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Bless The Perverts

If the artist Carlos Motta and the novelist Rabih Alameddine have a common purpose, it rests in their enthusiastic resistance to the overtures of dominant cultures. They revel in celebrating difference over assimilation, and lionizing the so-called pervert over the pure. Each places his talent at the service of counter-narratives, those stories that rarely make it into the light of day. And both men, too, draw on extensive research and interviews as the basis for multi-layered, poetic meditations on queer and marginalized identities. In his epistolary 2015 film Deseos / , Motta and his writer-collaborator Maya Mikdashi tell  the stories of a woman tried for being intersex in the late 19th century Colombia and a lesbian Lebanese woman who marries her lover’s brother. For Alameddine, queer operates as a catch-all for anyone who falls foul of mainstream mores, as likely to be an unmarried woman in Lebanon–the subject of his 2014 National Book Award-nominated novel An Unmarried Woman – as a transgender Lebanese American doctor, the protagonist of his recent novel, The Other End of the Telescope.  He has described dislocation as the leitmotif of his work, and the structure of his novels can feel dislocated and unstable, too. His second novel, I The Divine, was written as a series of first chapters, sliding back and forth between perspectives. In KoolAids, he used vignettes to create a montage of people with AIDS and casualties of the Lebanese civil war. Fury and wit propel his stories; compassion, too. But neither he nor Motta is interested in catharsis. If anything they want to rouse themselves, and us, into reevaluating our complicity in a world in which the most reasonable response is to burn it down and start again. Here the two men talk about using art to correct history’s erasures, the imperative to be public enemy number one, and why not everyone wants to be Ellen.
– Aaron Hicklin

Grand: Both of you are very interested in what might be called restorative justice—bringing into the light stories of people who often go unseen in the world. And secondly, you each create narratives that explore the experiences and history of gender and sexual outlaws. 

Rabih Alameddine: For me, it’s not just the idea of sexual outlaws, but of outlaws period. That’s one of the reasons I love the word queer. If I write about an unmarried woman in the middle east, in Lebanon, or even in New York, who is separate from the world, I still think of her as a queer person, even if she might not be. So for me it’s about people on the margins. I write about people who are outside of the dominant culture, and I’m assuming that Carlos does the same from what I’ve seen.

Carlos Motta: Yes. I am interested in people who are at the margins of dominant history, and left out of the histories that are told by conventional channels. And so, the ways in which I have approached the topics and the stories I have addressed in my work has been from those perspectives that have kind of been rendered parallel and often hidden from us.

Alameddine: Yep. And I tend to be disinterested in the discourse of dominant cultures, not just American, but wherever I am. When that imbecile was elected president, at the beginning he created this sort of an enemy list, like Nixon, and I wanted desperately to be the number one on the enemy list. But I realized that my reaction, as a writer is that I always want to be on the enemy list of the dominant culture. I want the dominant culture to be threatened by my work, because unless we work against the homogeneity of the dominant culture, we will be all living in a coma really, really soon.

Motta: I agree with you, but I would add that the only way in which I am interested in dominant culture and its institutions is when we can use them to our advantage. And that is something that I have tried to do with my work, to seize the opportunities to show in mainstream museums, for example, and then make them work at the service of the voices and stories that the work conveys.

Alameddine: I totally agree—to use them to subvert their message. And what can I say, you know: I also like really bad movies of the dominant cultures. Yes, yes, I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you know? So, there are many things about the dominant culture that I love. I’m just worried about the fact that almost all of literature and art that comes out in this country is in many ways a reflection of the dominant culture and perpetuates it. In the last 20 years, we’ve had a lot of opposition, but for the most part, in this country they’re enamored with their perceived exceptionalism—that we’re really wonderful here, and we’re really good people, so that what we do is good. I think we are wonderful, but I think everybody else is wonderful. It’s just that what we do is not good.

Motta: I would also say that the dominant culture has permeated the LGBT mainstream narrative so it becomes a kind of reproduction of mainstream values from a gay and lesbian and sometimes trans perspective. And that is something I’ve been really interested in—seeing this framework and narrative of equality and assimilation, and responding to it, because I think in many ways, some of the queer voices and stories that I’m interested in telling are further marginalized by the LGBT movement. They are either perverse, or too perverted or too something to be addressed by the respectability politics of the mainstream LGBT movement. 

Alameddine: I’ve always told this story, but on September 11th, 2001, I was playing on a gay soccer team that I actually started way back in 1982, and I remember arriving, and there was this white American guy who truly, I did not like anyway, and he was furious. He goes, “We should bomb all those people over there, we should just nuke the fuckers.” And I’m thinking, But I’m a fucker, I’m right in front of you. It was the first time that I realized that my being gay was now acceptable; my being an immigrant, and an immigrant from the Middle East was no longer acceptable. And the fact that some gay men would become part of the dominant culture that hates another minority was fascinating to me.

Motta: When I was reviewing your work, I was struck by the similarity of your writing around refugees and my project The Crossing, where I worked with a group of LGBTQ Middle Eastern folks who came to the Netherlands. And the reason I wanted to do that project was precisely to address what you’re talking about in terms of how the discourse of sexuality or gender becomes naturalized, but also a weapon against race, ethnicity, or religion. That work was about the crossing of these people and the experiences that led them to seek, but it was really more about the ways in which the Netherland constructed itself as a kind of exceptional liberal nation, but one that weaponizes ideas of sexuality and gender. 

Alameddine: Netherlands is one of the countries that I love relative to other places, but part of what I’m fascinated by is the way the Netherlands uses this sort of conversation of “we are helping gay men” to make themselves look better. It’s a patronizing thing, completely losing perspective as to how they sort of perpetuated the idea of what and how homosexuality should be in that part of the world. But more important, is that it has been used as a weapon for generations, for hundreds of years. One of the justifications of the British empire deciding to stay in India was to protect women from burning themselves after their husband dies. I’ve heard that kind of argument so often, including now in Afghanistan, that they want to preserve the rights of women in Afghanistan—the bad Muslims treat their women badly and they treat their homosexuals badly, which is absolutely true, they do. But it conveniently forgets that we treat our women badly over here, so the use of marginalized people becomes a part of the dominant conversation, that our countries are better because those countries don’t respect the rights of minorities, so we can invade them to protect the rights of minorities. 

Motta: I heard an Afghani feminist thinker interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, and she called the war in Afghanistan the first feminist war. She was really talking about the projection of a Western feminism onto the people, thinking they were there to assist the liberation of Afghani women without ever considering what an Afghani feminism would actually look like. And that is something I’ve always been thinking about within my work: How do you actually bring in a set of politics and a set of issues that are considerate of the particularities of the locality of the people you work with. 

Alameddine: I never forget that, from the United States, a group of us tried to start a gay rights group in Lebanon, and it failed miserably. It was so horrifying, you know: They’re not ready! And sometime shortly after a lot of the local boys and the girls who were there got together and they started Helem, probably one of the most effective gay rights organizations in the world. But it was only when I withdrew, it was only when all the gay men who were living outside of the country pulled out, that the locals did it. They did it their way. And I am from Lebanon. I just wasn’t local. 

Motta: I was interested in how you use documentary research in your work. For me, oftentimes my projects evolve as documentary projects, so the questions of representation, the authorship and the voice are foregrounded but I sense in fiction it might be a little different because you might be using stories that are real but they get camouflaged under the rubric of a fictitious story. 

Alameddine: For me, one of the things is: how do I write about a trans woman and make it authentic? One of them is that you make sure that Susan Stryker reads it three or four times. But more important is that you enter the community; I realized I was comfortable enough to write about it when I realized that a number of my friends were trans. But for a book like The Wrong End of the Telescope, obviously I was there on Lesbos [aiding Syrian refugees] at the same time as the narrator was, and I talked to similar people, but a lot of the stories came from elsewhere, like the story of the two gay Iraqis. An academic I know had written a paper on two Iraqi gay men who could not convince Westerners that they were a couple because they were too masculine. The only way that they could figure it out was that one of them had to become slightly more effeminate, and they had a lot of trouble figuring out how, and I love that story. So it enters the novel. The stories change a little bit, and I remove certain things, but a lot of it actually happened.

Motta: This makes me think of a film I collaborated on with a Lebanese anthropologist, Maya Mikdashi.

Alameddine: I know Maya very well. I adore her.

Motta: The question we faced when we were working on this film was the fact that, on the one hand, one of the character’s stories—Martina, a character from Columbia—existed in an archive, the story of a hermaphrodite who went to trial for having an abnormal genitalia. The document in the archive gave us a lot to work with and fictionalize because the idea was to transcend the legal view on a queer subject at the time. But then when we went to Lebanon to look for these documents, we realized that lesbian lives were not archived. The Ottoman empire, I think, believed that these issues should be dealt with at home, as opposed to using the legal framework. So, we used it as an opportunity to create a fictional character, Noor, even though it completely transcended the kind of verifying lens of legality or an institution. In this way we could create alternative pasts and imagine emancipatory futures.

Alameddine: I love the idea of what I’d characterize as correcting history. Again, one of the things that I was interested in, is the homoerotic historiography—imagining and recreating the possibility that we were not just present, but acknowledged in history. That’s a fascinating project to me. Creating an alternative narrative is not just a fun thing, but a necessary thing. This is what I sort of do, when I write about a trans woman or a queer character, or even an older woman with blue hair. I am intentionally putting us front and center, as opposed to the cute sidekick, or the best friend who happens to be gay, but he can’t have sex with anybody. Creating an alternative history is my idea of the project that I’d love to take on. We’ve always existed, we’ve always been there. We’ve just been—not mediated, but eradicated. 

Motta: Now it’s my turn to tell you a little story, but when I was doing the research [for Towards a Homoerotic Historiography, a project on the role and portrayal of sex in ancient American culture], I spent some time with one of the guides of the museum of anthropology in Mexico city. I had heard from gossip on the street that there was a basement, or a hidden room, where all the sex objects are hidden. So, I asked a guide where the room was located, and she told me that the room did not exist, but that there was a room containing a bunch of destroyed things. She went on to tell me they discovered a series of sculptures that had erect penises. And one of the anthropologists was so upset about them that he took a hammer and knocked off every single dick. This may or may not be true, but now the gossip that I’m propagating is that there is a basket full of dicks somewhere in that basement. But I guess I bring this story up to illuminate the arbitrariness of the approach to sexuality, especially during the colonial years, and the ways in which things should be so emphatically focused on reproduction, as opposed to anything that went against that.

Alameddine: Well, you see it still to this day. There is a whole group of gay men and women who want to eradicate our history, for example by insisting that the [Pride] parade cannot have any sex. We’re supposed to behave in a certain way. As a friend of mine says, we are not all like Ellen. If we remind the dominant culture that we are not Ellen, they feel threatened again. And all those who want to be Ellen and want to be assimilated and make money in this culture feel threatened by those of us who are outside of that dominant culture. It’s been the same thing throughout history. Only the players change.  So yes, we have to create a new history.

Motta: I agree and disagree, because the sexual and gender liberation history is a short one, ad it started very differently. It really did begin as a group of people who were against institutions, against the military, against imperialism, against a lot of these things. And one of the things that has been interesting for me to examine when it went in that other direction, when the radical impetus fell apart, and these folks decided that assimilating to a moderate politics made more sense, when that became a way to sit at the table and eat the crumbs of the meal, as opposed to make your own dinner. 

Alameddine: I’m not a historian, but remember the beginning of Act Up, and I think that was what brought us all together. But then those that came in started to realize that we could use AIDS not just to raise money to find a cure, but as a way of joining the mainstream: look at us, aren’t we sad, we’re dying. I felt the change coming from a place of anger, to, Oh, wait a second, we can  get some more donations. It happened in probably every gay organization that I knew, from San Francisco Pride to Frameline the organization behind the gay film festival. When I first joined, I used to buy gold cards because I used to love these really strange movies, and then all of a sudden the gay movies became Hollywood movies: two boys or two girls falling in love, and they may have a problem, but they compensate for it and then transcend it, and become part of the dominant culture forgetting what the dominant culture has done.

Motta: Were you a part of act up San Francisco? 

Alameddine: Let’s just say I marched, more than once. My problem was that I was frightened, but not of being discovered. We were once in front of the federal building in San Francisco and somebody threw a, a chair through the front glass door and that’s when I was, like, Nope, Nope.

Motta: One of the people in my interviews spoke about the way the drug cocktail was introduced and people stopped dying. Those people who had power and influence, which happened to be mostly white American gays, decided they could move on to do other things. And the struggle became the struggle of people who didn’t have really access to medication. I feel it’s really a turning point in that history that something we have seen elsewhere. You know, gay marriage is possible. Some people can benefit from it. And then there are all of these other people who happen to be brown, disempowered, poor.

Alameddine: Or those of us who just don’t want to be married. I would say what you talk about happened a little bit earlier than the cocktails. I started on cocktails when I finally had health insurance, and it took me years to be able to get it. Otherwise I might not be alive today. I think there was a separation between gay men who did not have the virus who looked down on those of us who were actually sexually active. I remember there was a group in San Francisco called the regular guys that were just like straight men, only they liked other men.

Grand: To play devil’s advocate, if you were coming of age in the 1980s, and the thing that had defined your identity—your sexual desire—was forbidden because it was equated with death, then it may seem like a natural evolution to redefine your aims as equality under the law with straight people, including but not limited to marriage.  

Alameddine: Yes and no. I would fight for gay marriage simply because if heterosexuals have it then queers should have it, but the thing that I would have gone for, and I’m talking now in retrospect, is the destruction of the entire system. When I was a young man coming out—yes I defined myself by sexuality completely. That’s what differentiated me, but I wanted to destroy the dominant culture’s view on what is sexually okay and what is not, as opposed to assimilate to [the idea] that what is sexually okay is sex in marriage. It was this whole idea of wanting a place at the table. I’ve always wanted to destroy the table. 

Motta: Yeah, I agree with Rabih. I think that we were presented a really incredible opportunity to rethink those very presets of what we understand to be unchangeable and instead of seizing on that opportunity and destroying the idea of marriage, for example, or the idea of war, there was a bunch of folks who decided that it was actually much easier to walk along parallel. It continues to be, and will always be, a really hard project, and probably unachievable, but I don’t want to give up on the opportunity of seeing a life full of different potential, because living a marginal life in relationship to what you think could be a fully realized expression of ideology and history is complicated. 

Alameddine: Part of the trouble with the going along with things is that forever and throughout history, to go along with things, there has to be people outside of the dominant culture that cannot go. People are never satisfied if all of us go through. You have to look down on someone. And I find that horrifying, because going along has meant, Okay, we will behave in a certain way, as long as you take us. And that means that anyone who does not follow this becomes the other. The division became stark for me when I realized that my gayness was longer that big of a problem, but my Arabness, all of a sudden, took full force.

Motta: I think one of the really stark lessons of the AIDS crisis to me is that the great equalizer is death. That’s the only thing that really would make people fight for their lives, but the minute that one person is able to survive, they’re out of there because they’re in. It’s really tough to me to think that the moment that you have surpassed that you feel entitled to move on. On the other hand, I understand that fighting is tiresome. And some of these people were fighting for 15 years, organizing the demonstrations and suffering. And at some point, you also want to live a different life. Some people do not need to fight forever. And that is something that is often left out of these more radical understandings around how we can lead the fight. There are other aspects to life and I feel like folks also need to take a break. 

Alameddine: And sometimes I have to remind myself that I talk a lot about fighting, fighting, fighting—from my lovely apartment in San Francisco. As I told you, I worked with Act Up—up to a point. Does it interfere with my afternoon nap? But I also see that for a lot of people, and it’s not necessarily bad, their dream is to belong to this culture. And the thing that is important to me is that if I can pass and be able to belong to this dominant culture, would I want to? And the answer for me has always been no. But I’m a pervert. I really am. And because I come from the Middle East I see this delusion of the dominant culture, the infatuation with the imaginary virtues of being a democratic country, it drives me crazy. Once you belong to the dominant culture, once you become part of it, you must give up any understanding of what this country does to other countries. Otherwise you’d be against this dominant culture. 

Motta: Yeah. I mean, the only reason why I like that this dominant culture has been perpetuated is because it allows for voices from the margins to exist. I can read a book like yours, and I can encounter the work of McKenzie Ward or reads the histories of Sarah Schulman. I don’t know what kind of world it would be if the radical left of the queer movement had won.

Alameddine: Again, I’m highly critical of this country, but I always remind myself that I choose to live here for many, many, many reasons, including the fact that as a dominant culture, it’s terrible, but it’s still better than a lot of other dominant cultures that I can’t live in. And the other thing that have to remind myself is that we represent the whole world. You can find any race, people from any country, people from any religion, any kind of person. It’s like we’ve become a sort of a museum of humanity. I love that. Unfortunately, the majority of this country would like to get rid of this notion, but it’s what I love about this country. So now we’ve said some good things about the U.S., let’s back to attacking.

Grand: On that note, Carlos’s most recent work meeting quarantine is a series of, of ceramic death masks of artists and activists. I think Carlos calls it his queer pantheon. These are marginalized people: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson, James Baldwin. I feel we might be in a moment where more of their stories are being told and these luminaries of our histories are being honored in art and in literature. 

Alameddine: I agree. As much as I criticize this country, we’re definitely advancing and as a friend of mine said, I’m always complaining. So yes, we just have to remind ourselves that we’re moving in the right direction. I’d like it to move faster or, again, I’d like to blow up the whole thing, but if we blow up the whole thing, it’s a fantasy. I don’t want to be here to replace it, you know? 

Motta: The queer pantheon that I worked with during quarantine gave us the tools to think about different futures. If you think of the radical work of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, for example, they have made it possible to envision what a gender nonconforming, trans-inclusive present and future can look like. I’m interested in the extent to which stories have become part of the more acceptable and mainstream discourse and to what extent they continue to be hidden. We have an artist like David Wojarnowicz given a major retrospective at the Whitney museum, but it is also a retrospective that focuses largely on his painting and excludes the much more radical aspects of his work, like the installation, the ephemera, etc. I also do not want to complain all the time. This could be like the conversation of complaints. 

Alameddine: I am grumpy, I complain all the time. But also to take it further, if we look at the dominant culture, Wojarnowicz can be included just the same way as Baldwin gets included. So long as the dominant culture believes that there are bad people out there who are racist, but it’s not us; there are bad people out there who are homophobic, but it’s not us, we can begin to include some of them, so as long as we don’t include their work that makes the dominant culture look at itself. It’s amazing that the primary artist whose work about AIDS is part of the dominant culture is Keith Haring, not Wojarnowicz. It’s not a criticism of Haring, it’s just that Haring’s work does not threaten how the dominant culture sees itself. I’m fascinated by that. It never occurs to people that if AIDS came back, they would behave in the same way. They think they’re better than that, you know? So that’s what I mean. Do we fight against the dominant culture, or do we take the acceptance? It’s a little bit more than crumbs though, it’s maybe an appetizer. 

Grand: Rabih, I know when you wrote The Angel of History, you said it arose out of anger—anger that the story hasn’t really been told, or about the kinds of ways in which it was being told. I wonder to what extent anger is an impetus for your work?

Alameddine: For me anger is probably the primary motivation. I wrote my first book because I was furious. But The Angel of History, in which I revisited the subject of AIDS 20 years later, I wrote not just because I was angry at the world but because I was angry at myself. I was angry at myself for forgetting. It’s no coincidence that The Angel of History came after my most successful and acceptable book, An Unnecessary Woman. I had become part of the dominant culture. I was writing, I was acceptable, so I started forgetting. And then it came back with a vengeance. I was waking in the middle of the night, terrified, and I couldn’t understand what was going on until I realized that during the ’80s and ’90s, I was terrified all the time. Just the pure terror of living through that time was so horrifying that once I realized I wasn’t going to die from it I put it completely aside. But I don’t think I’ve written any book that wasn’t based on anger or opposition to something. 

Motta: I have also struggled with what happens when your work has a platform, when it’s seen, when you become professionalized as an artist who has support—institutional, commercial or otherwise, and how those privileges have a way of making that original impetus and anger subside a bit. I get angry with seeing the ways in which I haven’t really been able to construct the impossible future that I would like to live in. And that’s what keeps me going, because I do want to be able to at least provide a very small idea of another space that could be possible. Even if I’m doing well in my work, I don’t want to become too comfortable with what has been given to me because that would be, in a way, losing track of what I set out to do in the first place.

Alameddine: Let’s just say you might become comfortable, but somewhere down the line, something will come back and slap you: Oh honey. Like I said, there were times where I was screaming at people and not realizing why. And the worst part was that I was seeing my dead friends. And that’s when I realized, Oh my God, I haven’t thought of that person in 20 years. So don’t worry: You’ll get slapped.

Motta: Looking forward. 

Alameddine: I know—it woke me up a little. It reminded me that, first, I’m angry, but more importantly, I am alive. I want to still be living as opposed to just going through life 

Motta: The pandemic has made everything so especially dire to me in terms of thinking about how to continue. And I’m just curious to hear from you in terms of how it’s influencing your work? Has it been creative or has it been paralyzing 

Alameddine: Paralyzing. I’ve not been able to do anything. I’m in PTSD for sure. And because of what happened in Lebanon, I lost all my savings, so I now have to work a real job to supplement my income. What’s interesting is that I have this idea for the next semester of teaching a class about the history of AIDS art and literature, as it pertains to how we can write about covid. It’s a lot of work, but the truth of the matter is that I realize I want to do this because part of me feels stuck.

Motta: For me, it’s been paralyzing and I find it curious that what is motivating me most right now is a new project that I’m doing in collaboration with a young historian in Columbia. We are trying to create a memory of HIV AIDS in Colombia, which doesn’t exist at all. We’re trying to talk to everyone who has been a protagonist of these histories as the basis for a publication and an exhibition that will happen next year. Even though I think the Covid pandemic is very different from the AIDS pandemic, despite some overlaps, I do think that looking at that specific moment in time may give us the tools to rethink the ways in which we can move on. 

Alameddine: There are many, many, many, many differences, of course, but one of the things that was horrifying to me was watching people dying alone, without being touched, and that brought back all the memories of standing in hospitals, and all the nurses in hazmat suits, and that was horrifying.