Interview with Rabih Alameddine, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction
An Unnecessary Woman
Grove Press/ Grove/Atlantic
Jonathan Lee: In an interview with Guernica you once said that An Unnecessary Woman is “probably the most autobiographical novel” you’ve written, despite it focusing on the life of a 72-year-old divorced woman who translates books for no one to read ... In what ways does this book feel autobiographical to you?
Rabih Alameddine: I’m glad you said “feel” autobiographical because it only feels so. Very little in the novel is based on my life, and I certainly am not a 72-year-old divorced woman with blue hair, but her feelings, her neuroses, are similar to mine. I am more social than she—you might say more involved in life, but not by much. Her need to retreat from the outside world into that of books is certainly mine.
Though sometimes I think I’m merely exaggerating—I come from good Lebanese stock after all—and that the only reason I feel it is autobiographical is because I fell in love with Aaliya.
JL: How did you discover her and begin to find the right voice?
RA: She is her voice, so creating her was all about finding the right one. It took a long time—a little over two years—until I had it. I wrote and wrote, but everything sounded off-kilter. I kept going until one day I had about 70 pages that sounded right.
I wish I could tell you how exactly it happened, what I did, or even what exactly sounded off-kilter in the beginning. All I know is that I wrote and deleted, wrote and threw out, until what I read sounded right.
JL: An Unnecessary Woman strikes me as a slyly powerful title. Somehow it’s light on the eye and the ear the first time it’s encountered—there’s a gentleness and modesty to it, I think. But as I read the book with the title in mind, it began to take on more sinister connotations—to seem like the worst thing you could say about a person. What interested in you in this idea of the necessity or lack of necessity of a person, or group of people?
RA: I don’t know if it is the worst thing one can say about a person, but it certainly is cruel. I have always been interested in people on the margins of society, but that became an obsession when I read Bruno Schulz’s biography. He was kept alive, albeit briefly, because the Nazi commander of the town wanted a mural for his son’s bedroom. He was classified as a Necessary Jew and not sent to a death camp. I found the idea that we can classify humans as “necessary” disturbing, that the Nazi regime had a system of doing so.
Every society has its one way of classifying its members as necessary or not. We all fall on some point on the scale. I wished to write about that.
On the other hand, all of us are unnecessary; indeed, all of mankind is. One of the main themes of the book is what one does in the face of an absurd, meaningless, unnecessary existence that can never be comprehended.
JL: This is the story of a life lived in Beirut, a city at war. Do you consider this book to be a political novel? (Is every novel a political novel?)
RA: I do think every novel is a political novel. I once said that writing about the human condition is a political act, and I still stand by that. Writing, in and of itself, is political.
An Unnecessary Woman is political, and that has little to do with it being set in Beirut. When you choose to write about an elderly woman and her place in the world, you are tackling politics.
JL: There’s a comic-sad moment around two thirds of the way through the novel when the narrator says: “I am marching back to my mother’s house. I can’t say the march is fully unconscious...” And then a few lines later, assuring us that there’s not about to be a moment of matricide, we encounter the statement “I’m not planning anything.” I wonder how much of the march is unconscious with you—are you a big planner when it comes to plot and tone?
RA: I don’t plan much. Usually I don’t know whether I have a novel until two thirds of the way through, unsure how it will come together. This one in particular had little planning. I was lucky in that I had an idea for the scene toward the end, or what was going to happen with the flood, though not how she was going to react to it. I worked toward that, or maybe I should say I meandered toward it. But then I worked on the tone of the book, the structure, the voice for quite a long time, so what I mean by I don’t plan is that I’m never certain how the plot is going to evolve or what is going to happen next. That march to her mother’s house was particularly troublesome. At one point, I had her walking home, then I had her getting lost, and both did not work. She had to visit her mother, but it wasn’t planned.
Some things are “unconscious.” I see an image in my head and I don’t know why I have to include it in the novel. It might not be a rational decision, yet the scene will resonate. It might take a couple of years of writing until I figure it out. Sometimes I don’t.
JL: This is a book full of references to other books. One of the pleasures of reading it is the sense it gives of wandering through a library. When you’re writing a novel, do you think as much about fictional characters you’ve encountered as you do about real people you’ve met?
RA: Oh, yes. I think as much about fictional characters I’ve met even when I’m not writing. I have quite a few imaginary friends.
If you ask me where I get my ideas, or what inspires my work, I would say it’s other books. Books inform my books. Whenever I get stuck, I begin to read fiendishly. Some scene, a sentence, a turn of phrase, will spark a fire.
JL: Fernando Pessoa is an important writer for your narrator. He dreamt up so many pseudonyms, or “heteronyms,” behind which he worked. Is there anything in that idea of multiple identities and masks that’s attractive to you as a writer? Do you wish sometimes you could take a break from being Rabih Alameddine, a writer who has to give interviews?
RA: God, yes. The wonderful thing about Pessoa’s heteronyms is that he could be all of them and more. We remain stuck in defining others and ourselves in narrow terms, a balkanization of personhood. Maybe instead of taking a break from being me, what I wish is to see myself, and be seen, as all my contradictions and more. I do wish I didn’t have to give interviews, or at least find a heteronym who will make me sound witty and erudite instead of silly—maybe a heteronym who sounds like a National Book Award finalist. But then, I am all that. I am large; I contain Whitmanesque multitudes!
JL: At one point in An Unnecessary Woman, this line appears: “To write is to know that you are not home.” Can you talk a little about that in the context of your work?
RA: To write about a place, a culture, or a family, one can’t be fully immersed in it—at least I can’t. I can’t observe clearly if I am enmeshed. I can’t write about America if I feel fully at home in it. There’s not enough distance. I also can’t write about it if I am too far outside. And I’m not necessarily talking about a physical distance (although when I am San Francisco I can only write about Beirut and vice versa), but about an emotional dislocation: being part of a place and not, belonging to a family, to a community, and not. I don’t think this is unique to me. Most writers I know are not home.
For the most part, literature is about a longing. In the novel, Aaliya says that it is the “longing for a mythical homeland, not necessarily a physical one, that inspires art.”
JL: The sentences in An Unnecessary Woman feel more restrained, perhaps, than those in The Hakawati. Did you tire of writing in a certain style?
RA: Every story demands to be told in its own way. The two books required different styles—every book does, in my opinion. Hakawati was the most exuberant novel I’ve written, Unnecessary Woman the most restrained. I probably would have been bored had I tried to write another novel in the same style, but that wasn’t the primary consideration. How one tells a story is more important than the story itself, and writing in a certain style is one element of how one is going to tell a story.
JL: Is painting still important to you? I’m interested by some of the self-portraits on your website, and wonder what painting offers you that writing doesn’t, and vice versa.
RA: Painting is very important to me, not just my own. I don’t paint much anymore—I’m not that good, or not as good as I’d like to be—and the art projects I do are personal, not at all for show. I hide them in a closet since unlike Aaliya, I don’t have a maid’s room.
I love looking at paintings. It’s funny because almost all I tweet are images of paintings. I rate cities by how good the art collections in their museums are. Paintings rejuvenate me.
Writing and painting offer different things, but I’m not sure how one can parse that difference. I love the process of putting paint on canvas. When I painted regularly it was mostly fun. I’d finish a painting and if it was bad, I’d just toss it and start another. I tend to be more neurotic when I’m writing, more anxious about the result. I can’t say I love writing—no, I most definitely can’t say that.
JL: I suspect that if Aaliyah found herself becoming a finalist for a National Book Award, she wouldn’t turn up to the ceremony. How do you plan to celebrate if you win?
RA: I don’t think she’d turn up either, and that’s probably why I wish I were as well adjusted as she. She’d stopped caring about outside validation. I still crave it ... How do I plan to celebrate? If I win, I have to call my mom and my sisters, maybe a four-way Skype call. The celebration will probably involve a gin and tonic.
Jonathan Lee’s third novel, High Dive, is forthcoming from Knopf. He is Associate Editor at the Brooklyn-based literary journal A Public Space. [@JonLeeWriter www.apublicspace.org]