Something Completely Fabulous

 

"Something Completely Fabulous, In Conversation with Rabih Alameddine" 

by Kat Reyes Colvert

 

            “DH Lawrence was an asshole.”

            I had just met Rabih Alameddine at the PEN/Faulkner Garden Literary Party when someone asked how he had come up with the title of his book, The Wrong End of the Telescope, which won the 2022 PEN/Faulkner prize. I felt as if I had wandered into a conversation where I didn’t quite belong. I don’t usually see myself as a real writer, but a kind of writer–– a one foot in, one foot out writer.

            “But he was,” he continued, after some in the small group that had formed around him released a suppressed laugh. Alameddine explained that Lawrence was also a drunk. And broke. He penned Studies in Classic American Literature, while he was likely smashed, because he desperately needed the money, probably to buy more booze, he said.

            From far away, Rabih looked just like all the other writers that afternoon. He was smartly dressed, a classic kind of pretty, his glasses perfectly proportioned to his face. Up close, however, you knew that he wasn’t, in fact, like all the others. His handcrafted spectacles resembled a naked man, the perfectly sculpted buttocks on either side of Alamaddine’s nose. He wore fingernail polish that had begun to chip. The color was a light olive tone and probably had some cheeky name like “sassy sage” or “minted crush.”

            I admit I have obsessed over the nail color just a touch, but it wasn’t the only thing that stuck with me for weeks. It was the idea of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Alameddine commented––after his brief explanation concerning the only piece of Lawrence’s writing that was surprisingly, actually, good––that his book was about Syrian refugees. Alameddine didn’t need to say anymore after this. I didn’t need to find Studies in Classic American Literature and read for myself what I already knew I’d find. 

            In Studies Lawrence writes:

As I say, it is perhaps easier to love America passionately, when you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope, across all the Atlantic water...than when you are right there. When you are actually in America, America hurts.

            Alameddine might attest to this idea being self-explanatory, and while I think it is for some of us, it isn’t for all of us.  

 

            When I catch up with Alameddine again over Zoom, I’ve read The Wrong End of the Telescope. At its core, it’s a novel about refugees. I don’t want to sound “too MFA” when I talk about this book because if I’m being honest, this isn’t the kind of book I would have been asked to read in my MFA. The narrator is Mina, a trans woman and a physician, who is called to Lesbos during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. Mina bears witness not only to the raw human tragedy that is displacement, in all of its forms, but also, the very human response that runs the gamut from indifference to misunderstanding to wanting to make someone else’s tragedy still about us. And by us, I mean, any dominant culture where being displaced is something that happens to other people.

            Alameddine waves his hands as he speaks, his nails freshly painted in the same bright sage green hue. “You’re wearing the fabulous nail color again,” I comment immediately. “Well duh,” he snapped back. And this is what I love about him–– you never quite know what will come out of his mouth.

            He emigrated to England from Lebanon when he was 15 years old during the Lebanese Civil War and eventually settled in the US to go to school. “I jokingly wrote that my biggest trauma about emigrating to the US was that the flight from Heathrow was delayed,” he said. Alameddine considers himself an immigrant although he has spent some time thinking about how the line that distinguishes an immigrant and a refugee is not always clear. When writing Wrong End of the Telescope, he said he purposely conflated the two because the feelings of not belonging and searching for belonging are the same regardless of whether you emigrated by choice, fled, or were exiled.  

            And like many immigrants, Alameddine grew up infatuated with the US.

            “I thought to myself––that’s the country,” he said. “Anybody can become President–– that was my favorite. Anyone can belong. Everything paled in comparison.” The delusion didn’t last long, he said.

            Because when you’re actually in America, America hurts.  

            “For immigrants, when we come to understand that this is not what we thought it was, it is really very crushing. You have to navigate through that. It’s a difficult time and at some point, it will be resolved, but in the beginning, it’s really horrifying because everything you thought was –– just wrong,” he said.

            I told Alameddine my mother grew up in Manila, Philippines–– dreaming about becoming an American and thinking she was more American than she was anything else despite not having stepped foot in the US once before she emigrated in 1969.  

            I’ve witnessed my immigrant mother’s experience, the crushing weight of her disillusionment, and I wonder whether her path to resolution will be her ability to accept this country for the contradiction that it is.

            “[The US] is welcoming in its own stupid way,” Alameddine said. He talks about the time he spent over Thanksgiving with a group of Palestinians and how one woman lamented how there is no freedom of speech, as if she was just beginning to see the visible lines of tarnish on the ideal that is America.

            We have the freedom of speech but then we also don’t, Alameddine explained. “I can still say what I want. I may get cancelled, but I won’t get shot. A lot of people call it ‘cancel culture,’ which is stupid. I hate the idea of someone losing their job or being told to shut up, which as a rule, is just offensive. In my opinion, someone could say the most hateful thing in the universe and why should they lose their job just because they’re an asshole?”

            DH Lawrence was an asshole, but that didn’t change the fact that he had a point.

            He went on to share a story about a close artist friend who signed a statement condemning the Israeli bombings in Gaza. Alameddine’s friend received a letter from two of his collectors informing him that they would no longer be selling his work. They were so incensed that they had moved the artist’s work to the basement because they could not even bear to look at it. “And I find it so horrifying because so much of his work is so deeply political, but I told him that had he signed that petition 20 years ago, 10 years ago, nobody would have paid attention,” Alameddine said.  

            Sign the wrong petition, say the wrong thing on social media, and while you probably won’t find the FBI knocking down your door, you might find yourself out of a job. You won’t die a literal death, perhaps just a figurative one.

            And yet, there may be a seismic shift in our collective consciousness.

            Falling out of love with America–– is it only an immigrant affliction, or might we all be experiencing it too?

 

            Rabih is a consummate outsider.

            “I happen to be multiple identities and almost all of my identities are outsider identities. The interesting thing for me even within the outsider identity, I’m an outsider,” he said.

            His parents were Druze, which is both a dying religion and one no one in Lebanon acknowledges as real. Alameddine is himself an atheist. He’s Lebanese although he also identifies as American.

            “I’m neither,” he said but then later added:

 I’m something completely fabulous.

            One of the built-up, heavily marketed American ideals is that anyone can belong here. And yet Rabih wrote he “fits in the US (where he doesn’t belong) but belongs in Beirut (where he doesn’t fit).”

            “It’s kind of self explanatory,” he said.  “As a racial Filipina woman in the United States you understand exactly what I’m talking about so I don’t have to explain.”

            And yet I want to hear it. Out loud. The way sometimes you can only come to believe things you know yourself to be true when you hear someone else say it. 

            “I think what is important about fitting and belonging is that the tension of fitting and not fitting and belonging and not belonging and that constant dislocation, for me, is one of the most important things about writing and art,” Alameddine said. “I do not know a good writer who feels that she belongs anywhere. That even if she could be a white American in a white American family in Massachusetts or Connecticut, there would still be a part of her that would feel not a part of it. It’s this whole conversation that I call the Goldilocks distance. If you’re too far from what you’re writing about you can’t see it, and if you’re too enmeshed in it, you can’t see it, so most writers that I know—they are part of their family, but they’re not really. They are American, but they aren’t really—they have one foot in and one foot out. A part of you has to be outside and a part of you has to be inside, so that you’re able to see. And that’s what the fitting in and not fitting in, belonging and not belonging allows–– it’s painful, but it allows you to look at things differently.”

            And yet something Alameddine has thought about considerably regarding our need to want to belong, to want to fit is that this need to belong invariably creates an other. When we form our camps, when we find “our people,” there will always be someone who falls outside. And isn’t all of this “othering”––this feeling of not belonging, the disillusionment of knowing you don’t truly have a place, the physical and emotional displacement –– an endless loop?

            “It’s about the dominant culture as they look at the other,” he said.

“What I’m fascinated by is why do we always need an other? Why do we need to belong? This need to belong creates an other because somebody has to not belong- you cannot create an identity without putting someone else outside of that identity; otherwise, it isn’t an identity.”

        

            Perhaps dislocation, though painful, isn’t the worst thing. When I think about my own resolution–– or what resolution for my mother might look like, because Alameddine assures me it will be resolved–– I think maybe it’s time. Maybe it’s time to fully fall out of love with America. Let go of all the delusions lest they become, as Alameddine put it, “sentimental claptraps.”

            I was already mostly there–– wandering through life with a name that doesn’t fit my face. One foot in each world. Maybe having one foot in each identity means I’m better situated to jab my thumb in the eyes of both of them.

            Maybe dislocation is a space we can occupy to see the world differently.

            Maybe that is what makes us writers.

            We can stop looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope.

            And America can’t hurt us as much anymore.

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Rabih Alameddine is the author of six novels including, The Wrong End of the Telescope, The Angel of History, An Unnecessary Woman, and The Hakawati, as well as I, the Divine, and Koolaids. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Paris Review, and other publications. Alameddine is currently the Lannan Foundation Visiting Chair at Georgetown University.

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Kat Reyes Colvert is a kind of writer who resides in the Washington DC area. She was the Alan Cheuse International Writer’s Center Fellow for 2021 and received her MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University.