The Wrong End of the Telescope

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It’s About Joy: The Millions Interviews Rabih Alameddine

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Rabih Alameddine does not write novels about easy topics, but I think that every book of his has made me laugh. At its heart, The Wrong End of the Telescope is about Mina, a Lebanese-American doctor working with refugees in Lesbos—and specifically her relationship with a woman named Samaiya, who’s dying of cancer. That’s not really what the book is about, though. It’s about Mina’s distance from her family when she moved to America and came out as transgender and lesbian, about the relationship that she’s forged with her brother. It’s about Mina’s relationship with her wife. How Sumaiya is preparing her family for life after she dies. The stories of the Syrian refugees who have fled to Lesbos. Stories that might force some readers to rethink queer identity.

A book about so many people fleeing violence and facing an uncertain and uneasy future could easily become despairing, but as in all of his work, Alameddine is driven by a righteous anger. That means refusing to make easy choices, and instead to face trauma, but to also find joy and find hope and fight for that. In life. In art. In Mina, Alameddine has crafted a character who is many things, who has lost so much, but who does not despair and tries to be of use and finds joy. Even if fleeting, her openness to possibility is a wonder. This is a novel about trauma and death, but it is also a novel about possibility and change. And hope.

“Even if there’s no hope—there is hope,” Alameddine said at one point in our conversation. This is perhaps as good a summation of his philosophy as a writer, and perhaps as a person. The Wrong End of the Telescope is possibly his greatest work to date, and he was kind enough to talk with me about the long effort to write about this topic, where the character of Mina came from, and how we see and read people.

Alex Dueben:  The Wrong End of the Telescope, like all your books, is different from your previous book. You’re very restless.

Rabih Alameddine:  Both when it comes to writing and when it comes to reading. I’m teaching now here in Virginia and my graduate class is basically reading one book a week. I assigned books that I love, but it’s fascinating when I reread something I used to be in love with 20 years ago. I still think it’s great; I’m just not as interested anymore. It’s interesting how not just reading habits, but who I am, in many ways, is constantly changing. There are some books that I tried to read, more than once, and just never got into it. Then one day I pick it up and oh my god, this is the most amazing book. It’s essentially change. This constant change.

A friend of mine always says that I get bored easily and I’m not sure that’s true. I just get excited by different things. [Laughs.] It’s not about boredom. What interests me keeps changing. Whatever book I end up writing is the one that has sustained my interest for three or four years.

AD:  It’s interesting you phrase it like that and it’s a good segue into the structure of the book, which is composed of short chapters. The central story is Mina coming to the island and treating Sumaiya, but you keep moving around and did you have that idea of short chapters and that structure early on?

RA:  Partly. It is essential to the book. There are so few of my books that are even close to linear. Probably the closest would be An Unnecessary Woman, which was three days in the life of someone, and my first novel was short vignettes, but this is different. The short chapters was determined by the book. It needed to be that. There were many starts to this book. I tried essays. I tried all kinds of things, and nothing seemed to work. It was only when I realized that so much is happening that you have to look at it piecemeal. The whole idea of the wrong end of the telescope is that it’s difficult to keep everything in context when so much is happening.

I could have had the book be all Mina and Sumaiya. I don’t want to say that the brother is unnecessary, but he’s not central to the plot. But he is. Everything is peripheral to the story of Mina helping Sumaiya. But then you realize that that’s not the story. All of it together is the story. The other thing that I’ve been thinking about for years and like I said, I’m teaching books that I love and one of them is Calvino. In 1976, in If on a Winters Night a Traveler he says that long novels written today are a contradiction because time has exploded. [Laughs.] Whether it’s a contradiction or not, I still enjoy them, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a novel where time has not exploded. I just can’t. That’s not how my mind works.

AD:  You’ve never written a book with this structure before, but in so many of your novels, the plot as secondary to how the story gets told, how it’s framed, how people understand it as it’s being told.

RA:  It’s not secondary. It’s so weird. Now that I’m teaching for the first time in I don’t know how long, I go into teacher mode, so forgive me. [Laughs.] I don’t see how one is able to separate plot from story from characters from style, etc., etc. But yes. The story has been told before. And has been told many, many times. The only thing that matters, really, is how we tell that story. How can we break through to a listener or a reader or a viewer? It’s how we tell that story. The story will in many ways determine how it is told, whether it’s the plot, structure. If you look at the simplest form of the story, it’s this family who’s had a disaster and they’re migrating and this person is trying to help. That story has been written many, many times. So what makes it different? The current situation. We’re in a new situation with all these migrants coming from the third world. We’re in a new situation in terms of how we tell the story. Then I get into language and my characters are weird. [Laughs.] That determines how the story is being told. I can’t remember the quote from The Hakawati where I say, stories come and go, but there’s more at stake in the telling. How we tell the story is for me what’s important. And maybe this is the reason I get interested in so many things. Whenever I read a book and somebody is telling the story in a different way, my eyes light up. It’s rare these days but it still happens. Oh my god, this is fabulous. In my whole roundabout way, I was agreeing with you. [Laughs.] Yes, I think maybe structure beats everything.

AD:  Talk about Mina because she’s fabulous and I just love her.

RA:  Me too! She is totally fabulous. I have noticed that I have only written short stories and segments or chapters in books in third person. For the most part I write in first person. I do it by inhabiting a character. I become Mina. At the same time—which is weird, but I think all writers do it, I’m almost 100 percent sure—I become the character, but I also see her next to me. Somebody separate from me. Mina and some of the situations are based on a friend of mine. Not me. Like, how she met her first lover. Many things are basically—and I asked permission—plagiarized from another person. But at the same time, I became Mina. And I love her for many reasons. I love all my characters, but Mina saved me. She saved the book. I had spent a couple of years trying to write something and everything sucked. Everything sucked! I cannot begin to describe how horrid the writing was. Because I couldn’t separate myself from telling the story. I was working on this short story that Mina was in. That story was completely different. It was about a trans poet going home to confront her mother, or to make peace with her mother, and her brother was trying to be the in-between. She goes to her mother and her mother doesn’t recognize her and it was a whole different story. But then I was having trouble writing and suddenly, she jumped from that short story into the novel. And everything falls into place. There were many reasons for it. She became a surgeon. In my mind I always see surgeons, more than doctors, have the ability to have emotions but set them aside. And that’s what happened. All these things that I was feeling about the novel and about who I am. Am I Westerner? Am I an Easterner? Am I Lebanese? Am I American? She was able to go through all that without having a nervous breakdown. I’m not silly enough to think that she wrote the novel, but by imagining her, I was able to imagine the right kind of distance from the novel.

AD:  Because of her life and her character, she has a distance. She is separate and feels separate to navigate it.

RA:  I don’t know if you’re going to ask the question that everybody seems to ask, why did you include a writer who’s just like you? Well because in many ways that’s what happened to me. I was interested in that. In the clash of what happens to those who have a foot in different places. Mina would not experience that kind of clash. She would see it, but she would not necessarily be involved. Whereas I am not admitting that I fell apart, but… [Laughs.] Even if I don’t admit that I fell apart in Lesbos, after working for five years with refugees in Lebanon, in Istanbul, Lesbos was such an experience. And writing about Lesbos was traumatic. Until Mina comes in, and I could see what was happening and write about it. Not being too far from it, but not being too close. The goldilocks distance.

AD:  I kept thinking the “you” character was almost on one end of the spectrum and the annoying volunteer tourists on the other end of the spectrum of people who Mina is not dealing with. She’s like, I’m a doctor, I’m busy.

RA:  Exactly. That’s why she was perfect narrator. There’s a crisis and that person—I’m not saying it’s me—is under a duvet and listening to Mahler. There was no need for him to be helping. I thought that this is so stunning. That somebody goes to help and then it becomes all about them. That sort of reverberates with the other volunteers where it’s all about—‚and this actually happened—oh look, a rainbow! And poor Mina in the middle of all that. [Laughs.] There are many reasons why I love Mina. I gave her so much, but one of the things that I really wanted to give her was the ability to love. Her relationship with Francine is almost ideal. Her relationship with her brother is ideal, in some ways, with all the problems. But with all those problems, she’s able to love. That was necessary for me.

AD:  You have so many great characters in the book. Mina is surrounded by her partner, Francine, who’s amazing. The relationship with her brother is great. Her friend Emma who convinces her to come in the first place. Mina is a woman with a large family.

RA:  Which was important. It was truly important. As a gay man, I’m very close with my biological family, but I’m 62 now and I’m looking back, it was essential just how much family I made. How important it was to me. It was essential for Mina to have that and in some ways, that gave the novel hope that some things are salvageable. Even if there’s no hope—there is hope.

AD:  Sumaiya seems to see in Mina what her daughter could be. To be separated from her culture and her home, but also happy and successful and surrounded by a family.

RA:  You noticed that. She wanted to make sure that her daughter had the same family around her. Which is why at the end, Mina sends the writer. I thought about Mina visiting, but it was more important that she enlarges the family.

AD:  The mother is trying to set the family on its path, especially her daughter, and she wants to do that, to have that control, in her last breath.

RA:  Yes. Again, writing the book was emotional on many levels. I had lots of trouble with many things in the book, but Sumaiya and her family was no trouble. Sumaiya was birthed fully formed. Like a horse that comes out of its mother fully formed. I’m a horse just smaller.

AD:  I kept thinking that she sees in Mina a refugee, which I’m sure a lot of queer readers can relate to on different levels.

RA:  I come from a very close family, and they love me and they’ve always known I’m gay and have always loved me, but I couldn’t live there. I needed my independence. I always joke that when I go back home, my mother and her sisters talk on the phone every morning. And every morning it’s like, yes, he did have a bowel movement this morning. [Laughs.] It’s such a close family. I kept thinking that if I’m in Beirut, every time I had sex, the super would call my mom to tell her. [Laughs.]

AD:  Queerness comes up in the book in different ways and often I couldn’t help but think, oh no, this really happened. Like the gay couple from Iraq and teaching them to act more gay so that the immigration officials will let them in.

RA:  Oh, it happened. It wasn’t in Lesbos, it was in Turkey. This academic wrote a paper about it.

AD:  I can only imagine what it’s been like the past few decades being Arab and queer and how those things get understood here in the U.S.

RA:  Or how they are read. That’s one of the things I was interested in with Mina. How she is read. How do people see her? Again, the wrong end of the telescope. How do people see refugees? One of the more surprising things I saw was how many trans refugees I met. I had to change my perception of what that meant. The chapter “How To Trans in Raqqa,” about a trans woman who had her boyfriend killed but the militants did not touch her, is a real story. She just packed her bags and came to Beirut, but she was living in this dinky village as a trans woman. And nobody gave her any problems. All of a sudden you start thinking, what the fuck? Whereas her boyfriend was probably, for them, gay. But anyway how Mina was read, I was fascinated with.

AD:  All your books deal with large topics, but they’re really the stories of individuals and their families.

RA:  The stories of individuals is always the story of people, and the story of people is always the story of individuals. The political is personal. I don’t know if I’m interested in large topics or that it’s just that I look at the world and I react to it. I didn’t go looking to work with refugees. It’s just that suddenly there was a million refugees in Lebanon. I didn’t choose to write about AIDS, it fucking came to us. I’m interested in the story of people, I just think that people live in this world. Not all of us have the privilege of living separately. Not all of us have the privilege of the biggest thing happening to us is cheating on one’s wife. If you engage the world, you see it. In some ways I’m envious of writers who can make such great literature from a place of safety. Unfortunately for a lot of us, safety was never a given.

AD:  For anyone not in the dominant culture, when the winds change, you notice.

RA:  It’s interesting to me the books that come out that prop up the dominant culture and the books that come out that are trying to shift. Or really good books that try to blow it out. It’s not that one is better than the other, but I’m interested as a writer, how can one live as a human being and not be angry at so many things happening? At the same time, we obviously find joy in little things. It’s what we decide to write about. I want to take a machete and go after the dominant culture, but I also see the little joys in it. The little joys in living. This is what I meant by I wanted Mina to know love and to be loved. It was important. That’s why probably my favorite chapter in the book is how Francine and Mina met, with the dance. I wanted that because it brings joy, and the world is about joy. Even though they try to fuck it up for us. It’s about joy. And they can’t take that away from us. No matter what those fascists think. They can’t take it away. We’re still here. I keep thinking as to how many times we’ve been pushed down. How many of my friends didn’t make it. How they’ve tried to crush us—whether it’s the queers or the Arabs. It’s important for me that no matter what is going on, that a part of me still has joy. I wish I was more like Mina than me. [Laughs.]

AD:  That dance chapter where they met stood out, and the chapter where Mina gets her name stood out. Just to avoid spoiling it for people who haven’t read the book. But both are joyous and almost transcendent.

RA:  The dance chapter was pure invention. The orangutan was not. I was there. That’s when Mina took over the book. I was there and I was by myself with a forest guide and the guide tells me, we can’t go this way. I asked why and he said, there is this orangutan named Mina and she attacks all men. I said, Mina? I have a character named Mina? I never met Mina the orangutan, but when he said that, it was like, Mina comes to Indonesia and this is what happens. Like I said, it happens with a lot of writers. There’s a certain point where everything that has been torturing you comes into place. It doesn’t mean that the novel won’t have problems, but that everything begins to make sense. Oh, that’s why I’m writing this. And it starts fitting together like the perfect jigsaw. Then you start to worry! [Laughs.]

AD:  All these threads and thoughts and ideas coalesce and come together beautifully—and then you have to write it down and the true agony begins.

RA:  Exactly! [Laughs.]

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