In a culture that rewards outrage and uncompromising viewpoints, author and Pulitzer-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar is an increasingly rare breed of writer, one who comfortably nests himself in thorny entanglements of American contradiction.
In 2013, Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Disgraced,” a bristling play that stars a corporate lawyer of Pakistani descent, addresses being Muslim in post-9/11 America, and brings critical nuance to questions of belonging and resentment. His 2016 play, “Junk: The Golden Age of Debt,” examines a corporate takeover to explore the paradox of how debt became the primary vehicle for accumulating wealth in America.
His latest effort and second novel, “Homeland Elegies,” extrapolates on these two themes — being Muslim in America and debt — under the shadow of President Trump and in light of personal experiences and familial fissures.
Ostensibly a novel, “Homeland Elegies” reads more like a collection of essays, centering around a series of instructive scenes rather than a linear plot. Though it occasionally divulges in lengthy internal monologues, much of the argumentation is dressed down and dramatized in conversations over ritzy meals in New York and drives through Wisconsin, where the author grew up.
“Homeland Elegies” opens with the tale of an improbable “friendship” between Trump and the narrator’s father. A leading medical expert in rare heart conditions, the father once treated Trump as a patient for inexplicable heart palpitations and, in turn, was entreated to luxurious stays in Trump Tower. In the eyes of the father, Trump was an “enhanced and enlarged” figure of the American dream “released from the pull of debt or truth or history.” The narrator suspects this is why his father voted for Trump.
The narrator’s mother and father and their attitudes toward America help set the stage for a nuanced exploration of what it means to be Muslim in America before and after 9/11. Drawing on the intellectual groundwork of W.E.B. Du Bois, Edward Said and Frantz Fanon, Akhtar contributes a Muslim’s perspective to this literature of “double consciousness.” What does it mean to be living in a Christian land where one is “socially defined” as Muslim even if one is a nonbeliever? What does it mean to be “at once victim and suspect”?
What belies these questions is a dilemma common to immigration experiences and a feeling that eludes many: a sense of belonging. What distinguishes Akhtar’s novel is the agency he assigns Muslims. “September foreclosed our futures in this country for at least another generation,” writes Akhtar, “as much as it bothered me, as much as I felt a victim of what this nation had become for us, I, too, had participated in my own exclusion, willingly, still choosing, half a lifetime into my American life, to see myself as other.” The narrator’s clear-eyed self-examination holds true to a pattern of defiant behavior — rejecting Islam, American culture, his mother’s love — and releases himself from victimhood.
The second half of the novel deals with the rise of debt. In Akhtar’s configuration, money is necessarily coupled with freedom. “Serious money,” writes Akhtar, “was the only path to liberation from the indentured servitude of the twenty-first-century lower- and middle-class American life,” noting elsewhere that Black business owners often bankrolled boycotts during the Civil Rights movement. This view, while pragmatic, is also incredibly cynical and remains fully in the clutches of a logic governed by capital.
This perspective, the author suggests, arises naturally once one has accumulated some wealth. “Money comes with its own point of view,” reflects Akhtar, “what you own, when you own enough of it, starts making you see the world from its perspective.” What, then, is debt’s perspective? If money is the path to liberation, then perhaps debt is a form of social control.
According to the narrator’s friend Riaz, a hedge fund manager who preys on debt, the American economy has evolved to “specialize in the manufacture of debt, which was the great enabler of capital, the surest means to, yes, indenture the vast hordes of the lower and middle class (and the nation’s youth) to the process of money’s growth. For what grew now were not communities or economies but capital itself.” This process was accelerated during the Ronald Reagan administration when large corporations began consolidating, against the interest of business owners and laborers, but in favor of consumers.
In the narrator’s view, we have become a nation of consumers, not citizens, where political power lies “not in the ballot box but in one’s capacity to write a check.” The argument, while a tad circuitous, is quite convincing. The consequences of consolidation is a general decline in locality and community. The conglomerations that buy up small businesses do not have a vested interest in those communities aside from their existence as consumers and, when the conglomerations are helmed by white folks, this disproportionately harms communities of color.
Impressively, the vital ideas presented here might be outshined by Akhtar’s talents as a writer. What could be a cumbersome read is made propulsive by his observant eye for character, rapier wit and indelible turns of phrase. With “Homeland Elegies,” Akhtar is cementing his place as one of America’s most vital writers working today.
“Homeland Elegies” by Ayad Akhtar, Little, Brown and Company, 369 pp., $28