“Homeland Elegies: A Novel”, by Ayad Akhtar, is a combination novel/memoir about his life as a Muslim man in America, 2020. Let me state up front that this book is a must read, one of 2020’s finest, addressing topics of great urgency in language that soars with brilliancy, with anger, with sorrow, and occasionally with humor. Much of the novel’s the story of the writer’s relationship with his father, a twice failed cardiologist in America, born in Pakistan and a new immigrant, with his wife, to America. Immigrant literature has become the strongest new fictional trope in the past couple of years (2020 began with Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt” and ran through phenomenal novels like “Hurricane Season” and “Love After Love”, all fiction about the immigrant experience).
Father and son view their experiences in America/as Americans very differently, as we may presume all immigrant groups have; the first generation often longs for the culture and customs of the old, clinging to friends from their homelands, while their children are torn between their own desire to “fit in” in the new country and their parents’ tugging them back into the old. Akhtar himself is quite the famous writer; one of his plays won The Pulitzer Prize The September 11, 2011 attacks on America brought constant bullying and actual violence onto Muslim peoples in this country. Akhtar makes it clear that 9/11 brought this bigotry out into the streets and malls of America, though, as people of color, the prejudices were already here. Small but terrifying slights are everywhere, provoked by nothing except the skin color of the Akhtars. And the father in the novel was, early on in his medical career here, a doctor of Donald Trump’s, and we see a little of how Trump operates privately: private helicopters are offered, brand new suites at The Plaza Hotel which Trump then owned, dinners in fabulous restaurants, hookers, the whole shlabang. The father’s enamored with Trump–or is it simply the wealth on display, or both? Questions about America’s obsession with money and materialism run through this book admirably; De Tocqueville’s early writings about America already showed concern about the material nature of Americans. The father’s eventual disillusionment with Trump will parallel his own disillusion with America itself. And, like many recent immigrants in fiction, the father will eventually return to Pakistan to live, ruined by debt (some from gambling), and some from trying to build a successful life in a country constantly hawking debt in return for what used to pass as “the good life” but probably doesn’t anymore. Akhtar’s observations on the economic circumstances in America–he accidentally meets a Muslim man who’s made a fortune in some kind of investments, who also enriches Akhtar himself–are astute and futuristic and essential reading. (Attempts to have built a modest mosque in medium sized American towns, including Scranton, Pa., all went South because the dominant white populations cannot abide the site of a mosque, particularly on or near “Main Street”). Akhtar’s financial wizard friend then finds ways to basically bribe the local councilperson (or whomever) so that these cities eventually go broke from their own greed: these sections of “Homeland Elegies” are shocking and show what’s happened to the allegedly former pillars of these communities, drowned in debt and their own greed.
That Akhtar’s actual own play shows some sympathy towards Muslims after 9/11–including to the general idea of getting back at America, which has screwed their home countries repeatedly–are key ingredients in this wise and thoughtful book. He no longer even feels safe on college campuses, where he’s spent much of his career, as hyperindulged students may find his ideas “offensive” (almost always on the left, but occasionally on the right); Akhtar’s own original teacher/mentor has invited him to speak at her college in Wisconsin, where he’s met by protesters, angry , unruly (and uneducated) students. His teacher’s own love of academia and reading and research have also changed dramatically as many of the issues in academia now regarding race, gender, class etc. run roughsod on subtlety of thinking, But Akhtar has real sympathy for these students whom he believes are offered very little in college but debt and a way into the downwardly mobile middle classes, also riddled with debt.
I wondered which “homeland” is in these “elegies”, Akhtar’s or his father’s, or both? Akhtar believes himself to be an American, though one trained in critical thinking rather than in feeling states and group identity; his father seems to have enjoyed parts of an America which never welcomed him or his wife and whose return home will shock and deeply sadden the reader. “Homeland Elegies” is absolutely brilliant, raising essential issues about America’s own identity and increasing fragmentation without being specifically political. America’s god of the times is the corporation and its languages, logos, debt structures; even The Supreme Court has deemed corporations the same as people in terms of “rights”, and it is at the altar of the corporate world, its MBAs and marketing specialists and the like that most Americans have defaulted into worshipping.