Best-selling Alameddine to read, sign book
By Lou Fancher
A memory might haunt a person’s nightmares, cause fury, blossom into joy or forgiveness, signal maturity or stagnation, pass fleetingly and return to the land of forgotten thoughts. Or it might become a novel.
Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine’s new book, “The Angel of History,” tells the story of Jacob, a Yemeni-born poet who’s tortured to remember and tempted to intentionally forget his life and friends in San Francisco at the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
“My first book (“Koolaids,” 1996) was about AIDS. Now I’m coming back to it,” says Alameddine, who will read from the book Tuesday at Danville’s Rakestraw Books. “That first time was about living in a time of AIDS crisis; this time it’s written from a distance. The 20 years’ separation gives the ability to live it differently. This novel is writing of a time that’s a crisis of memory.”
Alameddine is the author of short stories and novels. Most well-known are his best-selling 2008 book, “The Hakawati,” and “An Unnecessary Woman,” a 2014 National Book Award Finalist and winner of the California Book Award. Born in Jordan and educated in England and the United States, Alameddine earned an engineering degree from UCLA and an MBA from the University of San Francisco. He lives three months of each year in Beirut, but writes almost exclusively while living in San Francisco.
“I have ‘a chair.’ I’ve written all of my books there. I like to say it’s because of my cats. If I sit at my computer and they sit on me, I say I can’t move for three hours. But actually, I write in that chair because it doesn’t hurt my back,” he said.
Alameddine writes in “fits and starts,” but “Angel” flew swiftly, unlike previous novels. “This one, I knew where I was headed. With ‘Unnecessary Woman,’ I had absolutely no clue what she was going to do. The book before that, it took eight years.”
The story of Jacob, a gay, literate, Middle Eastern man who writes in his journal of his beloved “Doc” and scores of other friends who’ve succumbed to a disease that “tore us out of life like a page and collaged us into the book of the dead,” began as a short story.
“I had him walk into a bar, lose it, walk out and go home,” he said. “All the stuff in the middle wasn’t there.”
The “stuff” includes Satan, death and 14 saints who take over the narration during chapters that mingle with those written by the protagonist.
The novel’s time frame brackets one night in a psych clinic waiting room but splinters to cover more than a lifetime as Jacob’s mind fragments. He’s visited by childhood memories that include an ironically comforting upbringing while living with his mother in an Egyptian brothel and later, his chaotic experience after he’s abandoned by his absentee father to be raised by nuns.
Decades later, after Doc has died and Doc’s mother has swept through their home unannounced and stolen nearly every memento and photograph, he writes of survival: “I did a marvelous impression of a man not crushed by dread.”
Alameddine says the book is not autobiographical in the details, but it is what he lived through. While writing the book, memories surfaced.
“I don’t know if writing caused the memories to bubble up or if memories bubbling up caused me to write the book,” he says.
One thing is certain: He didn’t write it to heal his pain. “What’s important is that I get therapy, that’s how I work things out. It’s not through writing that I work things out.”
Instead, Alameddine writes at the sentence level, watching to make sure emotion and feelings are consistent, examining individual words. When writing the book, Alameddine says selecting names was important because Jacob is documenting things, marking their significance by naming them. At the end, he writes “identifiers” on shop windows at important locations: “This is where I met you” and “This is where you first kissed me.”
The book contains adult content and, asked if he believes it’s a hard book to read, he says, “I don’t think any of my books are easy or hard. But I don’t like writing books that are escapist, where you’re reading to get away from life. A book doesn’t exist on it’s own. It’s an interaction between the book and the reader.”
And if reading the book causes painful, bubbling memories of being an outsider, a part of non-dominant culture — or of losing loved ones to death or forgetfulness?
“The fact that you might have nightmares is great, yeah!” he says, his tone for the first time the equivalent of a fist pump. “I can’t control the reader, but I can elicit a certain feeling.”