When Ayad Akhtar won a Pulitzer in 2013 for his play “Disgraced” – in which a successful Muslim-American lawyer admits to feeling “an unexpected blush of pride” on seeing the twin towers fall – he became a flashpoint for controversies around Islam in the long wake of 9/11. Some theatergoers were suspicious that the phrase mirrored Akhtar’s own sentiments; Muslims felt betrayed by what they saw as reinforcing Western stereotypes, which foreshadowed then-candidate Donald Trump’s false claim of Muslims in Jersey City “cheering” on 9/11. Yet Akhtar, in creating an empathetic but flawed Muslim character, had simply done what all good writers do – portrayed humanity as morally complex.
In “Homeland Elegies,” his latest and most autobiographical work, Akhtar comes to terms with such criticism. His experience of 9/11 was that of many distraught and disoriented New Yorkers – that is, until he was called a terrorist while waiting to donate blood. Still more compelling is his explanation of how that memorable line of dialogue in his play evolved from a remark his mother made, the culmination of a lifetime of suffering through CIA interference in her homeland of Pakistan. “Homeland Elegies” weaves together these themes of family and politics, along with Akhtar’s life as a writer as he perpetually records, adapts, and invents narratives.
Eschewing a traditional novel’s dramatic arc, Akhtar adopts an orchestral structure of eight interlinked movements bookended by an overture and coda. Though it’s considered autofiction – a sort of fictionalized spin-off of the author’s life – “Homeland Elegies” reads like memoir, but it is interwoven with essayistic digressions that offer political commentary and historical context. His narrator is a playwright named Ayad Akhtar. Some other names are changed but only barely, as with the actor Aasif Mandvi, who starred in “Disgraced” and here is referred to as “Ashraf.” (I’ll confess to finding this a bit distracting. Is this an in-joke? Is Akhtar dodging a lawsuit?)
“Homeland Elegies” opens with Akhtar delving into his fraught relationship with his father, who served briefly as Trump’s physician in the 1990s, yet decades later is still captivated by his encounter with celebrity. Brushing off Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, Akhtar’s father supports his presidential candidacy, in thrall to what Trump embodies of the American dream as the self writ larger than life. Akhtar’s skill at dialogue is on full display here, as the two spar over the 2016 campaign until Akhtar throws up his hands at his father’s infuriatingly circular logic.
Akhtar circles seamlessly from his individual experiences, such as when he is racially profiled by police, to the larger social and economic landscape, tracing the corrosive effects of scorched-earth political rhetoric and late capitalism. Along the way, he tackles subjects as wide-ranging as the leveraging of debt, the corporatization of healthcare, the exorbitant cost of college, and a fascinating account of Robert Bork’s role in deregulating the U.S. financial system (and by fascinating, I mean appalling). Yet “Homeland Elegies” is less polemical than all this may sound, due to the richness of Akhtar’s characters and their varied journeys and fierce debates. One family friend, whom Akhtar’s mother was quietly in love with, is followed as he leaves a prosperous medical practice in New Jersey and returns to Pakistan, where providing care for the poor comes at a great personal cost. Another friend, who is charismatic but ruthless, makes a killing on the stock market in a way that is entirely legal, yet bankrupts entire cities.
An incisive critique of American culture, “Homeland Elegies” ties these threads together, concluding with the question of free speech. At a college where Akhtar has been invited to speak by his former professor and mentor, called Mary in the book, Muslim students protest, calling Akhtar’s work “demeaning” and “unsafe” – this without having read the work, but having only read about it online. After a spate of Islamophobic posters appear on campus decrying Akhtar, these same students come around to defending him. Mary reflects that “platitudes and pornography,” the currency of social media, have stunted this generation of students’ ability to discuss anything substantial, noting that “her work now was about teaching them cognitive basics: how to recognize what was worth paying attention to; how to suffer through boredom; how to discern rhetoric from reality, discomfort from defense.” After sitting in on a class discussion, Akhtar finds that Mary’s painstaking labor has succeeded, sounding a note of cautious optimism.
Frankly, it’s the most insightful description I’ve read of the challenges of teaching today. I worry, too, that it applies to our discourse in American culture more broadly, for old and young alike. Fittingly, Akhtar has been named the new president of PEN America, which supports literary freedom and human rights globally. He seems just the right man for the job.
Elizabeth Toohey is an associate professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY and a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University