Ayad Akhtar must be a very brave man. As a second-generation Pakistani-American, his entire life must be a balancing act. He is an American raised in American culture and the American value system. He also has deep, familial roots in Islam and Pakistani culture. Everyone must find ways to cope with the conflicting aspects of being a modern human being. It must be especially difficult to do so when you are born with one foot in one culture and one foot in another. Akhtar’s way of coping—or one of them, anyway—is to write about his experiences.
I was especially struck by candid remarks his narrator makes, in his novel Homeland Elegies, about Islam and the Muslim world. The narrator describes his experiences with the people and places of Islam with great love and compassion. The narrator also has constructive criticisms. At one point, he writes the following:
“My own journey from childhood faith to adult certainty about the very human contingency at the heart of Islam’s central narratives is a tale beyond the scope of these pages but one that, someday, I will try to tell in all its tortured entirety. When I do, I will attempt it without an ounce of malice and may still not survive its publication. For now, let me try to stay alive and just say these three things . . .”
He does not have to bring up the death threats against novelist Salman Rushdie (though he does bring this up), nor the killings in France and elsewhere around the world as a response to people referring to Islam in various artistic forms deemed offensive. We know about these things, here in America. Especially since 9/11 (which he also does bring up, and in surprising ways).
We know how dangerous it can be to refer to Islam in outside-the-box ways, and as readers we have to admire Akhtar’s bravery. But the powerful thing about this novel is that it reveals that his bravery runs both ways.
That’s right—death threats have the potential, and he makes this very clear, to come at the narrator from two directions. Repeatedly, the narrator describes his experiences with the people and places of America with love and compassion. He also has constructive criticisms. And, several times, he finds himself in situations, in America—where he was born and is a citizen—in which his possessions and/or his very life are suddenly at stake, simply because of his Islamic heritage.
And, of course, publicly sharing terrifying stories about living in America as a second-generation Pakistani-American does not make him any safer.
This book performs quite a feat of flipping around. It reminds me of one of those children’s picture books that can be read right-side-up or upside-down.
Even the novel’s title, Homeland Elegies, is ambiguous. Are these elegies (mournful writings) for America or for Pakistan? Probably both.
The novel reminds us that speaking out (even in the most loving way) about the Islamic world is fully as dangerous as speaking out (even in the most loving way) about America.
Even just being who he is, is dangerous for Akhtar, in both Pakistan and America.
What a thin line he must walk. In his writing. And in his real life.
What thin lines must you walk?