Ayad Akhtar’s latest novel, Homeland Elegies, is a provocative story about a playwright who, like Akhtar, is Pakistani American and the son of two doctors. In a narrative that blends fact and fiction, Akhtar reflects upon his upbringing, his faith, his and his family's relationship with the US, and the work of a writer. I spoke with Akhtar over the phone about the book, the election, and what it means to be an American right now.
Arianna Rebolini: Autofiction is kind of a buzzword these days, and you've mentioned how we are "enamored with unreality" — I wanted to ask you where you see that in the world, and how you work with it, especially in this book?
Ayad Akhtar: Well let me start by saying I don't really think that what I've done is autofiction, in the sense that I tend to experience autofiction as there being a distance between the narrator and the reader. There's a kind of almost diffidence, right? I think that in this case, the book is really trying to narrow that gap. It's something closer to an attempt at a literary form of reality television, and less autofiction in that regard. There is a high seriousness, but there is also a lot of sensational hijinks that I'm borrowing from reality TV.
But yes, enamored with unreality — the boundaries between fact and fiction are collapsing. I always have felt that one of the great things art can do is hold up a mirror to reality, so what is that reality today? That reality is complicated and confused, and I think that the texture of the reality of the book felt to me that it had to be similarly confusing. I'm working with fact, I'm working with fiction, I'm interpolating each into the other, and there's really no formula to how I do it. I'm just trying to trick the eye — a trompe l'oeil, no pun intended.
AR: You bring up reality TV, and it's impossible not to talk about the fact that our president is a reality TV star. Trump is such a big part of this book — "inspired" feels like too positive of a word, but how did the election and then his presidency play into the book?
AA: I don't think it's wrong to say that I was inspired by him. My father in the book is very inspired by him, and I think in a way Trump stands in for a kind of vision of debt-fueled individualism on steroids. It seems to me that if there's a vision of America gone awry at root, that seems to be what the book suggesting is the problem. So yes, he's an inspiration in the sense of framing a vision of what America has become. I think Trump is starting to become the fundamental problem, but I don't think his election... I don't think he was the problem. He was a symptom of a much larger affliction. And now we're entering a stage where I think if we have another four years there will be some very, very significant consequences.
AR: I'm curious to hear how you're feeling about the election.
AA: I have no idea. [Laughs.] I mean it's unclear... none of it is clear. It's unclear how to vote; it's unclear what voting is going to mean; it's unclear what election night results are going to be; it's unclear if a winner can be determined; it's unclear that the vote won't be split between popular and electoral colleges; it's unclear that even if Trump loses, he'll leave. Nothing is clear. And in the midst of all that, we're dealing with a pandemic that's got everyone sort of atomized and separated, so there really is no meaningful way to have community. I have no idea. I am as confused as anybody.
AR: To backtrack just a bit — you mentioned the "debt-fueled" aspect of being an American, and that's obviously part of the motivation of your father's role in this book. How do you use money to explore character?
AA: I continue to believe that money is the big story of our time, and I continue to believe that it gets overshadowed by a lot of things that get people a lot more passionate, like individual rights — which are all very important, but they're not really what's changing this country. We're seeing a shift in wealth that's totally unprecedented in our country's history, and that's saying a lot. We're seeing that happen right now, and we're all preoccupied by a whole host of other things. And those things are valuable and important, but ultimately, until we get a handle on what's happening economically, and what has been happening economically in the last half-century here, we're not going to be able to change anything.
That's all to say that in many ways I think the deepest theme of the book is money and the American relationship to money, and if the book is an attempt at a kind of diagnosis of the ailment or the affliction, it is our diseased relationship to money. My father in the book is somebody who struggles with that, and his trajectory is emblematic of that. And I do think, of course, money can be a great dramatic vehicle. It can tell you a lot about a character and it can also motivate. I say in the book at one point, a good story needs to have a very clear visible and tangible goal and there's often no clearer visible and tangible goal in America than getting rich. So in a way, it's kind of like the American dramatic motivation par excellence.
AR: You've talked about being critical of Islam, which plays a role in this book and which some within the Muslim community have been unhappy about. How do you weigh the value of that critical look at Islam against the possibility that you're shoring up prejudice that's already very strong and widespread in this country?
AA: I mean that's a good analysis of the dilemma. What's the question? [Laughs.]
AR: I guess how do you decide that it is valuable, despite the fact that you are possibly giving people who are already anti-Islam, or who already have these ideas about why Islam is bad... How do you decide to go forward with it anyway?
AA: I think the book is a very full-throated exploration of exactly that dilemma, in addition to being other things. I think it stages the conflict within my community, within my family, and the vocation of a writer to speak truth, and the conflict that brings that writer — in this case, me, the narrator who has my name and many of the facts of my life and clearly has the same dynamic working with his community. But I think at one point the narrator does say, was this the necessary critique now? Were we Muslims really the existential threat to the planet? Or wasn't it... and he speaks to the post-Enlightenment imperialist West that actually has destroyed the planet.
So there's no simple answer. I just don't believe — maybe I'll change my mind about this — but I still don't believe that it is an artist's job to be an advocate for a community, or to write PR or some form of subtle nuanced advertising for why folks from his or her community are so great. I just don't see that as an artistic project, and I think the fact that we increasingly are asking our artists to do that speaks to an impoverishment of our experience of art. I think increasingly the audience is responding to the politics of representation as if that's the meaning of the story. I'm not sure if that's why we come to stories.
AR: I know this is a big, broad question, so do with it what you will: What do you think it means to be an American right now?
AA: Right now, I suppose it means to be beholden to a polarized environment that seems to be increasingly choking our ability to meaningfully accomplish any kind of reform. And first and foremost I think that reform has to be economic and financial. I think that's the fundamental problem and it's got to be dealt with. You know, love him or hate him — and there's lots of reasons to hate him — but Henry Ford put it better than anybody could when he said if you can't pay your workers enough to buy the cars they're making, you have a long-term structural problem. We are a half-century into a long-term structural problem, and the crumbling republic around us is less about the abrogation of individual rights and more about that fundamental economic fact. I'm like a record — I keep playing the same thing over and over, and I've been doing it for years and nobody pays any attention because I'm a Muslim so I must be writing about Muslims. I'm trying to write about this country.
AR: And this is something we're seeing clearly right now, this economic problem, on a huge scale.
AA: Finally! Whether we'll do something about it is another thing. I think we still have the mentality of, let me get mine. Whether it's my particular community or my particular set of downtrodden individuals, let me get mine. We have to be thinking about us, all of us, if we're going to solve the problem. ●
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.