Any discussion on the topic of “the costs of assimilation” into American society is likely to draw a crowd, especially in New York, and especially in our current climate. But when the Live from the NYPL series announced that acclaimed authors André Aciman and Nicole Krauss would be speaking, the April 22 event sold out.
Much of the authors’ conversation focused on Aciman’s new novel, “Harvard Square” (W.W. Norton). Parallels between the unnamed protagonist and Aciman himself are evident: Both are Egyptian-born Jews and scholars of comparative literature. But as Krauss also discerned, similarities exist between the narrative voice of the novel and that of Aciman’s celebrated memoir, “Out of Egypt.” These observations prompted the two authors to reveal and debate their differing views toward what Aciman termed “slippages” between fiction and fact.
In their previous books, both Krauss and Aciman have exhibited engagements with issues of identity, exile and memory, which are prominent in Aciman’s newest novel as well. Set in 1977, “Harvard Square” depicts the rise and fall of a friendship between the Egyptian-born Jewish graduate student and an Arab taxi-driver (nicknamed “Kalaj”). Both men are immigrants; the graduate student assimilates more successfully—but at what cost?
Some of that cost may be glimpsed in an excerpt from “Harvard Square” that Aciman read in response to an audience member’s question toward the evening’s end. In this passage, the narrator reflects on what may truly be motivating the taxi driver’s “rants against America”:
"If I didn’t take his daily rants against America seriously, it was because it was never really America he was inveighing against, nor was his the voice of a bewildered Middle East trying to fend off a decaying and implacable West. What I heard instead was the raspy, wheezing, threatened voice of an older order of mankind, older ways of being human, raging, raging against the tide of something new that had the semblance and behavior of humanity but really wasn’t. It was not a clash of civilizations or of values or of cultures; it was a question of which organ, which chamber of the heart, which one of its dear five senses would humanity cut off to join modernity."
In other words, Aciman explained, something essential must be given up in that process of assimilation and integration. Kalaj couldn’t do it. Readers may wonder: Could I?
Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories” (Last Light Studio), an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title.