The Perfume of Experience – Andre Aciman on Writing, Exile, and Ambivalence

UPDATE: Here’s The Perfume of Experience: Andre Aciman, a pdf of the profile.

The Nov/Dec issue of Poets & Writers features my profile of novelist, essayist, and memoirist Andre Aciman. Andre is at the top of his game in his new essay collection, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, which means right now he’s at the top of the game. He’s a wonderful, sensuous, intelligent writer. I urge you to check out any of his books – and while you’re at it, pick up a copy of the magazine. The other profile in this issue is of the incomparable Joan Didion, so you’ll get to learn about two masters of narrative nonfiction.

Teju Cole wrote a generous, wonderfully appreciative review of Alibis in a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review. Check that out if you don’t trust me.

P & W hasn’t made the profile available online, so to whet your appetite below you’ll find a few excerpts from the interviews I conducted with Andre. These are things that didn’t make it into the published profile, so if you find this at all appealing, buy a copy of the magazine.

On whether or not he considers himself an American writer:

I do. Because I love [America]. I’m an American citizen, and I’m an American writer.  I’m not a reluctant American. I’m part of this country, and I’ll plug into all the platitudes one can say. People assume that Andre Aciman is Egyptian or that he is French. No, I’m American.

Now, do I believe in American culture? Do I like American culture?  Do I like the Western culture as it is now being propounded? No.

On his turning away from literary theory:

I’ll tell you what it was. It was the last few pages of “The Dead.” I was in a classroom and a teacher – it was Robert Fitzgerald – said take, for example, “The Dead.” Take the adverb obliquely – the snow falling softly, obliquely against the lamplight. He said look at that word “obliquely.” I realized that he was right, this is what reading is all about. It’s about stopping at every single word, reading the cadence of the prose, and not just what the text is saying, the information, but what it’s trying to evoke. As you probably know, there is a reason why I capitalize on an adverb. It’s because composition teachers today will tell you “do not use adverbs.” And here’s a genius who’s telling me stare at an adverb.

On writing when you don’t know what you’re trying to say:

There are two ways of going in with no idea. One is the no idea where you know there’s something but you don’t know what it is. So the writing process itself becomes an adventure because it is filled with surprises, big blanks, and raw moments that leave you asking, “why did I even begin this?” Those are the best pieces I’ve ever written in my life, when I’m after something and I don’t know what it is. And at the end of the essay you still don’t know what it is, but you know that you’ve experienced something that is very different from everything else you’ve read or written. And then there are times when you have nothing to say because there is nothing there. I was asked to write about Iraq many times, and every time I would start a piece I would get carried away, and then halfway through say this is bullshit. Then I would have to call up the editor and say, “I’m sorry, I have nothing to say.”

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