We’re extremely proud that local author Rabih Alameddine, who wrote the foreword to our 2014 Young Authors’ Book Project, Uncharted Places, has been nominated for the National Book Award for his novel An Unnecessary Woman (which was read and loved by several 826-ers).
Mr. Alameddine was a wonderful book project collaborator; he was eager to honor the students’ writing and to help share their work with a wider audience. He perfectly identified a powerful theme in Uncharted Places, a collection of essays by Thurgood Marshall High School students about the idea of place: dislocation, or the feeling of being put out of place. He responds to this idea beautifully in his foreword, which we’re happy to share with you in full below.
If you’re interested in reading more, you can order Uncharted Places here, buy it at the Pirate Supply Store or from your local bookseller, or check it out at the San Francisco Public Library.
“Dislocation: I am both enmeshed in the world I live in and I stand apart from it.”
Many writers use memories of their early years in their work. We polish them, maybe disguise or reconfigure them, reinvent them even. Some of my memories seem as bright and clear today as a high-carat diamond; others are more ephemeral, the faint red glow of an ember behind smoke and shadows. I’m one of those who obsesses over the latter. I always think there’s some jewel to be found, one of Calliope’s perhaps, a ruby. Before descending, I don my armor, for where there’s smoke, there might just be a dragon.
I bring this up because there’s an event that I haven’t used in my fiction and have rarely talked about. I’m not sure why, since it’s one of those diamonds I remember clearly. Beirut in 1973, I was thirteen. My English teacher, a Palestinian with the unusual name of Laure Lunt, sat behind her desk facing the class. A bouffant of black hair framed her face, the black sweater of a twinset draped her shoulders. Sitting in the third row to her right, I remember thinking that she had the four arms of a goddess. A boisterous boy by the name of Jawad—in a red shirt, his back to me—went on and on about something, boasting and bragging, and my ears pricked up when he said that he wanted to write a story or a play because one day, he was going to become a writer.
“That’s a wonderful idea,” Mrs. Lunt said, “and I think you should ask Rabih to help you write it. He is very creative.”
That was my name—still is. There was no other in that class.
I wondered, hesitated for a moment, because for the life of me, I could not figure out how she knew that I was creative. At the time I did not know I was, but obviously it was so. In response to all my questions in the days that followed, she replied that she sincerely believed that I could help Jawad. I began to try harder on my essays, began to see them as little gems, the product of my intelligent and terribly creative mind. At thirteen, I became as confident about my writing as is a peacock about its tail feathers.
Not that long ago, while staying at my mother’s home in Beirut, I found one of those little gems: an essay on, of all things, mercy killing, which I had written during that thirteenth year. It was horrifically bad, portentous, pretentiously illogical, had awful grammar and misspellings galore. Mrs. Lunt’s red pen marked almost every one of those two-hundred words, the merciless blood splatters of my first copy editor.
Obviously I marched on, wrote more and more. She had offered me the most priceless of gifts: attention. I wrote because I knew that someone wished to read.
My voice had found an ear.
What you are about to encounter in this book is a collection of essays by high school students. Young writers all, their memories are present. They have no need for lances, swords, or halberds to fight the beast, nor to distract the dragon long enough to walk away with its precious jewel. They have not given up the diamond yet. Their essays are poignant and organically urgent, enviably honest. Picasso may have needed a lifetime to relearn to paint like a child; these students need only to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, one presumes).
Many of the writers here are immigrants or are children of men and women who have arrived on our shores not that long ago. One can safely presume that none come from an economically privileged background. In other words, all reside outside the strict and restrictive boundaries of the dominant culture of the United States, or that of San Francisco for that matter. Their voices are not what usually pass for acceptable. They reflect our differences. They are the other. But then, they are Americans, of course, like you, like me.
They are us, they are them, they are both us and them.
It is that tension, and its resulting friction, that can birth work that is original and true to both reader and writer, that can bring forth renewal and rejuvenation.
In America, I fit but I do not belong.
In Lebanon, I belong but I do not fit.
I wrote the above in my first book, years and years ago. This theme, fitting and not fitting, belonging and not belonging, is the leitmotif of my work. It reverberates in every novel I’ve written, in every word, every grapheme.
I shudder when my books are called immigrant literature. They aren’t, I wish to scream. I never left Lebanon. Perhaps I did physically, but not emotionally. But then, I may have. I am an American. I am Lebanese. Even when I left, I never stayed away for more than six months. I returned constantly. I’m not an American. I am no longer Lebanese.
Maybe I did leave, but I didn’t arrive.
The theme of my work isn’t exile. Exile implies forcible or permanent separation. My work is about dislocation. Dislocate: to put out of place; put out of proper relative position. My characters and I are out of place. Yet we have no proper relative position; we have no place. Dislocation isn’t exactly about place, isn’t about physical distance. I write about emotional dislocation, of belonging and not belonging, of being a part of a family and being apart from family, of being American and not, of being an Arab and being Western. I write about a woman in a man’s world; I write about a gay man in a straight world. I write about psychological straddling.
Dislocation: I am both enmeshed in the world I live in and I stand apart from it.
Whenever she is in Beirut, home is New York. Whenever she is in New York, home is Beirut. Home is never where she is, but where she is not.
I wrote the above in my third book.
I feel fortunate, because, at times, I can see.
This book is a collection of essays by writers searching for the most elusive of treasures: the unfindable home. Be it metaphorical or explicit, these young men and women write about places that make them feel safe, that make them feel whole. They write about wishing to be seen—to be seen for who they are, for more than who they are. They write about the pain of not being heard. They find inner worlds to hide from the problems of the real one, an outer world to hide from the demons on the inside.
These are essays about dislocation.
These are essays about us.
The writing in this collection is moving and fresh, probably unlike any you’ve read before. These voices need an ear.
May they find a home in you.
Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels Koolaids, I, the Divine, the Hakawati, the story collection The Perv, and most recently An Unnecessary Woman. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut.