Straight Authors, Gay Characters. The Case of “Call Me By Your Name.”

The other day I watched the film Call Me By Your Name.  Whenever I see a film based on a novel, I am curious to know more about the book, which brought me to this clip in which The Advocate interviews author André Aciman.

I was interested to learn that like my own novel Angel, which is also the story of a consequential love between two men, the setting came first. Aciman was inspired to write about Italy. The setting must have been romantic to him, and it brought to mind the tentativeness of early love. He initially imagined a boy/girl couple, but quickly changed because, he felt he wanted to write about overcoming inhibition and that there would be more inhibition with a gay couple.

Angel was inspired by the Pacific Northwest. In particular, Mt. Rainier. I started writing to answer the question of what might cause a minister, who was burned out on the ministry, to become a mountain tour guide. The story I wanted to tell had to have undercurrents of nature. He had to be seeking something in the mountain that he had also been seeking in his ministry, and whatever it was that he was seeking should also be the cause of his separation from the church. The thematic link that came to me was that the minister, Paul, was drawn to beauty, beauty of a particular, transient kind. Rainier is a volcano and will one day erupt. So the beauty he found in the form of Ian was something that had an awesome power.

The question of appropriation comes up in this clip. Aciman believes that artists should not be constrained to write only about their own selves and that with empathy and imagination you can put yourself in the shoes of another person. There is a joke that I believe I have quoted here before that if writers only write what they know there would be nothing but books about English professors contemplating having extramarital affairs.

I found in my own writing that I wasn’t really able to write fiction worth reading until I got beyond myself. I thank God on a regular basis that there was not much self-publishing when I wrote my first self-indulgent autobiographical novel.  The publishers who rejected it did me a great service. I don’t think that old saw “write what you know” should be taken too literally. There are multiple ways of “knowing” and that one way is to use empathy and imagination.

What Aciman knows is the hesitation of first love, and how he felt he could best illustrate it was with these two characters. In Angel what I “knew” had something to do with what it feels like to experience beauty, beautiful moments, beautiful relationships and how valuable and fleeting those glimpses of beauty can be. For whatever reason Paul and Ian came to me as the best way for me to illustrate that concept.  I don’t think a writer should shy away from writing a story in the form it comes to her, because those sparks of inspiration that are compelling enough to propel you through an entire project are too rare to brush aside.

Appropriation is tricky, though. The real problem is not that an individual artist might feel called to tell a story across various identity lines. The problem comes when a dominant group, because they are seen as having more authority or access to an audience, drowns out the voices of people from other groups telling their own stories. I wrote about this a few years ago. I had read an interview with a white writer who said she’d written a dark skinned protagonist because the world needs more books with African-American heroes.  My reaction was:

If I were to say, “There are not enough stories with African-American protagonists, and I think I should write one,” the results would be clunky. Not because I am incapable of imagining the internal life of a Black woman but because I would be approaching her as a representative of a social identity rather than as a person in her own right. The only reason I would make the choice to write from that perspective is if a story came to me that I could not imagine any other way.

I would like to think that readers, and viewers in the case of film, get a feel for what the creator was trying to express and to do. It will come across in the writing if the story is properly told, if the author was empathetic or exploitative, if the story wouldn’t be the same in any other form. From the reviews I’ve seen of the film and novel, Aciman did write characters who both straight and gay people respond to as real.

 

 

P.S. After seeing the film I can’t get that Bach piece out of my head. I suppose there are worse songs to be stuck in a continuous loop but…

 

 

3 comments

  1. Oh gosh, Laura, there’s so much here to think about and respond to.

    Colum McCann (one of my favorite authors) says you shouldn’t write about what you already know, the opposite of what we’re usually told. And as i’m beginning a new novel that takes place during WW2, i’m finding that it’s harder but fascinating and fun. And I think it grows one’s brain.

    I’m also grateful that my first novel was never published, back in the 70’s self-publishing was a disgrace,, VANITY PUBLISHING. A good literary agency represented the book but didn’t find a publisher. The publishers were wise. Now that i’ve Self-published two novel, I hope in the future I don’t have regrets.

    In my novel, Intentional, the real hero was the black next door neighbor. I based him somewhat on a lovely neighbor, but worried every step of the way.

    Finally, you’ve done a good nudging here. I’m going to order Angel.

    1. Thanks. I hope you like Angel.

      I have found that I need distance between my own experience in order to translate it. So when I was first writing, I could do that through humor. I wrote a fairly autobiographical one act play about my frustrations with not getting cast in theater. But the humor was a distancing effect, and kept me from wallowing in self-pity or self-aggrandizement.

      I find I can only write about what prods me with enough momentum to complete it. I don’t have as much choice in that as people sometimes imagine. You can’t make yourself love a story if you don’t.

      By the way, Bach is still stuck in my head:

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