The task of living in America, after 9/11, as a Muslim-American, sounds daunting. News reports in the “aughts” were particularly bleak on the subject. Then there was the moment in 2017 when President Trump instituted a travel ban affecting several Middle Eastern countries. I haven’t heard much about Muslim-Americans in the news recently, as the #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements have been flooding the press. But then, late last year, I read the highly acclaimed 2020 novel Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar; and I gained new insight into just how oppressive the atmosphere remains for Muslim-Americans.
This is a novel, but it’s very close to a memoir. How close? We’ll never know. But the book is highly realistic, and it seems like a memoir. The narrator is named Ayad Akhtar, just like the author. The narrator is a second-generation Pakistani-American (his parents emigrated from Pakistan to America, and he was born in America), just like the author. The narrator is a playwright, just like the author. But we must never forget that the words “A NOVEL” appear on the cover. We must never forget that this is a work of fiction. It’s made up. At least part of it, anyway. . . .
Akhtar, in my humble opinion, has good reason to hide behind the mask of fiction. Dude, I have done it myself (in the case of my unpublished novel). When you’re writing about highly charged and controversial topics, it’s prudent to maintain a personal distance from any remarks that might seem inflammatory to a bad actor.
Speaking of acting, I’d like to highlight a passage that appears near the beginning of the novel. The playwright narrator explains that, while writing a play (that was produced to high acclaim), he wanted to express a certain concept and tell a certain story, based on a real-life event. He explains that he made the creative decision to not express the event literally, but instead obliquely:
“I’d buried both context and tale inside the play I wrote, masking its true source from the audience. I didn’t believe a more obvious rendition would meet with greater understanding. I still don’t. But I suppose we’re about to find out.”
“We’re about to find out”—meaning, in this very memoir we are reading, he’s going to express the concept and tell the story in an obvious, straightforward way: He’s going to speak out about the real truth.
All right! Bring in on!
But wait—this is not a memoir. This is a novel. Aaaaah, what genre are we in again?!
It’s very clear what genre we are in. This is not a work that blends genres, like Piranesi (which, I contend, blends the fantasy and literary fiction genres). This is a work of literary fiction that is written to seem like a memoir.
And the novel is superb. He does bring it on. But again—this is a work of fiction. It’s impossible to know how much of it is actually “a more obvious rendition” of Akhtar’s life than what’s in his plays (which I have not seen), or whether this is all just part of the masquerade of the novel.
However, I did read an interview of Akhtar in Poets & Writers magazine (I’d link to it, but it’s only available to subscribers), and I watched this video of him speaking about the novel. (It’s a great video! And only 2:33 minutes long!) These shed considerable light on the novel’s conceit. According to these sources, Akhtar’s vision for the novel was to express real truths about living as a second-generation Muslim-American, in a fictional form that allows him more narrative freedom than a straight memoir would.
How to live in America as a second-generation Muslim-American: that is the question. The answer, for both Akhtar and his fictional narrator, is multifaceted. But one of those facets is this: write about your life, either literally or through the veil of fiction. Also: write such a damn good book that people can’t ignore you.
This is exactly what Ayad Akhtar has done in Homeland Elegies. This is the most impressive work of literary fiction I have read in a long time. Big with ideas. Big with shocking turns. Highly recommended.
And there’s an even larger wisdom here. How are we to live in America—all of us—no matter what race or religion we are? The answer, based in the passage above, is that we need to speak our truth. Moreover, we need to find ways to speak our truth that are effective in reaching others. And implicit in the passage is, we need to listen to and empathize with other people’s truths.
What is your truth?