David L. Ulin: Welcome, everyone. I'm David L. Ulin. I'm the books editor at Alta Journal and I want to welcome you to this month's meeting of the California Book Club. Alta Journal, for those of you who don't know, the publication is a quarterly journal with an active daily online coverage. We focus on California culture, California history, California politics, California and the West. And at a time when media outlets have been shutting down or closing, or let's say reducing their book coverage, we've decided to go in the opposite direction and increase and enhance our book coverage in terms of weekly reviews, essays, fiction, and poetry, and of course the California Book Club, which is a monthly meeting in which we talked to an author, California author as part of what our California Book Club host, John Freeman has defined as the new California cannon.
Tonight's guest is Rabih Alameddine and the book is The Wrong End of the Telescope, which is a fantastic kaleidoscopic novel I recommend to all of you. We also have some special guests who I'll let John introduce, so we don't blow the surprise. And I just want to briefly explain California Book Club and our partners. Our partners are our Book Passage, the Los Angeles Public Library, Books Inc., Narrative Magazine, Book Soup, the San Francisco Public Library, Bookshop, Vromans Bookstore, Diesel A Book Store, and Zyzzyva magazine. We do monthly events and we also, as I do continuous content leading up to each club meeting and all of this is free. If you haven't had a chance to read the coverage, you'll want to. So after the event, please go to Alta's California Book Club, CBC section and look for essays from numerous talented contributors with reflections related to tonight's work and excerpt of The Wrong End of the Telescope and more. This is also included in our weekly California Book Club newsletter. Also free. Sign up. You'll love that. If you want to think, know how you can support the work we do that both the California Book Club and also the kind of articles, essays, and interviews with authors like Rabih, there's a sale for California Book Club members for only $50. You can get a year of Alta Journal, California Book Club tote bag. Unfortunately, I'm remote today from my home so I do not have my tote bag to show you. But trust me, it's a keeper. And one of our upcoming California Book Club books.
You want to go to altaonline.com/tote and please watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this great deal. The deal ends in September. So if you want the tote, this is your last opportunity. You can also simply join Alta as a digital member for $3 a month. Without any further ado, I'm going to introduce my colleague, John Freeman who's going to take it from here. John, welcome to tonight's book club.
John Freeman: Thank you, David. Good evening, everybody. It's such a pleasure to be here. One of the ideas behind this book club was that we would get together and celebrate novels which were doing something new, that were coming from California and weren't just entertaining us or deepening our dream life or showing us things we hadn't seen before, but novels that were altering the form as they did it. And no one, I think that we've had so far comes up to that register in quite the same way as Rabih Alameddine. He is to my mind, one of the most exciting writers alive. He is my favorite person to have ever turned his back on an engineering degree from UCLA.
Something we will ask him about. But in each one of Rabih's novels, he takes the form and folds it inside out to achieve something new from his novel, and first chapters, I, The Divine, which tells the story of a family over and over and over again to his epic, The Hakawati, which is a Scheherazade rewriting about the death of a father to his most recent novel before this one, The Angel of History, which is a kind of haunting told to this story of piece of cabinetry, which was given to the main character who was having a kind of long night of the soul as he remembers everyone that he lost in San Francisco during the worst days of the AIDS crisis.
You might know Rabih, particularly because of his novel, The Unnecessary Woman, which is a beautiful book about a woman who translates books and then doesn't publish them, which is probably what Rabih Alameddine would do if he was a translator. But thank God he doesn't. But he really has out done himself with this new book, The Wrong End of the Telescope.
One of the things that Rabih is so good at is basically lambasting preconceived emotions. The way that when we think about things that are serious, we automatically leap to the conclusion that we're supposed to feel a certain way. And one of the great gifts of Rabih's books is that he allows us the messy, complicated, and sometimes dangerous feelings that come about when we talk about loss, when we talk about sexuality, when we talk about things that deserve a whole novel being written about them. And this is a novel in many ways about the migrant crisis.
Our lead character, Mina Simpson is a physician who's traveling from Chicago to Lesbos at the behest of a friend to try to lend her skills to help Syrian migrants who landed on that shore sometimes after perilous journeys with ailments of the heart and the soul and the body all at once. And that could be a very understandably dreary novel. But in fact, it's a novel that's full of life. It's a novel that's an ode to drag. It's a novel full of joy. It's a novel full of ideas about how we can take care of each other without belittling each other.
And it is the winner of the PEN/Faulkner prize. It should have won as many prizes as they have out there. And we're going to talk to him tonight about how he wrote this miraculous charismatic book in which Mina is spending her time on Lesbos and is also writing letters to an offstage novelist who sounds quite a bit like Rabih Alameddine who also went to Lesbos in the book previously and had what was an understandable breakdown.
I'm not going to be only asking these questions. I'm very pleased to be joined by two other brilliant artists tonight. One of them is the novelist, Rebecca Makkai, the author of The Great Believers and three other books. She's a friend of Rabih's, a great admirer of his work and comes to us from a mountain in Vermont. But also coming to us from a mountain in distant place is the wonderful Academy Award, BAFTA award and SAG winning actress and political activist, Susan Sarandon who served as a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador. And she's dedicated herself to humanitarian causes around the world, including making sure that Rabih Alameddine doesn't get too big ahead. So on that note, I'm going to ask her to come on and join us. Susan Sarandon, it's such a pleasure to have you here with us and please ask away questions of Rabih.
Susan Sarandon: Hi, Rabih.
Rabih Alameddine: Hi, Susan.
Sarandon: Well, what did you get me into here?
Alameddine: I don't know yet. We're playing it by ear, so I don't know. But I thought instead of talking about my book, let's you and I talk about Lesbos, because we've both been there almost at the same time. Actually, I think I followed you by about a month.
Sarandon: Well, when I read your book, I called you right away because I didn't even know that you'd been there. And that's a very small club to be part of. People that have been there during that very difficult time. And I totally understood the character's inability to deal with what was going down because I've been a part of quite a few rescue or difficult situations after earthquakes. I was in Nepal, I was in Haiti and I've never seen anything as devastating as this constant flow of desperate people that once they got dried off and ended up in the camps, that's when the hell actually started.
Usually when you're dealing with so many people need to be rescued, need to be fed, buried the dead, get the limbs for people that... But you know exactly what you're dealing with and this was just without any indication that it would ever stop. And no really good plan that you could even promise them. When I was there, the borders were still open, but the rumors were flying that everything was closing and there were pregnant women and women who just gave birth to people in wheelchairs and people from everywhere.
And you knew that you had no idea what to say to even give them any kind of encouragement. So I totally understood what you were going through, but I didn't know that you had gone through that until I talked with you.
Alameddine: Oh, we talked, I think between the time that you went and then before I went, because I know that now, because I used something that you told me in the book, which is that... And I'll never forget it. Like I said, it ended up in the book, which is that of all the people you talk to, not one person said they wanted to come to America. And all over America, people were trying to keep them out, and nobody wanted to come in the first place. What's his name? Pence was the governor of Indiana and he put out this law that you can't come to Indiana as a Syrian refugee. As if any Syrian wants to go to Indiana. It's fascinating.
So yeah, I remember it well. But the thing that you said that I think is important is that disasters come in many shapes and sizes, but what was really strange and what was overwhelming in Lesbos is the never-ending aspects of it. Like, yes, an earthquake happens, everything falls apart and people... And then you start building. We are still going through a migrant crisis and I don't see an end to it. We might end the Syrian crisis, but you get the Ukraine crisis, you get the African crisis, you get the... We will be having migrants for a long, long, long, long time and we still have no clue how to deal with it. And that's frightening.
Sarandon: Yeah. I mean, when I went, I went with the idea because at the time everyone was presenting... I mean, we're painting these people that were coming as if they were terrorists. And I thought, "Who are these people? I'm just going to go, ask where they came from, why they left and what they hoped for." I'll just ask those three questions and got so many different stories. And that's when I realized and nobody wanted to come to America. They all wanted to go to Germany or England, or some of them went to Switzerland. And everyone that was pregnant was trying to hold on to their babies until they could get to be somewhere.
And then also having the conversations with, I don't know what his official title was, who was supposed to be dealing with all of these, came in from Athens and was supposed to be dealing with these people. And the European Nations were putting pressure on him to not let the boats in, to not let these people in, and he was saying to me, "What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?" And he told me he just took a bunch of these dignitaries out in a boat and they intercepted one of these horrible overcrowded, flimsy with fake life jackets on boats full of people and said, "What do you want me to do with them?" Finally, I just took them out there and said, "What do I do with these people then?"
And the fact that the people who were really able to process, which is why I went without, not under the auspices of the UN or any specific group, the people who were really able to accomplish the most were these crazy volunteer doctors and kids, and the firefighters that came from Spain and everybody that had found a way to improvise outside of the system because the system was just the bureaucracy, and everything about it was just not functioning.
And that was also crazy to see people... I mean, some religious groups from the United States, there were some, I think a couple of some Mormon families that came and they were able to bring things with them and they were giving stuff out, but it was just such an improvised crazy thing. And all of the bureaucracy was working against them. And when I got home, I kind of had just the tiniest idea of what it's like when they say people that are in war never talk about it because it was just... I mean, I did a bunch of shows too with my film that I got and the Huffington Post was putting out pictures that this kid that I found that could drive me and had been there, and helped me find a place to stay and everything, but I couldn't really talk about it. I don't know how long it took you to be able to function when you got back.
Alameddine: It took me a long, long time. And one of the weird things, like I said for me, was I wasn't able to write about it forever and ever, and ever, and ever. John wanted an essay from me and he was the one who finally forced me to write something. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to. It was emotionally traumatizing and I've said it. And I said it in the novel that I've worked with refugees for five or six years, with Syrian refugees, I've interviewed all kinds. I've heard all kinds of horror story, but being in Lesbos, seeing the waves coming in of people was truly traumatic.
And I think that's why I was finally able to write about it is that at one point I realized that there might be no hope for migrants, in general. But on a people, person to person level. And like you said, the volunteers, the local ... I don't know what we call them? Lesbians. The local people from Lesbos, they were amazing. "They couldn't not help," as somebody said. Said, "If you see somebody drowning, how could you not help?" So that they opened their doors, the Spanish lifeguards, they were fabulous and gorgeous. You know? And to have just all these Spanish lifeguards come in. Because they thought it was stupid that people were drowning in it between distances that for them, it's swimmable.
Sarandon: But then they arrested some of them. Remember they arrested them because they hadn't permission to go out in the boats and they called them "cowboys" or whatever. And then there were all those amazing ... did they call themselves "the dirty girls?" I remember the women that were picking up all of the wet clothing, washing it, all the shoes, and this one guy that had a big laundry allowed them to come there. And then people were sorting it out to be able to give them clothes when they needed it because ... So there was solstice, trying to recycle with people. And then there was a guy that was making soup all the time and then the mountains of life jackets that were there. And you're trying to think, what could they be doing? A literal mountain of fake, a lot of fake-
Alameddine: Life jackets.
Sarandon: Life jackets, an actual mountain. I have pictures of me with, and you're thinking, what can we do with these now? And I think often now of how they got it. Those restaurants that were feeding and helping, what happened to their business increase? It was a tourist business and I wonder how many of those people have survived that were local, that were so kind and so generous. It was freezing. I was there at Christmas. I was there 10 days before Christmas. And then I went back two days after Christmas. So it was freezing. It was really close.
Alameddine: I was there from January 2nd. So right after New Year to ... It was freezing.
Sarandon: Yeah. Well, thank you for this book. It blew my mind because being friends, but not knowing what you'd gone through, I guess, we never, we're so superficial together.
Alameddine: I know. We just have fun and go to Indonesia on a boat.
Sarandon: Make jokes, talk cats, lots of tea.
Alameddine: Lots of cat talks.
Sarandon: Yeah. But I still think about it. I don't think it's gotten out of my system. At least you wrote a book.
Alameddine: Yeah, yeah. It took a lot out of me. It really did take a lot out of me to write it.
Sarandon: I bet. Well, you disguised yourself pretty well.
Freeman: Well, I'm going to come back in here and we'll bring you back in, Susan, if you can stick around, thank you for coming on. Rabih, I want to talk to you. This is not the first time that you've volunteered to help people. And then later wrote a book ... Koolaids and The Angel of History, both pull, to some degree, from the work you did volunteering to sit with and be with people who were dying of AIDS in San Francisco in the '80s. And you once described to me what that experience was like to a small degree. And I wonder if you can compare to some degree living through that crisis and volunteering, I guess, your part to some degree and your sympathies, just to simply be around people. And what going to Lesbos was like and spending five or six years working with refugees. And what the difference is, I guess, in drawing both of those experiences into novels.
Alameddine: Well, it's a difficult question because when I volunteer or when I go someplace, it's never with the idea of writing a novel. I did not ... When AIDS hit us, I had no idea what I was doing with my life, let alone writing a book. So these crises come to me, basically. I was in San Francisco, my friends were dying. I tested positive. So I was dying. So this became my life. I was living in Beirut when the troubles in Syria started and these refugees started coming over the border. So I was seeing them and talking to them.
I think the difference is that I am unable to not talk to them. I'm unable to not see what is in front of me. So there's that. But the other is that I usually listen to people and try to put myself in situations like this. Because as a rule, I'm a very self-centered, narcissistic person. I spend so much time alone. And I think it's the end of the world when I can't get a sentence just right. And oh my God, my life is terrible because ... You know? So when I'm that self involved or ... I could call myself a narcissist or I could call myself an American. That was a joke, God damn it, John. That was a joke.
Freeman: I'm laughing, I'm laughing. It's 1:30 in the morning, but I'm laughing.
Alameddine: So that it forces me to get out of my own way. It forces me to ... I think part of the problems of our world today is that we think that what is happening to us is the most important thing in the world. And we think that our opinion is the most important thing in the world. And how could somebody think like this? And the truth is that the world is vast and people are going through a lot of issues that make mine seem trivial and they are trivial. So that by putting myself out there, it actually, most people think that it would depress me. But on the country, it actually uplifts me because I begin to realize ... I am depressed when I am contained within my own world.
And when I begin to go out, the situation might be terrible, but at least I'm engaged with the world. I'm engaged with people. As difficult as it is for me to do so, it's actually makes me happy in the end. But the other thing that I started thinking is I should just create world crises, that I'd have something to write about. If we could have a big disaster of some sort because right now it's difficult for me to get a grasp on what I'm writing next. So if we could just have one big thing.
Freeman: One of the most interesting words that you said in that answer, among other things, is the word "us," because it's a complicated word for Mina when she goes to Lesbos. She's from Beirut. She was raised there as a boy, transitioned in America, comes back. Hasn't been back to Beirut at all. Hasn't seen her family in a long time. And has seen people from the Middle East and speaks their language, which allows her far more access than some of the translators even, or even the journalist, to stories that people are telling without telling them. But she also is uncomfortable, completely breaking down that border between herself and people who've come from homes and other places and very dire situations. And I guess I want to ask you how much of that experience draws from your own? That going there must have been very powerful as an Arab, and yet you must have also had complicated feelings about difference as well in the middle of the ... and to what degree were you trying to both keep that cognizant in your mind while also not letting it overwhelm your faculties of sympathy and care?
Alameddine: It was a big deal. It was the reason why the book was so difficult and the reason why it took so long for the book to come out right. I've said it before. I think part of the solution to all the issues of the book was Mina coming in. Like I said, it's interesting to me that almost all the conversations about Mina as a character is about her being trans. For me, that was secondary to her being a surgeon because in my mind, whether it's true or not, I'm not sure, but in my mind, surgeons have the ability to be in the middle of a crisis and to have a personal crisis, but to be able to set that aside and go through and do what they have to do, which I was not able to when I was in Lesbos. I was able to do everything in Lebanon because I was Lebanese and they were Syrian.
Once I went out and went to the West and came back as a westerner/Lebanese, I got very confused as to where on that line I had to be. And I had never seen the line more demarcated than in Lesbos. So it was a difficult thing, where I actually had issues with the refugees and with the volunteers. So that was a biggie: where do I belong and where do I fit in? And then the more important line is why is there a line between the two?
Why is it that, who is us and who is them? And for a lot of the Syrians who arrived, in terms of looks, forget it. They don't look any different than any of the Greeks on the island. It's like we are the same people. But for some reason, there is a line that demarcates everyone where someone is from, cultural, religion, whatever. And I find it fascinating as to why, in a global world where we are traveling constantly, and we get to the internet, allows us to see all kinds of things, we're still stuck in identities that are so, so limiting. So limiting. I don't get that. I do get it, but it's troubling.
Freeman: Is that why there's this, among other things, there's this really beautiful vein throughout the novel about the various ways that drag can be performed and enable you to be many different things at once. And I know from seeing pictures in your house that you have many identities. But can you talk a little bit about drag and what it's meant to you and what it means to the novel?
Alameddine: Absolutely. It's a mask. We can talk about drag being an archetype of some sort, but it's basically a mask. I haven't done it in 20 years, which I was thinking about it. Now I could really do an old dame. A gone down. But it was the first time when I dressed up that I could be something other than myself. And that, allowing oneself to be something else is such a gift. I can talk, I've thought about, how do we define identity and stuff? And there are a few things that allow us to get out of ourselves. And I actually love them all. One of them is drag. Is to just put on a different thing. The other is travel. When you're traveling, I'm somebody completely different in every country. Nobody knows me. I could do whatever I want.
And the other is sex. When you're having sex, you're somebody else completely. Not that I've had any lately, but usually, I think. So drag is one of those things, in some ways, easy things that one could do to become someone else. And I was interested in the novel about borders and the borders around identity, the borders around bodies and the permeability of it and the impermeability of it. And so drag and transness and all these things came into it. And one of the reasons, one of the many reasons, is that there was this trans woman in [inaudible] a well known who was unfortunately murdered recently. But it was one of the first visions I saw when I landed in Lesbos, was this trans woman in a short red dress.
Freeman: Gosh, terrible. This book is very complicated structurally, but it's very easy to read at the same time. And around the time that you were writing it, we were ... by the way, Robbie Emine is probably the best book recommender in the world. I do think you should have a five-minute podcast show. We just tell people once a week what to read. The list of people that you've introduced me to is very long and lovely. But one of the people we were talking about is Olga Tokarczuk and Flights. And I couldn't help but notice that the architecture of this book has a flights like pattern in that you're introducing-
Alameddine: Flights was a big influence on this book.
Freeman: Well, talk about that because you managed to contain all these various stories, but never assume that it's the entire story. And it's Cortazar-like, but it's slightly different. And I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about where Tokarczuk allows you to take the novel as thinking point.
Alameddine: Okay. Unfortunately, this is a long discussion, which we should discuss it at some point, but I'll be brief. Tokarczuk, in some ways, it was revolutionary book, Flights. But in other ways I saw where it was coming from. So the influence on me was earlier. Antonio Muñoz Molina's Sepharad was very, very similar. And then she used a lot of things that Sebald did, of course. But it was primarily Claudio Magris and Muñoz Molina who did similar things. But what she did that was astounding is that she contained this whole thing in one book. And it was a book about borders and crossing borders and traveling across. So one of the things that she did that stunned me was the introduction of skin as a border.
And that became part of the book that I was writing. So that the transness, the drag, the whole idea of buddies became part of this migrant experience. That was one of the big things that I got from the book. And it was in many ways, unconscious. But the other thing that was stunning to me about Flights is with Muñoz Molina's Sepharad, it seemed that it was a very logical book, even though he went all over the place and all kinds of stories and tangents. And so Muñoz Molina was more like Hakawati for me.
What Olga Tokarczuk did was, in some ways, I hate to say it, because to feminize the process, she made the book Flights sound as if she was just on the stove, throwing stories here into the pot. This one, we'll do this one, as if it's completely random, which of course it's not. But this feeling of randomness, "Oh, I'm going here now. I'm going here." Was a big part of the book. I've done it before. I've done it in number of books before, but not with the apparent lackadaisical effort that this book had. Which obviously, it's not lackadaisical, it just had the feel of, "Oh, I'm going to talk about dressing up in drag here. Oh, I'm going to talk about this book here."
Freeman: Well, it allows you to get so deep into, not just Mina's life, but Samia's husband, Sammy. Samia's a Syrian woman who's dying of cancer who comes to the island at Mina's treating and is trying to keep alive as long as possible, as well as tell stories about all the other people that Mina meets and tries to treat, or just simply meets. And one of the best compressors I think of lives of a narrative in America today is Rebecca Makkai and The Great Believers and The Borrower and her wonderful, short stories. She was, I think probably the only person in America to be in the Best American Short Stories, four years in a row. Rebecca Makkai proves that you can fold all the complexities of life into 20 pages or even less. And I want to bring her on to talk to you about this book because clearly, she will have some questions for you that will open this book up even more. Are you there, Rebecca?
Rebecca Makkai: Thank you. And Rabih, I'm so excited to talk to you. I never get tired of talking about this book either to other people or to you.
Alameddine: Thank you.
Makkai: So, very excited. And I think one of the reasons I never get tired of it is, as I've probably said to you before, I am a big fan, always of what I think of as narrative fuckery. Just-
Alameddine: Sorry, I love that word. I can come up with many academic terms for it, narrative fuckery is just the right word.
Makkai: It is probably not the one they have in the big literary theory textbook but that's what I'm going to call it. You thought you were reading one thing and you're reading another thing or I'm just going to break rules. You do several things in here that are really unexpected on a narrative level, but it never feels like it's for the sake of the gymnastics. It is form following function completely. Right? I'm curious, I guess I'm always curious about all of your books, how do you find that form? But I'll ask you really specifically. This one, you have these short chapters, but you also have this second person, the book is addressed to a writer. Much like you, you have all these different, this oral stuff going on, these points of view. So do you write your way to that form?
Alameddine: Yes, I write my way, but it's also important that as you know, a lot of the formal invention comes straight out of the problems that I'm facing. And again, I guarantee you do the same thing. I'm almost sure that almost every writer does the same thing. That invention follows problems. I encountered a problem. I must find a solution. The first problem I encountered was that I couldn't tell the story because I could not figure out the right distance to be from looking at it. I was both the volunteers and the refugees. And in some ways I loved both, and in some ways I hated both. So I could not pull away enough to see them clearly. So the invention of Mina to come in and tell the story was a formal invention, but it was basically in response to the problems I was having.
The other part that everybody assumes was, I sat down and go, "Ooh, why? Let me think of." Was just also a solution to the problem. I wanted to write about what happened to me in Lesbos. But Mina came in to tell the story because she wasn't me. So whatever happened to me could not have happened to Mina. She would not in any way or form, have an [inaudible] down when people needed help. There is absolutely no way. I mean, I can't even imagine her listening to Mahler under the...
So, that scene, even though obviously I was in it, so I wasn't seeing it, but I kept seeing this guy under the covers, under the duvet, just with earphones and listening to Mahler. It had to be in the book. There was no other way to do it than to have this character. At first it was just a character, but it felt so flat. So starting the novel, then I went back and started, well, what if she's talking to this person? And in some ways, both trying to lift him up and to make fun of him at the same time. And that's where, if you call it a formal invention or a narrative fuckery or whatever, it was just trying to solve some narrative problems.
Makkai: It makes a lot of sense. I feel like the lesson I have to learn again and again, that maybe I've absorbed now is that I can't write around problems and I can't solve the problems. I can only write about the problem, the problem I'm having with the book needs to go into the book.
Alameddine: The book.
Makkai: Because it's probably the most interesting thing going on anyway, right?
Alameddine: It's also the things that has the most manner for you. It has the most passion for you. So, I mean, this is one of the things that I learned and I usually joke about it. It's because I'm so self-centered that my problems are important, but it is where the passion is. For me, again, that there are many, many threads in the novel that I love and I worked on and stuff, but the closest to me is the fact that, here where's all these issues and this writer who I'm not going to say is me, who goes there to help because he wants to get out of his own way and then it ends up being about him. Which is in many ways, same as the volunteers and same as they intersect. It's almost always about us. So how can we make this human thing, part of this novel about refugees?
Makkai: And one thing, I don't know if this was a response to a problem you were feeling or if it was more intrinsic from the beginning? But this is a novel that relies on, to a wonderful extent, to a plurality of experience. You're not trying to tell one story of one refugee. And you manage through doing that. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the one story, we tell one story about a certain group of people. Well, how do we avoid doing that? Sometimes the job of a writer is to tell one specific story. But when it's a bunch of people who are this misunderstood, when the narrative that's out there is a certain way, you tell one version of that, it seems like you're saying, and this is what everyone's like.
Makkai: So you manage to get, through her conversations with people, you get this incredible plurality that allows you to have some refugees who are not great people and plenty who are, and you're able to run that gamut. So I have several questions about that, but one of them is that I don't think I've asked you before. As you're piecing together these narratives, as you're thinking this one goes in and I need this person, I need this person, I need this person, are you thinking at all about representation, about getting across the board, many different types of experience, are you trying to get to the edges of what that experience could be? Are you just writing down the ones that you think are the best stories? How are you choosing the scope of the number and kinds of stories you tell?
Alameddine: A lot of it is, again, I don't have to tell you, a lot of it is intuitive. And then a lot of it gets thrown out in editing. There were so many stories. It's just like, "Nope, nope, nope, no." But the plurality of it is important. It's not necessarily a conscious thing that I do, but at the same time, it's been so ingrained in me because it started early on. I'm in many ways outside of the dominant culture, I am an Arab, I am a gay man, I am a Druze, I'm an atheist, I'm whatever, all these different things. If I write about a gay Arab man who does such and such, many readers will look at it and say, he's doing this because the character is a gay Arab man. So I'm constantly in the back of my head thinking about this. In, I The Divine, this woman is unable to go past the first chapter and then she has a trauma.
So I remember all the reviews saying that the reason she can't go past the first chapter is because she has that trauma, which was never the intention. Because I know a lot of people who can't go past the first chapter, who never had the trauma. And I know a lot of people who had trauma that... But because she's a minority or it's not everybody's experience, she becomes a representative of everything out there. So that if I am to write a story of one refugee, because not everybody has the experience of that refugee, it becomes the story of all refugees, which is not fair to the refugees and not fair to the novel. So in this case, there were lots of issues that were studied, like Mina was a trans woman.
So there's this constant thing where if I left the book with just Mina, that everything she does, many people would interpret she's doing this because she's trans. One of the ways that you handle that is, you introduce another trans character who does something completely different. So, Mina was not the most sexual of people. So you introduce a trans character who wants to fuck every lifeguard there is. You introduce a trans character who's... And these are people I met in Lesbos. So the novel, in many ways, is the story of Sumaya and her family, they were the representative. But if we left it that, people will think, "Oh, these Syrians are so heroic. Look at this mother." Which is lovely, but it is not true. There are many, many aspects of it. So for me, being an outsider, being someone outside of the dominant culture, I have to constantly keep in mind that I do not want to write characters that will be somehow representative of all Arabs everywhere, or I can speak for all gay men everywhere. That...
Freeman: Hello again, I'm going to bring you back in just one second. There's just some questions coming in from the audience, and I'd love to run them by you, Rabih. Thank you for those really great questions, Rebecca. One of the things that's so fabulous about this book is it shows the way that reality is produced by the questions that you ask of reality in front of you. And so in every situation throughout the book, the interrogative mode, the asking of questions, is producing a version of reality.
Sometimes a version of people. When Samia's husband is being interviewed by two journalists, they basically are driving him towards the conclusion that he is a hero. Whereas meanwhile, in Arabic, Samia's saying to him, "Oh, he's my hero." And she's saying it mockingly, but also with love. And Janet Rodriguez has a question that's come in and she said, "This does remind her of Cortázar and that people have strengths and blemishes and weaknesses. And how do you consistently use characters as bears of hope and glory in the midst of unfavorable conditions?" I guess my addition to that is, is it by making them aware of how they're being presented or is it some other way?
Alameddine: I don't how they're being presented as to whether that matters. First of all, as you know, I'm a big, big fan of Cortasa. And he is big influence. But, no, I think a lot of it is a reflection of me and how I see the world. I mean, obviously, I'm not bragging or whatever. But again, I've been through the AIDS crisis. I've been through a civil war in Lebanon. I've had many, many things happen and you just soldier on.
And I've always realized that one of my strengths is the ability to look askance at things, to look awry at things. And to see both the good and the bad. And to not project it outwards. I mean, again, it's a long discussion that but I think that for most of us, we project the evil outward, we project the bad things about us onto other people.
And whether it's bad luck or good luck or whatever, it's rare that I'm able to do that. I usually take it in, that I'm able to do these things. I am just as bad as that person or I am just as good as that person under the same circumstances. My characters tend to be that as well.
I mean, I kept thinking who's the worst person in the novel? And it's probably the guy who robbed the jewelry store. And I met that guy. And I kind of liked him. I mean I kind of liked him. I thought he was a little weird and total liar. It's like a fibster. But he was a good storyteller or a bad storyteller since we all knew he was lying. But to see myself in him so that it's no longer something out there that's bad. It's something out there that's human. I mean, it's not great. He robbed the jewelry store. It's not something to applaud or, hey, but it's human.
Freeman: Rajesh Daniel was asking, the site comes up a lot in our discussion tonight, but so why the title? How did that come about?
Alameddine: Oh God. Well, I mean, the title, it's easy in terms of, if you look at things through the run, under the telescope, you don't see it. Well, it's either exaggerated. So that, for me, it's important to look at immigrants as people, as a case by case. As opposed to this whole mass of people.
That's what I was interested in, but the thing came from a D. H. Lawrence quote in one of my all time favorite books, studies of classical American literature I think it was called. It's this short book. Apparently he wrote it in five days while drunk. But in it, he was talking about some critic loving America. And the quote was, "It's easy to love America unconditionally if you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope."
And I love that quote, but this book is not about America, so I didn't want to put the DH Lauren quote in. But it's the whole idea of it's easy to either love something or to hate something if you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope.
Freeman: Susan Sarandon and Rebecca Makkai are still here. And since we have just a few more minutes, I wondered if you could both come back and rejoin us. And ask any more questions of Rabih that were popping to mind maybe during the last while.
Makkai: That are popping.
Freeman: Or that are just popping. I promise not to pop and lock.
Makkai: I always want my question to be like, who do you think you are? And just see how you respond. I'm not sure that would be the most helpful.
Alameddine: Who do I think? It's like synthesis. This is the thing that I love is that people assume that we are just one person. I am many different things depending on the occasion.
Makkai: Love it. I know.
Alameddine: It's like, yeah, I'm a writer. I'm a born loser. Today, I wrote this short piece about that somebody asked if I was not a writer, what would I be? I said, "I would be the best lazy bum ever. I lazy bum better than anybody I know." It's all part of it.
Makkai: I love it. And I wonder, I'm sure everyone has... Of course, everyone contains all those multitudes. I wonder though, if writers and actors, if that's maybe just more at the forefront of who we are, that ability to just decide to be someone else for a day.
Alameddine: I know Susan does.
Makkai: I mean, am I right? I don't know.
Alameddine: Yeah, no, it's easy. I mean, yeah, I've always been interested in actors and how when do they put the mask down? If they ever put the mask down. And how easy it is for them to pick up a character. But I do it in writing when I'm writing, and depending on the character, I am someone else with each character.
Sarandon: What's the New York Times going do for your act or your death, Rabih? What's the title of your... What's the click bait for your...
Alameddine: The Nebrokov thing. It's just, my life will be reduced to the dash between two dates.
Sarandon: No, it won't.
Makkai: I want it to say narrative fuckery.
Alameddine: Narrative fuckery would like. Just fuckery in general. Fuckery in general, he was a good fucker.
Sarandon: He had great glasses.
Alameddine: Great glasses.
Sarandon: Looked great in a dress. Good snorkeler. Has danced.
Alameddine: No, scuba diver.
Sarandon: Scuba diver. Yes. That's true.
Alameddine: A good loaner of flotation belts. Sorry, that's a bad subject.
Sarandon: Also, you dance in the jungle.
Freeman: Did you use all those different names, Rabih, as in various drag acts? The names that appear in this book?
Alameddine: Yes. I've done them all. Yes, yes, yes.
Freeman: For those who haven't finished the book yet, can you rattle off some of them?
Alameddine: Oh, God. Lady Orangina, Mimi Heimfirst, Lotta Botox, Checka Myrack. Agnes Day is my favorite. Although, very few people get it, unless you're Catholic.
Makkai: Oh, I'm not Catholic, but I just got it. Just took me a minute.
Alameddine: Yeah. Takes a minute. But today, I did like Mistress Fantastica. Oh. I can't think of them right on.
Oh, Jane Joyce, who wrote You Sissys.
Makkai: Amazing. And I mean, I hope that you're... Do these drag personas read stuff? Do they sing? Do they act?
Alameddine: Well, it's funny because I mean, I talk about it a little in the novel. The drag personas were really important to me in the beginning, like I said, to get out of my skin. I was, in many ways, a shy kid. And you put on drag and I mean, I've actually done it. I've went and propositioned cops on the road. Like, "Hi, darling. Come over."
But I would never do it as me. Until finally, I realized that I don't need the lipstick. I can be outrageous by myself and it still would be me. Again, drag can be training wheels to come out. But like I said, I've seen actors and actresses do it. I know a lot of actors who are very, very shy. But then, they go one stage and for them to come out, I've seen them at parties, where they just put on a persona. And they're different people at different times.
Freeman: After doing this, Rabih, did you think a little bit, or did you have any thoughts about reporters who cover the migrant crisis well? And what they do with yourself in the process of telling stories, like the ones that you heard or respectfully showing people?
Alameddine: Yes. I mean, Susan mentioned it early that she went there to ask questions. And that is the number one thing I think, is not to go there with preconceived ideas of who these people are. Or to just find out, find out. And then know your biases. I mean, that's like, know thyself is the biggest thing. Know your biases so that when you're listening to a story, try to see it from that person's point of view. As opposed to come in.
Seriously, one of the big things that's on my mind lately is this assumption. And I've started with it, that everybody wants to come to America. That if they have the chance to come to America, that they would. This is taken for granted by all Americans. That when we go out to interview, this assumption that people are dying to come to the US is actually not true.
That if you can't hear it, it becomes a block. You can't see who that other person is. I find it fascinating. That's not to say that there aren't some who really do want to come here. But not to Indiana, that's for sure.
Makkai: That would be number 50 on my list. No offense [inaudible].
Alameddine: It's like, where else [inaudible]. But also, it's fabulous that both Rebecca and Susan are on a mountain in Vermont.
Makkai: Well, I'm in Vermont. Are you in Vermont?
Sarandon: I'm in Vermont, on a mountain.
Makkai: We're both on mountains in Vermont. That's incredible.
Sarandon: Yeah. How big is your mountain?
Makkai: Medium sized.
Sarandon: Yeah. Mine's not really. Mine's a kind of one. What area are you in? What are you near?
Makkai: I'm at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference right now, which is near Middlebury. The middle of the western side of the state.
Sarandon: I'm close to the board of Massachusetts, close to MASS MoCA and Williamstown, North Adams side area.
Makkai: I feel like I should throw you a paper airplane from my mountain to yours at the end of this.
Sarandon: I'll look for that in the morning. In the morning.
Freeman: Yeah. You could speak almost by semaphore at this point.
Sarandon: I'm dying to read your short stories now. I really want to-
Alameddine: Oh, actually, listen. I'll send you The Great Believers. It's a magnificent book.
Freeman: This is such a gorgeous book. Everyone should get one in the mail.
Alameddine: I'll send you a whole list. I mean, I'll send you the books.
Sarandon: Thank you. Thank you.
Alameddine: Or maybe I'll get John to send you the books.
Makkai: John sends the books.
Freeman: And this is what happens. Pretty soon, I'll be making him breakfast tomorrow too. And he'll be wearing different glasses.
Alameddine: Definitely. Can't be seen in the same glasses.
Freeman: I think you changed glasses in the middle of one event we had once. I looked over and-
Alameddine: Hold on. (changes glasses) You were saying?
Makkai: I feel like the odd one out here. I'm out of fashion in this Zoom.
Freeman: Yeah. Well, it's good that your contacts work, because those of us with glasses are looking at our reflections in our faces. Anyway, this was so lovely of you to call in, Susan Sarandon, Rebecca Makkai. It's you need three or four people to take on Rabih Alameddine at once. And you can take that comment and have fun with it later.
This was a truly gorgeous novel, Rabih. Transformative in the third read. And I encourage all of you to pick up a copy. It is, to my mind, showing the way that we can get outside the self and yet stay inside of it to show how vulnerable we are to the way that the world is moving. And how we need to feel what is happening to people who are in this situation that Rabih's writing about.
The book is The Wrong End Of the Telescope, Rabih Alameddine. It was so lovely talking to you. Thank you, everyone, for coming on. I think David's going to come on just and walk us out and say where you can go now.
Ulin: I'm back. Thanks for a great conversation. And it is it's truly beautiful novel and narrative fuckery in the absolute best sense of the phrase. I'm about to get that tattooed on my face I think.
I'm going to take us out. Big thanks, as John said to Rabih, Susan, Rebecca and John. This interview was recorded and will be available at californiabookclub. com imminently. I want to alert you all to next month's book, which is Julie Otsuka also beautiful novel, The Swimmers. Please join us for that.
And to remind you of the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club altaonline.com/tote, or the $3 digital membership. There's a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Please fill that out. And for all of you, stay safe, stay well and see you next month. Thanks all for being here and have a very, very good night.•