André Aciman is the critically acclaimed author of Call Me By Your Name and the sprawling Enigma Variations. Ava A spoke with André at the Sydney Writer’s Festival about the thematic elements he uses to produce his powerful prose and the novel-turned-movie that tugged the world’s heart strings.
Ava: Can you speak to the significance of exploring queer, Jewish identities in your most recent novel, Call me by your Name?
André: I think the fact that both Oliver and Elio are Jewish automatically makes them not just friends, but almost like cousins. They’re already bridged, they’re connected, they know it. I think that bridge is essential for them to realise that there are other ways of getting closer.
If Oliver was Christian, chances are nothing would have happened. You needed that pre-existing bond between them that goes back millennia. And I like the idea that millennia are involved in this. I like the connection between Jewish-ness and queer identity in that both are fundamentally hidden.
In a small town in Italy you can’t be Jewish, at least you don’t proclaim it. And you certainly can’t be gay. I mean now its ok, but in the 1980’s, it was still a bit difficult and is still difficult today. So in essence one is a metaphor for the other: the Jewishness functions as an illustration of queerness, but also the queerness is itself an explanation of the Jewishness. I’m not the first one to make that connection. Proust my favourite writer has also done so.
Ava: Time plays an important role in the unravelling of Elio and Oliver’s relationship. There are leaps forward in time to explore where the connection between the two stands and there are contractions of time into vignettes where Elio inspects the relationship in a fantasy. Why was it important for you to play with time when exploring this relationship?
André: In order for me to write, time has to come in. It may not be essential, but I need to be aware of it. In other words, when Elio finally realises that he is in love with Oliver, the next thing he thinks is ‘I’m counting down the days until his departure’. So now time has become a factor, but at the beginning of the book time is recollection. Oliver’s basically remembering what it was all like.
Then there’s the anticipation of time. In Rome, for example, they’re both planning on having sex. They’re sort of ‘edging’ but not having sex. They’re putting it off. Eventually, it turns out they won’t have sex because Oliver has to leave. Then at the very end of the book time kills the father, it kills the little girl, it kills the gardener.
Time basically means that you’ve grown old and I explain it with a phrase that is very important for me: ‘time happens to certain people’. It happens to Elio, it happens to the two of them. And you cannot undo time. Elio comes to explore his Jewish identity through Oliver in various ways.
For instance, he’s compelled by the different way that Oliver wears his gold necklace and star of David with a golden Mezuzah. When yearning for physical intimacy, Elio refers to the two of them as ‘two cut Jewish men joined together from time immemorial’.
Ava: How have your experiences of cultural dislocation affected the creation of Call me by your Name?
André: There are probably almost a million people with my exact trajectory, with my exact biography. Very few of them write about their dislocation. In my case the dislocation was already there when I was in Egypt. I am fundamentally a person who is dislocated from his immediate environment, I’ve always been. So, there is dislocation but I also cultivate it. I make lemonade with it if you know the expression.
I go looking for it and, once you’re aware of this dislocation, then you find that it’s all over you and the next place I found it was in sex. I am totally sexually dislocated. I was always sexually dislocated and so it was not a coincidence that I’m writing about exile in one book with not a hint of sex, and then the other one I write about pure sex with no hint of exile.
And yet it’s the same author because the root is the same. I needed to have a style that went along with the dislocation in order to maximise the visibility of that dislocation. So, you come up with a voice; you give voice to that dislocation in anything you write. Usually, whenever I write it is against something because that’s the first move I have.
I do this so that I can at least see where my sensibility, my voice, my dislocation will find its grammar.
Ava: You’ve previously mentioned the governing idea of your writing as going after something that is quite difficult to articulate. What were you going after with Call me by your Name?
André: I think I was trying to understand desire and to give desire a narrative. Most of the time, and particularly in films, whenever you see somebody desiring someone else you’re shown a beautiful face. It’s obvious that the audience is supposed to incorporate that.
You’re not given the narrative of the desire, you’re just told ‘it is obvious that they desire each other, they’re going to have sex’ blah blah blah. I wanted to stop, banish and dismiss that from possibly occurring in my writing.
I wanted to see how desire itself is incubated in somebodies heart, or lower parts if you want. When we desire someone, there’s a whole sort of chronology to it that’s not necessarily sequential. You desire somebody because you want to touch them, or whatever you want to do with them. But then you also have another cultivating instinct that says ‘no I don’t want to want them, I hate them, I hate myself for wanting them. But, no, I still want them’.
There’s a fear factor, an intimidation factor and a shame factor. I wanted to do a dissection of that moment, which can last weeks, of what it is that desire is about. I wasn’t that interested in the actual consummation of sex, although I felt that was fun to write. It was the incubation of desire that I was after.
Ava: In the past, you’ve spoken positively about writing to lived experiences that are outside your own. This is an idea that other authors like Toni Morrison have also endorsed. How do you feel about the responsibility that comes with writing in this way?
André: There’s no responsibility; I couldn’t care less about mission statements and responsibility. A bad writer has a mission, a good writer couldn’t care less about the mission because he’s trying to find out what his life is about, and indirectly helping other people to make them see that they are no better than he is.
The one character in my novel that I can’t understand is Oliver. I don’t understand the Olivers of this world. I am attracted to them because they fascinate me, but I don’t understand how they think. So, people ask me all the time: Why don’t you write the book now from Oliver’s perspective? I say that I wouldn’t know how to and that he’s not the kind of person who would write a book. He would just go and fuck.
Ava A is a writer and performer near you. He’s interested in what happens when different creative disciplines meet each-other. He’s on instagram @alumied.
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