"Homeland Elegies," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies” captures the present moment in U.S. history with a force and depth that leaves the reader impressed and sad. With exquisite prose and sharp-edged honesty, Akhtar examines and assesses current practices in art, finance, race, religion, academia and politics to recreate a United States in decline since the attacks of 9/11.
This book of “autofiction” combines history, memoir and cultural analysis in a deeply evocative story of Muslim immigrants and their American-born children. A poignant father and son story unfolds amidst the ongoing turbulent national troubles of immigration, Islamophobia, economic crisis, and the moral and ethical infections that have erupted and festered during the Trump years.
Akhtar’s lacerating writing unmasks the promises and shams of living the American dream that citizens from the Middle-East have endured since 9/11. Ayad was born on Staten Island of Pakistani immigrant parents and raised in Wisconsin. In eight chapters, organized as musical movements, Ayad rehearses his complex private, rational, and political stance toward his U.S. homeland, in which he sees himself as an outsider.
In one of the book’s searing vignettes, Ayad’s car breaks down while he is driving through Pennsylvania. His confrontations with a state trooper and later, an auto repairman, demonstrate how it feels to be a potential terrorist suspect who always has to act friendly and adapt, when necessary, one’s lineage by claiming Indian rather than Pakistani heritage.
“If all this sounds somewhat paranoid,” he writes, “I am happy for you. Clearly you have not been beset by daily worries of being perceived—and therefore treated—as a foe of the republic rather than a member of it.”
“Love for America and a firm belief in its supremacy was creed in our home, ” Ayad says.
His father, Sikander, a heart specialist who once treated Donald Trump, became enamored with the TV celebrity “well past the point that any rational nonwhite American (let alone sometime immigrant!) could possibly have justified to himself or anyone else.” Ayad sees his father's superfan attraction to Trump as a pathetic demonstration of “...the full extent of the terrifying lust for unreality that has engulfed us all.”
But Akhtar’s elegiac critique does not end with the “Make America Great” cheerers. On a recent visit to relatives in Pakistan with his father, he noticed that the people he met there seemed to experience “the broad outlines of the same dilemmas that would lead America into the era of Trump: seething anger, open hostility to strangers and those with views opposing one’s own; contempt for news delivered by allegedly reputable sources; an embrace of reactionary moral posturing; civic and governmental corruption that no longer needed hiding.”
We are living, Ayad warns, through a systemic collapse of confidence in government and other institutions fueled by “thoughtless and obsessive suspicion.” This systemic collapse is further depicted in stories about the compromising of antitrust laws, the monetizing of medicine and the gross indebtedness which has ruined countless lives and wreaked financial havoc worldwide.
This searing, insightful and engaging work offers no pat answers but presents an unsparing analysis of living on both sides of that hyphenated experience: Muslim-American. This is a must read for anyone wanting to examine how we got where we are as a nation.