Writers & Company

Ayad Akhtar examines the soul of America through his own family's story in Homeland Elegies

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and novelist spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about exploring his Pakistani heritage in an era of Western decline and division.
Ayad Akhtar is an American-born playwright, novelist and screenwriter of Pakistani heritage who received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. (Vincent Tullo)

Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist. His new book, Homeland Elegies, is a deeply personal, impassioned work that blends fiction, memoir and political engagement. 

Akhtar explores the American dream through the story of his parents — doctors who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan — and his own dual identity as an American born into a Muslim family. Focusing on his relationship with his larger-than-life father, he explores ideas of belonging and otherness, and the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. 

Homeland Elegies has been widely acclaimed since its publication in the fall of 2020. Salman Rushdie has described the book as "passionate, disturbing, unputdownable." 

Akhtar previously wrote about race and culture in his first novel, American Dervish, and in his provocative play Disgraced, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. 

Akhtar spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from New York City. 

The immigrant son

"As the eldest son of an immigrant family — my parents were both the first to leave their countries and their respective families — there was a lot of love, a lot of expectation and a lot of investment in me. The decisions that I made in my life were very consequential for my parents, and the consequences on my parents were very consequential on me. 

"The decision to become a writer wasn't so much a decision as it was an inevitability. I had a teacher in my sophomore year of high school who changed my life and I never looked back. I never wanted to do anything else but be committed to stories and writing. 

The decision to become a writer wasn't so much a decision as it was an inevitability.

"It was a long journey to my parents understanding what it was I was getting into and what it was all about. The next level of it was writing about them and writing about what we had all been through in various forms — whether it was novels or plays or whatever else I've written over the years." 

My dad's desires

"My dad grew up in a rural and rugged part of northern Pakistan. His family was the only highly educated family in that area. His father had been sent to the tribal areas as a supervisor of agricultural education. They were Punjabis living in a very non-Punjabi atmosphere. 

My dad had a lot of larger-than-life tendencies. Toward the end of his life, it took a toll on him.

"He often used to say to me that if he had more to do with my upbringing, I wouldn't have been so sheltered. He grew up on the streets. He was a very wily and canny person. But he also came from this educated family. He ended up becoming a doctor and was top of his class in the late 1960s. The U.S. Department of State was looking for engineers and doctors and scientific talent. So he came over to America on a program that gave him a visa, a plane ticket, an apartment and a job. My mother came over on the same program. She was two years behind him in medical school."

"It was a real American journey in a lot of ways. There was a lot of success, but also a darker side. My dad had a lot of larger-than-life tendencies. Toward the end of his life, it took a toll on him."

Sketch art by Pakistani-American visual artist Shahzia Sikander of Masood and Khurshid Akhtar, the parents of novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar. (Shahzia Sikander)

My thoughtful mother

"My mom was definitely a more reserved person. She enjoyed a quiet life — which she almost never had with my dad. She was a contemplative person and was very philosophical. She loved to read Marcus Aurelius and Baltasar Gracián. She liked to sit around with her sons talking about things, rather than being out doing something like my dad always wanted.

"My dad would always chide me and my brother about 'staring at paper all day long' — meaning we were reading —  and didn't understand what it was we were finding in books that was more fun than what he could find out in the world.

My mom was definitely a more reserved person. She enjoyed a quiet life — which she almost never had with my dad.

"That paradox — interior versus exterior, bookish versus worldly — those are the polarities that I grew up with. They were very much embodied by my parents. 

"My mom always felt that she couldn't understand what was so great about this country. She had given up so much to be here and she wasn't sure that it was worth the trade-off. She spent a good part of her life, I think, homesick in various ways. It's probably the story of a lot of immigrants who miss home, who never find a sense of belonging in their new countries."

Aasif Mandvi, left, and Omar Maskati in a New York production of Ayad Akhtar's play Disgraced. Akhtar was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. (Philip Rinaldi Publicity/Erin Baiano/Associated Press)

Post-colonial rage

"I get a lot of grief any time I talk about this with any granularity — but Islamist views have had much deeper support in the Muslim world than people understand or realize.

"Folks in the West don't seem to understand their own participation in all of this. It's as if we're over here in America, living our lives, drinking our beers — and then these Muslim people, who are so angry, they come along and mess it up for us. 

"But that's not history; that's a perspective. And it's a perspective that is profoundly uninformed. The West is finally beginning to see a consolidated pushback against the heritage of colonialism, which was the despoiling of the so-called colonies for centuries. 

"One of the challenges with writing this book was that I was writing an American tale, an American story and a portrait of this country. But in order to tell that story, I had to account for the one who was telling it, meaning myself. In order to account for my perspective and my point of view, I had to account for the history that made me. 

The West is finally beginning to see a consolidated pushback against the heritage of colonialism.

"Part of that history is partition, because it's what made my parents. Partition is an important part of their makeup. And that's been passed on to me, one way or the other."

Ayad Akhtar's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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