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Book review: Ayad Akhtar’s new novel depicts unease of being a brown Muslim in US

Jim Higgins
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"Homeland Elegies: A Novel" by Ayad Akhtar.

Anyone who has seen both “Disgraced” and “Junk” will be prepared for the content of Ayad Akhtar’s new novel, “Homeland Elegies.” 

But even those hard-punching, argumentative dramas don’t completely prepare a reader for the high-bandwidth ferocity of Akhtar’s book about the unease of being a brown Muslim in the United States and about the destabilizing effect of unfettered greed on this country. 

“I wrote ‘Homeland Elegies’ in something of a fever dream after my mother passed away, and after Donald Trump’s election,” Akhtar writes in an introductory note for reviewers. “My father was starting to show signs of decline, as was our nation, and I found myself overtaken with a desire to remember.”

He declares that “Homeland Elegies” is fiction, not an autobiography. Nonetheless, he gives its title character his own name, and uses the contours of both his life and his parents’ lives in the novel, though he gives the parents in “Homeland Elegies” different first names. 

To avoid confusing myself and others, I’ll refer to the fictional character and narrator as Ayad, and to the living writer as Akhtar. 

Trump, partition and Sept. 11

Audaciously, “Homeland Elegies” begins with Ayad’s father Sikander, a cardiologist who specializes in heart arrhythmia, meeting with Donald Trump in the ‘90s for a consultation and minor misadventures. Sikander walks away with a positive take on the future president, which fits his “love of America and a firm belief in its supremacy,” in Ayad’s words. In contrast, his mother Fatima misses her native Pakistan and the man she might have married, Sikander’s friend Latif. Surprisingly, she finds some consolation in listening to polka music: “a homespun Wisconsin reminder she was not the only one who’d come here from somewhere else, not the only one still working to keep alive the memory of another place.”

The first 80 white-hot pages of “Homeland Elegies” explore the “Trumpian Weltanschauung,” the fate of Latif, the India-Pakistan partition, the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan and Sept. 11, culminating in memories of a family visit to Abbottabad, the military city where Osama bin Laden would eventually be killed. These historical events batter and shape Ayad and his parents. The reactions of this novel’s American Muslim characters to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are too complex and subtle to summarize in a sentence, but I think it’s fair to quote Ayad’s thought that they emerged from the tragedy “at once suspects and victims.” 

Roth, Rushdie and Bork

“Homeland Elegies” often brings two other writers to mind. One is Philip Roth, for multiple reasons. Akhtar has pointed before to 20th-century American Jewish writers as his literary ancestors. Like them, he digs deeply into internecine cultural conflicts, and into the perplexing condition of being slotted by outsiders into a stereotypical religious pigeonhole while not being so observant about that religion. Roth, too, wrote several novels with “Philip Roth” as a character, guaranteeing extra work for future biographers and scholars. 

Also, like some Roth characters, Ayad in “Homeland Elegies” engages in compulsive sexual behavior. His licentiousness seems partly related to his struggle for self-acceptance. As a boy, he felt “visceral disgust” for “the sickly tint” of white skin around him in his Milwaukee suburb of Elm Brook, yet he also developed strong desires for sex with white women. But his most intense ardor, only partly requited, is for Asha, a fellow first-generation brown Asian Muslim. Their affair will have suppurating consequences for him. 

This novel’s other tutelary spirit is Salman Rushdie, who not only blurbs it but also is discussed or invoked several times within. Of course, a novel that probes the violent sundering of Pakistan from India would mention Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” the defining literary work about the repercussions of the partition.

But “Homeland Elegies” also has the most detailed literary discourse on “The Satanic Verses” I’ve read in a long time, a book so radioactive that even a secularized, literary, wine-drinking mentor of Ayad backs away from it in a hurry, condemning it as blasphemy and filth.

Readers who have not seen his play “Junk,” or who think of Akhtar only as a chronicler of Muslim Americans, may be surprised by the intensity of his critique of corrosive capitalism. Ayad jumps from an economic analysis of a favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to Robert Bork, whose “notion that the collective good was determined solely by benefit to the consumer would prove to be the necessary lubricant in the world-historical shift to the form of free-market capitalism that has engulfed the planet.” In simpler terms, Ayad thinks that “money comes with its own point of view; what you own, when you own enough of it, starts making you see the world from its perspective.” 

Generous portrayal of a father

My favorite character in Akhtar’s plays is Afzal, the father and nominally the antagonist in “The Who & The What,” his thorny feminist comedy. Akhtar humanizes Afzal so fully that a viewer can’t help but love the guy. 

Akhtar characterizes Sikander, the father in “Homeland Elegies,” with similar generosity. Like Afzal but even more fervently, Sikander has bought into the American dream of working hard and piling up money. In fact, the mostly secular Sikander has gone so American he’s picked up two decidedly non-Islamic vices, whiskey and gambling. Unfortunately, as every brown character in this novel understands, their embrace of America, however passionate, does not guarantee that America is hugging them back.

White fear of the brown Muslim other and the destructive power of rampant greed come together in the painful climax of a medical malpractice trial - and an angry face-off with a white man in a small-town convenience store. Ironically, Sikander is in that position because he took extra time with a patient, flouting fiscal corporate diktat to keep appointments short. 

Later, hugging his father after a bitter argument, Ayad thinks that “only the embrace between us mattered now.” Filled with arguments, “Homeland Elegies” is itself an embrace of a complicated and difficult patrimony, personal and cultural. 

The advocacy group PEN America announced Sept. 8 that Akhtar will become its next president on Dec. 2, succeeding Jennifer Egan. It’s hard to imagine another American writer for whom the twin missions of promoting a diverse literary culture and defending free expresion are more personal and so intertwined. 

Jim Higgins is the author of “Wisconsin Literary Luminaries: From Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ayad Akhtar” (The History Press). Contact Jim Higgins at jim.higgins@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.