‘Call Me By Your Name’ Author on Ambiguity and Attraction

By FINNE MURPHY

MICHAEL BORENSTEIN/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
Aciman described his attraction to and views on romance and the romantic in the modern sense of the word.

Hala Kassem ’19 began her introduction of André Aciman by thanking Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web.

Her gratitude is perhaps also owed to her own habit of procrastination. Late one night as she avoided homework, Kassem, a Film & Media Culture major, took to the Internet for distraction, researching films and other things she found interesting. On this particular night, she was researching the 2017 film “Call Me By Your Name” based on the 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman. 

As she researched Aciman’s life and career, Kassem discovered a  personal connection with the writer: both have roots in Alexandria, Egypt. 

“I too am ‘out of Egypt’ in a sense,” Kassem said in her introduction, “as Alexandria is the city my mum first flew to from China; it is the city where she met my dad, the city where their journey as partners began and subsequently mine, the city that generated the love that brought my two favorite people together and gave me the opportunity to be here doing what I love doing.”

Kassem emailed Aciman to thank him for his work and was surprised to find he had replied to her inquiry the next morning. What is more, he even offered to come to Middlebury so they could speak in person.

Kassem’s determination to see his promise through was the driving force behind his visit which Professor of English and American Literatures Robert Cohen called “hard to come by and expensive.”

Aciman was born in Alexandria in 1951. A few years later, Israeli, French and United Kingdom forces invaded Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956 in order to regain control of the Suez Canal. 

Shortly thereafter, Aciman explained, “life changed radically for anybody who was not an Egyptian in Egypt. Essentially anyone who was French, English and ultimately Jewish was immediately expelled from Egypt.”

Being themselves Jewish, Aciman and his family were forced from the country in 1965, when he was only 14.

This exile was neither the beginning nor the end of Aciman’s struggle with his identity. He admitted he was surprised to discover his family was Turkish after so many years of hearing the country ridiculed. His father eventually disclaimed his Turkish citizenship, making himself and his family stateless. Later, his father bought an Italian passport and thereby became “a fake Italian.” Finally, Aciman immigrated to the U.S. and gained citizenship here despite not feeling like an American at all, considering the citizenship to be removed from any sense of identity with the country. 

The struggles and confusion surrounding his identity reflect his attraction to the ambiguous.

“If I don’t find ambiguity,” he said, “I’m not interested.”

During much of his talk, Aciman described his attraction to and views on romance and the romantic in the modern sense of the word. For him, the most powerful part of attraction lay not in sexual or marital acts but in the build-up, in the dancing around the issues, in the moments when two people are talking about something without ever saying what they truly mean. 

His 2007 novel, “Call Me By Your Name,” made famous by the 2017 film, greatly concerns itself with this idea of romance. Set in 1980’s Italy, “Call Me By Your Name” follows Elio, an introverted and intelligent teenager, and his attraction to Oliver, a graduate student working with Elio’s father over the summer.

Aciman read from the novel the scene when Elio attempts to verbalize his desires to Oliver, a scene that epitomizes Aciman’s quiet and equivocal romantic style. 

Although he is most famous for this novel, Aciman’s first book was a memoir about his life and subsequent exile from his home country, “Out of Egypt.” Kassem described the work in her introduction as “a story about memory lost and regained.”

Her summary is an apt one for the memoir as well as for Aciman’s talk as a whole. He emphasized his view that writing is a way to resurrect, alter and remember the past with the purpose of understanding who we are and where we come from. 

“I liked what [Aciman] said … about not settling on any one self-definition,” Cohen said in an email. “Keeping things mobile and in-play and unresolved (or rather acknowledging that they already are, and not falsifying that complexity): among other things it allows the writer to surprise him/herself, stay light on his/her feet.”

For Kassem, Aciman’s talk and body of work reflect this ambiguity she sees surrounding her own self-conception.

“I was born to a Chinese mum and an Egyptian dad and so the theme of identity was a constant in my life,” she wrote in an email. “As a little kid, I did not know what my identity was because my parents integrated me equally in both cultures, which is something I thank them for everyday. 

“However, it brought me a sort of confusion about where I belong and whom I belong to,” she continued. “I always thought that I had to pick one side or to pick one identity and so I always found it challenging to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ My response to this question changed many times over the years. …  This was my least favorite question and for the longest time I dreaded answering this question mainly because I did not know the answer myself.

It took me a while to accept that this aspect of my life would always be part of me and that it is what makes me myself. … It has offered me so many blessings that I would not want to have it any other way.”

Her connection with Aciman’s work and life inspired her to send a simple thank-you, a choice that culminated in Aciman’s visit to the college. 

“Hala’s initiative [in bringing Aciman to the college] was instrumental in making this happen, and a very welcome and all too rare phenomenon for an undergraduate,” Cohen said. “It’s crucial, I think, to bring in working writers for the students to see up close and interact with, to get a sense of them as a particular sensibility with a particular set of aesthetic prejudices and preoccupations — not perfect or finished creatures but just bluffers like everyone else, trying to give voice to things that we’re not all accustomed to giving voice to.”

I asked him how he would advise other students who wish to bring writers or other artists to campus.

“I’d advise them to do it the same way Hala did,” he said, “boldly, thoughtfully, seize-the-day-ishly.”