The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Homeland Elegies
Homeland Elegies
by Ayad Akhtar

Paperback (25 May 2021), 368 pages.
Publisher: Back Bay Books
ISBN-13: 9780316496414

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Disgraced and American Dervish: an immigrant father and his son search for belonging -- in post-Trump America, and with each other.

A deeply personal work about identity and belonging in a nation coming apart at the seams, Homeland Elegies blends fact and fiction to tell an epic story of longing and dispossession in the world that 9/11 made. Part family drama, part social essay, part picaresque novel, at its heart it is the story of a father, a son, and the country they both call home.

Ayad Akhtar forges a new narrative voice to capture a country in which debt has ruined countless lives and the gods of finance rule, where immigrants live in fear, and where the nation's unhealed wounds wreak havoc around the world. Akhtar attempts to make sense of it all through the lens of a story about one family, from a heartland town in America to palatial suites in Central Europe to guerrilla lookouts in the mountains of Afghanistan, and spares no one -- least of all himself -- in the process.

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.

Full Excerpt

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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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The narrator of Homeland Elegies is Ayad Akhtar, a playwright who shares the same name as the author. How did this affect your experience of reading the novel?
  2. How does Akhtar's choice of part titles ("Overture," "Coda," etc.) bring additional meaning to the story? Are you familiar with these terms as they relate to musical works?
  3. In the Overture, the narrator's professor describes America as "a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought." Do you agree with this criticism? When the characters in the novel are focused on becoming rich, does this striving make them happy?
  4. How would you describe the difference between Ayad's parents, in terms of their views on being in America? Is the narrator's own view a synthesis of these ideas? Or its own thing?
  5. Many Americans can easily recall where they were when they first learned of the events of September 11, 2001. Can you? Does that day stand out to you in your memory as one marking the end of one era and the beginning of another?
  6. Ayad tells a story about wearing a cross necklace in New York post-9/11 as an attempt to assimilate. Asha has a strong reaction to this story –What was your own reaction?
  7. The narrator wonders if what his father sees in President Trump is "a vision of himself impossibly enhanced, improbably enlarged, released from the pull of debt or truth or history." Do you think this assessment accurately describes why so many Americans turned to the unlikely candidate in 2016?
  8. Akhtar opens and closes the novel in the same setting: the college campus. Why do you think he did this?
  9. In the novel, Ayad's father returns to Pakistan. Ayad says the words, "America is my home." An elegy is a song or poem for the dead. Which "homelands" in the novel are the characters mourning?
Akhtar = the author

Ayad = the character in Homeland Elegies


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Back Bay Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A sprawling and significant novel, Homeland Elegies examines the wounded heart of modern America.

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Homeland Elegies is a book of multiple worlds — not only the two worlds that make up Ayad Akhtar's heritage, Pakistan and America, but also the complex interior worlds of the many characters he portrays in this fictionalized autobiography. The surgical precision with which he dissects his subjects could be said to mirror the medical prowess of his father, a successful doctor who immigrated from Pakistan to the United States in the late 1960s. Stories of Akhtar's father serve as bookends for the work: In the opening pages, he is a buoyant Trump supporter infatuated with the American dream. By the end, he has become disillusioned. Much of what happens in between can be read as an explanation for his discontent, but to suggest that this is all Homeland Elegies is about would be an oversimplification — its scope is much more ambitious. Through stories of not only his father but many individuals, the author attempts to portray the American experience as a whole. Like a literary Cubist, he draws upon the perspectives of both insiders and outsiders, showing a panoptic vision that brings us closer to understanding the nation's true form.

One gets the sense that writing this book was a kind of therapy for Akhtar. It jumps backwards and forwards through time, yanking the reader from one to the next of his narratives like a puppet on a string. Stories link to other stories almost as if by free-association, taking us from suburban Abbottabad, Pakistan to the glamorous heights of a billionaire's New York — the billionaire in question being Riaz Rind, the complex and tenacious owner of a Wall Street hedge fund. Some moments have a startling intimacy so revealing that it almost feels intrusive to read them. This emotional honesty, along with the author's willingness to confront moral ambiguity, make possible a genuine empathy for the characters he portrays.

For much of the first part of the book, these characters are based on members of Akhtar's own family, whose lives are shaped by their relationship to Islam. Each family member has an anecdote about the ways that religion has impacted them — some good, some bad, all complex and multi-faceted. Everything, it seems, is a response to or a recoil from the demands of the competing religions that are the foundation of life for the American Muslim — American culture is an area in which Christianity prevails, despite claims of political secularism. Akhtar brings this reality into sharp relief, with all of its pain, richness, meaning and urgency. He illuminates the divisions sown in an America whose relationship with Islam has become incredibly antagonistic.

Throughout Homeland Elegies, personal history is intertwined with political history like a lattice. Each interaction Akhtar relays seems to be symbolic of a wider narrative about the state of national or global affairs. The relativity of truth is always at play; historical events are approached through multiple perspectives. His musings — astute, perceptive and at times provocative — are always portrayed as entirely subjective, just another opinion among many. The philosophical detachment with which he narrates events, interspersed with bouts of raw emotion, makes him a persuasive force.

Though telling stories of the past, Homeland Elegies ties itself to the present through the figure of Donald Trump. Trump looms throughout, an ominous specter in the book's peripheral vision, foreshadowing a future in which we all now live. The slow tracing of the movement towards this reality makes Trump's presidency seem, if not inevitable, then at least a natural consequence of America's increasingly mercantile, consumer-driven ideology. However, it is not Trump that Akhtar is interested in — rather, it is the casualties of the system that made his election possible. Compelling, penetrative and gorgeously written, Homeland Elegies looks with a clear vision into the heart of modern America — what it sees is both damning and all too familiar.

Reviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor

New York Times
Homeland Elegies is presented as a novel, Akhtar’s second, but often reads like a series of personal essays, each one illustrating yet another intriguing facet of the narrator’s prismatic identity...Akhtar arranges people and situations with a dramatist’s care to expose the fault lines where community or communication cracks. Sometimes, the pieces seem almost too carefully arranged.

Washington Post
Homeland Elegies is a phenomenal coalescence of memoir, fiction, history and cultural analysis. It would not surprise me if it wins him a second Pulitzer Prize...It's a poetic confession of the agony of trying to articulate a nuanced critique of faith and politics in an age of shrieking partisanship...Everywhere one can hear Akhtar’s award-winning ear for dialogue that conveys the unexpected rhythms of conversation and drama... the book demonstrates the ills warping both East and West with stories rooted in the author’s own experience, bravely diagnosing what it means to struggle, humiliatingly, for acceptance in a racist country.

Akhtar confronts issues of race, money, family, politics, and sexuality in a bold, memoiristic tale...with an array of fascinating characters with different insights into the American character.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[A] searing work of autofiction...this is a novel of restless exploration that finds no pat answers about what it means to be a Muslim American today. A profound and provocative inquiry into an artist's complex American identity.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Akhtar's work is a provocative and urgent examination of the political and economic conditions that shape personal identity, especially for immigrants and communities of color. With an audacious channeling of Philip Roth's warts-and-all approach to the story of an American writer and his family, this tragicomedy is a revelation.

Library Journal (starred review)
The personal is political in this beautiful, intense elegy for an America that often goes awry while still offering hope.

Author Blurb Salman Rushdie
An unflinchingly honest self-portrait by a brilliant Muslim-American writer, and, beyond that, an unsparing examination of both sides of that fraught hyphenated reality. Passionate, disturbing, unputdownable.

Author Blurb A. M. Homes, author of This Book Will Save Your Life and Days of Awe
An urgent, intimate hybrid of memoir and fiction, Homeland Elegies thrusts us into the heart of a father-son relationship and, in the process--improbably--does nothing short of laying bare the broken heart of our American dream turned reality TV nightmare. The book's dissection of the deeply human desire to aspire and dream, and its illumination of the quest for success, brilliantly captures how we got to this exact moment in time and at what cost. Stunning.

Author Blurb Jennifer Egan, author of Manhattan Beach and A Visit From the Goon Squad
At the core of this flashing, kinetic coil of a story -- part 1001 Nights, part Reality TV -- is a passionate, wrenching portrayal of Americans exiled into 'otherness'.

Author Blurb Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend
With Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar has found the perfect hybrid form for his exuberant, insightful, and wickedly entertaining epic about Muslim immigrants and their American-born children. A deeply moving father-and-son story unfolds against tumultuous current events in a book that anyone wanting to know how we as a nation got where we are today -- and into what dark wood we might be heading tomorrow -- should read.

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The Origins of Islam in Pakistan

Mahmud of Ghazni In Homeland Elegies, author Ayad Akhtar explores Pakistani characters' relationships to Islam. The roots of Islam in the area now known as Pakistan can be traced back almost as far as the birth of the religion itself. As early as the 7th century, Arab armies attempted to spread Islam to the Indian subcontinent, but it took centuries for it to establish a true presence there.

At the time Arab forces began their conquests, the region that makes up present-day Pakistan was in a period of political instability. Invading nomadic groups, along with warfare between the Persians (who controlled large portions of territory) and the Byzantines, had made the area unsafe and disrupted trade routes. In addition, some parts of the region were controlled by Hindu empires who were constantly fighting to expand their kingdoms. The Arabs initially struggled to maintain territory among all of these competing factions.

Further complications arose in 632 through internal conflict after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who had not formally named a successor to lead the Muslim people, resulting in disagreements in the community. Some believed that the succession should be by bloodline. Others thought that it was now the community's prerogative to choose a new caliph. This disagreement, and the subsequent battles for succession, was the root cause of the Sunni-Shia split, which continues to divide Muslims to this day. This interior battle for rightful leadership was still raging at the time when the Islamic forces were entering the Indian subcontinent, and the resulting political instability weakened the ability of the Arabs to maintain control in the region. Even when they did manage to conquer an area, their rule was unstable and subject to revolt. For example, parts of what is now Baluchistan were captured by Arab forces from the Persians in 644, but were lost again in 652 due to civilian unrest.

However, a decisive Arabic victory occurred in 713 under the leadership of Muhammad bin Qasim, nephew of the governor of the eastern Islamic empire, when he conquered the province of Sindh (in the southeast of modern-day Pakistan), which created an opening for the establishment of Islam in the subcontinent. The Arab governors put in charge of the province maintained control under a policy of religious tolerance, which led to a fusion of the cultures of the Arabs and the Sindhi. This bond was cemented by the translation of the Quran into Sindhi (the first language into which the text was translated).

By the 11th century, Islam had spread throughout Pakistan. Most of the 11th and 12th centuries in the area are known as the Ghaznavid period, after Mahmud of Ghazni, a Turkic Muslim emperor who consolidated power there. The control established by Mahmud and his successors brought stability to the region and re-opened trade routes.

Existing knowledge and culture in Pakistan and the rest of the Indian subcontinent contributed greatly to The Golden Age of Islam, a period dating from the 8th century to around the 13th century that was characterized by the rapid advancement of Islamic prosperity and learning. For example, the tale of Sinbad the Sailor is believed to have been written in Pakistan before Islamic rule and later collected as part of the celebrated A Thousand and One Nights. The global understanding of mathematics was also enhanced by the culture of the area. Hindu-Arabic numerals were invented in the subcontinent, and a crucial part of this system, the number zero, is thought to have originated in the Taxila region of Pakistan.

Mahmud of Ghazni and his court, unknown artist

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

By Grace Graham-Taylor

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