LEBANON: A writer with many facets
Rabih Alameddine loves to tell stories, all sorts of them. Stories about intimate sexual experiences, about twisted family gatherings and even ancient ones about an Arabian prince who failed to have a son.
And just like his diverse and multifaceted stories, this Lebanese American fiction and essay writer juggles various identities that he hates to label.
Alameddine, 48, is an openly gay writer, but that's not how he'd like to be categorized. He quickly adds that he also happens to be a writer with a hairy chest, and that he loves to play soccer.
Born in Jordan in an upper-middle-class Lebanese family, he was raised between Kuwait and Lebanon. He went to the United Kingdom then to the United States after the civil war broke out in 1975, shifting his career from engineering to painting and writing along the way.
Today, Alameddine lives between San Francisco and Beirut, where he was recently promoting his new novel, "The Hakawati," or "The Storyteller."
Los Angeles Times: Your new book follows an old tradition in Arabic literature. Yet, what you present is a modern vision of the Arabian nights that seems more subversive and more overt. What is the book really about?
Rabih Alameddine: I am fascinated about how families start, where they come from.... In a large measure, the book is the stories I tell myself about myself. Those include personal stories.... Some are true, others are not true. But they are also stories that I tell about my family, how I fit among my family and my friends. There are stories that I tell also about my culture whether in the U.S. or Lebanon. It is the meeting of these stories that define a person, relationships and who we are as people. And that’s what I am interested in.
LAT: Like in your previous novels, the Lebanese civil war is palpable. What role do your memories of the war play in your narration?
RA: They are extremely important. I don’t know any Lebanese who was not affected by civil war on a number of levels.... Again, it comes to the stories we tell, how in a civil war a brother can kill his brother simply because of the way they define themselves.... It’s all two or three passages of a same story.... I am interested in the civil war as a place of chaos where the normal is put aside. I personally believe that we become much more human in some ways when there is chaos because we can see the best within ourselves but also the worst.... Under wartime and chaos and stress whether it’s great disease or, you know, a major earthquake, one forgets the minor issues of life and the major ones come full force.
LAT: You once said writing for you was a form of revenge. What did you mean?
RA: Every writer uses his own way to motivate oneself. I do best when I think I am underappreciated and I want to get back either at the world or, say, friends who think I am not a good writer.... It’s a constant struggle between one neurosis and the other. When I wrote my first book, "Koolaids," I felt rejected and not wanted. I was 36 and I wanted to be a writer all my life and I never could have any reason to.... So I came up with the “I got dumped” and “the world is not fair to me” reason. I sat down to write and make the world pay for this.... It’s nothing more than a story that I tell myself. It doesn’t mean that I believe it or that it’s true. It’s just a story.
LAT: You’re a gay Lebanese American writer. Your books are about sexuality, exile, alienation, integration, etc. How are each of your identities manifested in your literature?
RA: I am also a bearded writer. I am a writer who doesn’t sleep well at night. Nobody ever calls me a soccer-playing writer even though I play soccer and it’s part of who I am. So, Identity politics is what is the flavor du jour. I am all that but does it define me or, more importantly, is that all that I am.... Even some of the best reviews that were written have stressed the fact that I can make you understand Arab culture more. The truth is that it was never my intent.... In some ways, you can say that I am a minority writer and that I don’t look to the world as someone from the dominant culture does, but what minority is important when I am writing, I can’t really tell you. I allegedly am an outsider writer, so I write from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t completely fit in. But at the same time I can state the fact that I don’t know of any good writer who is not an outsider writer.
LAT: As a painter, you re obsessed with self-portraits and in your book, "I, The Divine," Sarah, your heroine, is obsessed with starting her memoirs. What does this obsession with self-portrayal in painting and writing represent?
RA: Basically, it’s the human condition which is trying to figure out who one is and where one fits and who we are as people. It’s the idea of an immortality project. It’s a general theme in all my books in some ways.
LAT: Your books are translated into many languages except your mother tongue, Arabic. Are your books too subversive for an Arab reader?
RA: I don’t know how the Arab reader might react. Publishers are terrified of censorship. I am not sure how to go about this issue. For me, censorship is a big issue.... I was told I could be translated or published if I change a few things but I can’t even imagine changing a few things. The fact that somebody sitting in an office can determine what is best to a general public just boggles my mind.
LAT: Have you said everything you wanted to say as an author?
RA: Of course not.... I can’t even imagine yet that I am done. Right now, what I am mostly interested in is belief. I am fascinated by people who believe enough that it takes over their lives. I am not talking only about religious belief but also, say, Americans believing that their country is the greatest in the world, the French thinking that they have a very enlightened society or the Arabs believing that their mode of living is the most moral.
— Raed Rafei in Beirut
Photo: Rabih Alameddine during a recent book-reading session at a bar in Beirut. Credit: Raed Rafei / Los Angeles Times