Librarians are going to have a hard job deciding where to shelve Ayad Akhtar’s bracing and revealing new book.
“Homeland Elegies” (Little, Brown, 343 pp., ★★★½ out of four) follows the story of a Pulitzer-prize-winning American playwright named Ayad Akhtar who was born to Pakistani immigrant parents. These are facts from the author’s own life, but those who choose to call this book a memoir are on their own. If avoiding categorizations is what allowed Akhtar to pull off this masterful combination of essay and diary, I’m glad he did. “Homeland Elegies” is a symphony about America. It is also very personal.
As he writes about important episodes in “his” life, Akhtar explores the bind American writers of Middle Eastern descent have been in since 9/11: that they must present themselves as unabashedly patriotic or risk being seen as enemies. As he relates his encounters with anti-Muslim prejudice, from a harassing cop to a fetishizing lover, Akhtar conveys the anger he feels to be “persistently humiliated and under attack in the only country I’d ever known, a place that the more I understood, the less I felt I belonged.”
His intellectual explorations of identity and self-presentation are coupled with deep emotional urgency. Akhtar’s Pakistani parents are divided in their loyalty to their new country — his father is a fervent Trump supporter, his mother “loved Pakistan, or at least was bound to it in a way that reached as deeply into her as anything could.”
As their tortured son navigates his rising literary fame, he becomes fatigued by the labor of fighting others’ assumptions. “Constantly defining yourself in opposition to what others say about you is not self-knowledge. It’s confusion.” He wonders why he can’t embody the same muddy contradictions and complexities that are reflexively permitted to white writers.
In “Homeland Elegies,” he’s done just that. The author’s solution to fighting limited representations of Muslim Americans is a “warts and all” approach, unflinchingly examining his toxic relationships with women and his easy seduction by fame and prestige. Some readers may be put off by his occasional long paragraphs recounting all the famous people he’s met, or the repeated mentions of his Pulitzer, as if it’s new information each time. The book’s register can be uneven, too, its natural rhythms jolted by bursts of obscure vocabulary. For the book’s narrator, though, all this posturing might just be another means to stake his claim to a readership that resists him.
With its insight and honesty, “Homeland Elegies” deserves to be read widely during this polarizing election year, when the once porous boundaries between friend and foe are deepening into trenches. Akhtar has asked us to view his protagonist as someone above and beyond such categories.
I don’t care whether you like me, Akhtar seems to say, as long as you see me.