Rabih Alameddine: “My Existence is Uncomfortable for People”
John Freeman in Conversation with the author of The Angel of History
This interview was conducted at the Bookstan conference in Sarajevo and over email.
John Freeman: Good evening. Rabih always promised to give me a lap dance, but I never thought it would be in Sarajevo.
Audience member: We want to see it!
JF: The night is young.
Rabih Alameddine: We’re just starting.
JF: This is going to get fun. Welcome to tonight’s event. My name is John Freeman, and it gives me an immense amount of joy to present to you Rabih Alameddine tonight. In the Bible, God says to Noah: After the Flood, the fire next time. This is the fire. And you’re going to see why.
Rabih was born in 1959, in Amman, Jordan, and grew up in Lebanon and Kuwait, left, lived in England, was educated in California and moved to San Francisco to study engineering and got a master’s degree in business. Then he became a painter, because that is where the action was at. For a number of years, he produced some beautiful paintings, which are on the covers of several of his books, including one of the two we are launching here tonight—his first book, Koolaids.
Koolaids, I have to say, is one of the most radical and beautiful and disturbing and brilliant and arresting texts I’ve ever read. It features a gay, HIV-positive narrator named Mohammad. It takes place during the Lebanese Civil War and the rise of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. It features four cycling narrators and characters, and has dialogues between various gods, and Tom Cruise who is complaining continuously that no, he is not homosexual, and news reports . . . It is an immense and beautiful text. It is astonishing that it’s a first book.
Koolaids was published in 1998. Alameddine published a short story collection one year later called The Perv—you can see that it is an autobiographical text. It was followed up in 2001—consider that this is just a three-year period—by an extraordinary novel called I, the Divine, which is about a woman trying to tell her life story and rewriting her first chapter over and over; as the novel progresses, it develops more layers and tells more about her life and her family’s saga. He took a seven-year break after that which was not a break: he was working on an ecstatic and big novel wrapped around 1001 Nights—a man going home as his father is dying, telling stories to keep him alive; meanwhile a sort of magical realistic text progresses parallel to that, The Hakawati, which in Arabic means “storyteller.” That was published in 2008, and in 2014 came the book that many people know him for, An Unnecessary Woman.
These seem like interesting bookends. On the one hand, you have Koolaids, which is a montage text. It is an unstable book; it is a novel that invites you into it; it is a text made up of other texts. It is a story set very much during the Lebanese Civil War. On the other hand, you have An Unnecessary Woman, which unfolds during the winter of the life of a 72-year-old woman living in Beirut who has been translating texts from French and English into Arabic and not publishing them—her hair dye has gone wrong so her hair is blue—and she’s describing her life almost chronologically, basically, through the life of these texts.
And now he has a new novel, The Angel of History, which is a different study of invisibility. Like Koolaids, it is a rigorously fragmented novel about loss and anger and AIDS. The hero this time is a gay Yemeni poet named Jacob, who as the book opens has begun to feel like a man out of time in the age of PrEP and post-AIDS San Francisco, a walking ghost who managed to survive the plague that is known to many of the young men in California only by the fact of having seen the film, Rent. Memory tackles him and sends him reeling, and it brings on hallucinations that Satan is talking to him again. In between chapters on Jacob’s experiences in the mental health clinic, we read his journals, his short stories, and we listen to Satan talk to Death and a series of saints. It is an incredibly risky novel but also very, very funny.
But first let’s begin at the beginning, and I want to start with a softball. You have a gay character and narrator in Koolaids named Mohammad. You have a grieving son in The Hakawati named Osama. Your main character has sex with a nun in your new book. When did you become such a bad boy?
RA: I was born that way. When I sit down to write, I don’t write to be a bad boy. I sit down to write. Usually what I write about are things that I’m obsessed with, and usually things that I’m obsessed with are things that I am angry about. So what usually comes out is uncomfortable for people. But my existence is uncomfortable for people. It’s really important for me to have actually said that right now, that my existence—the mere fact that I exist—is uncomfortable for people. So I write about the things that interest me, and that is a little bit uncomfortable. But why did I write about Mohammad as a gay man? Because there are so many Mohammads out there.
JF: I’m so glad to be talking to you about Koolaids, because it is the one book of yours that I admire the most, and yet I struggle to understand how it was made. When did your instinct to make visual art shade over into narrative, and how did this effect your conception of narrative space? Were you always a reader?
RA: I was always a reader. I always wanted to be a writer. Before he died, my father asked me . . . Actually, he reminded me before he died that when I was four he had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said I wanted to be a writer. When I was four, I wanted to write Superman comics. But the idea of storytelling has always been there, and I have been a reader for a long, long time. I never wrote anything because I didn’t feel courageous enough, or I didn’t think that I had anything to say.
When I sat down to write Koolaids, a specific thing had happened: I was really upset at a lot of the books that I was reading. I was just not interested. I was upset at what was being presented as literature. It was not my thing. And primarily, I was upset at how writers were writing about AIDS. I felt that at the time people were dying, and everybody just felt sorry. Most of the AIDS books at the time were about going on your last trip to Paris and buying a sweater and eating cheese for the last time. And I wanted to fuck something.
JF: I want to talk about that because it is a violent book. It’s violently disarranged in what I can tell is a careful way. Rereading it today, I was thinking about what Aleksandar Hemon said on the panel for the Arrival issue of Freeman’s, that when he was relearning English, writing fiction was a way for him to control the disarrangement of his mind. I feel in this book a rage to disarrange.
RA: My friends were dying. There was a war back home. My relatives were being killed. And Reagan was forgetting everything. It was a big deal for me. So there was a lot of rage. Actually, it’s funny because the book that is coming out now, Angel of History, is a revisitation of those years. It’s almost as if once I wrote Koolaids, I went into a coma of forgetting how angry I was, and then all of a sudden it came back 20 years later.
But the other thing that happened when I sat down to write Koolaids was that I got dumped by an asshole. I was dating this guy for about four years, and it was a mistake from the beginning. He was a computer executive, and he decided that he was going to do something creative, and what he wanted to do was write a book. So he met this guy, and they decided that they were going to write a book about a man who is an executive, and he gets a young boy, an young Egyptian boy, to become his slave. My first reaction when I heard that was: “Couldn’t you have made him Lebanese? Why pretend?” But what was really lovely was that they did this research—both of them together. I said, “You don’t know anything about Egypt! You don’t know anything about Egypt!” And he goes, “Well, we got research.” They did the research, and these two guys wanted him to come to a little town. He said, “We looked all over.” And what was the little town called? “Le Caire.” Le Caire is “Cairo” in French. So this little fucking town of 20 million people was what they thought this little boy was coming to. That’s when I realized that this was American literature. These two white boys were going to sit down and write about Le Caire. I decided, “Fuck ‘em! I’m going to sit down and show them what it’s like.”
But the best thing is, it was the best revenge ever. Ever, ever, ever. After a four-year relationship, you write a book and he’s not in it.
JF: I want to talk to you a bit about what you were describing about the Reagan years. We had this appalling Hilary Clinton gaffe earlier in the year where she was describing how instrumental Nancy Reagan was in recognizing the AIDS crisis as it was beginning, which is categorically, fabulously untrue. Under the Reagan years, the virus went from a controllable situation to something vastly out of control. Simultaneously, under Reagan, there was not just a misreporting of what was happening in Lebanon but an occlusion. I wonder, when you are writing into spaces which have been ignored, what, if any, your responsibilities are? Because throughout Koolaids there are actual massacres described, there are actual benchmark events throughout the Lebanese Civil War, there are explanations about the division between East and West Beirut—some of them factual, some of them told in letters to the main characters, some of them diary entries. So are you trying to make the reader figure out what is true and what is not true or are you just trying to mess with their minds?
RA: That’s actually a very difficult question because my first response—forgive me—is: fuck the reader. A lot of writers say it’s about communication. It isn’t. I write for me. I write because I have something to say to me. When people ask me, “Who is your ideal reader?” I always say, “You know, it’s a younger version of me, probably taller and more handsome, with a larger penis.” But it’s not an attempt to communicate; it’s an attempt to record something that is important for me how I would like to see it. A book for me then becomes something separate when a reader reads it; it’s an interaction between the reader and the book. Does that make sense?
When people ask me, “Who is your ideal reader?” I always say, “You know, it’s a younger version of me, probably taller and more handsome, with a larger penis.”
JF: Yes. I want to ask you a follow-up then because throughout Koolaids, at various points, different narrators address the reader directly. One of them, while listing various symptoms of AIDS or the drugs says, “But this won’t happen to you, will it?” In another situation, the book lists a number of things that have happened, and one of the narrators says, “Is this enough for you to care?” Two-thirds of the way through the book, one of the narrators describes various things that have happened in Beirut and says, “Is this enough? Can we stop now?” Various characters and the four horsemen of the apocalypse, if you will, in the book are speaking—at this point they may or may not be ghosts—and they say, “Can we leave now?” I find this interesting because as a writer as a creator you say you’re not speaking to the reader, but the text . . .
RA: . . . does speak to the reader.
JF: The text needs to address the reader. And those are two separate things, aren’t they?
RA: Well, again, I wrote this book never knowing whether anybody would read it or not. So it wasn’t exactly talking to a reader. It was taking, in many ways, to me or someone like me. There are many things that I did in that book—some were unconscious and some were conscious—but the reason that I speak to the reader is because in my experience—at that time, and it is still true now—a lot of literature is not about the readers per se. It is an escape. Aleksandar Hemon talks about “empathy” in American fiction. To empathize . . . I couldn’t care less if you empathize with my characters. I don’t want people to read about AIDS and go, “Oh, that’s nice. Pass the beer.”
It’s like you guys in Bosnia when we talk about the war: people know about the war and the siege of Sarajevo, but for a lot of them, it’s something that happened elsewhere. And for a lot of the books that are written about it, it’s something that happened elsewhere. So how can we as writers break that? How can I get a reader not to feel what I would call pre-existing emotions? All I have to do is go, “Oh, you know, the Holocaust,” and you all have feelings about it that are pre-existing. Well, how do we present it in such a way that we transcend that, that we break that wall? I thought it was stupid in Koolaids, but it did work in some ways. I just tell people, “I’m breaking the wall.”
JF: Your books are constantly smashing together sex and death in ways that never allow the reader to escape. I know, we all know this a little—in French an orgasm is a “little death”—and yet we often forget that the collision between mortality and immortality happens in the sheets.
RA: Let’s talk about sex.
JF: Let’s do it. But you know, it feels like one of the ways you are not allowing the reader escape in Koolaids is that you are constantly putting something deeply horrific next to something ecstatic.
RA: That’s one technique. And different writers do different things. But for me, again, it is about the avoidance of pre-existing emotions. How do I get somebody to be surprised when reading about AIDS, as opposed going, “Oh, this is sad.” Well, one of the ways you break that is by making it funny, by changing the paradigm. Anything that would break the monotony of reading a book as an escape. Because there is nothing worse; it becomes really sentimental when you’re reading a sad book, and you only think, “It’s really sad.”
JF: One of the passages that accomplishes this in Koolaids is with a list of people who have died. It says, “I love you, Scott”, “ I love you, . . . ”, “I love you, . . . ”, and then they start responding. One of them says, “Goodnight, John Boy” which is a quote from The Waltons, and another says “Is this the Waltons of AIDS?”, and then they start critiquing. It’s playing with the edge of sentimentality that one feels in movies like Philadelphia, where you pull the rug out from beneath the reader and say, “But this is absurd!” So here’s this book which is postmodern, and you can call it whatever—it’s a book that needs assembly. It’s almost like a B. S. Johnson novel which you gave to the reader and said, “Here, you make it.”
RA: Pessoa did the same thing.
JF: Let’s talk about Pessoa because Pessoa had—how many?—seven different personas?
RA: No, actually he had 72. He wrote as 72 different people. I’m fascinated by him. For me, the amazing thing is that—it’s arguable but—the four greatest Portuguese poets were all Fernando Pessoa. And what he did that was amazing to me was he would write a poem as one character and then have another character criticize that poem and then criticize all the work. It just became so confusing and so lovely. He’s sort of my idol because he doesn’t need an outside world, he has all of this inside of him. That’s how I feel as a human being. I could live by myself.
JF: You’re one of the funniest conveyers of what Susan Sontag called camp. Camp as an aesthetic; camp as a form of rupture in a text and as a social form of rupture—presenting one thing and saying the other. I wonder if you have any thoughts about: (a) her idea of what camp was as an artistic and literary aesthetic, and (b) as you developed as a person, how you feel about that kind of text as an individual, as you perform your identity and move through the world as a sort of notional self?
RA: Well, it’s difficult because, one, Susan Sontag is difficult, so explaining what she meant by camp is really difficult for me. The most important thing, I think, is that camp turns something that is supposed to be silly into art. A lot of gay men have that naturally because the way we look at the world and the way that the world looks at us makes us treat everything as camp. But I can’t tell you the difference between camp and irony or camp and sarcasm and cynicism. All I can tell you is that this is how I see the world. Either I could get really upset—which happens—but then at some point it breaks into, “I can make fun of it.” Because if I can’t make fun of something, it has power over me. That is something that I figured out a while ago. So I tend to (without noticing) start making fun of things. I make fun of religion all the time because it is funny. It is really funny. But it is more than that. If we can’t make fun of religion, if we can’t make fun of politics, they control us. So camp in many ways is a way of putting something down but at the same time lifting it up. It’s a way of telling a very serious subject and penetrating through pre-existing emotions.
If I can’t make fun of something, it has power over me.
JF: I think one of the things that camp is most effective at doing is disrupting the performances of gender. I’ve never felt more moved to chivalry than when lighting the cigarette of a drag queen. You were born in Amman, in 1959, and you grew up in Beirut, in a certain time and place. I wonder, at what point did you realize that gender is a performance and indeed something that you can play with? As you learned to play with gender as an individual and as an artist, how long did it take you to not have those notions of what it means to be masculine hanging over you? Because those things are long-lasting.
RA: Actually, they’re there forever. We’re stuck because of the system that we live under and because of the constant feedback we get of what is masculine and what is feminine. I think for me it was in many ways easier because I can make fun of it. There are pictures of me at nine wearing a dress—I look like a little girl—and it was a joke that we did. But for me, gender was always fluid. I’m not and I’ve never thought of transitioning, although I have lots of trans friends, because I am male in some ways, but internally I could move from male to female easily. I never had an issue with that.
I remember when I first moved to San Francisco; I was a gay man and I loved soccer. It was much worse in some ways to come out as a soccer player in the gay community than it was to come out as gay in the straight community. So, you know, I started a gay soccer team, because I wanted to. It just never occurred to me that I’m not supposed to do this. Or, maybe, it does occur to me when you tell me “Don’t do this,” and that’ll usually be the first thing that I do. I’m not sure if it’s about gender or if it’s just my nature. I don’t like being told what to do.
Again, my first book was a reaction against what I had been reading. The last book was a reaction against what I got from Hakawati. All the acclaim. I hated it. I hated all the reviews because they were great, and I thought they didn’t understand anything that I was doing. So I write a book that completely contradicts everything that came before. It’s my nature. One of the big things with Hakawati that still to this day upsets me is that it was seen as an Arab book. “Oh, look at these little Arabs. Aren’t they really nice? They tell stories to each other. They tell cute stories.” People really said that. The review in the New York Times, which was a great review according to them said, “This is a book . . . This book is a bridge to the Arab soul.” What the fuck is the Arab soul? Where the fuck do you find that? I mean, 250 million or I don’t know how many and they have one fucking soul? And my book is the bridge to that? What the shit? It was just treated as this, “Isn’t it cute?” My favorite: “It’s not about a jihadist; it’s about a storyteller. Aren’t they nice?” So this is my mentality. At the peak of the acclaim, you know this was New York Times and all that, I was furious. So, as you can see, I have issues. My therapist says that I have issues.
What the fuck is the Arab soul? Where the fuck do you find that? I mean, 250 million and they have one fucking soul?
JF: One of things Rawi Hage said in passing about you that strikes me is, He isn’t ungrateful for success, but he is not willing to give up his anger because his anger is important to who he is as a person and it also keeps him safe. It keeps him writing. And it strikes me rereading Koolaids and to some degree The Hakawati that you have never given up on that. Your anger mutates into different sources but it’s still there.
RA: Anger is important. I do not know how anyone can live in this world without being angry. I really can’t. I cannot imagine anyone listening to a politician and not getting angry. That just does not compute for me. I cannot understand how we can see how someone treats another person and not get angry. And I do not like how I get treated. I have this argument with my psychiatrist. I pay him a lot of money, but he thinks that I put myself in these positions. And I’m like, “Yes, because the world sucks.” I want to change the world. The other side is that I don’t give a fuck about the world anymore. So it’s these two competing things.
JF: This explains the structure of your books, which are quite interestingly engineered. Do you see life as a sequence or do you see it as a space that is arranged purely by the mind?
RA: For me, it’s random. It’s completely random. Everything is random. We try to create some sort of narrative, which is why for a lot of people linear narrative is extremely important. This is how we want to make sense: I was born, there’s a reason for it, etc. And the truth is: there is no reason; everything is abstract; it’s completely arbitrary. The fact that I am here is by complete chance. We start looking for reasons after. We give life meaning after it’s happened because that’s how we create a plot. We give meaning after. And it works for a lot of people. It never made sense to me because my mind has never been able to work linearly.
There is nothing, nothing in this world that teaches us that life is completely fucked up more than war. And civil war in particular. You begin to see the world for what it is: nobody gives a shit about anything. I’ve been shot at, and when I’m being shot at, I don’t care about feminism, I don’t care about gay liberation, I don’t care. I can tell you many times, someone is holding a gun and you will go, “Yes, yes, I’m a fucker. Yes, yes, whatever you say.” We become, at our basic level, completely—I want to say human in a nonhuman way. I can’t explain it more than that.
JF: I want to talk a tiny bit about Invisible Cities because it is a book that I feel comes up in Koolaids, and it comes up in An Unnecessary Woman. Talk to me about the first time you read that book and how it changed your ideas about the ways books are mapped.
RA: I’m a big fan of Calvino. Actually, the funny thing about that book . . . I’m going to change the subject because what is really amazing about that book—the cities are lovely and all that—but what is really wonderful about that book is a passage that goes, if I remember correctly now: The entire world is inferno and to live well you find people who are not inferno and you hold them close. And I think that is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. You just have to find your friends, your people and hold them close. Because the rest of the world is hell.
JF: Of course you have the quote in your head—you have so many books inside you, like the heroine of Unnecessary Woman. Do you feel books as places or people?
RA: Actually, again, I’m a reader. That’s the most important thing. Not as in, “Oh, I’m a reader and that makes me special.” It’s just where I lose myself, and that’s what I like. The reason I can pick books is because I don’t like books. I like some books. But I really hate most books. So what I find interesting is that I like these small books. Cortázar was a big, big influence, particularly Hopscotch. It’s an amazing book that came out in 1967, I think. And what is amazing is that for me, like when Koolaids came out, or Hakawati, a lot of people think, “Oh, this is experimental,” and I want to say, “This was done in the 40s. This was done in the 50s.” We’re just becoming in some ways more conservative intellectually. We no longer try these different things. We just keep going for what’s tried and true. We keep coming up with Rocky I, and Rocky II, and Rocky III, and Rocky IV, and Rocky XVI. And that’s our literature, unfortunately.
JF: Did you give the main character in An Unnecessary Woman, who is named Aaliya, did you give her many of your favorite books?
RA: I gave her all of my favorite books. But I did not—and this is the way that I sort of hedge—the writers that she hated were not necessarily writers that I hated. I might dislike them a little bit, but not hate. In Spain, there was a big headline, “This writer thinks Hemingway is a fraud.” I don’t think he is a fraud. I don’t hate him as much as she does.
JF: In this book, she has two people that she is close to—she has a lover and a friend—and then she has these neighbors that she hates, that she loves to hate in a certain way. But the books are more real to her than people.
RA: Yes. In many ways I actually think books are more real than people, real people. I feel alive with a good book, but they are getting, again, rarer and rarer. I feel more connected. With Aaliyah, she’s a little bit more extreme that I am. In many ways, I think that she is somebody I look up to. I would love to be her. I would love to be able to write and not care what some fucking reviewer says about the book. I really would love that, but I’m not as enlightened as she is. I would love to be able to write and not publish. I am unable to. I love the acclaim. As much as I hate you people, I like you people. So it’s a conflicting thing for me but, as for her, it’s more secure. She’s comfortable in many ways. She knows herself and I kind of like that.
I love the acclaim. As much as I hate you people, I like you people.
JF: And she is one of many beautiful, fully-realized, three-dimensional female characters that you’ve created. I think you probably get tired of being praised for that because people speak as if you’ve turned a species of sub-human into real people.
RA: My favorite is actually, and it was mostly for Hakawati, “How are your women characters so strong?” I always found that amazing. But I never got asked that by either Lebanese people or Lebanese journalists. It was always Western journalists: “Oh, your women have agency! They do things!” My favorite was: “Where do you find the inspiration for this?” Have you fucking met my mother? Let me introduce you. Let me introduce you to my sisters. It’s just . . . I don’t understand it. I never understood it.
I don’t write “women characters.” I write a character. I didn’t sit down and go, “How can I make this woman real?” That never entered the question. It was, “How do I make Aaliya real?” This specific person. I just never thought that it would be some amazing thing: It’s a person. It’s a human being. That was the biggest problem. How do you make a human real on the page?
JF: And how do you do that?
RA: How the fuck do I know?
JF: Let me ask you a question that will connect to something that Hemon said earlier. We were talking about arrival and I noted that if you come to some place like the United States, the myths that are fed to you growing up are a little bit realer because they stand out more starkly. And last night, as we were telling wonderful Mujo jokes—or as I was listening to them—Rawi Hage said something quite interesting: “Myths are beautiful, as long as we don’t believe them.” It’s one thing to put what you’re arrested by, what you’re angered by, what you are possessed by, what you know into a book, and yet you do live most of the time in San Francisco, you do live most of the time in a country that has a kind of denial of death within it, you do live in a country where many residents feel unsafe around law enforcement. There must be a kind of anger that results out this gap between living in a culture that denies death, that denies who you are and where you’re from and your work. And what do you do with your anger other than bench press?
RA: Get pedicures. Let’s put it this way: the thing that’s important is to never believe that there is a culture that is better than another. There are some that probably fit me more. But in Koolaids I said that in America, I fit but I do not belong, and in Lebanon, I belong but I do not fit. This tension between fitting and belonging, I think, is where I reside. I call it dislocation. I write about dislocation. And we all feel dislocation. The only difference is that we either deny it or don’t deny it. Any threat to dislocation is when you get mass-suicide or mass-murders.
I grew up in a country where religion is the religion that you were born into. You do not decide what religion you are. You are a Christian Catholic. You are a Shiite. I’m a Druze. And there’s nothing I can do about that. What I find interesting is that then belonging to that group decides what the belief is. It fascinates me that the only reason you are a Shiite is because you were born this way, but then all of a sudden everything that the Shiite believe in becomes this your belief. So that need for belonging begins to be dominant: we belong to this sect, so we will believe exactly what that . . .
And it’s not just religion. Americans believe all kinds of things. The French believe that they are intellectuals. Americans believe that they are individuals. I don’t have to tell you what Bosnians believe. And this becomes an actual dominant way of being by a simple accident, going back to just a random accident of being born. And it determines your way of life.
So myths are what make us. Which was sort of my attempt in writing Hakawati, to basically show that the stories are us. We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And then, of course, you know, it was read as, “Oh, look at those sweet little Arabs! Aren’t they cute? They’re so nice.” What we say about ourselves to ourselves determines everything and yet we never examine what these myths are.
JF: At one point Aaliya says that “being different from normal people was what I desperately sought.” Which I think is a really beautiful inversion. Not, I survived and I was different. But I wanted to be different. And I suspect that the same was true of you.
RA: Yes, and at the same time, I desperately want to belong. This is important. It’s a human thing to want to belong, to want to be heard, to want to be hugged and loved. That’s human. At the same time, it hurts so fucking much. That tension, for me, that’s where art is.
JF: You said you wrote The Angel of History as a provocation. Why do you see it as such, and what made you want to provoke now?
RA: It’s not just now, I always want to. Sometimes I think I write to provoke. I assume every writer wishes to elicit some reaction from a reader. Different books give rise to different feelings. When I said I wrote The Angel of History to provoke, I meant that I wished to elicit feelings that readers did not expect, not necessarily by using shock or surprise. I wanted to write a book that broke the fourth wall by playing with feelings, by switching paradigms, by rattling cages.
I also wanted to provoke because I felt that my last book was seen as beautiful. I did not wish to have a reader finish The Angel of History saying, “That’s a lovely book,” put it aside and begin another. I find that every novel I write seems to be an attempt to provoke different reactions than the one before. An Unnecessary Woman was a quiet book, meditative even, its brushstrokes fine and feather delicate. The Angel of History most certainly is not.
JF: No, it most certain is not. It’s a book about anger and death and mourning and AIDS and forgetting. Jacob is a gay Yemeni poet who is in the middle of a breakdown over forgetting—he realizes he’s begun to forget, and also, more strongly, everyone around him has begun to forget, what devastation AIDS wrought. I wonder if you can talk about grief and insanity—did you see this in San Francisco in the 1980s, and what are the challenges of taking a character to the brink where he begins to lose his grip of reality?
RA: Why are you asking me to talk about insanity? What do you mean by that? Are you suggesting something? My psychiatrist says I’m quite well adjusted, thank you very much.
Grief and insanity: what to talk about? One of the things I notice about myself is that I don’t deal with grief when I should. I was separated from my family at an early age, sent to live with my aunt in Beirut when I was ten in order to get a better education. Then the civil war started and I had to leave again. At 15, I was basically living on my own while my entire family was being bombarded right and left. A few years later, I was in the midst of a great plague in San Francisco. At the time I didn’t consider grief. I thought it was my marvelous ability to control my feelings and do what has to be done, and that by the way, is a marvelous ability. Try processing feelings when you’re in the middle of a real crossfire, or when one friend dies and you still have to make sure another gets to a chemotherapy appointment on time. The problem is that feelings have this uncanny way of slapping you in the face when you least expect it. Sometimes it takes months, sometimes years, but I know that at some point the bucket will drop into the well and return with salty grief. Your thinking and your behavior might not be appropriate to the situation at hand, but the bucket doesn’t care, and you end up being seen as insane, or maybe slightly unhinged, as Jacob is described. And in an insane world, who wants to be sane?
I haven’t thought this through, but I believe all my novels are about a character who’s on the brink. Might I suggest that the brink is where a writer resides?
JF: During the worst days of the plague, no doubt you saw among your friends demonstrations of love and generosity that could make them seem in the most secular way, angels. Was there in this period any people—nurses, tailors, florists—who astonished you with the care they gave people who were dying?
RA: Yes, of course. For me, in the early days, the astonishment was the behavior of lesbians. I arrived in San Francisco, hardly knew anybody, let alone any lesbians. All of sudden, when the epidemic started spreading, it seemed that lesbians were appearing all over the place. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening at first. I know we talk about community now, with all the clichés that go with it, but at the time, we had little to do with each other. But they showed up. It was the greatest gift, it was the epitome of grace. I can’t tell you the number of lesbians who decided to help. I can’t imagine we would have survived without that miracle.
JF: Like Koolaids, it seems as though you find the place where grief meets rage, where grief meets camp, and where grief meets humor. When I realized that the ongoing dialogues with the Devil were going to pull all the saints off the carved bookcase which is removed when Jacob’s friend dies, and that this would include a headless Saint inspiring blowjob jokes, I knew we were in the best part of the brink. Talk about building the structure of this book—in addition to the intake and outtake forms of Jacob’s brief visit to a mental health facility, there are excerpts of his journals, stories he wrote, Satan’s dialogues with the saints, and even poems. How did you decide what went where?
RA: When I began the book, I thought the biggest problem was going to be writing about loss and great grief without going overboard with the melodrama—I’m Lebanese, we drink melodrama with each sip of coffee—or sentimentality. The structure had to both contain the grief and allow it to flourish. I guess everything in the novel is geared toward maintaining the tension between enhancing and containing the story.
JF: You have been running a blog about poetry for some time. Was this ever preparation for this book, or did your interest in poetry precede Jacob’s appearance in your head? And please can you give me a few of the outtake jokes Satan makes to Jacob about the Lou Ferrigno lookalike with the stupendous ass who checks him in to mental health facility? My favorite: “The emperor of ass cream.”
RA: No, my interest in poetry precedes the novel. I knew very little about poetry. I remember listening to Carl Phillips read poems. I was entranced, enchanted, and yet had no idea what was going on. I decided to teach myself poetry, and I did that by typing out poems to figure out how it worked. At some point, I started posting them and the blog took off. I’m still not sure I know much about poetry other than I know more poems now than I did when I started.
Last month I started taking piano lessons for the first time. I’m not sure I understand music any better, but maybe the protagonist of my next novel will be a concert pianist.
JF: We were talking earlier about accidents, of birth and belonging. Can you finish up by talking about one happy accident of your life?
RA: I was born into a wonderful family. Again, my father, my mother, my sisters . . . My greatest gift, in many ways, is that I was loved. With all my craziness. And I cursed them, and I lived in San Francisco, and they are in Beirut, and there is a reason for that. But I . . . I love them dearly.