I FIRST READ André Aciman, fittingly, while living in Harvard Square. My narrative nonfiction class was assigned "Lavender," his essay originally published in the Harvard Review. Aciman’s descriptions of place, smell, and memories moved me; his essay is proof that anything — an object, flower, smell — can serve as a tool to explore layers of personal history. Aciman’s latest work, Harvard Square: A Novel, set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1977, is a meditation on identity and belonging. Not surprisingly, the protagonist — an Egyptian Jewish PhD student — closely resembles Aciman himself.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Aciman lived in Italy and France before moving to the United States. He received the Whiting Writers’ Award for his 1994 debut memoir, Out of Egypt, and has continued to write essays and novels. Aciman currently chairs the Department of Comparative Literature and directs The Writers’ Institute at CUNY. He spoke to me about how his work and life are intertwined, the feeling of being an outsider, and advice for writers starting their careers. We also made a discovery: we both once lived in the same building in Harvard Square, decades apart.
Hope Reese: You were born in Alexandria, Egypt, and lived in Rome and Paris before moving to New York in 1968. What was it like when you first moved to America?
André Aciman: Growing up, I had paralyzing migraines that forced me to sleep almost the whole day. But as soon as I came to America, something must have been lifted: I never had a migraine again. It was psychosomatic — the ultimate metaphor for well-being.
I had already been in American schools abroad, so I was familiar with Americans. But there was always a divide between me and American culture. The way of eating, behaving, thinking, feeling — particularly feeling — was different.
HR: You mainly spoke French growing up, but Italian, Greek, and Arabic were also spoken at home, and you wrote in English. Can you talk about how being surrounded by different languages has affected your writing?
AA: Growing up with many languages opens up many universes. You have a footing in many cultures, belief systems, and centuries. Not every language belongs to the 21st century. Some are medieval, some Victorian. The British school I went to was fundamentally Victorian, so I learned in a Victorian culture in the 20th century, which didn’t make sense. Arabic was universal, but it wasn’t exactly a modern language. I write in English almost 100 percent of the time but, although I’m not really a craftsman when it comes to French or Italian, sometimes I write in French as a notation system and translate it into English.
HR: The narrator, based on you, is an unnamed Jewish graduate student, originally from Alexandria, Egypt, at Harvard in 1977. Why did you choose to leave him nameless?
AA: You know, does it make a difference?
HR: Well, it makes me wonder why you wrote the story as a novel instead of a memoir.
AA: I hesitate called myself “André” in a novel. In my writing, I have impatience for precise, factual information — name, religion, profession, age, master’s [degree], no master’s, et cetera. I hate realism as a literary culture. Some things in my story have shifted, and I needed the freedom to do this. I needed to make the story shorter and more concise. And I’ve created cause and effect that may not have happened exactly that way in real life. For example, I don’t outline the number of times I saw Kalaj — I just give you a few instances. But those few are packed with information culled from many encounters.
HR: In your friendship with Kalaj, a taxi driver from Tunisia, you explore identity and belonging. You are both foreigners who struggle financially and share a “very peculiar scorn” for others. Yet your personalities couldn’t be more different: Kalaj is the “loudest man on Harvard Square” and you are “permanently motionless.” Can you talk about this?
AA: Kalaj is the rough draft of who I am. I am the finished copy. The one where the erasures have been made, where the rough spots have been polished. I’m as roughshod as he is, except I’ve learned to hide it. I also have a singular advantage: I am legal, he is not. I go to Harvard, a patrician institution; he’s a cab driver, a servant. That makes us very different. The young man I was then didn’t care — or at least a good part of me didn’t care — that he was a cab driver. He spoke my language, we understood each other totally, we shared centuries of common history.
HR: Throughout the novel you are either avoiding Kalaj or desperately seeking him out. What is it about Kalaj that triggered such complicated feelings?
AA: I liked his sense of humor and the fact that he had no respect for things that I probably didn’t respect either. And I liked his ability to be upfront about things that would normally shock many Americans. Even for 1977, he was the most un-PC human being in the world. He was also overbearing and had no idea what privacy meant. I also felt threatened by the fact that if somebody saw me with him, especially my professors, they would think I was as much of a vagrant as he was. I had built a very sophisticated shield to block people from seeing that I was really third world and had values that were crass. I didn’t want people to see him and suspect that I was the same way.
HR: You write, “No human being is one thing and one thing only.” Kalaj is a taxi driver, but later a professor. The narrator is a timid grad student who becomes a bold lover. What do your characters learn from trying on different roles?
AA: Kalaj has no center. The narrator does not have a center either. They are both trying to get a straight footing on this planet. That is the fundamental crisis that they suffer from. Both are exiles — they don’t belong to France, which they thought would be their possible home, and they don’t belong to America. They try all kinds of jobs, all kinds of societies, until something fits. But nothing ever fits. That’s the real tragedy of exile — you lose your original home and you don’t find another one.
HR: I love that you express ideas most people have but would never admit to. Your narrator confesses very dark thoughts about Kalaj: “If only they’d deport him tonight so that I wouldn’t have to explain why I wanted him out of my life.” What does this say about you or your characters?
AA: It’s funny you should say that. Many people who have read the book in manuscript form make the comment: “Gee, I’ve had friends I couldn’t wait to get rid of, but I felt guilty and hated myself for thinking that.” My fundamental mission is to explore areas with total candor. There’s no point in saying nice things if you didn’t feel them — you should say what you really felt. My language tends to be very chaste and polished, but at the same time I’m in-your-face when it comes to truths about human beings. Sometimes when we love people and we cannot have them, we wish they would die. It’s a horrible thought, but there it is.
HR: You talk about how the two feel ill at ease at Harvard. Yet the school itself is full of people from different backgrounds. Can you talk about what Harvard represents to you?
AA: I don’t think Harvard is diverse. It has tiny populations of student groups but they are handpicked with one condition: you must respect the fact that Harvard is a patrician institution created for and by WASPs. There is no mystery about this. It doesn’t matter if 90 percent of the students are Jewish or Asian or whatever. The fact is that the institution is WASP, and they maintain that particular outlook and profile. That becomes a culture you have to enter into. That is something Kalaj never learned to do — he never understands those rules. The narrator understands the rules.
HR: How does the “fairy tale” of Harvard fit into the American dream?
AA: Let’s face it: I did not want to become an investment banker or a lawyer, so I didn’t take that route. But Harvard has fiefdoms all over the country, and once you get in, you can jump into any of those little fiefdoms — say, Park Avenue — and suddenly you have invitations to dinners there and make friends with Park Avenue people. There’s a whole network Harvard cultivates for students to take advantage of. There are many ways of taking advantage of it. My wife went to Harvard, and I met her at a party a former student invited me to. She was there, I was there, we became friends, we got married. Harvard didn’t make that possible, but it certainly was a good agent in the narrative. You stay here for x number of years, get good grades, meet the right people, and you are off in the world. Kalaj never had that opportunity. He was inside it for a few months, but then was fired. The danger for me was to be fired from the inside. I had failed my oral exams the first time and was scared to death I would fail again. If I failed again, I would be kicked out. The whole dream aspect of Harvard was about to shut down on me and I was very scared.
HR: You’ve claimed that the act of writing them down can change the experiences you have in real life. Can you talk about this?
AA: Writing is a deceptive thing. We write in order to concretize things that are amorphous in us. We put them down on paper to see them better. But articulating something may calcify it. That is particularly true when it comes to memory. Once I’ve written a memory down on paper, I remember what is on paper, not what really happened. The act of writing can alter the very thing that you were writing about. When we avoid writing something, we are not avoiding because it’s dangerous or might hurt us or we don’t want to confront it; sometimes it’s because we fear we will concretize it once and for all, and lose the beautiful incandescence it has when it hasn’t been worded yet.
HR: Does the experience of having your written words published make you feel like less of an outsider?
AA: No. I’m always an outsider. Sometimes I’ll be in a cab and realize the driver is from Egypt and if I’m in a good mood I’ll start speaking to him in Arabic. He’ll be surprised that I know Arabic, and we’ll go at it and have a few jokes. Suddenly I feel very much at home. I’ll think: this is who I am. This is my childhood, this is my life, and these are my friends. What am I doing here? Yeah, I’ve published books, I’m known. But you know what? It doesn’t build a home.
HR: You started out writing poetry, and you’ve written memoir, essays, and fiction. Which style of writing, if any, suits you best?
AA: I think everything I write, whether it’s a book review, an essay, a novel, or a memoir, is more or less written in the same style. I like meditation, I like introspection, I like to ruminate. I don’t necessarily like to establish facts. I’m more likely to prowl around them without naming them. I think that trying to be a poet helped me to grow into a linguistic form that is not magazine-y, not journalistic, not your basic short-story genre — I don’t know how to write that way. I’m coming from the humility of a failed poet who likes to write with a particular cadence as opposed to just providing information.
HR: You talk about the importance of reading the classics, and during adolescence considered writers like Hemingway, Orwell, and Salinger to be “lesser writers.” Has your view changed over the years?
AA: No. My views have not changed.
HR: Are there any modern writers you enjoy reading?
AA: There are almost no contemporary writers I enjoy. First of all, I don’t read contemporary writers because I have no interest. I don’t particularly like the idiom that they write in, which truly annoys me. Though I look at some of this stuff, I try to be familiar with it, for me it’s all very much matter-of-fact information. But I’m not interested in information. I want to be enchanted. I want to be taken into something that is me through you. I want you to take me to things that I want to know about myself. Giving me the history of a family in Minnesota where the mother is this and the father is that and one of the children is retarded, et cetera, et cetera, the father is about to have cancer or be fired from his job — I couldn’t care less! It’s all stuff that I don’t even want to spend a minute reading.
HR: Is there a way that that story could be written where you would enjoy it?
AA: Of course, of course. I think that we don’t really read for the story; we read in order to encounter a consciousness that is aware of the human tragedy. Our lives are fundamentally tragic. There’s a lot of pain. That’s what I want to encounter. I don’t want to hear the details, I want to hear the treatment of the details. I want to be taken to a place where you take that tragedy and make it into an aesthetic experience. Look at Goya’s paintings — they’re about really ugly things, but they are fantastic. That’s what I want. And that’s why I stress the issue of style. You have to have a style that’s above ordinary speech — that has no business trying to be like ordinary speech. How you hide the fact that it’s not ordinary speech by pretending to be ordinary speech is the act of a craftsperson. This idea that we’re interested in how we really are as a country, as a society, that this is how people speak and this is how they live their lives — I have no interest in that.
HR: You say new writers should start out doing book reviews. Why?
AA: I teach graduate students how to write book reviews because I think they are the bread-and-butter of a scholar and a writer. Most journals and magazines have plenty of room for book reviews. But there’s usually room for one short story or feature piece. They need book reviews, they need people they can ask, “Why don’t you take those two books and write a review?” It’s a good way to establish clips. A book review does not take a long time to do — you read a book, write about it, and that’s it. And it gets you in. By the time I’d published my third book review, I picked up the phone and said, “Look, I’d like to write a short story. Would you be interested?” “Yeah, sure, send it over!” They know you, they trust you. And then your foot is in the door.
HR: At one point in your life, you abandoned your academic career to work as a stockbroker, and later at an ad agency. What was that like?
AA: I was always interested in being a writer and I figured the next best thing I could do to make a living while being a writer was to go into comparative literature. It seemed like a smart trajectory. But after a few years in comparative literature, I realized there were no jobs out there, or they were hard to get. The road was very long. So once I passed my exams I abandoned my graduate studies and moved on to something that might make more money. I was smart enough, I could do it. Eventually I took some business courses. I did okay, not terrifically, and realized I was not going to last in business school because I wasn’t interested in learning more about what was going on in the stock market. I couldn’t care less. I wanted to read and I wanted to write. Eventually I got fired from my advertising job, and I realized I should go back to the thing that I knew best. I went and finished my dissertation.
HR: You currently direct the Writers’ Institute at CUNY. In a recent interview, you said that you’re “sick and tired of people going to typical MFA programs.” How is your program different?
AA: Most people go for an MFA hoping it will help them produce a manuscript that they can sell. Most people end up using their MFA to teach at other MFA programs. The best programs hire famous writers to teach. The problem with that is that some of them could be great teachers, but they can only teach you what they know. So I decided to create an institute where the only people teaching are the best, most visible, most prestigious editors in New York City. An editor sees millions of pieces. They read them fast and make surgical intrusions into a text they hope to publish. That has benefited me tremendously. A writer friend may say, “Why don’t you alter this?” or “This may not work.” An editor will say, “cut,” “paste,” or, “How about you give up on this? It’s no good.” An editor, if he or she likes what you’ve done, may help you get published, which is the mission.
HR: You were frustrated while pursuing your PhD that “there is no connection” between the writer’s life and the academic’s. How do you reconcile that difference today?
AA: When I was teaching literature at Princeton as an assistant professor on the tenure track, I was told that I had to publish an academic book and several articles. Okay. Meanwhile, I’d gotten a contract to write Out of Egypt, and I wouldn’t stop writing that in order to write an academic book. I made a radical decision that I was going to put all my eggs in Out of Egypt and then write an academic book, which I did. The success of Out of Egypt eclipsed everything, and people thought I was a novelist or memoirist — so how could I teach literature? Princeton did not give me tenure. Bard College — they gave me tenure. The decision was simple: this guy knows how to write, understands literature, and can teach it as a scholar and practitioner. When I interview students for my PhD program now, my last question is always: “By the way, do you want to be a writer?” They say “Yes, but I don’t think I can acknowledge that yet.” Being a writer is a very important thing to anybody who has any business with literature. It’s essential.
HR: You wrote of Egypt in Alibis: “What we missed was the Egypt where we’d dreamed of Europe.” While you were at Harvard, were you dreaming of another place you wanted to move on to?
AA: I did not want to spend my life in Cambridge. The places at Harvard that made me feel happy were the places that reminded me of the Middle East — Café Algiers being one of them. Basically, it fended off Cambridge and the United States. It took me elsewhere. You go there, it’s dark and you think you’re elsewhere. Some places in Boston reminded me of New York. I was never in one place, ever, in my whole life, without thinking of being somewhere else.