“Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.” (Call Me by Your Name)
No writer today can capture and convey the elusive and haunting fluidity of memory, time, place, and love like novelist, memoirist, and essayist André Aciman. He is the author of the essay collections, Alibis and False Papers, and several novels, including the Lambda Literary Award-winning and New York Times Bestseller Call Me by Your Name, a novel that was made into a universally-acclaimed film. His work has appeared in numerous publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The New York Review of Books, to name a few. He has written extensively on Marcel Proust and is the editor of The Proust Project essay collection. His new volume of essays—Homo Irrealis—will be published in January 2021. A distinguished professor at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York, André Aciman has been guiding and inspiring countless students into deepening their understanding of literature and never settling for less than their best and most honest efforts when writing. I am thrilled that he took the time to share some of his thoughts with us.
You mentioned that establishing daily routines helps you cope better with the restrictions of these times. For a writer who is so prolific and who can write anywhere—from solitary spaces to crowded subways—how do you find the impact of the isolation on your writing routine?
Isolation has never been something I sought—for the simple reason that I’ve always been ashamed of it. Growing up, I was always accused of being solitary, so I assumed that being alone or without friends was something to be avoided. I’ve always fled isolation; but it took me years to realize that I did indeed love being by myself. I still hesitate to tell people that, as a writer, I am mostly alone all day. What universal confinement has done was to dispel the stigma of shame and to allow me to embrace solitude as something that reflects what my profession has always been asking me to accept. Solitude mostly, but not always.
Last year, the timeless love story of “Call Me by Your Name” found its conclusion in “Find Me.” This year will see the release of your two novellas on Audible: “The Gentleman From Peru” on July 28th and “Mariana” in late fall/winter. Are there any themes in the new audio books connected to your past works?
The Gentleman from Peru is inspired from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and is about an older man’s quest to retrace his steps to rehabilitate and restore his past. It’s the ultimate dream, but it does dovetail with Find Me, where the older father meets a young woman on a train and, under her persistent prompting, decides to spend the rest of his life with her.
You were born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, from where you were forced to leave—your family’s story is so poignantly and beautifully depicted in your lauded Whiting Award-winning memoir “Out of Egypt.” You moved to Rome, another city that holds a special place in your heart. Now you are a quintessential New Yorker. As immigrants we carry our worlds of origin with us. It seems to me that part of New York City’s uniqueness lies in its capacity to absorb the aura of the worlds we arrive with, and emanate those worlds back to us transmuted, while leaving its own indelible stamp on us. What are your thoughts on this? How might this confluence of diverse worlds offer us strength and inspiration?
To any person who’s had to settle anywhere, no new place is ever merely itself. Nor does the old one remain quite itself either. The new place always becomes a reflection and an extension of another place—sometimes a forced extension of the original place. When you’ve moved places more than once, then the reflections are exponentially augmented. In my case, not only is New York an extension of Rome and, through Rome, an extension of Alexandria, but these reflections take on a recursive character: New York can be reflected in Alexandria, just as it could be found in discrete spots of Rome.
The future slips into the past as easily as the past intrudes upon the present. I’ve also lived in Paris, so throw Paris in the mix, not only are the reflections further augmented but the very nature of finding a home becomes an illusion: a home cannot be a home when it competes with other homes—when, that is, the old refuses to disappear and is continuously thrust upon the new. It is this rivalry that has defined my work. Not only is it easily found whenever I speak of the places in which I’ve lived, but it is intensified when, for example, the beach house in Call Me by Your Name is not only located in Italy but is itself the transposition of an imaginary home in Alexandria. Not coincidentally, Find Me takes place in Rome, in Paris, in New York, and in Alexandria.
But these transpositions are true of so many other things that are not necessarily tied to place. The people we love who are sometimes mere transpositions of older loves, the memories we cradle that are, in fact, not memories at all but memories of fantasies that were once cherished but never realized—everything past intrudes upon the present, and even the fantasies that were never realized intrude upon the present, claiming that they too, like memories, have a past as well.
New York is a fabulous city, but to someone who comes from elsewhere it is more than just New York. Our ancient homes are lodged in New York, our past meddles in the present, and the dream of restoration always dogs our footsteps each time we move to a new neighborhood. That dream of course becomes a fantasy and therefore never dies.
To discover more about André Aciman and his works, please visit his author page on Amazon.
Top photo credit: Sigrid Estrada