‘Making it’ in America as pure fantasy: Ayad Akhtar’s ‘Homeland Elegies: A Novel’
Via AboutIslamNet

The book jacket describes Homeland Elegies as “[p]art family drama, part social essay, part picaresque novel.” The decision to confuse these genres is both tantalizing and frustrating. Its subtitle identifies it as “a novel.” This pre-pandemic text refers often to real-life events, such as to his own plays and to main actors in those plays thinly veiled by pseudonyms. Even the author’s detailed description of his writing process and rhetorical strategies promotes an autobiographical quality in the prose.

New York, NY – August 7th, 2017: Ayad Akhtar posing for a portrait in New York.

In interviews, novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (for Disgraced at Lincoln Center) Ayad Akhtar refuses to clarify the murkiness of this pond of truth and fiction. He told an NPR interviewer, “I wanted to find a way to write about the present, to write about the political realities that we’re dealing with, to write about the nation that we have become, the insanity that has become our lives today, and I wanted to do it in fiction.” He adds coyly, “Again, there’s so much that is true and so much that’s verifiably true and so much that’s unverifiably true.”

A careless reader might be tempted to think what they are reading is pure memoir, a narrative of the ambivalence that a South Asian Muslim man feels toward American xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism.

The novel explores Akhtar’s family conflicts, including his father’s 15-year affair with a prostitute whom he met while serving as a heart specialist for Donald Trump in the 1990s, and with whom he has a child. It examines his mother’s regret over not having married her true love, her sadness at having moved to the U.S. from Pakistan, and her years-long battle with cancer that ended in a painful death. It recounts Akhtar’s own struggles with becoming a successful writer, punctuated by failures in theater and TV before eventual success, fame, and even wealth.

This long personal history is haunted by the lurking presence of Donald Trump. Akhtar’s father, a well-regarded cardiologist who in the 1990s practices in a Milwaukee suburb, discovered a method for diagnosing a rare and dangerous heart condition. Trump’s personal doctors have suggested the stumbling real estate con-man might be showing symptoms of the condition and that he consult Akhtar. Thus begins a years-long doctor-patient relationship that pushes the Pakistani-American to support Trump’s nomination and candidacy for president.

After a fight with his father over the illogic of this move, Akhtar reflects: “Father always called America the land of opportunity. Hardly original, I know. But I wonder: Opportunity for whom? For him, right? The opportunity to become whatever he desired? Sure, others, too, but only insofar as others meant him.” This deeply rooted American selfishness, this “wealth as holy pursuit” distorted Father’s allegiances, placing him in alliance with white supremacy and xenophobia even as it denied him meaningful inclusion in American identity.

Akhtar’s narrative offers a progressive criticism through a copious scrutiny of the willful excesses of American capitalism, its callous inability to any longer provide financial stability for tens of millions of Americans while the wealthy 1% continue to glut themselves at the trough of graft and confidence schemes legitimized by property rights and legal disclaimers. A disastrous health system watches the poor die and denies a healthy life to most. The recurring images of easy corruption among the billionaire-millionaire class and the violent racism-xenophobia of many white Americans encountered in the book overlay a land of loss, anger, betrayal, waste, and abuse. To the genre hodgepodge indicated on the book jacket might be added “a tale of racist neoliberal capitalist dystopia.”

Akhtar’s occasional references to his writing methods for recalling and reconstructing detail through language, a means of recreating reality in the imagination of his reader, points to a political level on which the novel operates. In an era where the “Big Lie” functioned as Trump’s chosen public relations tool and means for mobilizing conspiracy-inspired supporters, the orderly reconstruction of a world of truth—verifiable and unverifiable—serves a broad basis for an anti-fascist consciousness embedded in objectivity rather than right-wing fantasies of power through violence, control through fatalism, and domination rooted in racist hatred.

Unfortunately, this dystopian world comes with no visionary or revolutionary alternatives. Protagonist-like figures are lone individuals, usually highly privileged, such as the millionaire Muslim hedge fund owner who manages a massive trick on his racist, xenophobic antagonists, or the Black entertainment agent whose cynical vision of American dystopia operates only with massive amounts of cash.

Even Ayad’s inspiring former professor becomes jaded when she realizes that her students have changed since her early years in teaching. They no longer care about the same old white authors she once found indispensable for understanding American culture. Ayad himself admits to being a “neoliberal courtier,” living a life of ease in proximity to wealth, but also uses his access to this world as fodder for his art.

If the novel provides one important lesson, it is that the traditional American idols of wealth, social mobility, individualism and “making it” are pure fantasy. Capitalism has destroyed whatever was good about life in this country, and now fascism threatens to pick over its carcass.

Ayad Akhtar
Homeland Elegies: A Novel
New York: Little, Brown, and Company
Published Sept. 8, 2020
ISBN-13: 9780316496421
368 pp., $28


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).