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André Aciman and Giorgio Van Straten in Conversation

October 24, 2014
Borromini’s Oratorio dei Filippini at the Casa della Letterature
Peter Benson Miller
Maria Ida Gaeta, André Aciman, Giorgio Van Straten and Kim Bowes
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Last week the American Academy in Rome and the Casa delle Letterature collaborated once again, presenting on this occasion a lively panel discussion with authors André Aciman, RAAR’15, and Giorgio Van Straten. The conversation, held at the Casa delle Letterature in Borromini’s Oratorio dei Filippini, was co-hosted by the Director of the Casa della Letteratura, Maria Ida Gaeta, and Academy Director Kim Bowes, FAAR’06, conducted in Italian, and enthusiastically attended.

Maria Ida Gaeta and Kim Bowes each acknowledged the important partnership that has developed between their respective cultural institutions. Maria Ida Gaeta offered a brief introduction of the two internationally acclaimed writers, whose shared creative interests in aspects of memory, time, place and identity provided ample material for the evening’s dialogue. Kim Bowes explained the operations and objectives of the Academy, highlighting the important role that eminent Residents like Aciman play in the life of the community and emphasizing that the Academy is a vital cultural resource. Having been hosted by the city of Rome for over a hundred years, the Academy frequently collaborates with other institutions to organize events in both English and Italian that are free and open to the general public.

André Aciman spent the past month at the Academy as John T. Sargent Writer in Residence. Born in Alexandria to a Jewish family of Turkish and Italian origin who spoke French in the home, Aciman’s family emigrated first to Italy and subsequently to the United States. Having completed a PhD in Comparative Literature at Harvard University and previously taught for Princeton and Wesleyen universities, Aciman now serves as the Director of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. Aciman’s memoir, Out of Egypt (1995), won the Whiting Writers’ Award and his more recent novels include Call Me By Your Name (2007) and Harvard Square (2013).

Giorgio Van Straten is an author, editor, and translator who has managed multiple cultural organizations including Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni and Scuderie del Quirinale. His novel, Il mio nome a memoria (2000) - My Name, A Living Memory (English 2003), which narrates the course of his family name and history from Rotterdam to Florence, won four literary prizes including the Premio Viareggio and the Zerilli-Marimò Prize for Italian Fiction. His other novels include La verità non serve a niente (2008) and most recently Storia d’amore in tempi di guerra (2014).

Van Straten spoke of Aciman’s work as a beautiful discovery of an author with whom he shares an interest in communicating the distances of time and geography through prose in the way an artist communicates perspective via brushstrokes. Both authors spoke about the incommunicability of the memories that construct our sense of belonging and identity. Aciman admitted that for him his identity, like his memories, were as evasive as the spaces on the page and Van Straten spoke of writing as a kind of “lying with intention” because absolute memory doesn’t exist. In Aciman’s estimation the written word often takes on a reality of its own to confound memory for both are constituted in “a present that immediately becomes past which we will recount in the future.”

A series of exchanges with the audience prompted further discussion on the issues of national dispossession, literary inspiration and writing process. Last Tuesday’s conversation suggested that in spite of the vast temporal and geographic distances between us, the creative act can at times transcend the cultural divide by capturing aspects of the universal human condition.