This month, RAWI recognizes Rabih Alameddine, a novelist and artist whose fictional works include the story collection, Perv, and the novels Koolaids, I, the Divine, and The Hakawati. They are now followed by his most recent novel, An Unnecessary Woman, which will appear in February 2014. Publisher’s Weekly, which gave the novel a starred review, says, “A central concern of the book is the nature of the desire of artistic creators for their work to matter, which the author treats with philosophical suspicion.”
RAWI will bring its members and supporters regular interviews with our featured members. Below is an interview with Rabih Alameddine. His website is http://rabihalameddine.com/.
Q: Some biographical questions first: You've lived in Lebanon most of your life. Have you ever lived outside of Lebanon?
I haven’t lived in Lebanon most of my life. I was born in Jordan to Lebanese parents. I packed my bags and immigrated to Kuwait when I was two weeks old; I traveled light in those days. Grew up in Kuwait until I was ten when I moved to Lebanon. Four years later, I was in school in England and then the United States. I spend a lot of time in Lebanon, about three months of the year. Even though I believe that I actually live there, instead of simply visiting, in reality most of my time is spent outside of it.
Q: When did you first start writing? When did you first start painting?
I wrote Koolaids in 1996. It was the first thing I’d written, and I was lucky enough that it was published (1998). I’ve always wanted to write but I did not have the courage to do so for a long time.
I began painting in 1992 and basically stopped when I began to write. My last show was in Norway in 1997. I still do minor art projects but they’re personal, not public.
Q: How does your work as a painter intersect (if you feel it does) with your work as a writer?
I assume they do but I don’t really know how. I say they do because I believe everything I have done, everything I am, informs my writing. Painting is/was a big part of my life, and it influences how I see the world.
Q: What were some of your major breakthroughs as an artist?
Difficult question. Maybe sitting down to write for the first time, or putting brush to canvas. Maybe the breakthroughs were understanding my obsessions, working out what I wished to say. Most of the time when I write, I don’t have a clear idea what I’m doing or why. I fumble along for quite a while until I finally hit on something that explains what I’m writing about. Though I don’t know if I would call those breakthroughs, let alone major.
Q: Describe your most recent novel, An Unnecessary Woman, which is set to be released in a few months' time. The subject is the war in Lebanon, which has been the subject of some of your other work. Why tell the story through the point of view of a 72-year-old woman? Where did the idea originate?
The war in Lebanon is always a subject in my novels, but it’s a secondary one. In this case, the novel is mainly about the life of an aging woman who lives in the margins of society. She does so both because she chooses to and she has very few other options. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, the narrator has to find meaning in her life when society knows not what do with someone like her.
I have been interested for a while on the values we put on a life, why we think one person is more important or useful than another. During World War II some Jews were kept alive because they had skills that the Nazis could use: some doctors and dentists, maybe an accountant, a concert pianist. They were called Necessary Jews. The great writer and artist Bruno Schulz was one. He was kept alive briefly so he could paint a mural on the bedroom wall of the Nazi commander’s son. I began to ask whether those who were killed were considered “unnecessary.” If someone is not a doctor or an artist, if someone has no recognizable skill set, would her life be less worthy, or is each life a work of art?
Q: What is your writing process like? Do you write at set times of the day? Is it an irregular schedule?
Unfortunately, I am undisciplined. I also seem to change my schedule for each book. These days, I’m supposed to sit down to write every day from 8 in the morning till 11. It’s supposed to be uninterrupted, internet-free time where I do nothing but write. It never works that way, of course. I write sporadically, most of the time after 10 at night when I’m tired and sleepy. That’s when my mind quiets enough for me to write.
Q: How do you feel you are received as a writer/artist in Lebanon? Outside of the Middle East?
I try desperately not to think about how I am received as a writer in Lebanon, the Middle East, or anywhere else. I fail miserably, but I try. I think worrying about how one is seen or understood as an artist is a downward spiral into insanity. It’s almost as bad as reading Amazon reviews of your books, or, heaven forbid, self-Googling.
I’m not a writer who fits easily into any category. I assume many writers feel the same. I’m not sure I belong to any part of the world (America, Lebanon, etc.), or any identity (gay, atheist, etc.). I don’t assume that Lebanon or America wish to claim me either. Like the narrator of Unnecessary Woman, I’m a writer who probably feels more comfortable in the margins.
Q: What are you working on now?
I’m working on a strange novel tentatively titled The Angel of History.
Q: What are you reading now?
I just finished a couple of novels that liked quite a bit, The Hostage by Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, and Daniel Alarcon’s At Night We Walk In Circles. I just began The Village Indian by Abbas Khider.