Rabih AlameddineHi, darling.
Kara WalkerHello. Oh, look how well read you are! All those books behind you!
RA(laughter) This is my professional Zoom look.
KWI want to talk about The Wrong End of the Telescope. This is my copy—it has a tea stain on the cover. Sorry.
RAThat’s what books are for. Readers are too romantic and precious about their books. You need stains on your book.
KWDo you have an ideal reader in mind when you’re writing?
RANot really, but I once jokingly said that my ideal reader is a version of me who’s younger, taller, more handsome, and has a bigger dick. For me, writing is a form of talking to myself. I want to have an ideal audience, but it’s difficult for somebody like me who is, shall we say, “multicultural.”
KWI guess I should rephrase the question. When you think of your audience or the reception to your work, do you have an antagonist, or an antagonism, that you’re battling with your writing?
RAA similar question has occurred to me:
Do writers write in conversation or in opposition to writers who came before them? Can we
divide writers or artists by whether they create
in conversation or in opposition? I find those
questions fascinating because, of course, neither side is good or bad. I write in opposition. I’ll read
a book and dislike it so much that I want to change it all.
KWI’ve become a really bad reader, but I don’t know if I was ever a great one. I have a lot of books, but I’m not getting through them. I love the fact that you wrote with short chapters and encapsulated a circumstance and a location—the island of Lesbos and the refugee crisis—in a way that was very generous to the reader.
RAIn If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino basically said long novels written today are a contradiction because the concept of time has been shattered. I have never been able to write a linear novel that starts at point A and goes to point B. “Slow time,” as they call it, is lovely
but it doesn’t seem reflective of the period I’m living in.
KWWhat do you think is the storyteller’s job?
RAIn my opinion, one of the storyteller’s primary jobs—and one that I think we’re losing—is to entertain. The storyteller’s job is also to move people and create a relationship between the reader and the book. Let’s talk about us, you and me. Do you remember when we first met in Beirut? I don’t know when it was—twelve years ago? My nephew had recently fallen and hit his head. He was in the hospital. I remember telling you about it, and your reaction stunned me. I felt like you actually cared, like you were connected to my story. In my opinion, a storyteller must try to move the listener in such a way that they do not just empathize with the story—because that’s easy—but actually feel something.
KWI think being a mom really set me up for a lifetime of visceral reactions to stories of children in pain. But in the storytelling context it’s a beautiful gift to give the listener the opportunity to share anguish. There’s a writer character in this novel who has an emotional breakdown in Lesbos, but it’s only alluded to. I found it compelling that their experience was somewhat invisible.
RAIt had to be. I wanted to center Mina and the refugees, while keeping what happened to the writer a bit in the background. I’d worked with Syrian refugees for years, interviewed many, taught writing classes even. So when the crisis in Lesbos happened and a couple of friends went there to help, I assumed I’d just arrive and, you know, ta-da. They’ll be so lucky to have me. But I arrived, and I felt a complete loss of self. I had never experienced anything like it. I didn’t understand who I was or what I was doing there. Am I a Lebanese? Am I an American? Do I belong with the refugees, or do I belong with the volunteers?
KWI totally hear you. When I was twenty-nine, I went to Brazil with this contingent of artists to work with street kids. We were all living together in a fancy apartment and then volunteering in this world of abject poverty. And I was like, Who am I? What the fuck? I’m this Black girl. We look alike, me and these kids, but we don’t speak alike. So I know it must have been really hardcore to have your whole identity blown out by people who’ve also just lost their identities.
RAIt was. I kept saying to myself that the volunteers were great people, but I wanted to kill them. I kept seeing this patronizing attitude—one which I’d had as well—of, “I’m here to help.” I tried to write essays about it. I tried writing all kinds of novels. Nothing worked until I finally started understanding that I was just too enmeshed. The refugees were my people. The volunteers were my people. And I could not pull myself apart to have what I call “the Goldilocks distance.” How far is too far, and how close is too close? So I had to create this character, Mina, to write the book for me. To be able to see the story, I had to split myself in two, so to speak: one character similar to me that’s ensnared in the maelstrom, and another, Mina, less like me, a surgeon who is able to be dispassionate when needed. She could go where I couldn’t.
KWThat was a mindfuck because I was like, Mina is Rabih, and yet there’s another Rabih figure who is a more meta version of yourself. It sounds like you were facing the big bugaboo problem of art: your intention is to get a representative truth of an experience, but it can feel like anything you do is exploitative.
RAI kept telling myself, I’m a good person. I am here with good intentions. So whatever I do is good. And then I realized I sounded like the United States of America. It was a stunning revelation, like hitting a big wall. When people ask if it’s a book about the refugees, I want to say, “No, no. It’s about me.”
KWIt is about you. But your novel also creates a parity between the world of this refugee crisis and the internal crisis that we all go through in response.
RAI think that what the refugees lose, we all lose. That’s the trouble I had with the volunteers, the idea that we’re here to help you.
KWEveryone gets fused into an identity group, right? In reality, the refugees are individuals from different countries and different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
RAIn the novel, there are a lot of demarcating lines—between the refugees and volunteers, the Lebanese and the Israelis, the trans and the cisgender. The question is, how do we work across these lines?
KWMina’s relationship with her brother and their love for one another expresses that crossing of lines. Also, in that Mina is a transgender woman, Lebanese, American, and a complete person.
RAAbsolutely. I fall in love with all my characters, but Mina’s relationship with her brother is one of my favorite parts of the book. Their relationship was healthy.
KWIt was beautiful. I was like, Is this fictional?
RAIt was wishful thinking. (laughter)
There was also a whole racial aspect to my experience with the volunteers and the refugees. Even though the Syrians looked white, they weren’t all white, and the relationship became defined as the West against the East.
KWAll the old rules don’t really apply anymore but those are the rules that we know and have adapted to. When I was in Brazil, all the kids we worked with were Black or Brown, and most of the volunteers, teachers, and workers in the centers were lighter skinned, or white, Brazilians. And then the group I was with, we were just a bunch of interlopers from the art world, which to me felt like an elitist novice position. We weren’t social workers or doctors or art therapists. We were basically there to mine the depths.
RAIn many ways, that’s the theme of the entire novel. Of course, you should go to Brazil and work with kids. Of course, I should go to Lesbos and work with refugees. That’s a great thing. But the truth is, volunteering made me feel better about myself. It makes me look like a good, generous person when I donate my time to help. Better yet, volunteering is a way to prove to myself that even if my life might suck, it’s better than the life of a refugee.
There are about 1.5 million Syrian refugees and half a million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, out of a population of over 6 million. For the Lebanese, if the refugees remain out of sight, in a camp somewhere, or a ghetto, it’s quite okay because you can ignore them. The trouble starts when the refugees are seen, when they force you to see them. If a refugee asks for your help as you’re leaving the Prada store, it’s more difficult to ignore them, not impossible, just more difficult. Was it the cocaine guy, the Trump kid, Don Jr. or was it the stupid one, Eric, who compared refugees to Skittles? I know that we don’t always see the other as human, but Skittles? What kind of fantasy life do you have? What imagined country do you live in, and how does a refugee disturb that fantasy? The thing is, when you talk about the refugee crisis with most people, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s so sad,” but then they go on with their lives.
KWI think that’s the conundrum that you faced or I faced when we were really confronted with the disparity between rich nations and poor nations, or rich people and poor, or doing-okay people and doing-fairly-badly people. Like what your character says in your novel: “In San Francisco, the nicest and most compassionate humans were able to step over an unconscious homeless man if he blocked the sidewalk without even noticing what they were doing.” You have to force yourself to see it, to think about it, or write about it and do the work that you did.
RAPeople just don’t see the problem until they are forced to. They adapt to it. They can step over it. I believe that in order to live in this world you have to make it smaller. The world is way too big to comprehend. The trouble is most of us privileged people have made our worlds so small that we can’t see outside of it. Thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, what the videos of police violence show cannot be denied. People can see the videos and commit to doing something, or they start attacking BLM and questioning whether the videos are real.
KWOr you get tired because it keeps happening.
RAOr you tweet about it and move on. You know, all of us can understand that the refugees have a hard time, but we’re unable or unwilling to go beyond that. What is it like to be a refugee? What is it like to lose everything? And I mean, everything. It is difficult for us to imagine.
KWGiven all that, there’s a lot more sex in this book than you would think. (laughter) Not a lot, but enough to remind you that these characters are human.
RALike I said, I’m one of these writers who falls in love with their characters. Even just minor characters, like the young, straight refugee couple who were on their honeymoon and just refusing to accept the gift of a hotel room for a night. They’re like, No, we’re fine.
KWFine in the barracks? No, absolutely not.
RAYou must fuck. You must. (laughter)
KWAre there specific experiences or interviews that you had with people in Lesbos that come up in the book?
RAThe scene with the gorgeous eighteen-year-old boy calling his mother in Syria was based on one of the most moving things I’ve seen.
When I talked to him, he explained that there were no bullets or bombs in his province, but there was just nothing. There was no school. There was no work. There was absolutely nothing, and he wanted an education. He said that his family had this pot and everybody in the village put money into it, so that at least one of them could escape. And the same thing with the couple that was on their honeymoon. Instead of wedding gifts, they just wanted money so that they could escape.
KWThe danger of making political work is that this question comes up all the time: So, what can we do? When there’s millions of refugees from Syria, from Iran, from Iraq, from all over the world, what is the best possible world we can dream up? What could, say, Western countries be doing better if we were a more creative culture?
RAWell, the fact that we allow so few refugees into this country is really sickening and twisted. In Lebanon, you had 1.5 million Syrian refugees. I think at one point the US allowed 18,000 in one year, something like that. These days it’s less than 500 in a year.
What I tried to do in the novel is look at how we separate ourselves. Who is the other, and how do we treat those who are not like us? Where is the other who is so foreign that we can’t put ourselves in their shoes? That’s what I’m interested in. When Notre Dame burned down, they got millions in donations. Which is understandable. But why is it that Notre Dame was given millions and, you know, Baghdad was leveled? We leveled it. When we came into Baghdad, we protected the oil ministry, whereas the Iraq Museum was looted, right and left.
KWExactly. And there were no attempts to build Baghdad back up. No Marshall Plan or whatever.
RAIf we look at the Israel–Palestine problem, why is it that some people will identify with the Israelis and some people will identify with the Palestinians? I think that identifying how we separate the other is something that we can all work on. But how does one work on it?
KWReading helps because of the intimacy aspect. Reading is not about information, it’s about empathy. When I’m reading a novel where the main character is a transgender Lebanese woman, I can be her. And, you know, it’s not such a difficult transformation for me to make.
RAI’ve always said, we should read more and read wider. Americans, the French, or whoever, will read Gabriel García Márquez and go, “Oh, we understand Latin America.” No! That is one person. You need to read much more than that. But beyond reading, it’s also important to meet people on their turf. If you want to understand refugees, spend time with them.