On October 4th, we had the pleasure of hosting Rabih Alameddine at City Lights Bookstore. He discussed and celebrated the recent release of his new novel, The Angel of History from Atlantic Monthly Press. He also answered our five questions. More about him, and his answers, below.
About The Angel of History: Following the critical and commercial success of An Unnecessary Woman, Alameddine delivers a spectacular portrait of a man and an era of profound political and social upheaval.
Set over the course of one night in the waiting room of a psych clinic, The Angel of History follows Yemeni-born poet Jacob as he revisits the events of his life, from his maternal upbringing in an Egyptian whorehouse to his adolescence under the aegis of his wealthy father and his life as a gay Arab man in San Francisco at the height of AIDS. Hovered over by the presence of alluring, sassy Satan who taunts Jacob to remember his painful past and dour, frigid Death who urges him to forget and give up on life, Jacob is also attended to by 14 saints. Set in Cairo and Beirut; Sana’a, Stockholm, and San Francisco; Alameddine gives us a charged philosophical portrait of a brilliant mind in crisis. This is a profound, philosophical and hilariously winning story of the war between memory and oblivion we wrestle with every day of our lives.
“Rabih Alameddine is one our most daring writers—daring not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer.”—Michael Chabon
“There are many ways to break someone’s heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life.”—Yiyun Li
About Rabih Alameddine: Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels Koolaids, and I, the Divine, The Hakawati, An Unnecessary Woman, the story collection, The Perv, and most recently, The Angel of History. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut.
City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?
Rabih Alameddine: I’m a local and an avid buyer of books, so of course, I have been many times. City Lights is one of my favorite bookstores. I tend to like idiosyncratic ones and CL is most certainly one.
Best memory: I’ve been lucky enough to hang out with some great writers there, but my favorite memory is being chided in no uncertain terms by Tân Khanh Cao. She insisted that I should have had the book launch of An Unnecessary Woman at her store because “your novel is a City Lights novel.” She was right, of course. I’m still trying to apologize, though I’m terribly flattered.
CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?
RA: The first books I read were Enyd Blyton novels, began with Noddy picture books, and graduated to Famous Five and Secret Seven books. I’m reading the magnificent Götz and Meyer by David Albahari. I’ve had this one for a while. While in Sarajevo this summer someone mentioned his work, so I started it. It’s quite dazzling.
CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?
RA: You can’t ask a reader that. How can I come up with only three books? If you ask me to choose every five minutes I’d come up with a different three. So for the next five minutes, these are the books I’d never part with: Sepharad by Antonio Muñoz Molina, The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, and Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. No, wait. Let me put Lolita instead of Sebald. No, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Is my five minutes up? No, wait . . . oh, never mind.
CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?
RA: Carmina Burana and “The Goldberg Variations.” Maybe the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” as well.
CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?
RA: Funny, but my dream of opening a bookstore in Beirut was taken away from me. A few people whom I don’t know just opened one and called it Aaliya’s Books after the narrator of Unnecessary Woman. For someone like me, that’s like winning the greatest prize.