Remembering Our History
With His New Novel, The Angel of History, Rabih Alameddine Reawakens Our Memories of the Early Days of AIDS
by John Francis Leonard
Rabih Alameddine is an author’s author. His last book An Unnecessary Woman delved into the wonders of classic nineteenth and twentieth-century fiction. It’s the story of a lonely, middle-aged, Beirut native who is translating Western culture’s modern literary classics into Arabic for no other reason than her great love for the written word. It garnered much attention from both critics and readers, becoming a National Book Award finalist and winning a California Book Award gold medal for fiction.
He tackled both the AIDS crisis and the war in Beirut in his first novel, 1998’s Koolaids: The Art of War [A&U, May 1998]. In his latest offering The Angel of History (Atlantic Monthly Press), he revisits the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS, writing movingly of an emotionally battered survivor of AIDS’ early onslaught in one of its epicenters, San Francisco.
Born in Jordan to parents of Lebanese descent, he grew up in several Middle Eastern countries and cultures before leaving for the UK at the age of seventeen, then emigrating again to America and settling in the city of San Francisco. After earning a degree in engineering at UCLA he went on to study for a Master’s in business in San Francisco. It was there that Alameddine bore witness to the early devastation of the AIDS pandemic.
Alameddine, who is also an accomplished visual artist, currently divides his time between the cities of San Francisco and Beirut. I recently had the chance to speak to him by phone at his home in California while he played with a new addition to his family, a kitten. Mr. Alameddine jokingly implored me not to make him seem too “bitchy,” but he couldn’t have been kinder or more gracious.
John Francis Leonard: The Angel of History opens with Satan interviewing death about how they can intervene in the life of Jacob, your book’s protagonist. It’s a device you’ve used previously, particularly in your book Koolaids: the Art of War: various gods, saints, and historical figures exerting their influence over the lives of your characters. Why do you find this element of fantasy so effective? Why this particular tool?
Rabih Alameddine: There are many things I am trying to do. I wish I could say just one thing, but there are many things I am trying to do. The primary reason is to penetrate what I call “the fog of reading.” When I was writing Koolaids, I was upset in so many ways….I was reading these books, well written books, but I always felt they put a distance between the reader and the subject matter so they could empathize. I’m tired of empathy, or at least I was tired of empathy at the time. I wanted to write a book, whether it was successful or not, that would penetrate that empathy a little….A lot of people were reading these AIDS books, or if you want to call them that, holocaust books, and then feeling, “Oh boo-hoo, this is so sad,” then “Let’s have a beer.” I wanted to penetrate that, sort of shake it up a bit. There were many reasons I did it in Koolaids.
But then in The Angel of History I wanted to make sure that what I was talking about still represented and highlighted the struggle that a lot of people are having about those years. It seems that we put them aside for a long time…we just went comatose for a while because we just couldn’t deal with it anymore. And now, it’s not just me, there’s a lot more people talking about it. I see old friends on the street, and I know it’s not them, but I’m remembering, my memories [of the AIDS crisis] are ready to come up now. So I couldn’t think of a better metaphor than Satan being the Angel of remembering and death being the Angel of forgetting.
Jacob has survived the devastation of losing the six friends who form his inner circle, including his lover Doc, to AIDS. More than twenty years later, he is crippled by a survivor’s guilt. Why was this such an important theme for you to explore?
For those of us that survived those years, the guilt is still present. Sometimes, we turn it on others, like all the younger gay men. We feel like we worked so hard so they could party all night. The truth is, yes, that’s what we did. We sacrificed a lot so they would have a great life. And, we still have the guilt that we have survived. And people are still sometimes attacking us, I think….
I also think that it took us a long time for us [to fight for this], and I’m not sure we’ve done it yet. For some of us, to come back to it. What’s happening now is, in being accepted as a part of the dominant culture, we are being asked again to forget. And I don’t approve.
Jacob and his mother are nomads of a kind, living from country to country in the Mid-East with Jacob finally settling in San Francisco. You yourself emigrated to that city via various Mid-East countries and the UK. How has that immigrant’s experience influenced your art and writing?
Everything that I have done, that I do, and that I will do is influenced by it. It’s just that how much something influences my work is difficult to quantify. However, it is not that difficult. I come from different cultures. I placed myself in different cultures and I’ve never exactly belonged to one. So I’m always able to be on the outside looking in. And I think for me, one thing is clear. That I have this theory about how far one should go from within a culture to be able to see it. If I’m in a place sometimes with my family then I’m unable to see it clearly because I’m so involved in it. But then, if I get too far away, I’m not able to see it clearly… So what is the exact distance…with one foot in one culture and one in another? So I can actually see things and not be too involved. It doesn’t mean that you have to be an immigrant to have one foot outside of the culture.
Most writers I know, most artists I know, have this foot outside. All gay men have a foot outside of their culture. But there are a lot of gay men now that are totally enamored by this culture, totally swallowed by it. Both are lovely—you should always have that option of being “swallowed.” But we’re losing a lot…I don’t want to call it the art aspect, but we’re losing the critical aspect of living in a culture. I’m not suggesting that we all be outsiders, it’s just that the option of being total insiders is threatening to culture, I think.
How did the AIDS pandemic affect you personally?
I’m a gay man. How could it not?…I started a gay soccer team thirty years ago. Within the first five years, half of them had died. It affected everything I did. It affected how I look at things. I started living. I walked away from my job in order to write because it was not how I wanted to live my life. I protect myself to this day. I still have trouble getting close to people because I don’t want to lose them. All these things come from the AIDS crisis. It was a big thing then; it’s difficult to describe. We could not think of anything else. So of course, it affected me.
Something I enjoy about your novels immensely is their erudition. I often find myself looking things up, about the classics and mythology for example. I always learn something. Your writing challenges the reader without coming across as pedantic. Why are these details important to you? What research do you do when you’re writing?
It’s funny, I do some research but I don’t do a lot of it until I come across something that I don’t know. I don’t like pedantic books, although I’ve often been accused of it [chuckles]. One of my favorite things as a reader is coming across something that I don’t know. But apparently, that is no longer something that is wanted as much….My research is primarily in reading other books. I can tell you some of the books that I had to read in order to write this one. I went back to Allen Barnett’s The Body and Its Dangers. It was going to Milton, also reading The Tempest again….The simplest example is, I could have gone back and looked at [what] the symptomatic stages of the disease [AIDS] were. But instead, I went to Allen Barnett and he did it for me. So my research tends to be books, what I love and what I read.
What inspired you to write The Angel of History? Did anything or anyone from your life inspire you?
No, it was a number of things. It is never just one thing. I once lost it when someone said how sad it was that someone just lost someone. I just started screaming, “Don’t you remember, don’t you remember?” But it was me who didn’t remember. If I don’t talk about what happened, then how are people going to know? Yes, yes, society has forgotten us, but we have allowed them to forget because we wanted to join the party. We wanted to get married, join the army, and vote Democrat. And we did. And now it is time to remember. And that was one of the things.
I started to read authors I knew twenty years ago. I realized when I started working on it that I’m not the only one, that I’m not special….There were three or four AIDS documentaries that came out several years ago. People started talking about it again. Like How to Survive a Plague. It was a big deal to me at the same time that I was working on the book. It was an inspiration. There was an AIDS conference in New York with people like Sarah Schulman and Edmund White. What was interesting, was that no one invited me, so I invited myself and I went there and spoke. I realized from the conversations that were happening onstage….It was time, we were all remembering. It was natural that after what we went through, that we would suppress it for a while.
Don’t you feel a responsibility to give all this information and tell our stories about what happened in the early days to young gay people? What happened in the eighties and early nineties, what we fought for?
The trouble is, and you’re right, but the trouble in saying this is that that’s when it can become pedantic. If you say, “I have a responsibility,” and “I have to teach,” then the writing becomes pedantic. As soon as you have a message. The difference, for me, was that it was an intention. The intention was not to educate people; the intention was for me to remember and put it down on paper as an author. It is not narcissistic, and god knows I’m narcissistic, but it was to teach myself….It becomes more, I want to say, the writing becomes more human. As opposed to: “Let me tell you why you’re fucked up.”
What’s next for you? Any new projects you’re working on?
Yes, although the trouble with stuff like that is that I can work on a project and a lot of the time, it fails completely. I wouldn’t know if this would happen or not. I’m working on a novel. It will be about someone who works with Syrian refugees. They’re my people and I’ve been working with Syrian refugees for years.
Interesting. I’ve often felt that the Syrian refugee crisis is not receiving the attention it warrants in the U.S. I’d be interested in hearing more about your work with the refugees.
Sure, though I’m not sure what there is to talk about. I started talking to Syrian refugees about three years ago. There are a million and a half refugees in Lebanon, a country of four million people. I don’t do much. I basically interview them, find out their stories, and hopefully publish some things. I have a piece that will appear in the next issue of Freeman’s. I also went to Lesbos in Greece to help. There I was primarily a translator. Whenever I am in Lebanon, I make it a point to talk to the refugees. Not sure what good I can do other than be a witness. I will probably go to Lesbos again this summer if the boats are still coming in.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.