Author Rabih Alameddine has spent time “floating” between professions and continents since college.
Concentrating on writing since his mid-30s, he is doing what he feels he is supposed to be doing, Alameddine said recently in email. His five novels and collection of short stories – all critically acclaimed – lend credence to that sentiment. “An Unnecessary Woman” was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, among other accolades, and “The Angel of History” won several, including the Arab American Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award, in 2017.
With his sixth novel, “The Wrong End of the Telescope,” about to be released, the author, who is Lebanese American and was born in Jordan, brings his varied experience to the University of Virginia as the yearlong Kapnick Distinguished Writer in Residence. This fall, he’s teaching “Form & Theory of Fiction,” a seminar for creative writing graduate students, and an advanced fiction course for undergraduates.
UVA Professor of Creative Writing Micheline Aharonian Marcom said she’s been reading Alameddine’s books for more than two decades. “Beginning with his first book, ‘Koolaids: The Art of War’ when I was reading everything I could find that pertained to Lebanon, then his wonderful ‘The Hakawati’ and its celebration of storytelling in the tradition of ‘The 1001 Nights,’ until now,” she wrote in email. “His work remains for me luminous, engaged, multifarious and vital – we are thrilled to have Rabih with us this year as the visiting Kapnick writer.”
“The Wrong End of the Telescope” tells what happens when Lebanese doctor Mina Simpson goes to the infamous Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. As she tries to help one of the migrants, Sumaiya, described by the publisher as “a fiercely resolute Syrian matriarch with terminal liver cancer … Mina confronts the circumstances of the migrants’ displacement, as well as her own constraints in helping them.”
The Library Journal’s starred review noted, “The great strength of this latest novel from National Book Award finalist Alameddine lies in how it deftly combines the biographical with the historical; the small, more personal moments often carry the most weight. A remarkable, surprisingly intimate tale of human connection in the midst of disaster.”
Alameddine will give a reading from his new book on Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. at the New Dominion Bookshop on the Downtown Mall. He will give a public talk, “Concerning the Politics in Art,” on Nov. 4 at 5 p.m. in Newcomb Hall Ballroom.
The Kapnick Foundation Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Program aims to bring writers of international stature to the Grounds to teach and engage with UVA students and the literary community. It was inspired by William Faulkner’s legendary residencies at the University in 1957 and ’58.
The program debuted in 2014 with the late novelist James Salter as the inaugural Kapnick visiting writer. Brenda Hillman, Ann Beattie and Mark Doty last held the post in recent years, with Hillman conducting her residency virtually last year because of the pandemic.
Here, Alameddine answers a few questions about how he got to where he is today.
Q. When did you start writing?
A. I did many things before concentrating on writing. I was an engineer, a business consultant, a bartender, a painter/artist. I floated around trying to figure out where I was supposed to be.
I started relatively late. I began to write my first novel at the age of 36. I hadn’t written anything before that. I’d been too critical of my writing. To finish my first novel, I had to make an agreement with myself that I wouldn’t criticize what I was writing until I had 50 pages. It worked.
Q. What keeps you continuing to write?
A. What keeps me writing? I’m still critical of my work. I keep trying to get better. I sincerely believe that every novel I’ve written was better than the last, and that I am still learning (I know, it sounds like a cliché.) I can get better. I can do better. So, I write.
Q. When did you start teaching?
A. I started teaching early, back in graduate school in the early 1980s. I was a teaching assistant for a professor who had to take a leave for illness, and I was assigned the classes – statistics and research methodology, of all things. Since I started writing, I’ve taught sporadically around the world.
Q. How do you feel about being here in person?
A. Love it. The seclusion of the pandemic did a number on me. I’m a homebody by nature, almost reclusive. I went for days without seeing anyone. Yet, even when the quarantine was lifted, I found it difficult to break my habits of avoiding people. Teaching in person is like having a fabulous dessert to break your fast!
Q. Will you be reading from your new book, “The Wrong End of the Telescope”?
A. Yes, I’m looking forward to that. The only reading left that is in person is the New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville. The rest have all reverted online (to avoid travel).
Q. What brought you to the U.S., and when was the last time you went back to Beirut?
A. I came to the U.S. to go to school, engineering at UCLA. The civil war in Lebanon had been going on for a few years. I tried moving back to Lebanon a couple of times, but each time I did, the violence would explode. I returned to the U.S. for graduate school in San Francisco and inertia kept me there till this year, when I came to Virginia.
The last time was before the pandemic, January of 2020. Usually, I return to Beirut at least twice a year. My entire family lives there. I hope to go to Beirut for the holidays this year. I need to see my mother.