“I was born in Alexandria, Egypt. But I am not Egyptian. I was born into a Turkish family but I am not Turkish. I was sent to British schools in Egypt but I am not British.” So begins the afterward to Alibis, a new collection of “essays on elsewhere” recently out in paperback by the New York-based writer André Aciman. Since the publication of Out of Egypt, a richly textured memoir about his Jewish family’s final years in Alexandria, Aciman has been a consistent and inventive voice in the public conversation on issues of place, identity, and the elusive ideal of belonging. He is the author of novels such as Call Me By Your Name and Eight White Nights, as well as an earlier essay collection entitled Letters of Transit. Aciman also holds two titles at the CUNY Graduate Center — Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature and Director of The Writers’ Institute.
I spoke to Aciman about how these titles and accomplishments don’t make the quest for self-knowledge any less problematic, the role of Europe in his imaginary, and the difficulties that come with both teaching and crafting the essay.
Michael Schapira: You are both sentimental and unsentimental about the European landscape in Alibis, and there is a telescoping effect present in many of the essays on European locales, bringing different epochs into relation with one another. Sometimes you can work through problems like the effects of tourism or the erasure of certain histories, sometimes these overcome you and you feel a sense of loss. Am I right in characterizing this struggle? And do the reasons for visiting a place affect this?
André Aciman: Whatever I write about is not necessarily what I experienced. The enthusiasm or despair with which I embark to go to Europe is not necessarily genuine. And what I retrieve in Europe is not necessarily genuine. What happens that is truly genuine is what occurs on paper. On paper a story sort of manufactures itself. Sometimes it will come out through the vein of nostalgia for some reason. In “Place des Voges” I’m trying to connect with the place, but I can’t connect for whatever reason. It’s beautiful, I know, but saying it’s beautiful is not going to make it any closer. I come back to New York, I try to remember what it is about the Place de Voges that I am seeking, and I still can’t connect. I know that I will remember it with some kind of elegy in me that will bring something out, and then I realized that the only thing I could do is tell a story about who the people living there were. Connecting them and doing the research that sometimes you need to do brings something out that I didn’t know was going to be there, that even being there did not produce. It is the writing that produced it.
And frankly when I go to Europe, most of the time I’m bored. The romance is gone. Basically what I want to retrieve is the romance, and if paper can do it then paper will be my friend.
But what about Europe as a cultural category, like when we say that W.G. Sebald is a great exemplar of European writing, or Visconti of European cinema?
I think Europe is still for me a very dominant cultural force. In America we have the New York Review of Books, which I think is a fantastic institution. But it is sort of about great books and great art. This is still a very young country.
Books published in translation here might not even be 5%. Everybody reads American writers abroad — why, I have no idea. You wonder, what is enchanting about them? Basically, they are fun writers, they produce what I call prose — they just produce prose, they are not really poets trying to do something else. I see myself as a person who should have been a poet, was a terrible poet, lapsed totally, and said okay, I’ll do prose instead.
All good writers basically, without knowing it sometimes, are reinventing their language. They feel the need to reinvent the conventions of their language. Not just the grammar, but the very conventions of their language. Henry James is a writer that I deplore, but I do think that he was on to that. So was Edith Wharton, a writer I adore, actually. They really understood that their language needed to be reinvented because it wasn’t going to do what they needed it to do. The master of this is James Joyce, who went off the radar, but at the same time was a truly brilliant writer.
We have been running a series called Teaching in the Margins that looks at the intersection of writing and pedagogy. In the spirit of that series, when and why did you become an educator? How has your perspective on teaching changed as your career has developed, and how has your practice as a writer changed?
I got a PhD in Literature because I was interested in becoming a writer. I didn’t know that teaching literature could actually preclude you from writing because it keeps you so busy teaching, publishing, and doing all the other stuff so that you have no time to write. When I was teaching at Princeton I wrote a series of chapters for Out of Egypt, got a contract, and I knew at that point that the whole thing was going to collapse, so I was faced with a difficult decision. I knew that if I wrote Out of Egypt they were going to hate me because they wanted a scholarly book, and I had no interest in producing a scholarly book at that time. So I took the risk and for me it paid off eventually — it was a blessing.
Now you are the head of something called The Writers’ Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center. Can you describe briefly your aspirations for The Writers’ Institute, and in particular where you see its value given that there are number of well-respected MFA programs already available in New York City (and even in the CUNY system, at Hunter College)?
It’s basically my baby. I’m sick and tired of people going to typical MFA programs because you don’t learn anything in an MFA. I mean you write more and you have a cohort of people who are there to help you, but that is often not enough. The Writers’ Institute is taught exclusively by the best editors in New York City, which means in the United States, which means probably in the world. These are people who have no patience with “this is what I was trying to do . . .” Basically they are surgical — nice, but also aggressive. And of course you want to work with these people because if they like you, they will publish you.
Do you think of it along the lines of an apprenticeship model?
Forget apprenticeship, it is more about getting to know the person you want to meet anyway.
You have taught creative writing courses at the Institute. What kind of unique challenges come with teaching the essay form? Often American students will have taken composition courses or even creative fiction workshops where directness and economy are virtues, but the essay entails circling the matter at hand, coming at it from different angles. Is there a process of unlearning that comes with teaching the essay?
There are two answers to the question. The essay itself cannot be a five-paragraph essay. That is the death of the essay. When he was 10 one of my boys wrote a beautiful essay about a hot dog vendor, which I thought was really well done, poetic in its own way. The teacher sent it back with a D because it was not a five-paragraph essay. I said “the guy is a hot dog vendor, what are you going to prove? What is the conclusion? There is no conclusion.”
The other enemy is not the five-paragraph thing. It is that many students are far more comfortable in writing for their school paper. It is hard to go from there to developing a voice in fiction that is purified of all that newspaperese. If you can get rid of that then you are on the right track, but it is a lot of work.
In addition to running The Writers’ Institute you are also the head of the Comparative Literature department, and interact with other academics in an academic setting. For example, we were both at a speech at the Grad Center last week and a non-academic audience would have a very different discussion than the one we witnessed. Why kind of continuities and ruptures do you find when adapting these conversations and conventions of academic writing to your essays or more popular forms of writing?
Well, Alibis is an educated man’s book, there is no question about that, though it’s written for people who don’t know all the specifics, but get the point. You don’t have to have read Proust to understand what a madeleine does in the essays. But to put it as pictorially as I can, I like the idea that there is not just one of us, with one profession and one set of ideas. I like the idea of being like a milk bottle in an amusement park – you know those things that you shoot down. Each one of them is a part of you; there are maybe 30 of you, but definitely not just two of you. And what’s more, they have to talk to each other. Some never talk, they hate each other. Some seek to be friends; some are in love with each other. They change all the time. I find that my identity is the same way. I’ll go from novel to essay to being a reviewer for an academic press, and you do all those things because fundamentally you are a writer, and a writer should have no pretention to be anything else but to be a writer. And when I’m not writing I’m teaching about good writers.
The essays in Alibis often made me think of William Morris, who I was reading about in another book [Sinead Murphy’s excellent The Art Kettle]. Morris made many efforts to cultivate a commitment to craft, or to push the morally uplifting work that comes with of surrounding yourself with beautiful objects. For Morris much of this was expressed through design, but in Alibis it comes through the senses — such as the persistent focus on smells throughout the essays. The problem that strikes me is that this project can be expensive these days, with cheap, serviceable goods possibly distracting people from this focus. Do you see prospects of reanimating a commitment to craft, beauty, or attending to things in our environment in ways that were perhaps more common in the world you depicted in Out of Egypt or Morris hoped for in 19th century Britain?
I actually think it’s cheaper than you are making it out to be. We all buy things. My students may not have any money, but they wear a different kind of sneaker every week, so they must have a collection of sneakers. Why do you need six pairs of sneakers? Well, because it does something for you. So I think every single person has something in which they invest money that they call “a luxury.” You buy the Penguin edition that costs five times as much as the Dover edition. I collected aftershaves not because I’m an aesthete, but because they became important to me. Every aftershave had a part of me that I couldn’t retrieve unless I went there to that smell. I went to the gym today and after shaving rather hastily I realized that my aftershave was finished. I didn’t throw away the bottle, it’s in my gym bag and I’m going to bring it back home. I like these bottles, don’t ask me why. I have no idea. But if something is important or beautiful to you, then you will find ways to incorporate that thing into your surroundings.
Partially because of the facts of your biography, partially because of the Alexandria you depicted in Out of Egypt, you have often been considered to be a cosmopolitan writer. I find this to often be an empty term meant to signify some other notion (sometimes politically quietist, sometimes having to do with questions of identity). Have you thought much about this label? What might it mean in your case and what it might it mean in general for writers of our time?
It’s a complicated term because it has sexiness built into it, which is the unfortunate part. Cosmopolitan means that you are multi-national, that you belong in many places, that you can belong in many places, that you are tolerant of other people, that you’ve travelled widely, that you are a jet-setter, it has all these fringe things. But actually being cosmopolitan means that you lack something fundamental, which is an anchor, a way of belonging to a place, without which you feel you have an identity that is a minus. That is how I was born. I was born in a place that was never going to be my home — I knew this from my earliest childhood. And I didn’t want to belong to it either, because I hated it and couldn’t wait to get out. But every other place I went to from there was never going to be my home either, and I knew that as well. Italy was not my home, France was not my home, England certainly wasn’t, and the United States, even though I became an American citizen, is in many respects a foreign country. So, yeah, you are a cosmopolitan, you speak many languages, blah, blah, blah, but you’re lost.
At the end of the day, I think every American person, even your age, at some point is comforted by the fact that in some homes you visit there is likely to be white Wonderbread, peanut butter, and jelly. I’m using a tribe metaphor to drive the point home, but there is no peanut butter or jelly or white bread in my past. That is lost. So I always have to invent a sandwich. But I’d pay anything to have that safety. I don’t know what it is.
However, the place where you spent your childhood has been in the global eye for the past year. How do you look at recent events in Egypt?
Mostly anger. I cannot forgive Egypt for what it did. I think the Egyptian people are wonderful people. They are also probably the kindest people I’ve met in my life one on one. Even if they don’t know you and meet you in the street, they will be nice to you, because that’s how they are. But when you politicize them, which unfortunately they’ve all been, they can become extremely radicalized. Then you see horrible things occur.
We have a democratically elected government, but I don’t know what that means. You can see what the leader is doing right now; it’s like a coup d’etat, from somebody who rose because he allegedly believed in democracy. I don’t know where Egypt is. I don’t know what its values are; I don’t know what the Middle East is all about any longer.
But as I’ve said in print many times, I am with the young people who were in Tahrir Square, who want exactly what young people around the world want. They want a future, they want prospects, they want jobs, and they want the ability to speak and to think freely. Those are the people who really led the rebellion. I trust them, and would do whatever I could do to back them up, which unfortunately is not much. But the other actors are retrograde; they are leading Egypt back into the desert as far as I’m concerned.
Coming back to the book, was it difficult to keep a consistent tone throughout Alibis?
I was never an essayist, but when Out of Egypt came out I gave a lot of talks. It occurred to me that I could craft those talks in such a way that I would give a different talk every time I was invited, particularly if I was invited to a different city. Eventually what happened is that I would write a talk and deliver it as a talk, but it was really an essay. What I wanted to do as a craftsman was to write in such a way that you could produce something that is scriptorially quite eloquent, yet at same time make people forget that they are hearing a paper. Many papers lack the human function, so I write with voice implied, and I hope that comes though.
And how do you go about sequencing a book of essays like this?
First, you make a list of all the essays that you have. I then went and spoke with my publisher. We sat down and I said we had to remove quite a few of them because it is not a collection of essays; it has to be a book with a particular tone to it and a particular vision. I had no problem and he had no problem about having a short book — it could have been twice its size, but it would have no character.
I came up with the title of Alibis because it captures everything about the nature of the essays. They are all about being somewhere else. Not only in space, but somewhere else in time, as well – of having another identity, another persona. Like the milk bottles I was speaking about.
There is a moment in the essay “Lavender” that I think is the best thing I’ve ever written. The narrator is describing himself at this age, himself at that age, himself at another age, and obviously he is suggesting that none of them have died. They haven’t morphed into each other — they are all there. He then says that I have all these mes and obviously have a life, but I don’t have a sense that I’ve lived my life. I may have lived quite a different life — or the real life that I should be living maybe has not been lived yet. That is the kind of question that you ask yourself in an essay; it is the kind of question that Montaigne would have asked of himself. And there is no answer for these questions, there is no one form for it.
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