“Passionate, Disturbing, Unputdownable” is how the author Salman Rushdie describes Ayad Akhtar’s latest novel, “Homeland Elegies” in a blurb. Indeed, the book, which scampers between memoir and fiction, is all of these things. Ayad Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 for “Disgraced,” which centered on the themes of Islamophobia and identity politics, is not only a brilliant author but one who seems the presumptive legatee for what could be called the Rushdian tradition. Being a Rushdian means no simplistic mimicry of magic realism, of which Rushdie is a master, but rather a searing (and often sneering) dissection of the recurrent themes of our age: family, migration, religion, and capitalism.
There is all of this in Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies,” which follows the author’s life from childhood in Wisconsin to adulthood in New York City. Rendered through Akhtar’s deft cinematic telling, the characters are memorable and almost familiar; there is his whiskey-swilling father, who pays annual visits to a prostitute named Caroline and smugly declares that “he never loved living in Pakistan,” and his eventually cancer-stricken mother who pined for decades for Latif, her husband’s best friend who quit America to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is from his mother’s sense of divided loyalties that Akhtar confessed to having pilfered the first line of his hit play. In the aftermath of 9/11 and in uncharacteristic revolt against the accrued burdens white people have imposed, the otherwise docile and shy woman declares: “They deserve what they got and what they’re going to get.”
The interpretive richness of the sentence, and the lethalities and disloyalties of “they,” is what Akhtar plumbs in the play. Its questions of belonging and betrayal echo through “Homeland Elegies” as well. Like Rushdie, who satirized Partition in “Midnight’s Children,” the milieu of 1970s Pakistan in “Shame,” and the acquisitive greed of South Asian migrants in “Quichotte,” Akhtar threads an inchoate disdain for his characters, the aunts and uncles and parents riven between capitalist acquisition and lingering beliefs in Islam’s imminent political ascendancy. In one conversation between his father and uncle, visiting in Abbottabad (the military garrison town where Bin Laden has been hiding), Akhtar endures his Uncle Naseem’s rant on the value of military prowess as the premier quality of leadership. When it concludes, he delivers his sharp judgment: “the principles Naseem was outlining were of course central to the civil and military project in Syria and Iraq like a toxic desert dogbane, a demonic self-referential of the first Muslim community Naseem invoked, the original Companions of the Prophet recast as sex-crazed purveyors of snuff-films whom even Rushdie’s satirical genius could not have imagined.” It is clever, this interposing of the reality of Muslim terror against the everyday idealization of Muslim glory, and Akhtar deploys it often, elevating his narrator to a seer mingling amongst characters who are simultaneously pitiable (his parents) lethal (his benefactor, Riaz) and cartoonish (everyone).
Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies” does not have the fantastical stylish flourishes of Rushdie’s fiction, but it has a flavor that is rather similar to Rushdie’s own memoir, “Joseph Anton.” In it, Rushdie played with the form, using the third person to refer to himself and creating a fictional name for his own character. Akhtar also toys with ideas of truth and fiction. Homeland Elegies is titled “a novel” but its narrator is also named Ayad Akhtar and the life events track Akhtar’s own. The effect is a blurring and entangling of the real and the fictive such that the boundaries between the two disappear.
In a recent interview, Akhtar was asked for the words reviewers attach to his writing that he most detests. He responded with “Muslim.” It is a telling response, and considering it against “Homeland Elegies” points to the author’s complicated (and unending) quest to transcend the conundrums of identity and alienation, the very themes that have made him successful as a post-9/11 author. Rushdie too struggled with just this; in an interview following the publication of his early book “A Passage to Pakistan,” he confessed, “it is a part of the world to which, whether I like it or not, I am still joined, if only by elastic bands.”
“Homeland Elegies” treads deftly through decades of historical ground; the Partition of the subcontinent is present, as is the moment on Election Day 2016 when Akhtar’s immigrant father (who had been for a small moment in the ’90s Trump’s doctor) refuses to tell him who he has voted for. He was, Akhtar notes, “admitting to me that night in the only way he could that he had done it,” that is, voted for Trump despite knowing better. Trump too is present in “Homeland Elegies” but the book’s preoccupation with Muslim identity identifies it as a novel of post-9/11 instead of the Trump and COVID-19 moment. The activist young Muslims of this latter age are not (like Akhtar) the children but the grandchildren of immigrants who arrived in the 1970s. They’re less concerned with questionable sympathies for Bin Laden and much more so with issues of racial justice and Black Lives Matter. The issues of hyphenated identities and relationships to a faraway homeland aren’t all sorted but, because they are hand-me-downs, rendered less alienating and pernicious than they were to their parents.
“Homeland Elegies” can also be construed as an elegy for an America that no longer exists, a post-9/11 America, when only Muslims (rather than Blacks, Hispanics, and everyone else) were the singular enemy and systemic racism was far from being acknowledged as a problem by presidential candidates. The pulsing beat of Ayad Akhtar’s incisive and masterful work underscores this, as does his own transformation so aptly chronicled in the book. The last words Akhtar speaks at the end of the book reflect this: “America is my home,” he says; it’s a declaration of arrival and belonging, but also in Trump’s America of being stranded with nowhere else to go.
By Ayad Akhtar
Little, Brown, 368 pp., $28
Rafia Zakaria is author of “Against White Feminism," coming next spring.