How I structure a novel is usually, if I’m bored, it goes in a different direction. So that’s basically—it’s instinct how to pace something. I’ve written slow-paced novels. I’ve written fast-paced novels. I’ve written big novels and small novels. And each story has its own way of wanting to be told. That’s not to say that I don’t have a voice and I don’t have control. Like Nabokov says, the characters are my galley slaves. I can make them do what I want. But the story, if it goes off in a different way, instinctively it’s gone so wrong. Just so, so wrong.
So pacing, which is—I actually have—I’m not bad at. It comes from a traditional storyteller. My grandmother would tell a story. My aunts would tell stories. You know, who is sleeping with who. And how and when they reveal and what is the point of the story was honed as a young boy.
ALLISON WRIGHT: So, part of the pacing of this book is shifting timelines. So, we’re in the present day, and then we move back in time to learn some of the main character’s backstory—the narrator’s backstory. Then we come back into the present day. And I wonder at what point—you said Mina, the main character—the narrator—was introduced later in the process. So how much of her backstory was taken from an earlier draft of the novel or was brought in once Mina herself was introduced?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: A lot of it was once Mina was introduced. But some of it was from the story that I wrote. The first story that I wrote was—
ALLISON WRIGHT: Short story.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yeah, short story. Was Mina goes back to the root—and Mina is a trans woman—to confront her mother, and her mother does not recognize her. And the brother acts as in-between. So, the brother and Mina move to the novel.
But when was it? I was in the jungle. That’s a good opening line: I was in the jungle. Of Indonesia. And I was by myself. And I wanted to see orangutans in the wild. So, I had a guide, and we went into the jungle. I had my blood sucked by a leech. I didn’t feel a thing.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Intentionally?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: No. God, no. It was standing like this and calling for me, and I said, ‘hello there what do you want?’. So it was just at the beginning of, oh, Mina is coming, and she’s telling the story, etcetera. And as we’re walking in the jungle, the guy tells me oh we can’t go this way. And I said why, and he goes there’s this orangutan called Mina, and she attacks men. And kaboom. It’s like I figured out Mina, the whole story of her relationship with Jennifer and then the whole thing of coming to terms with this orangutan who attacks men but does not attack Mina. So, the story falls together.
Which again—I mean, I could talk about this easily. I was interviewing [indiscernible] the other day. She’s a goddess. And she writes about—I can’t remember what it is but something about the world helps you ayudame [indiscernible]. I can’t remember. But that everything seems to fall into place at one point during the novel, where you might even be at a party and you’re bored, and you get to the bookshelf, and you pick up a book, and you open it, and it’s exactly what you need to read for your novel. And that happens, and it happens to me with every single novel. But at one point, everything fits into place.
But unlike her—she thinks it’s a psychological condition. I told her that I don’t believe in God, but I believe in her hand. That something directs me. So, I had Mina come in, and then all of a sudden things started falling into place. So, did I have it beforehand or not? I had some.
ALLISON WRIGHT: And so, what compelled you to create Mina as a trans woman?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Because my closest friends are trans. I’ve joked about this. I’m not trans, but I’m trans adjacent. That’s funny, guys. Most of my friends are trans. I was interested in the whole idea of immigrants—refugees and immigrants and all that—having to reinvent themselves. To put in some ways very certain things consciously. And I thought, wow, it reflects on most of the trans people that I know. It’s like at some point they’ve always had this idea that they’re different. But at some point there’s a shift that we have to reinvent ourselves.
And immigrants do it all the time. I’ve done it many, many times. I’m not the same person I am that was in Beirut. So, I was interested in the middle range of it.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Do we have audience questions? We have a microphone we’re going to bring you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m interested in the direct audience of Mina the narrator, this author, who you were adamantly saying is not you but certainly has characteristics that are going to make the reader think it’s you. And my question is why keep that author character in there? Once you brought Mina in to tell the story, why is it not just Mina’s story instead of Mina telling the story that the author told her to tell? What do we gain from that?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: There are many, many reasons for that, primarily because some things happened to me that could not have happened to Mina, and I was interested in that. But I was also interested in the breakdown of the writer. Mina would never have a nervous breakdown. I was interested in what happened. I mean, I’m not saying I’m the writer. But to actually go to Lesbos and, instead of working with refugees, end up in a hotel room listening Mahler. It’s a fascinating thing. I’m not suggesting it’s me.
So, I was interested in that and how it reflects on what breaks us—what actually breaks us. What makes a refugee all of a sudden break and leave? The novel is full of that, and I wanted to mirror it with this whole thing of who is the writer, who is Mina, what is the difference between immigrants and refugees, and what we lose—all of us. And the best way to do it was to keep the writer.
But I was also interested in the relationship between Mina and the writer. Or a writer and his creation. Which, I’m sorry, that’s not me. I’m fascinated by it. So, I created this character. I mean, it’s embarrassing at some point, that makes fun of me—I’m sorry, that makes fun of the writer and at the same time props up the writer. Yeah, I needed that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: You’re welcome.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Allison mentioned that you go back and forth in time in this novel. And I’ve noticed over the last decade it seems like that’s happening more and more in literature and also on TV. And I was wondering is that new, or am I just noticing it for the first time? And if it is new, what’s that all about? When all of a sudden something new happens and people—
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: They’re all copying me. I have never written a book that did not at some point go back in time. Nabokov said, “I am not a plaything of time.” And I am not, and neither is Nabokov, and neither are a lot of what we call the postmodernists.
It was in 1976 that Italo Calvino said, “Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction.” You know, that time has exploded. And this was in 1976. Before him, many people have done it, from Borges to Cortazar. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s fascinating to me that still in American literature—and I’m sorry to make fun of it—there’s still such a linear way of writing. And everybody wants to go from point A to point B, where we all know nothing ever happens this way, particularly inside one’s head. So, a linear story is in many ways—as lovely as some of the great stories of our time, they’re regressive. They go back to how the mind used to work in the nineteenth century. My mind doesn’t work that way. In my head, I am here. I am also twenty years ago. I mean, it’s funny because I’ve—for my next project, I’m listening to tapes I made in 1986. Cassette tapes. I have like two hundred of them from various workshops and stuff. And I’m listening to them, and it feels like I am there all over again in my head.
I was noticing this morning. I’m walking the street—I walked over here. So, I am in a physical space. But my mind was back in 1986. It happens to all of us. We just choose to—we believe, for most people, that a story has to be told in a certain way.
Now unfortunately, going back and forth—I’ve seen it a lot recently on television, and it’s all bad.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Oh, it’s bad?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: I mean, again, it’s really badly done.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My husband would agree with you. I find it easy to go back—
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Oh—
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But he’s like, well, what’s happening?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: It’s the totally unnecessary thing for me. Is that they go back and forth because they want to show you that someone is this way because they had this experience. And that’s please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Not necessary.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: It’s amateur, you know, psychology 101. Tell me something new. And not everybody who was ignored by their father turns out to be a serial killer. But in TV it’s like, oh my god, he was bullied in high school. Oh my god. That’s bad.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I find it fascinating, though. I love that aspect of going back and forth.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: I do too. I haven’t seen a good one yet on TV, but you know.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ll have to think about that.
ALLISON WRIGHT: I do think it is much less common in non-English-speaking literature.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Going back and forth?
ALLISON WRIGHT: No, sorry, it’s more common in non-English-speaking literature. Historically. So if you read literature in translation, for instance, you might see more of it. And now that American and British publishing is more—not enough, but more welcoming to writers for whom English was not their first language—we see more of it here.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Not enough, but yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: No, but it’s interesting how some people can pick up on that and enjoy it. And others, they want the—
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Absolutely. I can almost tell you, if you want to write a bestseller, go from point A to point B. That’s what people want. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Like I said, I liked Harry Potter, the first one. Yay.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Are there other audience questions?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: How many languages do you speak?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Fluently? Three. Arabic, English, French. And then you can say Arabic has so many dialects, and I speak quite a few of them.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you always write English?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yes. I don’t know how well you know those languages, but Arabic—written Arabic is very, very different than spoken Arabic, which is dialect basically. And then written Arabic is a different language really. And I can read it. I can write in it, but not well. I have to translate to write in Arabic.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Which I’ve never read any of your books—
ALLISON WRIGHT: But you will because they’re available.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But I want to know which one I should read first.
ALLISON WRIGHT: That’s a good question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: And why.
ALLISON WRIGHT: What do you think that readers who are new to you—what should be your introduction?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Read all of them.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: From the beginning? From your first one? Okay.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: I’m joking.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: The first one I read was Unnecessary Woman.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: And it depends. I’m not the kind of writer—I don’t have a brand. Every book is different, which is why I lose publishers right and left. I publish one book, and then the next book nobody wants it, and I have to start all over. And I’m happy. It all depends on you and what you like to read.
If you like books about one person going through their daily life, Unnecessary Woman is a good book. If you like outrageous, big, epic, Hakawati. They’re very, very different.
ALLISON WRIGHT: The next one that I’m going to read is I think your debut, about the AIDS crisis and the Lebanese civil war.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: That was the first one?
ALLISON WRIGHT: That’s the first one.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Yeah.
ALLISON WRIGHT: That’s what I’m going to read next.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Again, and please, please, I am never offended when people don’t read me. I think they’re stupid, but. But I’m not everybody’s cup of tea, and I don’t want to be.
ALLISON WRIGHT: But I highly—again, highly recommend this, which so far has made the PEN/Faulkner shortlist and will make so many other lists this year and next. Because it’ll be out in paperback soon enough for those lists. The pacing is incredible. The story of a trans woman who is a surgeon who goes on a humanitarian mission—her trans identity is important for the story, but it is ordinary, right? It is not the main thing about her, and I think that is too rare in books, right? This is a doctor who goes to see a friend who is a humanitarian, and she finds herself in Lesbos with refugees. Yes, she’s a trans woman. Yes, that’s important. It’s not the only thing about her, right? And we don’t have enough of those stories. And this is also, again, the story of just a multiplicity of refugee and immigrant perspectives that I don’t think we see enough of. And it’s funny.
And also—and I said this in an email earlier this week—this is a person who writes desire like no one else. And I don’t know if you would be willing to read another excerpt, but I noted at least this section. Like people talk a lot about bad sex writing, and that’s fair, and I think that’s often because people try to write like the physical act of sex, which is almost always a bad idea. But desire is so hard to pull off. And there is a scene in here that I just had to put the book down and say this is how you do it.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: I paid her.
ALLISON WRIGHT: I don’t know if anybody is interested in hearing more or if you would be willing to read.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: I’d be willing, but this is not a short section. Or it’s not that long. Damn it. In my mind, it’s a lot longer than this.
ALLISON WRIGHT: It’s just so good.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: You know, our anniversary is not the date of our wedding. We’ve had three of those, two ceremonial and one recognized by the state. It’s not when we first met, and it’s not our first date or our first assignation, which was the day after. Our anniversary, January 6, 1986, is the date of the dance.
Francine was two years ahead of me in medical school, and I’d seen her around. She’d be hard to miss. You told her once that she was the most beautiful woman you’d ever seen, so you can imagine the effect she had on me when we were both still young. That face, those shrewd eyes, full lips I wanted to love bite, the sensuousness, skin the color of dark umber. I remember seeing her once in sea-green linen, in the library trying to read papers while prone on a scabrous sofa, drained, pages falling to the floor as she dozed. She’d pick them up one by one, arrange them in order, and they would slip once again when her eyes closed. I fell hard before we exchanged one word.
Even then, she had those eyes that could see both angels and demons. I thought, here was a woman who found everything surprising and nothing shocking. Of course, I fell. She was what I wanted to be and what I wanted. I was at the height of my awkwardness at the time. Jennifer, the woman I’d mistakenly thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, had left me nine months earlier. I was going through a phase of thinking no woman would ever want me again. I was beginning to wear a new body, trying it out, shedding what I had been, leaving it behind like old snakeskin on a riverbank while I tried not to drown, tried to come out of the water as who I was and what I truly cared about, allowing myself to be seen for the first time. And there was Francine, seeming to know who she was, what she wanted, ever natural and assured. How could I not be enthralled.
One of the school’s administrators held a party of some sort, probably some occasion, but it felt as if the event’s primary purpose was to show off her Cambridge Craftsman house. Around a table laden with a cheap, barely edible buffet, soft drinks in liter bottles, inexpensive wine in even bigger ones, fanned paper napkins in various colors, we milled about, doctors, professors, students, pretending to be interested in whatever someone was saying, feeling sorry for ourselves, or at least I was. I couldn’t muster enough pleasantness for the inane chatter. I reminded myself this was the kind of awkward evening that turned into a night of insomnia if I was not careful. I was about to leave when I noticed Francine in the middle of the living room, by herself, a paper plate in one hand. She held up a piece of cheese in the other, floppy and yellow, examined it with amazement, as if bewitched by its incongruous structure and consistency. What substance is this? What unnatural color, what creepy flavor? First contact with sliced, individually wrapped Muenster.
I walked toward her, uncertain and clumsy, unsure of the rules, as if I were moving around within the holy sanctuary of a religion not my own, but I had to halt before reaching the altar. The elevator music in the background had morphed into a Bob Marley song, and Francine pirouetted. Alone in the middle of the room, she and her dreadlocks swayed to the rhythm. Her yellow dress was loose enough that it seemed to move a moment after she did except at the hips, where the belt kept a perfect beat. The skin of her delicious arms soaked up the bad lighting and reflected a divine glow, a corporeal luster. She didn’t give up her plate, twirling with it as if with an intimate, a dervish waitress. The hostess followed her example. She too began to dance. She dragged a man out to be her partner. A few others joined. Bless your soul, Bob Marley, savior of bad parties everywhere. We had ourselves a dance floor. Next to Francine, everyone was a pale corpse, the dancing dead. At least three men tried to dance with her, one tried to mimic her movements, looking foolish, another tried to bump hips, the third danced with both hands hooked into his back pockets, and she gracefully slid away, spun into her own world. She danced as if she was exploring her body in space.
You can see that this is her people’s music, one of the doctors said to another. She was born to reggae. She’s Haitian, I said, laughing nervously. Not the same thing, not the same thing at all. I could not remain next to these doctors; I left my spot, their conversation fading like the sound of the freeway at a distance. I found myself circling the makeshift dance floor, hypnotized almost, unthinking, sleepwalking in a way, my eyes not leaving her. A small citrine stone bounced on its chain between her breasts, calling to me. Come, it said. Lick me. A bead of sweat formed on her forehead like a pearl. And I found myself dancing. Not with her, not at first. I too began to explore my body in space, my new body, its shape and how it moved, the curves of my lines. These are what we call breasts; these are my arms. I introduced myself to its new odors. No woman, no cry, but this woman was dancing.
Francine decided to join me. We moved together, two solitudes in sync, following a beat.
I knew that I would belong to her, that I would do anything for her, when she began to look at her plate in the middle of the dance floor. She picked an apple slide, a red one, brought it close to my face. I opened my mouth, her pinky and ring finger caressed my cheek, her thumb and forefinger placed the fruit on my tongue, and it exploded in my mouth, not with taste, mind you, but with possibility.
ALLISON WRIGHT: You got to get it. Do we have a last question? I think I saw a hand on this side. We have a microphone for you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thanks for reading. That was great. I’m teaching a non-Western lit class, and we’re reading literature from Lebanon and Egypt and the Middle East, in addition to Russia and China. And I just wondered if you had any thoughts about your own writing in terms of traditions that you’re pulling on. I know that you mentioned Arabic as a language you’re equally familiar with. But I just wondered, in terms of literary traditions, are you pulling from Western tradition? Are you pulling from the literature of the North African or Middle Eastern areas consciously?
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: You would say that my primary influences are Western, just because there’s more books. But partly American, partly British. I would say my influences are probably more Eastern European. But definitely Arabic, North African. Again, I studied a couple of books inside and out. But even Chinese. Indian, without a doubt. My first love was Naipaul. My second was Salman Rushdie. He has written much since, but I loved him. I totally fell in love.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [Indiscernible]
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: There are many, many influences. Naipaul, I was in public school in England. The war was back home. I was sixteen. I was all alone, and everybody calling me names. And I come across Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas. In terms of writing, it is very, very Western. You know where he comes from. But it was the first time I read a book where, as I call them, third-worlders were protagonists. They weren’t the maid. They weren’t the second. I cannot tell you how stunned I was to have a story that is primarily about third-worlders and that their life was just as important and just as beautiful. I began to realize that my story was valid. So, yes.
Again, on the other hand, Midnight’s Children just blew me away. I could go over all the sort of Chinese writers. Again, it’s fascinating to me who breaks molds and who tells great stories but stays within. Like I’ve written about it many, many times, but Tayeb Salih’s Journey to the North. I can’t remember the name—Season of Journey to the North. Which was a response to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It was a stunning, stunning, stunning book. I mean, it is amazing. The trouble—I mean, it’s not trouble. It’s just it was written in response to Conrad, so you could see the influence of Conrad. And he takes the completely other side. So, it was influential in terms of content but not in terms of how. And that’s a big—South Americans, my god.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Okay, that’s about all the time we have, unfortunately. But you can get your book signed. The books are over there. So, they should just pick up a book, get it signed, but then check out downstairs? Okay, all right. Thank you, everybody.
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: Thank you so much for coming.
ALLISON WRIGHT: Remember your evaluations are via the QR code on the back of your program or online at VaBook.org.
Mina Simpson, a Lebanese doctor, arrives at the infamous Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, after being urgently summoned for help by her friend who runs an NGO there. Alienated from her family except for her beloved brother, Mina has avoided being so close to her homeland for decades. But with a week off work and apart from her wife of thirty years, Mina hopes to accomplish something meaningful, among the abundance of Western volunteers who pose for selfies with beached dinghies and the camp’s children.
“Profound and wonderful… A wise, deeply moving story that can still locate humor in the pit of hell… A triumph.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Mina is a riveting narrator, struggling to find her footing even when the weight of her identity is crushing… A kaleidoscopic view of the many facets of the refugee crisis.”—Booklist
“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.”—Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers
“The Wrong End of the Telescope is a peculiar novel, intentionally—a prismatic, sui generis story that’s unafraid of humor while addressing a humanitarian crisis, threading a needle between that urge to witness and the recognition that doing so may be pointless.”—Los Angeles Times
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