Is a life, in and of itself, a work of art? Rabih Alameddine explores the necessity of a solitary translator’s work in his new novel, An Unnecessary Woman.
Your protagonist, Aaliya, embodies the dignity of a life spent reading and writing. Was it a challenge to find ways to crack her isolation while retaining her enormous personal authority?
Yes, it was. The first challenge was finding the right Aaliya, which in many ways was more important than the events of the novel. I spent about 18 months trying to figure out how she talked, how someone who was isolated, who was shunted to the sidelines by society, saw herself, expressed herself. How did she sustain dignity when it was not reflected back, when she was marginalized? But then trying to figure out how to “crack” her isolation proved slippery, until I realized that what was needed were small but tectonic shifts, both internal and external. I love that you used the phrase “crack her isolation,” because I wasn’t that interested in anything more than that, and neither was she. She didn’t particularly care for epiphanies after all.
So you wouldn’t say Aaliya had her own epiphany? In the end, she opened the door to a wide new intellectual freedom.
The door was always open, and she knew that it was. She chose to pass the threshold. Was that decision due to an epiphany? That would depend on how one looked at it.
I find it difficult to distill an answer when I am asked what the novel is about. (I love Allan Grossman’s quote, “A poem is about something like a cat is about the house.”) However, one of the main themes is the persistence of personal narrative, or what I sometimes call the persistence of delusion!
The Portuguese poet and translator Fernando Pessoa is a presiding figure in Aaliya’s meditations. How did she come to be a “Pessoist”?
By reading his books, of course! Pessoa was an inspiration for Aaliya. I’ve written extensively about him because I love his work, and his life story was one of the seeds for this novel. Like Kafka and Schulz, Pessoa was a social misfit whose odd behavior was explained, retroactively perhaps, because of his genius. I began to play with the idea of what an outcast’s life would look like if she were not a great artist, and its corollary: is a life, in and of itself, a work of art, or is it unnecessary?
Aaliya has always lived in Beirut, and the city is like a character with its own arc. How much influence does Beirut have on who she becomes?
Like most Beirutis, quite a bit of who Aaliya is and becomes is informed by the city. A phoenix, Beirut seems to always pull itself out its ashes, reinvents itself, has been conquered numerous times in its 7,000-year history, yet it survives by both becoming whatever its conquerors wished it to be and retaining its idiosyncratic persona.