Ayad Akhtar answers questions about American Dervish and explains how growing up as a Muslim in America influenced his writing.
Why did you choose to set American Dervish in 1980s Wisconsin?
Wallace Stevens writes beautifully of the process of creation as the fashioning of images with wood out of one's own forests, and stone out of one's own fields. I grew up in Wisconsin and wanted very much to draw on the textures of my childhood. Though the story is fiction, I wanted to imbue it with a sense of lived reality, a register of authenticity I could achieve only by drawing on my own youth.
Also, I wanted to depict a time before the world had politicized being Muslim. Setting the novel in the 1980s allowed me to draw a picture of a community where much of the conflict engulfing the world today was already beginning to take shape.
How has your experience of growing up as Muslim-American affected your work?
Before writing American Dervish, I worked as a screenwriter and playwright, and most of my work has dealt with Muslim-American identity, the unique challenges of identifying oneself (or being identified by others) primarily by a religious faith
and, in Islam's case, by a faith that has often seen itself (and been seen by others) as "opposed" to the West.
The bedrock question from which all my inspiration derives is: What does it mean to be both Muslim and Western? Obviously, there are as many answers to that question as there are Muslim-American lives to be explored. In short, lots of material to draw from!
What do you hope the reader will take away from the passages you include from the Quran?
Of course, so many of the characters in the book relate to the Quran, often in their own unique way. You could say the Quran is almost a character in the novel, but one whose face is always changing. First and foremost, I wanted to be true to the experience of someone coming to a book that they think has "the Answer." How much of that answer is on the page and how much of it projected there? At the end of the book, Hayat, the protagonist, remembers verses he had long forgotten, and these come to have new meaning. It's an instance that's true, I believe, of interpretation in general: As we grow, our understanding changes.
Can you talk about the other artists who have influenced your work?
Saul Bellow. I discovered The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day just out of high school, and reading those books had a lot of influence on my desire to become a writer. Bellow's forging of an American voice for an immigrant identity - primarily a religious/cultural identity, and less a national one - parallels not only my own experiences as an American, but my aspirations as an artist as well.
Mostly, though, I've been influenced by filmmakers, at least in my thinking about story: Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Eric Rohmer. The way I approach the movement of a story; scene structure; my reliance on dialogue and gesture; the focus on conveying meaning visually - all of this is the result of watching (and working in) movies. Ideally, I want the reader to feel fully immersed in the world of the story in the way that a good movie makes you feel fully immersed.