Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
Published by Little Brown and Company
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
These days, I’m attuned to fiction that takes my mind off reality. Not necessarily easy or soothing, but novels that grab me with their drama (Against the Loveless World) or distract me with their lovely prose (Monogamy). It’s with some surprise then that I’m reviewing Homeland Elegies, a complex novel I’m still not sure I fully understand. Ostensibly, it’s about Sikander, a highly successful cardiologist from Pakistan who emigrates to America, and his son, Ayad, a playwright, who was born here. The novel focuses largely on their lives after 9/11 as Sikander’s fortunes begin to fall, Ayad finally finds success and the two men grapple with what homeland means to them.
Sikander’s specialty is a rare form of cardiac disease and through this, in the early 1990s, he’s flown to NYC to treat a wealthy businessman. That man is Donald Trump and after several trips and being wined and dined, Sikander forms an enduringly positive impression of Trump. He also acquires the man’s taste for escorts, something that prevails unbeknownst to his wife or son. Sikander’s feelings toward Trump don’t waver even when he runs for office and his racist, misogynistic views are publicly recorded. It’s a source of bemusement and frustration for his son, who cannot comprehend how his father admires a man who rabidly hates Muslims.
His father’s career provides financial security for Ayad’s early adult years as a writer. It is a chafed spot in their relationship—the son who diminishes his father’s beliefs while taking his money. It isn’t until Ayad’s late 30s that he finds critical success with a play centered around life in America for Muslims post 9/11. Money follows when an investment with a wealthy Muslim hedge fund manager frees him from its cares and moves him into the echelon of people who can discuss it as an academic subject. Suddenly, he goes from being the son who always needs a loan to the one helping others.
This synopsis says as much about Homeland Elegies as summarizing the ocean as “having a lot of water”. Yes, but within that water is a world teeming with a multitude of life forms, both simple and incredibly complex. So it is with this novel. It is fiction. It has a plot, fascinating characters, and a story arc that moves well and resolves itself in a timely manner. It also encompasses global themes of terrorism, immigration, academia, war, and capitalism, breaking each into shards that refract light onto the multiplied surfaces of each character. This comes in the form of Ayad’s reminiscences and his interactions with the key people in his life. In the present day he remembers a family vacation to Pakistan in 2008 where he found the culture, with its anger, its distrust of the media and anyone with an opposing view, to be eerily like America now. He’s friends with a man who made his billions after the housing debt crisis by repackaging that debt in a way to help people. A family friend opens a CIA funded clinic on the Pakistan-Afghan border in the 1980s to help wounded mujahideen, only to be killed by the CIA in the 1990s. The shards re-assemble into forms unlike what they were before, only to scatter again as Akhtar flips the script once more.
That these snippets shape shift from the global to the deeply personal, from the vast to the intimate is an astonishing literary feat. But here’s where it gets really meta: The author of Homeland Elegies is Ayad Akhtar. The same name and biography as the novel’s protagonist. Both won the Pulitzer Prize for a play about 9/11 and have parents who emigrated from Pakistan. Both struggle against being defined by their work. Is Akhtar Ayad? Does it even matter?
There is nothing familiar or safe in Homeland Elegies. Much as the Democrats were rudely awakened to their sleepy disregard of working-class America by the 2016 election so Akhtar disturbs the view of many of America’s cherished beliefs in itself. That he does it from within the safe circle of wealth and progressive politics makes its sting sharper. Not us! The educated, the liberals. We care! Numerous scenes take place at galas, in penthouse apartments, over cocktails at expensive restaurants. Muslims of all stripes debating amongst themselves and with their rich Christian and Jewish friends, trying to pin down where they land, who they are.
I’ve already mentioned I’ve passed on reading I’ve deemed “too hard” in 2020. In some ways, I welcome being challenged, but in others, it makes me tired. I feel as if I’m already working hard to stay psychologically afloat so reading that pierces my protective bubble of beliefs, perceptions, and judgements, reading that makes me stop and think is not my first choice. And yet, Homeland Elegies was as uncomfortable, but ultimately invigorating as an ice bath. Following Ayad and seeing the script flip repeatedly made my synapses fire. Akhtar’s prodigious vocabulary meant I had to look up words (which I love). I finished the novel and had so many thoughts my brain was burning. THIS is reading we all need. Not all the time, but right now.
I wouldn’t see it until our private lives had consumed the public space, then been codified, foreclosed, and put up for auction; until the devices that enslave our minds had filled us with the toxic flotsam of a culture no longer worthy of the name; until the bright pliancy of human sentience—attention itself—had become the world’s most prized commodity, the very movements of our minds transformed into streams of unceasing revenue for someone, somewhere.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Little, Brown & Company in exchange for an honest review.*