Featuring a kaleidoscopic cast of refugees (mostly Syrian) and aid workers (from around the world), Rabih Alameddine’s new novel “The Wrong End of the Telescope” (Grove) is set on the Greek island of Lesbos. It’s a setting Alameddine experienced personally, when he was there in 2015, working with refugees. For the San Francisco-based writer and painter Alameddine, “working meant basically just interviewing refugees and talking to people,” he said, but he admired all the work the other volunteers performed in the chaos.
The novel’s protagonist is Mina, a trans woman who is a surgeon back home in Chicago (though her ancestral home is nearby Lebanon). “In some ways, the fact that she’s a surgeon is just as important as the fact that she’s trans,” Alameddine said. “That she’s able to be enmeshed and able to separate and have some form of emotional distance.”
As a trans woman, Mina “had to reinvent herself,” he added. “Sort of what the refugees had to do. She has had to put her past aside, and there is always this talk among the refugees that everything they’ve done matters little now. There are threads that keep repeating.”
Rejected by much of her family, Mina has also come to be reunited with her brother, who has remained in Lebanon and refused to sever their connection. This too is familiar territory. “I have a lot of family ruptures, but I’ve always said my father would kill me before he’d disown me,” Alameddine said. “He stopped talking to me for a long time, but he’d buy me the ticket from here to Beirut so that he could be in the same room with me and not talk to me. It’s the ultimate Lebanese family.”
For a book about the refugee crisis, “The Wrong End of the Telescope” is surprisingly funny. “I’ve always said, ‘You want to hear the funniest jokes, go to a war country,’ ” Alameddine said. “In a crazy world, you cannot tell a sane story.”
Alameddine will read 6:30 p.m. Monday in a virtual event hosted by Brookline Booksmith.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.