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“I Like Calling Myself a Thief”: An Interview with Rabih Alameddine

By Mythili G. Rao

“I wanted to write a happy book; really, really happy—and this is what came out,” Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine said of his new novel, An Unnecessary Woman, at a reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop last year.  On the surface, the novel seems anything but happy: Middle-aged blue-haired protagonist Aaliya is divorced and childless, disconnected from her family and without real friends.  For years, she has lived in and for books alone (“I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word,” she says). Through much of her life, she worked as a clerk in a bookstore; when it closed, she found comfort in the bookshelves of her apartment, and another kind of work: translation.  

Aaliya’s Arabic translations of Western classics are painstaking, hermetic projects, puzzling for their lack of apparent purpose, since she has no publisher and no readers. “I know this sounds esoteric, and I dislike sounding so,” she says.  “But it’s the act that inspires me, the work itself.”  Journeying deep into Aaliya’s allusion-strewn interior world, this assertion becomes easier to understand. Life itself—and more specifically, life in war-torn Beirut—simply hasn’t given Aaliya nearly as much as literature has. Aaliya is erudite and interesting yet not particularly admirable—and certainly not all that likeable.  

The surprise of An Unnecessary Woman is that it is a happy book, albeit one that defies the conventions of a happy book.  “Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories,” Aaliya ruminates at one point.  But Alamadeddine has placed her in precisely the kind of book she would approve of, one which employs the charms and tricks of fiction to convey the strangeness and asymmetry of real life—while offering hope, too.

I sat down to talk with Rabih Alamadeddine about creativity, translation, and the search for joy in his own life, on the page, off the page, and between the lines—starting with a message he left for me when he signed my copy of An Unnecessary Woman last year.  His note referred to a scene early in the book where Aaliya absentmindedly dyes her hair blue instead of black.

Mythili Rao: I was at one of your readings last year and you signed my copy of your book.  You wrote that you wished me blue hair—so I wanted to start there. What does it mean to wish someone blue hair?  

Rabih Alameddine: The idea of wishing someone blue hair—I wish you get old enough and still obsess about things so that you still dye your hair incorrectly. She’s thinking about other things.  To me, she dyes her hair blue accidentally because she has a full life.  At her age, she is excited about starting a new translation and all these things; she tries to explain all these things going on and she accidentally dyes her hair blue.

I couldn’t wish a better life on anybody—hers might not be the one you want but, to have meaning in your life, whether it is distraction or not, this is what she has decided gives meaning to her life.

MR: For her, translation is kind of a poetic act, she doesn’t have any audience in mind—

RA: Are you suggesting that poets don’t have any audience? (I’m joking.)

MR: I mean, there are things we do that are important to us and that are “poetic” but that don’t have a practical audience—

RA: A lot of the trouble I find with writers, including me and poets, is that we always have this wish to have the final product.  I know a lot of people who want to be writers but they don’t really care to write books or to write.  They just want the mystique of being called writers or being called artists. And she’s almost the opposite.  

She actually enjoys the process of translating, this is what gives her life meaning, not the final product.  It’s really interesting because of course I am human and I love and want acclaim and I want to be recognized but I’ve also noticed that once I’m done with a book and it’s out I’m done.  So that makes it different.  Every book that I write is different, has different purposes. I’m working on something else now.  It’s an effort for me to talk about my next book because I’m working on something else.  My mind is on what I’m working on now.

MR: So what is your next book about?

RA: Oh my god!  

MR: We might as well get to it . . .

RA: My next book is—I keep saying they’re different but in some ways they’re the same. It’s a book about memory, the relationship between forgetting and memory.  It’s about the world today and how we choose to live almost with no memory.  

MR: That’s the opposite of Aaliya.

RA: Except that it is isn’t. The narrator all of a sudden has these feelings and memories.  And they are triggered by a lot of things that are happening, whether it is the drone attacks or repeated patterns that we seem to think, all of a sudden, are new.  I’m interested in how we choose not to think about things.  We just go, “oh that’s terrible,” and we’re just distracted. We’re a culture—and it’s not just here—around the world, we’re a culture that works hard at forgetting.  We want the next big thing—the next technology, whether it’s Kim Kardashian’s butt or this next book—without actually sitting down with something and experiencing it.

Going back to what I’m working on, what I find interesting is that we’re constantly being bombarded with images. I was thinking the other day, when I get in a cab now, there’s a TV there.  I used to get offended that I’d go to the airport and there was a TV while I was sitting there waiting for a plane.  And there are these constant images and information and 24-hour news and Twitter and Facebook so one is unable to sit with one’s memories.

Aaliya had chosen a different life—where she’s not that “up to date.”  

MR: Some of that is imposed on her by how under siege Beirut is.

RA: But—

MR: I guess it’s her choice also.

RA: It’s both imposed on her [and her own choice], the whole tension is between that.  There are a lot of older women in Beirut who are as contemporary as you can imagine.  So a lot of it has to do with choice.  One of the things I’ve been interested in: a lot of reviews have noted how Aaliya grows up in a patriarchal culture, and I got to thinking, is it any different here? Yes, it might be slightly less patriarchal here than it is in Lebanon but really not much.

MR: I didn’t feel she was oppressed by the patriarchy in a way that’s different than women are elsewhere.  There are different social norms about marriage and things like that that she encounters.  But she’s very strong-willed.

RA: There was a lot in the reviews about what a difficult time she must’ve had with that.  I think she would’ve had a difficult time here.

MR: To get back to the question of translation—I called it a “poetic act” earlier because she translates for the love of the word, the love of translating.  We think about translating serving a purpose: to bridge cultures, to connect writers and readers.  But she’s so alone.  What does translation become then?

RA: Let’s put it this way. I’m not sure what she’s doing. I’ve never thought about it this way—I’m not sure it’s about translation itself.  It’s a metaphor.  What she is doing is a system of life.  It’s important to me that it’s not just a translation, it’s sometimes a translation of a translation, or translation of translations.  But it’s not about helping anybody else or bridging gaps or anything like that.  I don’t know—I thought about it a lot at one point.  Is it about occupying her time? Because she could’ve been just a reader. Somebody who just read a lot of books.  She wouldn’t be bored being someone who just read a lot of books.  But no, it’s a life’s work that is purposeless.  Which in my opinion, almost all work is.  She chooses to do something that is inherently without purpose.  But is it? Why translation?

MR: And if all work is without purpose, then what make hers particularly so?

RA: It isn’t, that’s the thing I’ve gone through.  For me, a lot of the book (if not all of the book) is about finding dignity and meaning in life, in a life that has no dignity and meaning.  We delude ourselves into thinking that something matters, in reality, very, very little, if anything, matters. We have to create something that matters.

There are cultural systems that decide for us and on top of that there are personal things.  I had decided that writing and my books matter, so this is what I think is important and the truth of it is that they don’t.  Take Proust.  There’s 6.2 billion people in the world.  I guarantee you at least 6 billion don’t give a damn about Proust and never will.  

MR: Your own journey into writing has not been very linear.  Before this work, there were several other kinds of work that dominated your life.  Can you talk a little bit about that journey between professions—your path from engineer to painter to writer?

RA: Yes, yes, you know, lots of things, including bartending.  I’ve always wanted to write because I’ve always been a reader.  Before he died my father reminded me that when I was four he asked me what I wanted to be with my life and I said I wanted to be a writer. At that time I wanted to write Superman comics or Batman.  But really, I don’t know whether I didn’t have anything to say or didn’t think I could do it, but I went through a circuitous route.  I still think it’s the best thing that I’ve done. I proved that working is not my thing.  It was just not my thing.  And I started painting and was relatively successful, I guess. It was important to me, but again, that was not exactly me. I’m proud of my paintings.

MR: How was it “not you”?

RA: I always felt like a fraud when I was painting.  In writing I only felt like a fraud half the time, not all the time.  I was getting to good paintings by accident. I would do something maybe it works, and if it doesn’t work, I would just throw it out and try again.  I didn’t feel I had much control. Some artists will tell you that’s exactly right but I didn’t feel that.  I’m proud of my paintings and still think I have an eye.

MR: It sounds like the process wasn’t fulfilling.

RA: The process, yeah—it was fun.  I did what I needed to do.  And I still do a lot of art projects, for lack of a better word, I don’t show them.  It’s just for me.  But why I quit—and I did quit—it just wasn’t me. I remember certain specific moments: watching a friend of mine paint and realizing, we’re doing different things. But it truly was a big Matisse exhibit here in New York.  I remember going to it and having a revelation that what he was doing and what I was doing were not the same.  I know he’s one of the greats, so it’s laughable to think that I could do something that he could, but with writing I never have that.  There are a lot of writers who do this better but I feel like I am in the conversation.  During the Matisse show I felt like I was a joke. I felt like a complete fraud.  

MR: Being in the conversation, maybe that is what motivates Aaliya, too, to translate.  She doesn’t want to just be reading.

RA: In some ways, translating for her, it’s not a conversation with readers, it’s a conversation with writers—she talks about that often.  That she wants this writer to come over or that writer to come over and she’s doing a service to them, though they will never know it.  It was important to me, because no matter how much we think of it, reading is a very, very passive activity.  I wonder if somebody would have a fulfilling life being just a reader.  

MR: Let’s talk about your experience as a reader and particularly a reader of translation.  What are the translations you love and the works in translation that have stayed with you?

RA: The first, without a doubt, was Dostoevsky.  In Lebanon at the time, Dostoevsky was a must-read.  

MR: Why?

RA: I seriously don’t know.  It was a big deal.  We’re talking the late ’60s, early ’70s, even until the ’80s, particularly Crime and Punishment—he was considered the writer.  And Tolstoy.  I remember almost all high school kids having to read those books.  My family all read those books.  [It was a competition to see] who could finish War and Peace! And then it changed, it became Kundera.  Again it was a cultural thing, all of a sudden everyone was reading Kundera.  I think now it’s probably Paulo Coelho.  Ugh.  

MR: I think you’re probably right.

RA: Anyway, I loved Dostoevsky and I felt proud. I used to think The Idiot was the best book ever.  I loved Tolstoy but it was only in re-reading him later that it truly affected me.  Whereas Dostoevsky, the first reads as a teenager were much more important.  I think he’s a wonderful writer but I’m just not sure it would affect me now as it did then. Anna Karenina is still a very affecting book at my age.  It didn’t affect me when I was younger. I also think that reading books at certain ages is important. If you read Rimbaud later he’s not as important as if you read him earlier, when you’re full of raging hormones.  I am the one who is going to change the world! It’s a different thing.  It’s really affecting and really lovely. I still think that Macbeth is the greatest play of all time. I was fourteen or fifteen when I read it. I was, Lady Macbeth rules!

MR: So what’s the ideal age for the reader of your work?

RA: It’s getting older.  I’m sort of proud, you know, Koolaids is a younger book.  Now, this one, I’m sure is appreciated by younger readers, but it really is an older book. I hope so.

MR: Why do you hope so?

RA: I don’t think you should really be that self-reflective when you’re in your twenties.  Maybe, but life is outwardly directed, or should be, when you’re younger. This is more of an inwardly directed book.  Maybe the young don’t reflect enough, and I should be going out more.  I don’t know.  It’s always fun, I think, to be read by a younger crowd.  

MR: There’s an idea you explore in The Hakawati about the storyteller as a plagiarist and I wanted to ask if that applies to Aaliya too, if her translating is a kind of plagiarism, and what the difference is.

RA: There isn’t any.  To be clear, I use the word plagiarist as a metaphor.  There is outright plagiarism. I was once defending that we all steal and someone says, “well, this guy took ninety-two sentences from my book,” well that’s plagiarism.   But there is a sort of illusion, particularly in this country, more so than others, that being creative means coming up with something that’s not been thought of before, out of nothing.  And the truth is there is no such thing.

MR: I work for a daily news program so we’re always being “creative.” Under deadline.  

RA: Exactly.  You are borrowing from everybody all the time.  Consciously or unconsciously you are stealing and you know the old line, “a good artist borrows, a great artist steals.”  The funniest thing is, the whole last scene [of the book] was based on a writer friend of mine. It happened to her that her high school notebooks and stuff were flooded. [Recently] she was in the audience [at the Symphony Space] and I said, because she was in the audience and somebody had asked about the ending, “you know that ending actually happened to someone and she is in the audience now.” And I remember her telling me that her assistant tried to iron some of the stuff just to get it dry and that stuck in my head.

She told me afterward that she never associated that scene with what happened to her even though once I mentioned it, she realized—oh, yes.  This is what I mean by plagiarism.  I take something that happened to her but I make it mine.  So yes, what a translator does and what I love—great translators, you don’t even realize that the book is being translated but it is the translator’s work.

When I’m reading, say, Tolstoy, every translated version is very different so they’re all Tolstoy’s words but they are no longer Tolstoy’s words.  It becomes the translator’s words.  But then, you know, who owns what?   Our whole idea of originality and being the author or creator of something is kind of outmoded.  

MR: I think the answer many writers give when they are hauled in after someone discovers that phrase after phrase of their work looks a lot like someone else’s, is “It was unconscious.”

RA: It’s possible. I mean, it’s important for me to say there’s such a thing as plagiarism.  You take ninety-two sentences in a row—I doubt that’s unconscious.  Somebody once defended their work saying they had photographic memory.  That’s possible.  

MR: But maybe if you have a photographic memory you should remember where you took the photograph.

RA: Well, the thing that’s interesting is that I don’t remember where I take things from. And that’s very helpful.  In the first book I stole a sentence from Patrick White’s The Twyborn Affair.  The sentence I used was “Remembering is a disease I suffer from.” And it was a big deal to me.  Now, I went back two years later to read the novel and that sentence was not how I had stolen it.  I thought I had stolen it word for word, but how I remember, or the way I remember, is a form of a disease.  In my mind I thought I was stealing something.  I might steal someone else’s story but I will tell it my way.

The story of Hannah in An Unnecessary Woman—I actually credited it—comes from a Claudio Magris book, the general outline, but I completely changed it.  But I thought it was important to credit it.  Because it was somebody else’s story.  

MR: A really wonderful part of your process in particular is that you don’t maintain the pretense that things are coming from out of a vacuum---from the genius of your own mind.  You’re very animated by everything in the world around you.

RA: I like calling myself a thief.  Because I steal things from everywhere—everywhere.  It’s not exactly sampling because sampling still uses the original voice.  No, I change everything.  I have a way of telling a story, it’s my way.  You’re missing the point of writing if you really don’t want to tell a story your way.  It’s an interesting subject.  I’m always fascinated by it.

In Hakawati, [in] one of the stories, a guy goes to Heaven and he asks for things—he keeps asking for things and he gets so bored that he finally tells God “I want to go to Hell,” and God says, “Where the hell do you think you’ve been?” Someone wrote my publisher to say he absolutely loved the book but he wanted to make sure that we knew that particular story—which is like half a page—was taken from a Twilight Zone episode.

I thought that was delightful because I actually took that story from a Zen book that I read when I was twenty-five or something like that.  I wanted to write back and tell him, I bet you the Twilight Zone took it from somewhere else.

So I use it as “plagiarism,” but taking something and pretending it’s yours—why would you want to do that?  Where’s the fun in that? 

Published Jan 16, 2015   Copyright 2015 Mythili G. Rao

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