San Francisco novelist Rabih Alameddine had one ground rule for our conversation: “Don’t ask me about Arsenal.” In addition to being the award-winning author of seven works of fiction, including An Unnecessary Woman and The Angel of History, he’s a soccer fan, and his team is going through a rough patch.
Alameddine and I sat down via Zoom to discuss his novel The Wrong End of the Telescope. He is a brilliant storyteller who faces life’s tragedies with mordant wit. His new book tells the story of a transgender Lebanese American doctor named Mina who goes to the Greek island of Lesbos as part of an effort to help Syrian refugees. The more involved she gets, the farther Mina travels on her own emotional journey. In the middle of the narrative is a writer who is unsure whether he’s capable of telling the story. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Rabih Alameddine.
What brought you to Lesbos? Did you think this would be good for a story?
I had been working with refugees for about four years. And when I say “working with refugees,” at the time it was just talking and interviewing and writing their stories down and stuff like that. So I had been looking for a story for a long time, and when I went to Lesbos, it became clear to me that I needed to write about it, but I was unable to write about it, so something had to be done for me to be able to write.
And that was the narrative switch?
Yeah, the character of Mina appeared in a short story that was not published, and all of a sudden it just seemed so natural for her to tell the story.
But she’s telling your story as well as hers. What was it like to have one of your characters write about you?
It was both interesting and very strange. The biggest worry was that people would think I’m a narcissist. Which we all are.
I don’t know a writer who isn’t. But it was this big thing because she’s a fan of the writer who’s supposed to be me…and then I started thinking, “Oh my God, I’m writing a love letter to myself.” It was truly, truly strange. But I cannot express how right it felt writing it, how true it felt, you know? She is constantly making fun of him, and I thought it added a little bit of…it ameliorated the narcissism.
Everyone in this novel is displaced, not just geographically but emotionally. I was thinking about your other novels, and I hate to use the word theme, but this keeps recurring in your work.
This is something I’ve written about all my life. I call it the “leitmotif.” I am fascinated by displacement or—I like the word—dislocation. I’m always interested in writing about people in the margins of our society, outside the dominant culture. This gay man I know in San Francisco, he always asks me, “Is this book queer?” I think all my books are queer. It’s just because there is not a “normal” person in them. So whether I write about an old woman in Beirut or a trans doctor in Lesbos or a gay man in San Francisco, they’re all struggling in the good way.
You want people not to dismiss the suffering of the refugees. But then, in the book, you say you’ve failed.
I think all writing is a failure. I mean, any other way of looking at it is romanticizing. The book will fail if my intention, which is the same with every book, is to change the world. I think shooting to change the world is what makes for great literature. Failing that is also what makes for great literature.
I’m right there with you. With every book.
With every single book. And I think this is what’s interesting—that we make so little difference that we start self-aggrandizing.
I jokingly said that with my first book, I was so worried about it that I wanted to publish it under another name. But I decided I couldn’t do that because I wanted all the kids in kindergarten, who did not invite me to their birthday parties, to realize that they made the wrong decision. And I thought that once the book was out, all the eligible men of San Francisco would come knocking on my door asking for a date. My book came out and nothing, nothing. Even if it gets acclaim, even if it wins an award, life doesn’t change at all.
There’s a scene in the novel where a woman uses sequins to bedazzle, and it’s emblematic of something you do in all your books, just this touch of fabulousness. Fabulousness as a point of human connection.
Yes, yes. I mean, that moment actually happened. The look on the woman’s face when I told her, “It is fabulous”…it was indescribable. She was trying to tell me that, you know, she just wanted something pretty, and she shouldn’t have spent that much time because she should have been paying attention to her kids and the husband and the in-laws, and she should have been working, but when I said, “I think it’s fabulous,” her face lit up.
You just described writing novels.
Yes! When she was trying to explain why she did it, she said, “There were just so many sequins.” I mean, somebody had donated sequins to refugees. Think about that. I thought, “Who the fuck would do something like this?” You know? They have nothing and you give them sequins? And then I saw the look on her face, and I thought, “Yes, a magnificent person would give them sequins.” So it’s like, yes, who the fuck would write about this, you know? Oh…a magnificent person. And like they say, a good writer has to be able to hold two opposing points of view at the same time.•