Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Zeina Abi Assy, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Rabih Alameddine about his book An Unnecessary Woman (Grove), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Fiction, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Zeina Abi Assy: How come Aaliya? What was it that you wanted to write and how did it take the shape of the strong and defiant Aaliya?
Rabih Alameddine: Interesting question, in that without her, there is no novel — she’s it. I’ve always been interesting in characters that occupy the margins of society, and in this novel I wanted to explore that in greater depth.
When I read the stories of Bruno Schulz I became intrigued by his history, how he was classified a “necessary Jew” and kept alive during the Holocaust by a Nazi commander who wanted a mural for his son’s bedroom. What makes a person necessary or unnecessary? I began to obsess about that. What makes a life worthwhile? Aaliya is old, single, childless, and doesn’t care much for people. She translates books, but nobody knows about her translations. Is she a productive member of society, and how do we decide what kind of life is worth living? Those are questions I wanted to pose in writing this book.
ZAA: I loved how Aaliya was in some way the world in which everything existed. Even Beirut seemed to exist in the world of Aaliya and not vice versa. Was it deliberate or a product of her urgency and presence on the page?
RA: This is a novel that deals with Aaliya and how she sees the world. Everything happens in her head. The windmills certainly exist for Don Quixote. In this novel, everything exists in the world of the narrator. That is how the book is structured. Basically, we’re seeing the world through her eyes and it is her world. It’s a one woman opera of nothing but arias!
ZAA: What was the most surprising thing that you discovered about Aaliya?
RA: Not much, I’m afraid. It took me a long time to get her voice right. Once I had that, everything fell into place. I knew her well. She calls herself a creature of years of habit, doesn’t like surprises. Hopefully, readers will discover surprising things about her.
ZAA: My favorite moments with Aaliya were when she oozed out a ‘Tfeh!’ but really when she made me laugh. There was something poignant in her humor especially since it was leaning against a wild and murderous Beirut. How did you achieve that?
RA: Without her sense of humor, Aaliya would have probably bored herself to death. Her humor balances her out. It is an integral part of who she is. I didn’t sit down and decide how to make her funny. It was all part of finding the right voice, and in this case, the right voice had to be humorous, and had to be in just the right way.
ZAA: There is something masterly in how much one could be frustrated with Aaliya, yet still fail to put the book down and reject her company. What is the struggle in creating such a thrilling character?
RA: The struggle is always about fleshing out a full character. Aaliya is frustrating at times—she’s haughty, cold, insecure, funny, proud, shy, modest, needy, intelligent, shallow, angry, bitter, and loving. A writer’s job is to allow the reader to see all of that, or at least quite a bit of it.
I love that you call her a thrilling character. She is, though she’d probably mock us for calling her so.
ZAA:How much of your writing do you think is shaped or influenced by Arabic literature, if at all?
RA: I believe that everything one does, everything one is, influences the writing; so of course Arabic literature has influenced mine. Unfortunately, trying to parse out how it does is difficult. I’m a voracious reader, and everything I’ve read informs my work. Has Arabic literature had a bigger influence on my work than the writing of Rushdie or Garcia Marquez or Dostoyevsky? I don’t know if I can answer that.
Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels The Hakawati; I, The Divine; Koolaids; and the short story collection, The Perv. He divides his time between Beirut and San Francisco and was a 2002 Guggenheim Fellow.
Zeina Abi Assy is a writer, copywriter and media artist. She received a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut. She currently resides in New York where she is getting her MFA in Creative Writing Nonfiction at The New School.