André Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt to French-speaking parents in a Jewish home where Italian, Ladino, Greek, and Arabic were also spoken. After his family was forced to leave Egypt in 1965, they lived briefly in Italy and France before settling in New York. His critically acclaimed memoir Out of Egypt paints an impressionistic portrait of what The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani called “a now vanished world.” The book was published in 1995 and won the Whiting Writers’ Award.
Aciman’s has written two novels, Call Me by Your Name, and Eight White Nights and has edited a collection on Marcel Proust entitled The Proust Project. He has also written two essay collections, False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory and ALIBIS: Essays on Elsewhere, the paperback edition of which was published by Picador in December 2012.
Aciman earned his BA from CUNY and his PhD from Harvard University. He is currently a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York.
Fittingly, this interview took place between two continents, facilitated by Skype. We spoke about displacement, linguistic exile, and regret.
Let’s go back to the very beginning. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was nine or ten, I wrote a poem. It was called “The Night.” I don’t know what made me write the poem – I was probably trying to get admiration or attention. It was a long poem, about two pages. What it did for me is that it didn’t just get me the attention I wanted to get; it also opened up an entirely new universe. I loved the idea that one can think in poetic terms when everything around me was so prosaic and so dull and so far flung from mainstream anything. I mean, I was living in Egypt, which I felt was a backwater. Here was a universe that opened up to me, and I cultivated that universe for quite a few years, writing poems all the time.
Did you show this first poem to anyone?
I showed it to my dad, of course. That was the whole Oedipal situation. He gave me the admiration I wanted, it was shown around to the family, people liked it and said all the right things, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. As I was growing into an adolescent and even into late adolescence, I showed my poems to my teachers and so on. They said nice things, but I could see that there were problems. And then at some point, one of my teachers – a man I admired a great deal – said, “They are all very nice, but they still smack of childhood.”
Ouch, that’s pretty rough.
Oh yeah. Here I was, thinking I was a blooming person…I was being almost chastised and humbled to the point where I realized that maybe poetry is not for me. I am saying all this and I’ve said it before: I came to prose because I wasn’t good enough for poetry. I think Joyce had the same problem, so did Marcel Proust – they were really poets who didn’t quite do it as poets. So they settled for second best.
I am still writing as a poet who is trying to hide all evidence of poetry. I come to prose not from journalism or from short story writing, but from the humility of having been chastised as a poet. It is always going to be a second-best genre because I wasn’t good enough for the first one.
You spoke several languages growing up – what was the language that you wrote that first poem in and what language, or languages, did you write in when you were young?
I wrote in English because I went to English schools. So that was what some might call the language of currency. But at home we spoke French. At the age of seventeen or eighteen I tried my hand at writing something in French, and I realized it wasn’t going to work.
Were you reading mostly in English as well?
Yes, I always read in English. But French is my second language and I did my very best on my own to keep it alive, though I was never good enough to write in French. But English was an acquired language. And I am saying this fully aware that one language was never the right one, and the one that I used was really my acquired one. So neither of them was really what one might call my “real” language. I settled for both without feeling at home in either.
Even though French was what your parents spoke to you, it was your mother tongue?
It was my mother tongue, it was my mother’s tongue. I was never fluent in the right way that a writer needs to be fluent in order to conduct business in French.
Writing that first poem made you realize that new worlds were available to you. Can you recall an early reading experience that had a similar impact on you?
I was blown away at the age of fifteen when I read Joyce’s The Dead. I remember exactly the moment because I got the book as a gift over Christmas that same year. So I was reading The Dead during Christmas vacation in January on a bus. At the last few page I said, “This is fantastic and I have no idea why because it is not a story that I can quite identify with.” I am not even sure I understood the story or got the point of the story. Which I still don’t. But something in it told me that I had entered a zone that a lot of prose writers just weren’t taking me to.
You have to realize that at the time that I was reading this book, most of my friends at school were reading The Catcher in the Rye. You’re talking about two totally different universes of style, of girth, of breadth.
When you were young, did you have a sense of what it would mean, practically, to pursue life as a writer?
No. One can fantasize about being a writer and one can get a few glimpses of the fantasy. Like the moment when the people who scorned you show up begging you to sign your books, that sort of thing. But I had no sense that I could actually conduct life as a writer. In fact, I thought I was going to be a business major when I went to college even though I knew that literature and poetry meant more to me. I had a feeling that it was always going to be playing second fiddle to the real business of life and of providing income and money and so on. And that was a compromise that I think I was willing to make, and never questioned.
Do you think that expectation came from your home environment?
The person who mattered the most was my father. And I never pushed the question of being a writer far enough for him to say, “Well, have you thought about how you are going to earn your bread?” Because I was always already in a position of compromise. First I was going to be a business major. Then I thought that the closest thing was a career in academia which might provide me with the opportunity and time to write. And eventually I abandoned the academic career for five years and worked as a stockbroker, because I needed money. Money had always been very important to me, in part because I had had more taste of it before we lost it all when we left Egypt. So, I knew how important comfort and money was and I wanted that. If I was going to choose between money and writing, I was going to choose money.
Life sort of caught me unprepared, because I was really not very good at making money. [Laughs. ] So, in a sense I was told, “Why don’t you do what you do best?”
Your family was forced to leave Egypt. First you went to Italy, then finally you arrived in New York. There was a lot of disruption in your life, a lot of drama – historical drama – going on around you! How did you, as an adolescent, deal with all this upheaval?
There was tremendous upheaval. There were two upheavals that were momentous. One was loss of income, loss of money. Suddenly, you are poor. That is a very, very important upheaval. And second of all, you’re in exile. In other words, you are in a place where you don’t belong but where you are made to feel that you will be living for the rest of your life. Most people don’t understand what not belonging to a place means. Those are the two things that happened to me that shook me up profoundly.
However, as a budding writing who did not know that he was budding, these were no the things I was writing about. I was writing about people who were quite settled, at least in the outward facets of their lives. Because, in a way, writing for me was a hideaway where you could think out things that were no longer possible or that you still wished for but were not being given to you. So I was writing about wealthy people and I was writing about sexual relationships that were occurring quite easily. Here I was, fifteen years old, practically inexperienced in anything yet having these fantastic experiences with women! It was all either remembrance or wishful thinking.
My writing [then] was never about the things I ended up writing about many, many decades later when I felt that I do want to remember Italy as it was, I do want to remember France and why it was never available to me. You see, these are all retrospective moves. But when I was there, I was basically slipping out in prose, however easily I could.
Did you show what you were writing to your father the way you had before?
I took a creative writing course and I think the people in the class knew that I was a very good writer. They could sense it. That was my last year in high school. After that, I don’t think I showed anyone anything I wrote until I was forty years old.
I don’t know. I felt there was always something so unfinished about the stuff I was writing. Somehow the command of the language was not quite there. There was either an inflection that was not native to English or there was an attempt to marshal competence when I felt that the competence wasn’t quite there. It had to do more with the language than with the stories.
This sounds like an echoing of the sense of being exiled, perhaps even being exiled in language.
Yes. I would write something and then, say, three weeks later I would look at it and at that point would pick up that inflection…there was something about the voice that didn’t feel right. It wasn’t part of the craft, it was actually a sense that the language was not mastered. It felt as if someone was trying to hide the traces of a foreign language. And trying too hard to do that. It felt artificial.
That must have felt…like you were alienated from yourself somehow. It must have been very frustrating to not have any language in which you felt entirely authentic.
Yes. But it has the benefit of teaching you other things. First of all, we all know that language is hardly the medium in which to communicate the most profound things about ourselves. A good writer manages to tackle that particular monster called language but you are always aware that you are never even coming close to what you are trying to say. Second of all, the converse is also true; that the things you ended up saying may have come to you because the language was available, that you never actually meant to say but that feel fantastic linguistically. And now you don’t know if you are true to what you meant to say or that, essentially, language ran with the ball before you were actually in command of the language.
I write with a complete distrust of the medium I am writing with. And that comes from having been a foreigner in every language that I mastered and at the same time having a personality that is fundamentally insecure and distrustful of this thing we like to call candor. Candor is very difficult to obtain and the means that make you say things are themselves probably made available to you the way clichés are made available to lesser writers, and that force you to say things that sound terrific once you said them, but which may not have been what you meant to say in the first place.
Did you go straight to college when you arrived to the United States?
I arrived in September of 1968. I was seventeen years old. I had arrived too late for college, so they made me wait one semester. During that one semester, I found a job as a mail boy at Lincoln Center. I think my romance with the States and my love for the States began with Lincoln Center. I was always reading as a kid, but suddenly everyone in the whole office loved to come and chat with me about the books I was reading. There was this sense that you were in the right place, in the right city, in the right corner of the city, where culture really matters. We live it. I found that I was not a weird type. I was actually quite normal because I liked the things that the people I respected greatly also liked.
During those few moths when I was a mail boy I began to explore New York on my own. And suddenly I realized, from having lived in this ugly suburb in Rome, I was suddenly at the umbilical center of culture in the world. I always call those few blocks on Broadway between Lincoln Center and 77th Street the hub of culture in the universe.
That must have been exhilarating.
Yes, it was. I was in the perfect place. And whenever I have doubts about the United States I have always tried to recreate my encounter with this cultural universe.
Where were you living with your family?
We were living on 96th street, on the West Side.
So these were your stomping grounds.
I have to say that walking those blocks, from 65th over to 96th street, and encountering snow for the very first time in my life was exhilarating.
One day it was snowing, and suddenly someone came out of the building and said, “The fucking snow!” Here I am, loving the snow. And I hear this guy say, “The fucking snow!” What I loved was their compunction – no inhibition about saying “the fucking snow.” I thought, “I love these people, I love the way they think. They are not afraid of using direct language,” which I would never do, and still don’t.
But it also told me that the kind of language that I was cultivating was probably a dead language. And that I needed to refashion it. It took me decades to refashion my dead, obsolete, archaic English, drawn from books, into something that was a living language and yet at the same time could reflect my own personality.
It seems as though it was a blessing that you had to wait to begin college – you had this time to explore New York and your new environment on your own before you went to school, which you also did in the city.
Yes. Of all places, Bronx. I applied when I was in Italy. I had applied to all the colleges in New York: Columbia, NYU – and they didn’t give me any money. But CUNY did. And the only college in CUNY that accepted me was the one in the Bronx. It never occurred to me that I could have transferred at some point.
You stuck it out. And what was the American university experience like for you?
It was fine. I realized that I enjoyed learning Ancient Greek, so I took many courses in Ancient Greek. Everybody in the school knew I was committed to literature so they created Comp Lit for me, because it didn’t exist at the time.
How wonderful of the school to be so open-minded, to create a major for you.
Yes, it was an inventive and original place. From there I moved to Harvard, which also changed my life in many ways.
Did you go straight to Harvard to do your masters?
Well, because I had started college in the spring term, I had another extra term in which to play around before going to Harvard.
What did you do during that time?
Three things: I took time off. Well, I had job. I have always had at least one job on the side. I read Proust through for the first time in my life. I had read it before, but in snippets. Now I read it all the way through. And I wrote a novel in that spring term.
Wow, productive time.
In retrospect, it was a horrible novel. But I wrote it and it was long and it involved a lot of work.
What did you do with that novel? Did you think you might get it published?
Oh, nothing. I did nothing with it. Because the first thing you had to do with it was to type it. And I was always a terrible typist. This is why I think I would never be a writer if word processers had not existed.
Then you went to Harvard for a PhD program.
Yes, and it was very challenging. For the first time it occurred to me that the writerly life I was seeking and the professionalization of the academic were as different as being an engineer and a biochemist. In other words, there was almost no crossover between one and the other.
But you still proceeded to pursue your PhD.
I did for a few years. But with a lot of resentment, discouragement and depression. I don’t know how depressed I was, I never saw a shrink, but I felt that I was unhinged, I was in the wrong place. I started to dislike Harvard profoundly because it was forcing me into a track that was not me. And discovering who I was and who I was going to be in America was also a problem. Because I wanted to be a writer, and here I was being turned into a professional teacher. There was no connection between one and the other.
You didn’t complete your PhD?
I stopped after five or six years and I went to work as a stockbroker.
Wow. What was your thought-process?
I was rejecting academia because rejecting academia would allow me to focus more on being a writer. But in order to maintain myself as a writer, I had to have a full-time job making money.
Tell me what life was like as a broker. Did you enjoy it?
No. I hated it. Totally. Because you had to sell. You are constantly looking for clients and you are making cold calla, which I had never done in my life. Making a cold call, for a person who is fundamentally timid and self-effacing, was the most difficult thing in the world. But I mastered that, and it paid off many years later when I was looking for publishers.
Because then you were undaunted.
Well, I was shameless. I would call people up, I still do. I call people up and say, “I want to write a piece about such and such.” Basically, stuff that someone writing a query or pitch letter would never dare to do.
Where were you living when you were working as a stockbroker?
I was in Boston initially. Then I moved to New York. And then after being a broker and basically working for companies that constantly went out of business, I worked in advertising for a year. It was a very high position, I don’t know how I got it. I was working for two of the executive Vice Presidents of a very large ad agency. So I wasn’t creating anything, but I was involved in the actual management of a very big company. I lasted for about a year before they nixed my position and me with it.
When Out of Egypt came out a few years later, I got a letter from my ex-boss saying, “Congratulations! Isn’t it a good thing I got you out of the agency business?”
What was life like? Did you have roommates?
As a broker, I had a roommate. He was also a good friend. In graduate school I always had roommates. At some point I started living on my own, which I liked better but I also felt that it was extremely solitary. I didn’t like my life in solitude. There were entire Sundays that would go when I wouldn’t speak to a single human being. I realized that this is something I hate, I never want this. Rather have bad company than no company. I think there is a proverb that says the exact contrary, but I would take bad company at any moment! I would much rather feel, “I can’t wait to get away from these people,” than, “I wish there was somebody to talk to.”
Eventually, when I got he job as a broker after leaving grad school, I had quite a luxurious apartment of my own in Boston, because I made a lot of money right away. And I liked that. I thought, “Even if I am never going to finish my dissertation and blah blah blah, I like the fact that I have income.” That was very important for me. But I was also reading a great deal at the time, I was reading very difficult texts in philosophy while I was a broker. So I never wasted time.
Did you surround yourself with friends who were interested in literature and the arts?
I didn’t have many friends. I never had many friends. I had many acquaintances, yes. But I didn’t have many close friends. And in those years when I was a broker, I just surrounded myself with broker friends who had a yen for the arts and who sought me out because they themselves were not fully fledged as brokers, either. So I was surrounded by a small coterie of people who were unsatisfied with their lives, basically.
Well, they had money and they liked it so the dissatisfaction may have been more metaphysical than psychological. You could have very nice Sundays that way.
Eating good food and talking about what you would rather be doing.
Something like that, yes.
When did you return to academia?
After I lost the advertising job, I had already met the woman who would become my wife. And she said, “Why don’t you just finish your PhD? Just take a few months and think it through.” So I spent about six months writing a dissertation. Which is very fast. And as soon as I was done I got a full time job as an academic. That is when I ended up at Princeton.
You told me that you didn’t show anyone your work until your were nearly forty. What was the first thing that you published?
The first thing that I published was a book review. I was 37 at the time. I had just finished writing my dissertation and I wanted to get out of academic prose but I didn’t know how to get out of it. So I wrote a book review.
How did you place the review? Did you do your cold call thing?
Yes, I did. I bought the book, read the book, knew it hadn’t been reviewed widely, thought it might be of interest, so I called up the publisher and said, “I want to send you something and I want to know if it might interest you.” And he said, “Yeah, absolutely.” Then I did a second and a third book review. By the time it came to the fourth or fifth, I had become friendly with the editor, which is what I tell all my students: write book reviews, the editor will like you and eventually you can propose what you want [to write]. And eventually I said, “I am thinking of writing a short story about a boy growing up in Egypt who happens to be Jewish.” And the answer I got was, “Yeah, why don’t you do that?” It wasn’t a commitment, it wasn’t an assignment, but it told me that somebody might be interested. So I wrote the first chapter. They devoured it, they loved it.
Had you been writing about that material prior to that?
Yes I had. When I was back in graduate school, I spent an entire summer in Cambridge. I was supposed to be preparing for my oral exams. But instead of preparing for my oral exams, I decided to write the story of my life in Egypt. I wrote a whole book during that summer, very intensely, just putting everything down on paper in a narrative fashion.
So when I started writing the short story on Egypt for the magazine in question, I went back to the manuscript and was horrified at how dreadful the language was! At that point, I think I had mastered what it is that voice really means. Voice is not just telling a story, it is the attitude in the story that has to exist in every single sentence, because it is the attitude that keeps the reader going. But I used that book as a kind of skeleton – nothing more than a skeleton – of the book that I was going to eventually write.
When you wrote this chapter, and the magazine editor devoured it, and you felt that there was more to give, did you write the rest of the book or did you, at that point, try to shop it around, or find an agent?
No, I didn’t. The magazine said, “We would like to have more.” I had to go back to the drawing board and think, “What more is there? I just told them how we left Egypt.” So I thought, “Maybe I should write a chapter about how we got to Egypt.” They loved that chapter too. They gave me a lot of real estate, they gave me many pages, which they seldom did and which I think, today, nobody would. So eventually I had two chapters that you could staple together more or less as bookends. I sent it to a person whose name I knew in publishing. And then I sent it to another author who had written a book called Memoirs of an Anti-semite, it was a book I had enjoyed reading. I asked him to take a look and see what he thought. He loved it, and he recommended it to his editor. So, suddenly, I had two offers from two different publishing houses to publish my book.
When you received the news that your book was going to be published you were almost forty years old. It was actually happening, the thing you had been wanting for your entire life. That must have been very momentous for you.
To answer your question I have to go back a few decades. On my last day in Alexandria, as I was looking out the window, I thought, “I know that one day I am going to write about all this. And I am going to remember this very moment when I thought this thought. I hate this place, but I am going to write about it. And I am going to write about it with a great deal of elegy.” All through the years, whenever I remembered something that would draw me to Alexandra, I would jot it down in my head. Every scent, ever fruit, every sensation that reminded me of my beach life in Alexandria was being logged for future remembrance.
So, I had two chapters and I had a contract to publish the book. I kept that a secret from my colleagues at Princeton. Because I knew they would resent it. So a part of me was gloating about having a contract from a very prestigious house and at the same time, I couldn’t share this with anybody. And, as it turns out, my instincts were right. Because, as I am writing the book – and I am writing it on the sly, stealing time from weekends and summer vacation – I am also understanding that this book is going to hurt my career at Princeton as an academic. And, in fact, they said, “You wrote a book, it was very successful, but it was not an academic book, we cannot give you tenure.”
That is so small-minded, I cannot believe it.
The academy is one of the most small-minded institutions in existence. Rather than say, “This is going to make us look better,” they feared it would hurt their whatever. So as soon as I heard that they were not going to give me tenure, I got another job right away with somebody who was much, much more imaginative – at Bard College. The president at Bard College is himself a conductor and he understands what a multi-faceted life is.
But anyway, there I was at Princeton. There were galleys, eventually there was a hardcover book. I was always afraid that people would think it was a stupid book. I had a feeling that I was writing a book that was totally desiccated and obsolete and irrelevant. But I was lucky. I think when I book reviewer picks up your book you are already lucky, even if it gets panned. I was just lucky, all around. It has been luck compounded on luck.
Okay sure, there is some luck. But I think you are being too modest.
Maybe there is some talent as well…
Yes, just a little bit of talent!
But I was painfully aware of the difficulty of seeing a book manufactured. There is a kind of convergence of accidents that need to happen for something like a book to actually make it on the shelf.
That is definitely true.
So, the story is long, but in retrospect the trajectory couldn’t have been simpler. I should have stuck out with it, rather than sought out all kinds of tangents that were supposed to bring me comfort or success. Had I continued as a writer once I had written my first [unpublished] novel, had I stuck it out, had I written a second, a third, and then finally published, probably I would have done equally well, but at a far younger age.
Is that something you regret?
Yes, I do. You know, one doesn’t like to talk about two emotions: pity and regret. They are unwieldy, you don’t know what to do with them, they have a bad smell and we don’t like to talk about them. But, in fact, regret is really what I call hope without commitment. In other words, you regret things – yes, I made many mistakes in my life. I shouldn’t have gone into brokerage, I shouldn’t have done the silly things I did and spent time on careers that were never meant for me. But how do you know that?
And all those things surely contributed to making you the kind of writer who could publish that book. It is possible that you wouldn’t have been able to had you not had those experiences.
In a way, yes. And there are people who I met all along in the academy that made me a far richer human being that I would have been if I had just stayed in New York and tried to be a writer.
But then you think of the people you never met and could have met, could have fallen in love with, and been happier with…think of all those things. That is prospective regret.
But where does it lead you, that kind of regret?
It doesn’t, it’s just thinking.
Now that you have all this perspective, what kind of advice would you offer to young writers who are thinking about how to do what they want to do.
The best advice is to trust in what you love. That sounds easy, but first of all you have to know if you really love it. Because we all have an idea of something we would like to be, but do we really love the stuff that one has to do in order to be that person? I mean, I run into so many people who want to be writers. But they are really just fantasizing about the writerly life. Do they actually like the act of writing? That is a very important thing. If you really love it, and you know that you do, and not just the fantasy of it, the daydream, then you should pursue it. And you should let nothing get in the way.
Astri, let me ask you something. Where did you go to school?
I went to Middlebury College. And then to Columbia for my MFA.
Ah, so there is an MFA brewing in there somewhere.
I wish you luck. But more than luck, I wish you success. As you see, it takes a while.
But don’t wait as long as I have, that is the only advice I can give you. I got sidetracked and did so many things that were irrelevant. And yes, they all taught me something, sure. But, you know what? I could forgo those lessons if it meant saving fifteen years and working as a writer way before I actually did.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Ingrid Estrada