NOVEMBER 10, 2020
IF YOU’VE ALREADY READ Camus’s The Plague and have been searching for the perfect pre-apocalyptic fiction work to help you navigate our current affairs, this book may be just the provocation. I opened it knowing little about the author, other than having seen him act in the independent feature The War Within and perused his play Disgraced. Neither had prepared me for Homeland Elegies, which turns out to be masterful storytelling for these disturbing times.
Just as a playwright may be tempted to break the fourth wall and talk directly to you in the audience, a novelist wants you to believe that the tales s/he’s weaving are the honest-to-God’s truth — and maybe they are, even if they’re woven whole cloth, because as the ancient Greeks like to shout back at Socrates, “What is truth?” Thespians are first about the performance, always, but one hopes to glean nuggets of vérité, and in this first-person confession about a prize-winning playwright and sometime-actor named Ayad Akhtar, it’s the performance that counts.
Your first conundrum when picking up Homeland Elegies by playwright Ayad Akhtar (2013 Pulitzer Prize for Disgraced) is whether you’re reading a memoir or a novel. Akytar insists from the start that this is not an autobiography yet it may take you more than a hundred pages before you disbelieve the text unfurling before you like an epistolary cannonball shot across the bow. It’s a fact that the first-person narrator’s name is also Ayad Akhtar, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, and just like the author, he is a Pakistani American playwright. “Is it real, or is it Memorex?” I wondered, silently thanking Akhtar for the authenticity of his autofiction, remembering how as an earnest reader, I was once fooled by Henry Miller’s first-person Tropic of Capricorn and then the more outrageous Tropic of Cancer, before I understood that Henry Miller the author and the narrator had a license to fabricate as much of his story as he wished.
My father first met Donald Trump in the early ’90s, when they were both in their midforties — my father the elder by a year — and as each was coming out from under virtual financial ruin. […] My father, like Trump, binged on debt in the ’80s and ended the decade uncertain about his financial future. A doctor, he’d transitioned into private practice from a career in academic cardiology just as the hostage crisis began.
So opens Akhtar’s intimate account, beginning with his father — a Pakistani Muslim cardiologist whose fate connected him to possibly the most reviled American politician in our lifetimes. The story then broadens to include himself, his mother, and a generation of immigrant and first-generation Americans whose loves and loyalties zigzag between the United States and Pakistan. Akhtar’s canvas covers the half-century that his immediate family has been in the US, a period that parallels the country’s economic decline and slide toward oligarchy, abetted by Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics.” Among Akhtar’s archvillains are corporate hacks and autocrats — Ronald Reagan, antitrust devil Robert Bork, and Trump. Of Bork, a judge and legal scholar who failed to reach the Supreme Court, Akhtar writes that the man’s real American impact was as “the Robespierre of the consumerist antitrust movement” and author of The Antitrust Paradox.
Akhtar returns often to gaze in disbelief at the speed bump known as Trump, but he knows he’s no aberration.
Obama’s victory had turned out to be little more than symbolic, only hastening our nation’s long collapse into corporate autocracy, and his failures had raised the stakes immeasurably. Most Americans couldn’t cobble together a week’s expenses in case of an emergency. They had good reason to be scared and angry. They felt betrayed and wanted to destroy something. The national mood was Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and nihilistic — and no one embodied all this better than Donald Trump.
One does world literature a disservice here to assert that Homeland Elegies is among the first masterpieces of the Trumpian era, because if anyone is literature’s antihero it would be Donald J. Trump. Yet without the presence of such an ignominious central character, the reader’s experience would be nowhere near as excruciating, nor as enjoyable.
While his cardiologist father embraced rugged American capitalism, his physician mother never did — “my mother,” he writes,
never found in the various bounties of her new country anything like sufficient compensation for the loss of what she’d left behind. I don’t think Mother ever felt at home here. She thought Americans materialistic and couldn’t understand what was so holy about the orgy of acquisition they called Christmas. She was put off that everyone always asked where she was from and never seemed bothered that they had no idea what she was talking about when she told them. Americans were ignorant not only of geography but of history, too.
Homeland Elegies proves a compelling read from first page to last, not only for the seduction of peering into Ayad Akhtar’s private life, with its elegant articulations and obvious love of the English language, but because he is not afraid to lob incendiary bombs at the reader to threaten our sacred cows. The beloved American Dream? Absolute fuckery! Or so would argue Akhtar’s college lit professor, the pseudonymously named Mary Moroni, who taught that
America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought. The fatherland in whose name — and for whose benefit — the predation continued was no longer a physical fatherland but a spiritual one: the American Self.
He paraphrases Moroni: “American self-regard was the pillaging patria, she said, and the marauding years of the Reagan regime had only expressed this enduring reality of American life with greater clarity and transparency than ever before.”
“Art of the Deal” Donnie Trump, real estate mogul, reality TV show host, sexual predator, con man, and eventually president, was the embodiment of this pillaging and marauding. To drive more nails into the coffin of the America that had done such a seduction number on his father, Akhtar confesses that his naïveté wouldn’t dissipate until long after graduation.
I wouldn’t see what Mary saw until I’d been witness to the untimely decline of a generation of colleagues exhausted by the demands of jobs that never paid them enough, drowning in debt to care for children riddled with disorders that couldn’t be cured; and the cousins — and the best friend from high school — who ended up in shelters or on the street, tossed out of houses they could no longer afford; and until the near-dozen suicides and overdoses of fortysomething childhood classmates in a mere space of three years; and the friends and family medicated for despair, anxiety, lack of affect, insomnia, sexual dysfunction; and the premature cancers brought on by the chemical shortcuts for everything from the food moving through our irritable bowels to the lotions applied to our sun-poisoned skins.
It does not sound like Akhtar is making any of this up, which is why the reader can be forgiven for taking this for a memoir, particularly when the son argues with the father over his support for Trump’s presidential campaign. There are things Ayad Akhtar apparently never knew about Dr. Sikander Akhtar’s belief system, which only surfaced in the ugly months leading up to November 2016,
That whites were lazy, and all they really cared about were weekends away and their summer vacations; that blacks didn’t like to pay their medical bills because they still had a slave’s mentality and saw the system as a master to be rebelled against; that women had a deeper understanding of life because they had to give birth and were built to suffer, which is also why they wouldn’t care that Trump said nasty things about them — they ultimately expected it; that Muslims were backward because the Quran was nonsense and the Prophet was a moron; that Jews were neurotic because their fathers didn’t know how to shut their wives up so the mothers drove the children crazy …
(You’ll have to read Woody Allen’s autobiography Apropos of Nothing to confirm that latter assertion — I’m kidding.)
I read Akhtar’s faux memoir with its natural companions on my desk for reference: How to Be a Muslim: An American Story by Haroon Moghul; The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman; Native Believer by Ali Eteraz; and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror by Moustafa Bayoumi. In fact, we’re looking at an entire generation of writers who’ve come of age during and after 9/11, and who have been hindered in one way or another by the endless “War on Terror” and DHS/TSA airport tactics — the random searches that single out brown people with Arabic-sounding patronyms.
As in Eteraz’s novel Native Believer and Rayyan Al-Shawaf’s When All Else Fails, the post-9/11 reality has made it even more difficult for Muslims to feel at home, such that the temptation to pass as a Christian is hard to pass up (Ayad Akhtar confesses that for months after 9/11 he wore a large crucifix as he walked around Manhattan). The USA Patriot Act, enacted soon after 9/11, was all the more reason for a brown person to look for a white mate, the better to blend in, as his character Amir does when he marries Emily in the play Disgraced. Reflecting on memories of his uncle Shafat, who converted to Christianity, Akhtar follows the logic of camouflage:
I saw suddenly revealed a wider perspective on the failure and threat of our lives as Muslims here in America, a failure and threat my uncle Shafat would eventually believe he could solve by adopting the Christian faith. You see, we — Muslims — lived in a Christian land. That’s how we saw it, at least in the families I knew. We lived in a Christian land, but we didn’t understand Christianity. We didn’t understand it; we didn’t respect it. We thought it a makeshift, misbegotten offspring of the Judaic creed, an aggrandized misinterpretation founded on an ontological absurdity: that God would need a son, and that that son — supposedly divine — could perish in the flesh at human hands. All this and its attendant obfuscations — the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the shell game of transubstantiation — we took for silliness. But here was the paradox: in order to flourish in this new land, we had to adopt its Christian ways, ways that befuddled us and that we disdained, ways we saw reflected in almost every aspect of American life.
[A]s much as I worried about my place in America as a Muslim—and yes, I had good reason to; all American Muslims did; that terrible day in September foreclosed our futures in this country for at least another generation — as much as it bothered me, as much as I felt a victim of what this nation had become for us, I, too, had participated in my own exclusion, willingly, still choosing, half a lifetime into my American life, to see myself as other.
And here we all are, in the present moment, watching the Trumpian vision play out, where the choices are stark: are you for the Archie Bunker world of meathead white privilege, or are you a citizen of the post-Obama multicultural reality in which nearly half the country now consists of immigrants and people of color, relegating white supremacy to Confederate statues and mobs carrying tiki torches? We live in both these worlds willy-nilly, but the banality of the evil that Trump and his minions have foisted on us all is that we are endlessly reminded of racism’s scourge, as nearly every day we learn of another incident of police brutality, or murder, while white men in baseball caps, armed with semi-automatic rifles, roam the streets and occupy state capitol buildings unmolested.
Akhtar returns several times to the aftermath of 9/11 and the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals in Pakistan 10 years later. As an American Muslim, one’s situation is more precarious, and you don’t want to be accused of harboring terrorist sympathies, which has apparently been Akhtar’s bane. He writes that he’s asked “fairly often” how much of himself is in his work, and “whether I, too, felt a blush of pride on September 11, and, if so, whether I believe America deserved what it got; and finally, if I […] think that further Muslim attacks on America are likely. When they ask if the play is autobiographical, what people are really asking me about is my politics.”
Later in the narrative, he draws a portrait of his Black Hollywood agent, Mike Jacobs, who warns him to let Hollywood players know exactly where he stands. Akhtar brushes off the admonition: “I’m not against what they stand for. My favorite writers are all Jewish. I’ve been going to school on Philip Roth and Arthur Miller since I was in my teens.”
But why should any Muslim — or any American for that matter — have to prove their bona fides by praising Israel or Jews in particular? This is akin to being asked to prove that you’re a patriot — what do you need to do, run an American flag up a pole outside your home? Such fealty goes counter to a writer’s deeper nature, which is to be a free thinker and a critic, first and foremost of government and pols, but certainly of nationalism and its prideful outgrowth, exceptionalism.
Akhtar may be concerned that if he says or writes the wrong thing, he won’t work in Hollywood. That is akin to being afraid of the “socialist” label when you’re an American politician, when it’s painfully obvious to the majority of Americans today (40 million of whom are out of work) that capitalism has failed us, and that we desperately need universal health care.
Although unlike his literary mentor, Salman Rushdie, Akhtar doesn’t expend much effort to dissect Islam or attack its Salafists and other extreme believers, he does expose America’s racist underbelly, pointing out what prejudice can do to the livelihoods of people of color. “By 2012,” he writes,
Father was nearing the end of his career. […] [H]is first cardiology practice — as you’ll recall — going fully out of business in the early ’90s, his second practice only barely averting collapse in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Across the country, brown doctors saw their patient load decline after 9/11, and my father’s cardiology group — staffed almost entirely with South Asian physicians — was no exception. He lost 40 percent of his business within three months; most of those patients never came back.
In one torturous scene that sounds like it was ripped from the headlines, Ayad Akhtar does a crappy job of parking his car in front of a convenience store as his father rushes in to buy supplies, enraging a white man with a truck and a holstered gun who calls out: “[Y]ou monkey. This is not some zoo. We got rules here. Rules of fucking law. Learn how to park your fucking car in the United States of America.”
Ayad Akhtar is forced to confront the other in himself because of the color of his skin. The sections on race are at times aggravating for the white supremacy the Akhtars and their friends have to face down. “My own skin,” Akhtar writes,
had long been the source of a central confusion: since childhood, I’d felt a visceral disgust for the sickly tints of the white skin I saw everywhere around me, the blanched arms and legs, faces the color of paste, flesh devoid of warmth or human glow, a wan affliction incomprehensible to me except as something to be hidden; I’d felt all this since childhood, and yet, paradoxically, the fact that my own skin was not white had only ever seemed surpassingly strange. Indeed, later, through my adolescence and early adulthood, the experience of seeing myself in a mirror took me aback. It was nothing about my eyes or nose or lips — nothing about my face except for its tarnished penny hue. In my complexion alone I saw a person I didn’t recognize, someone who, had I seen him in the school hallways or at the mall or municipal swimming pool, I would have thought did not belong here. I knew that about myself because I knew that was how I saw others who looked like me. My likeness in the mirror was a reminder of something about myself I always chose to forget, something never available to me except when confronted by my appearance: that though I didn’t feel “other” in any meaningful way, I clearly appeared only that way — at least to myself.
As the narrative nears its conclusion, a family friend who is also a physician discusses Trump’s — and Stephen Miller’s — blatantly irrational and self-defeating anti-immigrant logic.
It’s not just that they won’t let anyone come here now. They’re trying to make it so no one wants to come. Graduates like us? If we’re young, coming out of medical school, why would we want the headache? We’ll try somewhere else. And do they think that will be good for the country? At least fifty percent of the best doctors in America were not born in America. At least fifty percent. That’s just a fact. […] He doesn’t like Mexicans, he doesn’t like Muslims, he doesn’t like Africans — in the process, he’s making it more and more unlikely that any good doctor, good scientist, will come here. No matter where they’re from. And who will suffer the consequence? The American patient suffers. That’s who.
At the end of the day, Ayad Akhtar the playwright, the actor, the novelist, and the citizen has to accept himself while at the same time facing his attackers, as he does in the book’s coda, entitled “Free Speech,” when he’s invited, as he often is, to speak on campus. A white American man in the audience, scoffing at him for being such a critic of the United States, says, “I mean, if you don’t like it here […] I don’t really understand why you don’t just leave.”
Ayad Aktar the American replies: “I’m here because I was born and raised here. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. For better, for worse — and it’s always a bit of both — I don’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve never even thought about it. America is my home.”
A refugee from Trump and the oligarchy, Jordan Elgrably is a writer living in Montpellier. He is the editor of The Markaz Review.