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Sun February 2, 2014
'Unnecessary Woman' Lives On The Margins, Enveloped In Books
Aaliyah lives in the heart of Lebanon's capital, but she is cut off from parties, war and family.
The title character of Rabih Alameddine's new novel spends her days alone in her Beirut apartment. She translates her favorite books into Arabic, and her manuscripts pile up, unsold. At 72, the former bookstore employee is long divorced without any children.
"She fell in love with books," Alameddine says. "So this is a woman who, whether it is by choice or by circumstance, has been forced into the margins of society."
Though some would consider her lifestyle boring, she considers it to be a full life.
Alameddine was himself raised in Lebanon and now splits his time between Beirut and San Francisco. He spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about writing and his novel, The Unnecessary Woman.
On writing lovable characters
In my opinion once you do a character fully, and if the writer — and this is me in this case — actually loves the character, it comes through. The character becomes lovable. Because the truth is it is rare to find a human being fully before us that you can't fall in love with. You might want to kill them at times, you might want to smack them and throw them off the roof, but it's also a love affair. And that's what, in my opinion, a good novel does.
On writing about a single, bookish Middle Eastern woman
It's definitely not a perspective that we hear about, but it's there. Sometimes I think that in this country — and in the West in general — we get one idea of a place and it sticks. We can never see the multiplicity of a country or a location or a people, that there are all kinds of people and all kinds of different things that happen.
On trying to replace human contact with literature
It never is enough, and if it was enough I would be shut in. I wouldn't be doing this radio interview. It's not enough because we can delude ourselves into thinking that we can live without human connection.
And so there's this whole sort of push-pull in the book ... which is: How do we balance an inner life with an outer life and how important is each? How valuable is one person who reads a book?
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Now, another story about an amateur writer, but about as far away as you can get from Williston, North Dakota. I'm talking about Beirut. Aaliyah is an elderly woman living alone in an apartment in Lebanon's capital. She spends her days translating literature from various languages to Arabic. But she keeps her translations to herself. The manuscripts never leave her lonely apartment.
Aaliyah is the title character of Rabih Alameddine's novel "An Unnecessary Woman."
RABIH ALAMEDDINE: (Reading) My father named me Aaliyah, the high one, the above. He loved the name and, I was constantly told, loved me even more. I do not remember. He passed away when I was still a toddler, weeks before my second birthday. He must have been ill for he died before impregnating my mother with another as he was supposed to, expected to, particularly since I was female and first. My country in the late 1930s was still trying to pull itself out of the 14th century. I'm not sure if it ever succeeded in some ways.
RATH: I asked Rabih to describe what drives his main character.
ALAMEDDINE: She's 72. She used to work in a bookstore. She basically was married and divorced at a very early age, no children. And she fell in love with books. So this is a woman who, whether it is by choice or by circumstance, has been forced into the margins of society. So she has this for some people would call it a boring life. For her, she considers it a full life. And what she does is she translates all her favorite books into Arabic.
RATH: You know, something that I find just amazing about this character is that on paper - sounds funny to say on paper because you're writing a novel - but on paper, she seems not likeable, aloof, you know, shut apart, seems to like books a lot more than people.
ALAMEDDINE: Well, who doesn't?
RATH: Well, so some people. But she's irresistible. You can't help but love this character. She's lovable. How'd you pull that off?
ALAMEDDINE: Well, I want to say I wish I knew. But the truth is, in my opinion, once you do a character fully, and if the writer - and this is me in this case - actually loves the character, it comes through. The character becomes lovable, because the truth is it is rare to find a human being fully before us that you can't fall in love with. You might want to kill them at times, you might want to, you know, smack them and throw them off the roof, but it's also a love affair. And that's what, in my opinion, a good novel does.
And it's funny because I get so attached that a lot of times when people go, well, she's not exactly a lovable character, I get a little upset. Like, what do you mean? She's amazing. I love her. You know, how could you not love her? Because for me again, I sometimes joke that this might be the most autobiographical novel I've written, even though it's about a 72-year-old woman with blue hair.
RATH: You're Lebanese-American, so you know very well how it's not a perspective often heard in America out of the Middle East of a single bookish woman, you know, living by herself in Beirut.
ALAMEDDINE: Yes. It's not - it's definitely not a perspective that we hear about. But it is there. Sometimes I think in this country and in the West in general, we get one idea of a place, and it sticks. We can never see the multiplicity of a country or a location or a people, that there are all kinds of people and all kinds of different things that happen.
RATH: You know, though she's shut in, you know, we - you mention how she's able to find this freedom, this world and the world of literature. Although it's clear, as well, that's not quite enough.
ALAMEDDINE: It - no, it never is enough. And if it were enough, I'd be shut in. I wouldn't be doing this radio interview. It's not enough because we can delude ourselves into thinking that we can live without human connection. But - and so there's this whole sort of push/pull in the book for me, which I think we all do, which is how do we balance an inner life with an outer life and how important is each? You know, how valuable is one person who reads a book?
RATH: So Aaliyah is - she's a solitary woman, even though she lives in the city she's cut off from, Beirut. And I can't help but think about displacement in your own life as someone of, you know, you have Lebanese roots. You've lived in America now. You're on the West Coast.
ALAMEDDINE: Mm-hmm. I also live in Beirut at the same time.
RATH: You live in multiple places.
ALAMEDDINE: Yes. I go to Beirut, and I spend some months there. And then I come back here and I - most of the time, it's in San Francisco. But it's - I jokingly say, and I've mentioned it in earlier books, where when I'm in San Francisco, home is Beirut. When I'm in Beirut, home is San Francisco. So that home is never where I actually am. It's a continual feeling of dislocation.
RATH: Rabih Alameddine, it's been wonderful speaking with you.
ALAMEDDINE: It's been wonderful being here. Thank you so much for listening to me.
RATH: Rabih Alameddine's new novel is called "An Unnecessary Woman."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.