Homeland Elegies by Ayah Akhtar (Little Brown & Co. September 2020, 369 pages)
America is not the melting pot that it is purported to be.
Pulitzer-winning author Ayad Akhtar charges that America is a “buffer solution” that “keeps things together but always separated” in his unforgettable novel-cum-memoir Homeland Elegies. While the book’s cover clearly states that it is a novel, five pages into the book a reader can easily forget that fact as the tale works its way into the reader’s psyche. After all, the book’s second-generation American narrator has the same name as the author and just happens, also like the author, to be a controversial, agnostic, “lower-case muslim,” and Pulitzer Prize-winning playright. Further, the narrator’s Pakistani relatives have similar professions and backgrounds as those of the author’s family.
Note: For the sake of clarity, the reviewer refers to the author by his last name Akhtar, and the book’s narrator by his first name Ayad.
In veiling this book as a novel, Akhtar may have written the perfect memoir—one in which he can lay bare his life’s raw ignominious details under the protective membrane of fiction. Thus, in one chapter, he can casually share the story of Ayad contracting syphilis and in another share the comment by Ayad’s mother Fatima that “[bin Laden’s] right. They deserve what they got. And what they’re going to get.” The book is rife with these jarring moments.
Early in his academic career, Ayad has a mentor who implores him to avoid wallowing in adversity and instead to “use the difficulty; make it your own.” At its simplest, Homeland Elegies is Akhtar’s mournful poetic attempt to do just this as he grapples with and grieves the buffer-solution version of America that awaited Muslims after 9-11. Ayad observes “that terrible day in September foreclosed [Muslims’] futures in this country for at least another generation … I, too, had participated in my own exclusion, willingly, still choosing, half a lifetime into my American life, to see myself as other.” A nation-wide survey conducted by one of Ayad’s friends confirms this bankruptcy as it finds the top five words associated with Islam are: anger, separate, suicide, bad, death. These survey results illustrate Ayad’s hypothesis that “the established majority takes its we-image from a minority of its best, and shapes a they-image of the despised outsiders from the minority of their worst.” This idea of amplifying the worst actors in a they group and trumpeting them as emblematic of the group in its entirety is proven every night in the cable news headlines pulsing into television screens across the country.
All of these weigh heavily on Ayad as he struggles with the very American belief that “it’s a wonderful life.” He yearns for the mythologized America whose history’s arc is supposed to bend (however slowly) towards justice. Throughout his life he sees little evidence of this arc, though, as he encounters daily situations where he feels compelled to mask his Islamic Pakistani identity—including one notable, paranoia-riddled encounter with a traffic cop after his car breaks down outside of Scranton. As the officer runs his plates, Akhtar stumbles through different false explanations for his ethnic and religious background (Egypt, Minnesota, India etc.). The scene climaxes with the stranded narrator being helplessly strong-armed into overpaying for a car repair by a small-town white mechanic.
The foil to the Ayad struggle for a place in America is his mother who has altogether given up on America. She and Akhtar’s father graduated from medical school in Pakistan in the late 60s and were part of the highly educated immigrant wave that populated practices, hospitals, and labs across the United States during that era. While Akhtar’s father maintained a more upbeat view of the United States his mother quickly became disillusioned. The origins of these feelings date to the 1998 summer when the US government killed her longtime medical school friend (and unrequited love) Latif Awan in a targeted terrorist missile strike. Decades earlier, Awan had returned to Pakistan from the United States to support the fight against the Soviets by running a medical clinic paid for by the United States (he’d agreed to treat mujahideen fighters from across the border in return). In relating Awan’s eventual plight, Akhtar connects the psychic path from America’s backing of anti-Soviet fighters in 1980s Afghanistan—to their withdrawal of support after the Soviet’s defeat—to America’s three decades supporting Iraq to counter Iran (and in the eight year war fought between them)—to its own subsequent war against Saddam Hussein. Osama bin Laden would eventually capitalize on this line of thinking prevalent in the Muslim world that “whatever the Americans said meant nothing; whatever they promised was a lie.” A portrait of Osama bin Laden had hung proudly in the waiting room of Awan’s Peshawar clinic. All this led to his mother’s most shocking statement: “[bin Laden’s] right. They deserve what they got. And what they’re going to get.” The jaw-dropping shock of his mother’s horrible indictment turns out to be the novel’s strength—it doesn’t ask the reader to agree with these ideas. Ayad himself argues vehemently against them. Instead, the novel offers these conversations as a mechanism to force the reader to acknowledge that Islam and its adherents are not a monolithic static group. Three years later, when 9-11 happens, Fatima’s own shame will surface as she refuses to admit she ever said such a thing.
Importantly, Akhtar never attempts to justify these characters’ feelings, but as a member of the they group, he instead uses the novel to unveil the nightly dinner conversations at Muslim tables to which 99% of America are never privy to. In doing this, the agnostic author offers his own stinging indictments of Islam. In particular, he characterizes the default Muslim viewpoint that the life and teachings of the prophet Muhammed are beyond reproach as problematic from both a human rights and a historical perspective. He notes that one unintended outcome of 9-11 was it created a hyper-critical public awareness of the literal tenets of Muhammed’s life such as those the public would charge amount to child rape by the prophet. This public criticism enabled previously unthinkable conversations within the broader Muslim community regarding the reliability and assumed infallibility of the Koran and hadiths.
Near the novel’s conclusion, Ayad’s academic mentor bemoans the growing intolerance of her students for difficult ideas. This brand of intolerance is emblematic of a wider problem plaguing the United States. There is a broad refusal across the political spectrum to engage in civil conversation outside the partisan echo chamber of one’s Facebook or Twitter feed. This book is essential reading for every military service member because it will not only deepen our understanding of American Muslims (many themselves proudly serving beside us in uniform), but also force us to confront how we as a military treat they groups. As Ayad observes in a heated conversation with a Muslim activist friend: “Constantly defining yourself in opposition to what others say about you is not self-knowledge. It’s confusion.” Homeland Elegies is Akhtar’s vulnerable invitation to each of us to define ourselves not in opposition to one another but by the place we Americans call home.
This book review was contributed by Jack Kruse, a Navy Foreign Area officer living with his beautiful wife and 5 amazing kids in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is currently reading a novel and poem from every country in Africa and plans to write a book about it tentatively titled Reading the Continent: A History in Stories. He’s documenting that process at his decade-old blog: www.fuuo.blogspot.com He can be contacted through his Linkedin profile.