Interviews

Dialogs: Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies Reflects on Dreams of American Identity

Akhtar (left) and Patel. Screenshot of CHF event.

Ayad Akhtar’s new novel, Homeland Elegies, begins like a memoir. Written in the first person, it’s about the narrator’s Pakistani immigrant father who believes in the American dream. Father was “minting money” as a successful cardiologist, but a motivational speaker convinces him to put that money into a haphazard bunch of business real estate (the speaker happens to have an interest in the properties). When those investments flounder, Father returns to medical research and ends up consulting for a younger Donald Trump, who was suffering from an undiagnosable cardiological problem in the 1990s. Father becomes a Trump fan.

“He’s a fighter…. That’s why we love him,” he tells his son many years later. And the son fears his father voted for Trump in 2016. But Father won’t say.

Akhtar talked about his book and his writing process (he’s also the author of several plays and owner of  Pulitzer Prize for Drama) in a Chicago Humanities Festival event this week. Joining him in conversation was Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation. The event was live-streamed on YouTube and is still available for viewing.

Akhtar was born in New York but grew up in Milwaukee, making him almost a hometown boy. His new book (Little, Brown, 368 pages), released this month, focuses on the story of a writer (who has won a Pulitzer Prize) and his father, who shares many characteristics of Akhtar’s own father. (I’ve only read an excerpt of the book and this article is not a book review.) Patel commented that the book is “compulsively readable.” The book and the conversation between Akhtar and Patel emphasize the nature of American identity in a post-9/11 era. As Hari Kunzru says in his recent New York Times book review, “The elegies of Akhtar’s title are sung for a dream of national belonging that has only receded since 2001.”

Patel asked Akhtar to talk about his writing process and the many themes embodied in his work, such as debt and antitrust theory, greed and global money markets, Freud and Jung, the French language, the Sufi tradition, Polish theater and family religious turmoil. ‘I get these obsessions intensely,” Akhtar said, “and then go on to something else.”

Akhtar described his writing process, which has become quite regular. He writes six days a week from about 9am to 2pm and typically writes 700 to 1200 words a day, most of it in the first hour. “A lot of writing is not writing,” he said—but thinking. He and Patel agreed on the validity of artist Chuck Close’s famous quote. “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

As to his literary idols, Akhtar named Shakespeare first. “He inhabits his characters. You never know what Shakespeare’s identity is.” He also is reading the work of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. His inspiration for Homeland Elegies came when he was studying at the American Academy in Rome after his play Junk had opened in 2017. He was reading the Italian poet Leopardi, he said, when one morning he got up and just started writing the story about his father that became the novel. “I wrote the first sentence of the book that morning and the words flowed out.”

Akhtar also talked about how he felt his American identity most fully when he was in Europe. I wanted to be with Americans, he said, to read the [International] Herald-Tribune and keep up with what was going on here.

Also on being an American: If you’re an American, you decide what you want to be. My father decided he was an American, not a Muslim (because he dearly loved American pop culture and cabernet). Patel is reminded of the James Baldwin essay in which Baldwin, imprisoned in a French jail, suddenly feels very American. (The essay is “Equal in Paris” in Baldwin’s 1955 collection, Notes of a Native Son.)

Ayad Akhtar photo by Vincent Tullio.

The Akhtar-Patel conversation was the most intellectually sprawling and scintillating of any I have observed in the CHF literary series. The topics leaped from obscure to famous writers and their works and to arcane literary and cultural references. The conversants were well matched in erudition.

During the brief Q&A session, Patel asked Akhtar to comment on questions viewers had posted in the chat. The most intriguing question asked Akhtar to comment on the role of shame in Pakistani and Indian culture. He responded that there is no shame any more. “Shamelessness is everywhere. It’s not right or left. I had no choice but to play the same game.”

Several of Akhtar’s plays have been staged in Chicago in recent years. Disgraced (for which he received the Pulitzer Prize), about an ambitious Muslim-American big-law lawyer, was at Goodman Theatre in 2015. In the thrilling The Invisible Hand at Steep Theatre in 2017, a banker hostage tutors his Pakistani captors in navigating the global money markets, while The Who and the What at Victory Gardens in 2015 was a story of family culture clash.

In 2017, I also saw Junk, his flashily staged play about financial manipulations, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theaters (the Beaumont is considered on Broadway). The play tells a story of a corporate raider much like Michael Milken. It was a hot ticket even before opening, so I got a ticket for the final preview. The next night I went back to Lincoln Center to see another play running at one of the smaller theaters and wandered into opening night in the main lobby full of beautiful people, many in dinner jackets and gowns. Near the center of the action was Akhtar, talking with Preet Bharara, who was then the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a position held by Rudolph Giuliani at the time of the play’s late 1980s setting.

The CHF conversation was live-streamed on YouTube and is still available for viewing.  Running time is 54 minutes.

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