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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

'Homeland Elegies': A loving critique of American exceptionalism

“A day spent reading is not a great day. But a life spent reading is a wonderful life” – Ayad Akhtar.

Frustrated with a particular persuasive brand of American exceptionalism, the Notre Dame football cult, I spent the Saturday of the Marshall home opener sifting through Ayad Akhtar’s novel, “Homeland Elegies.”

Though a work of fiction, the book reads like a memoir, tracking the life of a character who shares the author’s name. Akhtar, the Wisconsin-raised son of Pakistani immigrants, sings of the post 9/11 Muslim-American experience in ways which score the brain’s gray matter, “carving out new grooves along which old thoughts would reroute.”

The September 11 attacks, a horror whose twenty-first anniversary we celebrate this week, are not the only acts of terror bringing contemporary relevance to this 2020 novel. Ayad, a former theater major at Brown, narrates fondly the influence of an Americanist professor with whom he completed an independent study his senior year of college. The final assignment his professor, Mary Moroni, gave Akhtar was to read “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born, British-American author who suffered an assassination attempt in New York State on August 12.

A playwright living in New York City as an adult, Akhtar will recount later in the novel what it was like to be a Pakistani-American in Manhattan the day the World Trade Center was struck. Laying the groundwork for what is to come, in the novel’s opening chapter, Akhtar writes of the phone call he shared with Mary in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. Mary tells Akhtar to “use the difficulty; make it your own.” Akhtar brings this instruction to fruition over the course of the novel’s three-hundred plus pages. In doing so, the author not only assumes his personal struggles, but shoulders the sufferings of all who grapple with the idiosyncrasies of modern American life as well.

I would like to imagine the novel in part as an Akhtar therapy space in which the writer feels comfortable expressing his vexations with America. Akhtar walks the reader through standoffish encounters with state troopers in Scranton, Pennsylvania to the penthouse apartments of billionaire venture capitalists. Discussions range from the practical means of hiding a case of syphilis from one’s dying mother to the fallout of the U.S.-Soviet proxy wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here, witness a corporate healthcare network lose medical malpractice suits to a small-town American jury and feel helpless at the plight of individuals in the LGBTQ+ community reckoning with traditional Muslim guilt. Watch justice reign as the will of the strong borne by the weak.

A large portion of this therapy session is devoted to Akhtar’s relationship with his dad. Akhtar’s father Masood is a cardiologist who immigrated to the United States in 1968 to pursue a medical residency following his graduation from medical school in Pakistan. Masood established love for America and a firm belief in its supremacy as a creed in his household. Despite all of America’s pleasures, Akhtar must settle for the hope that his children may achieve happiness, never being able to achieve this ultimate pursuit for himself. The end of the novel welcomes a role reversal of the parent-child relationship. No longer must the struggling writer elicit his father for funds to replace a defective catalytic converter. It is the son, the now successful Pulitzer winner, who is obliged to foot his dad’s AMEX bill, who needs to bail his father out of jail, track down a passed-out Masood in a rural midwestern casino.

The elegy, a lament for the dead, intertwines the traumatic circumstances of country and family. The novel shows us the oneness of love and hurt.

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