Who is Ayad Akhtar? | The Daily Star

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12:00 AM, June 24, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 09:51 PM, June 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: AUTOFICTION

Who is Ayad Akhtar?

When I began reading Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown and Company, 2020), all I knew about it was that it was a memoir; an account of the life of the author, Ayad Akhtar—a second-generation Muslim immigrant with Pakistani parents who migrated to America to further their careers as doctors. I also knew Akhtar was a playwright, because I had read about his Pulitzer prize-winning drama, Disgraced (2012), and of its attendant controversy. But that was all I knew.

As I read, I learned that Akhtar's father was a reputed cardiologist, whose work led him directly, in 1993, to meeting Donald Trump, who had been experiencing problems with his heart. In the course of that and a handful of successive meetings, Akhtar's father developed an adoration for the then-entrepreneur that persisted well into Trump's presidential campaign and the bulk of his term in office.

It was at this point that I did a double-take. The Muslim, brown dad fascination with a ring-wing, white supremacist president was confounding, but familiar: I have personal experience in that arena. But for Trump's one-time cardiologist to show up in the novel like this seemed a tad fantastical. And that was how, through a series of frantic Google searches, I learned that Elegies is, in fact, a novel.

But it is not a work of fiction—not really. The protagonist has the same name, occupation, and parents as Akhtar's. He is of the same age. He alludes to Disgraced by calling it "my play", never naming it. He says that, despite no longer being a practising Muslim, he finds himself "still entirely shaped by the Islam that had socially defined [him] since 9/11". His academic background, literary career, and position in America's cultural elite—all of it checks out—but that's as far as Google will take you in trying to figure out just who Ayad Akhtar, of actuality or fiction, is.

Initially, I felt perplexed and somewhat annoyed. The form felt foreign; I recognised it as some type of autofiction, but it felt just a little contrived. So how much of it was fact? How much was fiction, and why? I couldn't tell—and that had me on edge.

Yet I could not stop reading. There is a kind of organised grandeur to Akhtar's writing, which flows lyrically yet feels like a lecture delivered by your favourite English teacher. That Akhtar is a dramatist is readily evident in the way he structures and delivers each micro-narrative, from his father's first meeting with Trump to a harrowing encounter with an armed racist at a grocery store, who tells Akhtar and his father to "go back to where [they] came from". Even Riaz Rind, the decidedly fictional, Gatsby-esque Muslim Pakistani hedge fund manager, and the sole reason for Akhtar's launch into the upper echelons of American society, doesn't feel too fanciful. We read of Akhtar's mother's diary, in which she implies an equivalence between the Holocaust and Partition, expressing distress that the latter has little to no recognition in the West—and can't help but agree.

So, even as you wonder whether Akhtar is taking too many liberties with restructuring the facts of his life, none of it ever seems to lose its credibility. And you figure there's a reason why Elegies feels so deeply personal, and it's not just because Akhtar lays bare all of the minute details of his and his family's Muslim-Brown-immigrant otherness in the country they have decided to make their home. Elegies, in its way, tells the story of every brown Muslim American, and the stressful collective identity crisis that seems like the natural price to pay for that good life. At one point, the reader realises that it doesn't matter whether the events of the novel are real, because any brown immigrant or their children will read it and recognise themselves in it. That's why it doesn't feel like autofiction, because it relays the universal Muslim American experience. In many ways, it's a work of hyperrealism; the chaos that has come to define the land of freedom and opportunity is the same element which makes the whole of the novel just as credible as a memoir.

Photo: Little, Brown and Company

Yet, Akhtar, or rather his protagonist, conducts himself with grace. The reader comes away feeling they have forged a lasting connection with the author, even if it was achieved through a number of disturbing realisations and discomfiting truths—for example, he addresses concerns that arose in the wake of Disgraced that he is a Muslim apologist for 9/11 (his Muslim American protagonist in that play admits to feeling a "blush of pride" in the wake of 9/11) by saying that, "while those asking couldn't identify with having feelings like this, they certainly could identify with not wanting to admit them if they did."

He establishes the necessity of maintaining a willing suspension of disbelief by putting the onus of misinterpretation on the conflicted (or, more controversially, selfhating) Muslim who reads his work and feels simultaneously appalled and embodied by it—which might put you in mind of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Oxford University Press, 2007). Most notably, when, after an encounter with an Islamophobic man on September 11, Akhtar's Elegies protagonist decides to start wearing a crucifix around his neck in an effort to pass as Christian, the reader feels that's all that needed to be said on the matter.

Another one of the most potent of his accomplishments in Elegies is the seductive portrait of money that Akhtar paints, describing the life it brings him: the limo rides, the rubbing of shoulders with celebrities and millionaires, the shocking sexual escapades… all while bemoaning the fact that it's the only thing that ever made him feel truly American. He fleshes out an all-too-familiar strained relationship with money which, once he makes enough of it, gives way to a resigned acceptance of its gifts, including the easing of social mobility pursuits. The reader comprehends that, had he remained "indigent", (as described by Akhter himself in an interview), Elegies would never have been written.

Homeland Elegies is at once piercingly intellectual and unexpectedly emotional. Amidst the series of political essays, critiques of capitalism and documentations of personal and family history, Akhtar's personhood appears vivid and endearing. For example, he shares with the reader many of his authorial techniques and practices, most memorably his "nightwork"— the practice of recording dreams immediately after they occur.

Through it all, I felt that Akhtar's craft, undeniably brilliant, is not some jealously guarded artist's secret, but a means of redemption and recovery painstakingly obtained. He relays with unabashed passion his love of, and dependence on, art. At one point, he speaks of his "adoration" of Walt Whitman, the quintessential American poet, but mourns the impassable distance between them: "My tongue, too, is homegrown—every atom of this blood formed of this soil, this air. But these multitudes will not be my own", he writes. "And these will be no songs of celebration."

 

Shehrin Hossain is a graduate of English literature from North South University. Email: shehrin@gmail.com

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