Internationally acclaimed Alexandrian author André Aciman drew an eager crowd in Andover Hall for “Exile and Elsewhere,” a discussion that explored the themes of identity and displacement that pervade his writing. Aciman is best known for writing “Call Me By Your Name,” the novel adapted into the Oscar-winning movie about the relationship between Elio, a precocious Italian teenager on the cusp of adulthood, and Oliver, a charismatic Jewish-American grad student who spends a summer with Elio’s family. Lesser known, however, is Aciman’s memoir “Out of Egypt,” in which he chronicles his experiences as an exiled Alexandrian teen and a man without a country.
Aciman was joined by Benjamin Balint, a library fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem who highlighted the connections between wider Jewish narratives of exile, Aciman’s own experiences as a Jew in majority-Muslim Alexandria, and later in life, an exiled Alexandrian abroad. Balint focused the discussion around the complexities of his own national identity and the nostalgia and alienation that haunts his writing. In describing that choice, Balint explained: “I really think that exile runs like a fault line through [Aciman]’s work. That’s why we thought that the theme of ‘Exile and Elsewhere’ would sort of open up some of the larger questions in his work — and it’s both, as I think came out tonight, exile in a very concrete way. That is, exile in this case from Alexandria — but also, less biographically, meditations on the metaphor of exile, and what that means.”
In discussing the connections between exile as a general theme, and narratives of Jewish exile in particular, Balint asked Aciman, “Do you see Jewish exile as an embodiment of a kind of heroic homelessness?” Aciman distanced himself from that tradition, rejecting the idea that there was something intrinsically heroic about exile.
“It’s not a wilful act of displacement — exile, by definition, is something that is forced on you.” It is perhaps this theme of displacement that makes Aciman’s work feel so universal, and allows it to resonate across a diverse and international readership. Aciman’s appeal is two-fold: From his fantastical, romantic way of confronting the past, to the way he so lyrically describes displacement, not only as a separation from something, but also as a source of inspiration, his pull reaches a diverse audience.
“Reading ‘Call Me By Your Name’ in 48 hours as I did, I wanted to put a face to this person who is, as he’s put it, the ‘prince of nostalgia,’” Celia C. Eckert, a student at the Harvard Graduate School for Arts and Sciences, said.
“Aciman’s talks about exile and the way people are in exile is very interesting to me because I am the daughter of Cuban exiles, and that is very important to who I am as a person,” Odalis Garcia, a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School, said. “I feel like we all, essentially, are part of a diasporic community... to hear someone talk so eloquently about it inspires me to write about it as well.”
Across an audience of many national backgrounds, Aciman’s stories of his own particular nostalgia and longing felt simultaneously universal. “I’m not sad that I don’t have a country,” he put plainly. “I envy people who have that kind of rootedness,” he trailed off, with a laugh, “but I envy them for about five seconds. What protects me from grief is writing about exile.” That poetic dissonance — of richness and loss, wandering and purpose — enables Aciman to portray life and loss with a riveting complexity. Aciman rejected the idea that exile was “triumphant” — but he found in his experiences a creative energy that could imbue the helplessness of exile, for himself and his audience, with meaning and beauty nonetheless.
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