Excerpt from Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Homeland Elegies

by Ayad Akhtar

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar X
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2021, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
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Overture: To America

I had a professor in college, Mary Moroni, who taught Melville and Emerson, and who the once famous Norman O. Brown—her mentor—called the finest mind of her generation; a diminutive, cherubic woman in her early thirties with a resemblance to a Raphaelesque putto that was not incidental (her parents had immigrated from Urbino); a scholar of staggering erudition who quoted as easily from the Eddas and Hannah Arendt as she did from Moby-Dick; a lesbian, which I only mention because she did, often; a lecturer whose turns of phrase were sharp as a German paring knife, could score the brain's gray matter and carve out new grooves along which old thoughts would reroute, as on that February morning two weeks after Bill Clinton's first inauguration, when, during a class on life under early American capitalism, Mary, clearly interrupted by her own tantalizing thought, looked up from the floor at which she usually gazed as she spoke—her left hand characteristically buried in the pocket of the loose-fitting slacks that were her mainstay—looked up and remarked almost offhandedly that America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought. The fatherland in whose name—and for whose benefit—the predation continued was no longer a physical fatherland but a spiritual one: the American Self. Long trained to worship its desires—however discreet, however banal—rather than question them, as the classical tradition taught, ever-tumescent American self-regard was the pillaging patria, she said, and the marauding years of the Reagan regime had only expressed this enduring reality of American life with greater clarity and transparency than ever before.

Mary had gotten into some trouble the previous semester for similarly bracing remarks about American hegemony in the wake of Desert Storm. A student in the ROTC program taking her class complained to the administration that she was speaking out against the troops. He started a petition and set up a table in the student union. The brouhaha led to an editorial in the campus paper and threats of a protest that never actually materialized. Mary wasn't cowed. After all, this was the early '90s, and the consequences of astringent ideological fire and brimstone—or sexual abuse of power, while you're at it—were hardly what they are today. If anyone had a problem with what she said that afternoon, I didn't hear about it. The truth is, I doubt many of us even understood what she was getting at. I certainly didn't.

Worship of desire. Tumescent self-regard. A colony for pillage.

In her words was the power of a great negation, a corrective to a tradition of endless American self-congratulation. It was new to me. I was accustomed to the God-blessed, light-of-the-world exceptionalism that informed every hour I'd ever spent in history class. I'd come of age in the era of the hilltop city gleaming for all to see. Such were the glorified tropes I learned at school, which I saw not as tropes but as truth. I saw an American benevolence in Uncle Sam's knowing glare at the post office; heard an American abundance in the canned laugh tracks on the sitcoms I watched every night with my mother; felt an American security and strength as I pedaled my ten-speed Schwinn past split-level and two-story homes in the middle-class subdivision where I grew up. Of course, my father was a great fan of America back then. To him, there was no greater place in the world, nowhere you could do more, have more, be more. He couldn't get enough of it: camping in the Tetons, driving through Death Valley, riding to the top of the arch in St. Louis before hopping a riverboat down to Louisiana to fish for bass in the bayou. He loved visiting the historic sites. We had framed our photos of trips to Monticello and Saratoga and to the house on Beals Street in Brookline where the Kennedy brothers were born. I recall a Saturday morning in Philadelphia when I was eight and Father scolding me for whining through a crowded tour of rooms somehow connected with the Constitution. When it was over, we took a cab to the famous steps at the museum, and he raced me to the top—letting me win!—in homage to Rocky Balboa.

Excerpted from Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Copyright © 2020 by Ayad Akhtar. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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