Ayad Akhtar first came to my attention when I wrote a feature for Peninsula Pulse on Door County’s Big Read selection, American Dervish. This was Akhtar’s 2012 coming-of-age novel about the Pakistani-American son of Muslim immigrants living in Milwaukee. Years later I attended the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s productions of several of his plays, including the Pulitzer-prize winning Disgraced.
Homeland Elegies, Akhtar’s latest novel, like his first, blends fact and fiction as he tells of his boyhood in Brookfield and his developing literary career. The book offers a picaresque autobiographical journey that focuses on the simultaneous sense of belonging and dispossession that immigrants and their first-generation children face in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent trial balloons of Muslim bans and border walls.
Akhtar’s novel reveals how his cardiologist father became an advocate for the proverbial American Dream, unlike his wife, who missed their native Pakistan. His father succeeded in his career and gloried in the opportunities he enjoyed, including an invitation to serve as personal physician to a young Donald Trump. After the 2016 election, he became an ardent supporter of Trump’s presidency. The author, at odds with his Trump-supporting father, remains skeptical of American society, critical of flaws inherent in this country, including inequities in the healthcare system, unfair economic standards, religious intolerance, and discriminatory immigration standards.
Akhtar finds that his celebrity as a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter does not protect him from harsh judgments based on his appearance. An altercation that Akhtar and his father experienced with a local citizen in a Wisconsin small town serves as a prime example. Because of state cuts in public library funding, Akhtar would visit local libraries to make financial donations in support of their work. One day, before visiting the Wonewoc Library, he and his father stopped at a nearby convenience store where a concealed-carry self-appointed patriot ordered them to “Go home!”
He saw me notice his gun, and he smiled: “Can’t wait when we build that wall to keep you critters out.” What I felt in that moment was brief, but I won’t ever forget it. The sight of the gun, the visceral threat and primal fear it triggered, the elemental urge to protect myself, the asymmetry of our power in that moment—all of it combined to set something ablaze inside me I’d never experienced before. I wanted to kill him. But the immediate awareness of just how powerless I was to do so threw me back onto myself in a way that eats at me to this day, almost two years later.
The contradictory sense of both belonging and dispossession that informs Akhtar’s life and work serves as a two-edged sword, bringing him both fame and frustration. Those who have read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents will find parallels to Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies. Wilkerson includes powerful personal narratives in her book, revealing that the status she has achieved does not shield her from discrimination. Where she takes a sociological approach, Akhtar uses fictional autobiography to return readers again and again to an understanding of how the playing field has never been level for people of color in this country.
The title—Homeland Elegies—poses a question that immigrants face regarding the nature of home, which should encourage introspection in us all. The answer revealed in the book, despite the author’s critical assessment of American society, may come as a surprise to readers.