Building a Home with Words: JCU Welcomes Author André Aciman

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“I have made writing about exile my home,” says author André Aciman. “I become me when I write; I build my own home with words and paper.”

John Cabot University welcomed the acclaimed author for a conversation with Professor Deanna Lee on June 28th. The event was sponsored by the Department of English Language and Literature and the Harvard Club of Italy.

Aciman is the author of the bestselling novel Call Me by Your Name, recently adapted for the screen and nominated for several Academy Awards (winning for Best Adapted Screenplay). He is also a leading scholar of French literature and a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he teaches courses on the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust. Born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, he spent several years in Rome before his family relocated to the U.S.

André Aciman and Deanna Lee

André Aciman and Deanna Lee

Deanna Lee is a visiting professor of Communications at JCU. She is the recipient of eight news and documentary Emmy Awards. As overseas producer for ABC News Nightline, she worked in the former Yugoslavia, Israel and the Middle East, Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Australia. She was also a senior producer for ABC’s World News Tonight and the vice president for communications and marketing at The New York Public Library. In 2011 she launched Biblion: The Boundless Library, an Apple Hall of Fame iPad education app. Since 2013, she has been a member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers.

Professor Lee began the conversation with a discussion of the 2013 novel Harvard Square, in which the main characters are a graduate student and his fellow Mediterranean immigrant friend, who is “aggressively disdainful of jumbo America.” The main themes of the book are the challenges of a multicultural identity, the immigrant’s sense of longing and the desire to belong, and what it means to be in exile. Like one of the book’s protagonists, Aciman did not like Harvard when he first arrived and he felt that he did not belong there.

Similarly, Aciman did not like Italy when he first visited, but changed his mind after watching Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard. “I fell in love with Italy while watching this movie in Paris. This is the story of my life.” He calls this phenomenon “the after love.”

In keeping with the theme of exile, Prof. Lee asked Aciman to comment on the dramatic situation of refugees today, and he said, “To be a refugee is a terrifying experience. After surviving a terrible sea voyage on a small boat you think that the worst is over, but in reality, the worst comes later, because you might not be welcome. Your feet might be on the ground, but the ground is not yours and you may feel, like I did, that the ground holds a grudge against you. You need a welcoming environment to try to forget the hardships you went through,” he explained.

In his books False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory, Aciman discusses the craft of writing. “I write to discover what I have written. You discover the idea that you are writing about while you are writing. Through writing I begin to uncover what I am.” Interestingly, there is one type of writing that Aciman detests – realism: “People want to be realists, but what I am interested in is truth. A book introduces me to myself. Realism is about information, but you can get it in the newspapers. Literature is something else, and I couldn’t care less about reality.” According to Aciman, “the author is committed to the truth, and the only truth you know as a writer is yourself. If you are honest with yourself, put it on paper and publish it. People will say this person had the courage to say it the way I would have never said it. That is the job of writers, to take the readers to places that can become revelations.”

André Aciman at JCU

André Aciman at JCU

As Aciman admits, he does not have one native language. “Although my mother tongue is actually French, I cannot write in it, because I did not master it like English. The English language allows me to do what no other language does; I like its fluidity. I am a fiction writer and what interests me is desire. How do you communicate desire to a reader when you do not feel that you are in the language in which desire occurs?”

Speaking of language, Aciman talked about the special relationship he had with his deaf mother. He said that for her “language remained peripheral because she had more immediate ways of communicating. In fact, we communicated through the sound of love.”

When Professor Lee brought up the musicality of his novels and the classical music references in his work, Aciman explained, “There are references to classical music in everything I have written, because it’s the only kind of music that I like. I write poetry in prose and then I deconstruct the prose so it will not sound like poetry, but many of my sentences have a musical rhythm that is like a reminder of my desire to be a poet. It is also not just the words that suggest the meaning; the rhythm of the words comes with a particular meaning, and I want this meaning to get to the reader in such a way so the reader will feel moved without even knowing why.”

In the book Enigma Variations: A Novel (2017), Aciman explores the topic of time and events variation. “In this novel, there are five moments in the life of a character, who is looking for his identity. Each one is a variation on a particular theme that I do not give to the reader. I provide five variations in this book, but we do not know what the original theme is. Similarly, people go to a therapist to find out what the fundamental theme of their life is because their lives have been a constant variation on a theme they do not know. I am always incredibly perplexed and intrigued by the thought that when you write particularly about one set of events and you have one plotline, you realize that plotline is actually obfuscating the other plotline, and you wish you had both plotlines so the characters could find happiness in a least one of them.”

In the bestselling novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), there are two plotlines that are valid, but they never coexist. Lee went on to ask Aciman about the appeal of the same-sex relationship novel. To Aciman, the fact that people feel stirrings for people of the same sex is “the biggest secret of humanity” that everybody thinks of but few talk about.

The author continued to reflect on the topic of time and events variations:  “Counting the days until I leave a place is my way of contemplating joy. Sometimes in friendships you are already looking for the exit door, and it is OK. You distrust the present when you are in exile, you lose the ability to have roots everywhere in anything. It is my way of arming myself against all possible adversities of time. You do all the things with time to distance yourself from the pain of another separation.”

At the end of the evening, Professor Lee asked Aciman to answer some questions from the “Proust Questionnaire,” since the author is an expert on the French novelist and once said, “to read Proust is to read yourself.”

His answers were:

Your favorite virtue? – Loyalty
Your favorite quality in a man and in a woman? – Intelligence
What do you most appreciate in your friends? – Loyalty
Your main flaw? – Hesitation
Your idea of misery?  – People, sometimes
Your favorite composer – Very late Beethoven
Your favorite occupation? – Writing