November 4, 2014

New Student Reading Project Author Discusses Inspirations

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Amara Lakhous, the author of Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio — the book assigned as part of the 2014 New Student Reading Project — spoke Tuesday about the roles of language, imagination and immigration in his life as inspiration for his writing.

His novel — a murder mystery narrated by immigrants and native Italians — focuses on elevators and issues of public space, as all of the characters reside in the same apartment building.

Lakhous said he included the elevator as a metaphor for the cultural interactions that occur during immigration.

“The elevator is a microcosm for cultural interactions, but also as the cause of distress,” Lakhous said. “Public space is important to democracy. We can say we are for freedom, but if people can only live their freedom just at home, that is not true freedom.”

According to Lakhous, his decision to make immigration a focus of the novel came from his personal experience growing up in Algeria and moving to Italy in 1995, when he was 15 years old.

Lakhous added that he believes New York City — where he moved this summer — is a prime example of a multicultural city.

“I think that the United States is a big combination of cultures,” Lakhous said. “In New York, no one is an immigrant, we are all immigrants, we are all New Yorkers, nobody asks me where I’m from.”

Lakhous said he believes that his book — which was published in English in 2008 — is successful due to its ability to give “a voice to many characters.”

Lakhous added that he tried to combine the “best parts” of Italian and Algerian culture in his novel, which was published in Arabic in 2003 and translated into Italian in 2006.

“We have two eyes, and the reality of life and immigration is really complex,” Lakhous said. “In this book, there are different perspectives on this.”

With three mother tongues, Lakhous also referred to himself as a “language polygamist,” who is fluent in Arabic, Italian and Berber, a language spoken Northern Africa.

The two versions of novel are not direct translations and each contain different “truths,” according to Lakhous.

“The way to be extremists to think that there is just one truth,” he said. “When you have doubts it means you are open. When I rewrote Clash of Civilizations in Italian, I never used a dictionary.”

Lakhous also stressed that devotion is the key to learning a new language.

“[Language] loves you just because you are her son,” he said. “To learn a language you don’t need a visa, passports and citizenship — it just takes devotion.”

Although a translator was enlisted to finish the English version of the novel, Lakhous said he hopes that he will someday be able to write in the language.

“You know what my dream is? To add English as a third language to write in,” he said. “This is my version of [an] American dream.”

Laura Brown, senior vice provost for undergraduate education and the leader for the New Student Book Project, said Lakhous’s book was chosen because it focused on contemporary issues such as racism and ethnocentrism.

“Many students noted the relevance to their own experience as first-year Cornell students, joining a diverse community,” Brown said. “They discussed their own feelings about stereotyping, about asserting their own identity and about feeling open to learn about others’ identities and backgrounds.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Cornell Institute for European Studies’ Mediterranean Studies Initiative.