Rabih Alameddine’s latest novel, An Unnecessary Woman, is about Aaliya Sohbi, a 72-year-old recluse and translator. The novel begins with Aaliya accidently dying her hair blue, and covers what seems to be just a few days of her life. Her thoughts are saturated with literature, and often turn to her semi-senile mother, her troubled best friend, Hannah, and the landscape of the ever-changing Beirut. An intricate portrait of a singular character, An Unnecessary Woman brings you right to into the depths of the mind of an introvert, questioning the value of living for literature alone. Alameddine, who was born in Jordan and spends his time between Beirut and San Francisco, is the author of three other novels and a collection of short stories. He took some time out of his book tour to talk to me about his new novel, the dynamics of modern Beirut, and the symbiotic relationship between author and reader.
The women in this novel are thoroughly modern, especially compared to the men—they have casual sex, affairs, get their hair and nails done; it is a much different portrayal of the Middle East than I think some Westerners might imagine. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Aaliya is getting ready to go for a walk and she puts on a head scarf, but leaves a bit of her neck exposed so that people won't mistake her for religious. How do these women fit into modern Beirut?
Most parts of Beirut are very modern, if you want to call it that. And then right next door, it is less so. And I'm not suggesting that one is better than the other, but you can have women in thongs in one neighborhood, and in the next you'll have women covering their hair. And both are actually able to exist in the same sort of universe. And that universe is Beirut itself, which I kind of like.
Right, the civil war wasn't all that long ago.
And some people will tell you that it's still going on! Lebanon has always been that way—I mean just in terms of location alone, Beirut is at the end of the Mediterranean, so it really is the meeting of East and West. And I actually like that tension so much, it's sort of the intersection of modernity and tradition, the intersection of East and West, the intersection of so many religions, that there is a constant tension, a push and pull there.
Speaking of that intersection, Aaliya herself is a complex character. In one moment she is wrapping you up in her world of storytelling, and in the next she's making a scathing condemnation of Israel or backhanding Hemingway. Is this sort of wry attitude characteristic of modern Beirutis?
Partly. I try to make a character real by making her unique, and at the same time, universal. Which is a balance that is difficult to maintain. So yes, she has a wry wit; is it part of Beirutis? Yes. She's probably more educated, more well-read than the average Beiruti older woman. However, I was interested in giving her a quick wit, because that's in some ways what saves her. She has every right to be bitter, but she's not exactly. Or at least her bitterness is ameliorated by her sense of humor. She's able to make fun of herself—and Hemingway.
And it's funny because I might not be a fan of Hemingway, but I don't dislike him as much as she does. I needed someone, though, and he just seemed the right writer.
I felt like in her telling of her story, Aaliya is almost too informed by literature. Her experiences are never completely original—her literary imagination tends to overpower her reality. In the acknowledgements in The Hakawati you said, "By nature, a storyteller is a plagiarist." Did you feel like this came through with Aaliya or were her references meant to be more seamless?
Actually it's both. The primary reason for me was that literature was what gave her life meaning, or what she chose to give her life meaning. But it was also her defense mechanism against the world; it's how she escaped. So, here's this woman telling you her life story, I mean she lets you in, but really it's still defended. And literature is how she separates. That's why I felt it was necessary to make her a translator. She's distanced; and then she's a translator of translations, so it's a double distance. So she thinks she's pretty open, but her defense mechanisms, if you want to use psychological terms, are fairly good. She keeps talking about her wall crumbling. What I was interested in was what happens when her defense begins to crumble. She thinks she's letting you in, and then she begins to actually do so because of circumstances. She uses these writers and the quotes to both let you in, but it's only up to a point. She's can always say, "Well, this is the writer, not me."
How did you decide which writers were going to heavily play into her character, especially Fernando Pessoa?
A lot of it has to do with which writers I like. But I was primarily interested in her choice of translating translations, so they had to be non-French, non-American. That's partly how it started. But Pessoa is extremely important to her (and to me), but to her specifically because in some ways he had the same life that she did. Except he was a genius, and she's not. He's separated from the world; he did not think that participating in the world is of any significance. His philosophy of non-participation is what she lives by. So it was important for her. But also, he's great! He's just great.
And the only way he does participate in the world is by writing to people with pen names.
Yeah, and she did it by translating translations. So, yes, to her, whether she acknowledges it or not, he's a primary influence.
On one hand, literature makes Aaliya a recluse, and closes her off from the world, both by choice and not by choice.
This is what I mean—it's not an either/or. It's both.
And yet on the other hand, activities like reading aloud with Hannah, or the accidental stumbling upon a shared love of Anna Karenina with Marie-Thérèse, give Aaliya a glimpse into human connection, despite it being via literature.
And also in the end, via coffee.
Right. Is this a testament to the power of literature on its own, standing alone, or that of literature when shared between people, even if they don't necessarily like each other?
For me, there's this whole tension in the book—I mean it's a minor tension, but it's a big deal for me—about whether reading without moderation is good for you or not. That is something that I struggle with myself. I enjoy reading so much, and I think it gives meaning to my life, but at the same time, it distances me from people. And it's lovely when I meet somebody who likes the same writers that I do, like it's great if you like Pessoa. But at the same time, it's a distancing thing. I find how we're moving in terms of marketing books and reading fascinating. I really never cared for book groups. I do appreciate it, but for me reading is always a solitary thing. I don't particularly like doing readings and stuff, because again, reading a book is a personal experience. So it's great, but at the same time it distances you from life. I was almost going to say it's not real life. But you know, I don't know what real life is.
And Aaliya and Marie-Thérèse have such different readings of Anna Karenina. Marie-Thérèse says she fell in love with Count Vronsky, and Aaliya says she fell in love with Anna. And then when Marie-Therese is beckoning the other women back into the apartment she says, "We're talking about Anna Karenina and husbands." And you think, well no you're not!
I know! And this is the beauty, and this is why I say reading is solitary because a book is never finished, really, until someone reads it. But a book is also not a writer's work alone; it's a combination of the reader and writer. And each reader has a completely different interpretation of a book. And as a writer I always want to kill a lot of readers for not getting what I want them to get! And you have to let go. I will say it now; it's a communication between two solitudes. It's a communion between two solitudes, between a reader and a writer that actually should not meet in some ways. And then the interpretation is just separate. So, yes, I love the line - "We're talking about husbands!" Like, what?!