The Friday Fave: Rabih the Divine

About ten years ago I tried to read one of Sebastian Faulks’ novels–Birdsong, I think. I got about fifty pages into it and then gave up in disgust, bored to tears. A few weeks later I came across some interview with him in a paper wherein he was asked why he thought his novels appealed so much to women; his answer, if I recall correctly, was something along the lines of ‘I think women like my novels because I write from their perspective and in order to do this you have to really, really love them.’ This is patent nonsense. You can love a thing (or a person) to distraction and not have the faintest clue how they work inside. As far as I could tell from my attempt at reading his work, Sebastian Faulks’ novels are popular with women because they are romance novels in the line of Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier; better written than your average pulp/Harlequin nonsense but often relying on the same tired damsel-in-distress motif to model a plot on. (Perhaps I do an injustice to Seton and du Maurier; from what I’ve read of them their damsels do have a bit of gumption and don’t–always–rely on a man to save them. Perhaps I do an injustice to Faulks–Charlotte Grey seemed like she might be a more interesting heroine. However, there are so many other writers whose work does not make me want to throw the book across the room in irritation that I have no intention of reading more of Faulks to find out.)

So anyway. This is not a post about Sebastian Faulks. This question of how well writers of one gender can write from the perspective of another is forever popping up in literary journalism, and it’s one I’ve always been interested in, mostly because I think it’s not actually that difficult to do if one can separate what makes a person human and from the boxes and labels that social prejudice has trained us to fix onto whatever is “other” to us, be that gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc. Alameddine excels in this regard, and has a particular gift for rendering characters of extraordinary quiet human grace.

The first of his works I read (well, listened to as an audiobook) was An Unnecessary Woman, in one of my sporadic attempts to keep up with novels when they’re published, rather than ten years afterwards (I still kick myself for having waited so long to read The Blind Assassin). I loved it and intend to read it again–as a paper book, this time–but it was that level of enjoyment that makes me seek out another of the writer’s books (in no great hurry) rather than immediately place that work on the shelf of my very favourites.

A few months later I decided to listen to I, the Divine, because it kept popping up on my Amazon and Goodreads recommendations and I loved the cover. Once in a while a publisher does give a book a cover as gorgeous as the story within. (I didn’t set out to consume all of his novels as audiobooks, it was kind of an accident of circumstance.) About an hour in I started finding excuses to keep listening–I get so much more housework done when there’s an audiobook I’m desperate to finish–and wondering why it had not won *all* the awards when it was published. Did its publisher not submit it for prize consideration? Did people just not read it? Why? Once I’d finished the novel, I sort of understood why didn’t win all the awards, but I maintain that it should have won some and it deserves to be much better known. Upon Googling the book, I found a handful of reviews, but there wasn’t a huge amount of press–his more recent novels have happily garnered more attention. I’m glad An Unnecessary Woman and The Hakawati got all the attention that they did, but I, the Divine, is every bit as good. I suspect Koolaids will be as well–that’s next on my list.

I, the Divine is the story of Sarah and her rather large collection of parents, step- and grandparents, siblings, half-siblings, ex-husbands and lovers, at various points across their lives in Lebanon and the U.S. Each chapter is the “first”, approaching Sarah’s story from a new perspective, moving backward and forward in time until a full picture finally emerges. It is not a story about achieving a grand understanding, or how a single event shapes one life, or a number of lives; it is about one person learning to understand herself, and a group of people learning to understand each other, shaped by a series of events and relationships that not all of those involved are aware of, even as they are affected by the consequences. If you prefer straightforward, linear narratives, then this is not the novel for you, but if experimental and unusual narrative forms are to your taste, give it a try. It is variously wickedly funny, moving, and heartbreaking. It is about a large family in Lebanon and their experience during the war there; it is about living as a foreigner in the United States; it is about being a woman in two different cultures where women are still seen as less capable, and whose value is ultimately measured in terms of how well they fulfill the roles of wife, mother, and sex object, regardless of their other talents and accomplishments; and, like most good novels, it is an insight into how we can be damaged by events and actions we have no control over, how we try our best to conceal and grow past those traumas, and don’t always succeed. There is also a foul-mouthed parrot named Cookie whose few scenes would be worth reading the novel for even if the rest of the story was dull. (Trigger warnings: There is a lot of swearing, not least of which is the parrot’s x-rated commentary during his few appearances; there is also a fairly graphic description of a sexual assault. This is not a novel for young teenagers.)

I, the Divine made Alameddine one of my favourite writers, so like all objects of my hero-worship I started looking up everything I could find on him. He was a successful artist before publishing his first novel, and he maintains an active and interesting presence on social media. His blog, The Art Divas, is full of gorgeous poetry and visual arts, and he announces his presence on Twitter every morning with a spate of the funniest, most random, or just plain strangest gifs on offer on a given day. He also posts poetry from other writers on his Facebook page on a regular basis, and has excellent taste. I very much understand why some writers eschew social media altogether, but I love how he uses his presence to promote the things he loves and believes worthy of more attention, and I wish more artists did the same (Janelle Monae and Lin-Manuel Miranda do similar things, but we need more in this vein, I think).

A few related links worth checking out:

If you haven’t read any of Rabih Alameddine’s novels, do yourself a favor and pick one up the next time you’re in a decently stocked bookstore, or order one from Powell’s or Amazon or wherever. His next novel, The Angel of History, is out next October, and I can’t wait.


Reading: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me
Yes, it’s an actual book. All the better to be actually snuggled up with.

I am an escapist media aficionado. When I get into a good book or television show, I get dangerously into it; I may not emerge for days. So when I am trying to focus on writing, as I am now, I can’t give up reading entirely but I avoid my usual suspects of easy-to-lose-oneself-in novels. Right now I am reading a few non-fiction books as the spirit moves me. The one that has most of my mind-share and my full, boundless admiration is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

All quotes in this post are directly from that book.

The first thing I read of Coates was his groundbreaking essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” (2014). It blew my mind. I had never fully considered (let alone been taught) the actual legislative bones supporting the horrible carcass of systemic racism in this country. I’m white, so I have had a life where I can control when and for how long I stare at the body, and this was the first time I couldn’t look away. If you haven’t read this piece, just go do it now, okay? Because the thing is: it’s gorgeous. Coates is not a man who writes simply to get his point across. His point is the writing. His control of style is pure, his reasoning crystal-clear. Truly, I can only compare his rhetoric to Dr. King’s. It was easily the best essay by a modern author I had read in perhaps a decade.

“I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.”

Okay, I haven’t actually talked about Between the World and Me yet, I know. I just needed to set the stage for my expectations going into this book. (If you couldn’t tell: they were high.) This was Coates’ first book and I didn’t read it when it came out. I don’t generally crave non-fiction, and I was thinking about it like I think about heavy documentaries: that is, bound to be overwhelming, depressing, and generally the worst possible thing to read before bed after a long day.

Then, Coates’ second book came out and I was itching to read more of his writing and I thought: Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll grit my teeth and be depressed because that’s how much I love this man’s art. I felt like I owed it to him, vaguely, notionally, to read his first book before the second. I knew it was supposed to be an intimate, personal sort of read, given that its structure is that of a direct address to his son.

And then I actually read Between the World and Me and felt like an idiot. Of course Ta-Nehisi Coates would not write a burdensome book. He might actually be incapable of it. The topic is serious. The insights and the honesty are often as heart-breaking as they are heart-opening. But there’s not a piece of it that feels “heavy.”

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

I have not quite finished it yet. I’ve been reading it for about a month and when I pick it up, two or three times a week, I only read a few pages. I remember reading Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again and describing it (probably to Ashley!) as very rich cake: I loved it, I wanted all of it, but I could only have a tiny bite at a time to really appreciate it. I feel that way about this book and I don’t want it to end.

“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

Who but an American black man can understand what it is like to be a black man in America? But I am an American, and I acutely feel Coates’ criticism of our country’s history and of our present society. At the same time, his compassion for all the messy components of his own experience; his love for his son, and his worry; and above all his expert, lyrical writing create moments of pure human connection that are the hallmarks of every great artist.

Have you read it? What do you think? And if you haven’t read it: get to it.

“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

The Friday Fave: Belle



I am addicted to British costume dramas. My earliest memory of television is of watching a rerun of the original Poldark when I was in England one Christmas when I was three or four years old (a show I still love, despite the dreadful costumes and occasionally poor acting). I usually watch a film in the cinema or on television before deciding to spend money on it, but I missed Belle when it was showing; when I found it in Costco for $10 I went ahead and bought it, thinking it couldn’t be too bad, given its cast.

Oh was I ever glad I did. It’s one of my go-to films for those evenings when I’m stressed or frustrated or depressed: simultaneously sumptuous eye-candy and a celebration of one of the tiny steps British society made towards equality despite the rigidity of prevailing social rules regarding race and class at the time. It’s also a reminder that there were people writing and arguing in support of equal rights—although they wouldn’t have called it that—when the slave trade was at its most lucrative, even though their voices would continue to be drowned out by the preference for the status quo, mercantile interests, and the prevailing social bigotry for roughly two hundred years to come. (Some of the writings of Thomas Day, 1748–1789, are interesting in this regard, if you’re looking for further reading—Dido is reading one of his works in one scene in the film.)

Much of the story is heavily fictionalized, partly for the sake of telling a compelling story, but mostly, I think, because there is so little documentation of Dido Belle’s life aside from who her parents were, her position at Kenwood House, her great-uncle’s love for her, and her marriage to John Davinier. She actually married Davinier after her uncle’s death; whether they were in love is anyone’s guess, but I’d like to think that at least he must have loved her, to be willing to place principle over social prejudice, rather than just for the sake of her money (I’m not sure if her inheritance was as grand as is stated in the film, but she did get enough for a comfortable life). She had more to do with the running of the estate than is really portrayed in the film, John Davinier was not actually a law student, and the Ashford brothers are an invention for the story.

It’s still a great story, and so much better in almost every way than a number of the other films that got more attention that year. I like the balance Misan Sagay’s screenplay strikes between history, politics, and personal relationships–there is little in the way of Oscar-bait speeches because the issues the film deals with are framed not solely in terms of the significant historical event the characters are involved in (the Zong lawsuit), but in how the characters relate to and perceive one another. Most of the reviews I’ve come across, before and since, are good, and yet the film seemed vanish from the cinemas shortly after opening, and attracted only a small audience (in the U.S., at least). Gugu Mbatha-Raw is becoming one of my favourite actresses; even in her small role in the deliciously ridiculous Lost in Austen she steals every scene she appears in, and she’s got a number of big films coming out this year and the next. Sam Reid is also perfect for his role, and finally getting more exposure in other roles—he should have been the new Poldark, I thought, but hey ho. Everyone in it turns in a solid performance, even down to cousin Elizabeth, irritating character though she is. Amma Asante, the director, is also one to watch, I think—she has a new film coming out this year, A United Kingdom, and I can’t wait.