It’s ironic, as well as fitting, that Ayad Akhtar, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and author of 2012’s American Dervish, began writing his new novel in Italy. Homeland Elegies is narrated by a Pakistani American writer and chronicles, through the story of himself and his family, what Akhtar calls the “decay of our country over the last half-century.” It’s a book about America, in other words. But it’s also a story about alienation—about what he calls the “insider-outsider” experience of immigrants and first-generation citizens. And it took being halfway across the world, during a stay at the American Academy in Rome, for Akhtar to gain the perspective his story required.
“Donald Trump has been in office for just under a year,” Akhtar, 49, says of that time. “I got up one morning after reading a poem by Leopardi, which is entitled ‘To Italy.’ He’s addressing the Italian people. I thought to myself, ‘Would it be possible today to just address the American people? Would that even make sense? Could you even do something like that?’ ”
Homeland Elegies is Akhtar’s attempt to do just that. “The weight of politics in our country had coalesced and summoned a response out of me,” he says, speaking via Zoom from his house in a town south of Albany, New York, where he’s been waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic with his fiancée.
The novel, Akhtar’s first since American Dervish, consists of eight long but fast-moving chapters, as well as an overture and a coda. Eschewing linear chronology, the narrator, who shares many biographical details with Akhtar, including his last name, moves between past and present, documenting, among other things, his immigrant parents’ uneasy acclimation to the U.S., his own struggles and eventual success as a writer, and his involvement with a Muslim hedge fund titan whose respectable political objectives are overshadowed by his financial skullduggery.
Linking the chapters are several preoccupying themes: the double consciousness inherent in the minority experience, the contest between allegiances to one’s country and one’s culture, the strictures of identity, and the broken promises of America. The narrator finds himself suspended between his father, who embraces his adopted country with sometimes myopic optimism (and who supports Trump), and his mother, who views the U.S. as hypocritical and racist, and whose animus toward it drives her, at one point, to express something like sympathy for Osama bin Laden.
The narrator finds it impossible to escape fully his sense of his own difference. At one point, on seeing his reflection, he thinks, “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.”
Readers of Akhtar’s previous work will be familiar with these themes. American Dervish focuses on a young boy growing up in suburban Milwaukee who struggles to reconcile his Muslim heritage and his American identity. A subsequent play, Disgraced, which won a Pulitzer in 2013, depicts a dinner party that gives rise to explosive conversations about Islamophobia.
Akhtar’s double identity as a novelist and playwright—he’s also made a film, The War Within, and has spent the past five years developing series for TV—is of a piece with his upbringing. “Hybridity is an important part of my consciousness,” he says. “That may have something to do with growing up Pakistani and being American. I’ve been toggling between various kinds of craft and various ways of thinking about story my whole life. It’s always felt organic to do that.”
Akhtar was born on Staten Island in 1970. In his early childhood, he moved with his parents, both doctors, to Milwaukee, where they lived first in the city and then in two suburbs, Brookfield and Elm Grove. (In Homeland Elegies, the narrator’s hometown is Elm Brook.) Akhtar graduated from Brown in 1993 with a degree in theater and, in 1997, matriculated at Columbia to pursue an MFA in film directing. But he believes pivoting between disciplines has been a boon, not a hindrance, to his artistic development. “Each of them has taught me how to do the other,” he says.
When Akhtar returned to fiction with Homeland Elegies, he did so with a desire to push the novel form. In its liberal use of the author’s own life, in its brazen blurring of the line between fiction and autobiography, the book seems destined to attract the du jour label “autofiction.” But Akhtar bristles at that term. “This, to me, feels much more like a literary attempt at reality serial television,” he says, “where the narrator is staging his own self, in the way that dramatic self-staging has become the dominant mode of discourse.”
By way of explanation, Akhtar invokes Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and the solipsism those platforms enable. He also notes that the America he writes about is presently governed by a former reality TV star given to acts of sensational self-staging. In a way, the book critiques its own mode of discourse. “I might be suggesting that narrative is not a very good way of knowing things,” Akhtar says. “And that part of our philosophical confusion in our crumbling republic may have to do with the fact that everyone has now become a storyteller.”
It also has to do, Akhtar believes, with money. In Homeland Elegies, as in his 2016 play Junk, he takes on greed, capitalism, and the grim fact that much of American life at all levels—corporate, educational, municipal, personal—is fueled by debt. Finance, he says, “is the great untold story. It’s really what drives so much of American life, in ways that people don’t understand.”
For the narrator’s father, the promise of America is inextricable from the promise of wealth. But over the course of the novel, his dreams of enrichment elude him, and he descends into gambling addiction and insolvency. “I knew it was always going to be about money,” Akhtar says of the book. “I knew it was going to be about my father’s relationship to money. I knew it was going to be about America as a kind of casino, where me and my dad are marks.”
By flirting with autobiography in the novel, Akhtar leaves unclear which of the narrator’s and his family’s disgraces are fictional. For Judy Clain, Akhtar’s editor at Little, Brown, this ambiguity is a source of the book’s strength. “I started out wanting to dissect the novel and find out what was truly autobiographical and what was not,” she says. “I concluded that it didn’t actually matter. The essence of the book, the form, the playfulness, the gray area is the reward.”
Akhtar sees his unflinching honesty as part of his artistic, and moral, purpose. “In writing this book,” he says, “I knew I was going to have to use my family, use my personal life, to the end of creating this particular portrait of our country. It had to be a work that really engaged, and also implicated, my own flesh and blood. And if I was going to subject my parents to the kind of portrayal that they end up having, especially my father, I knew I couldn’t spare myself.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.