Hello readers and welcome back to this long-running series for my website, the Reading List. As you may recall, the list took a hiatus last year and I read several non-fiction books over that time (The Shadow Factory by James Bamford and Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman). Now my fiction list is back and I hope it reflects a broader move by the publishing industry over the last few years to include more BIPOC authors overall. To that end, my first selection was a stunning and elaborate 2020 novel by Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies.
This book got a lot of coverage at the time so if you would like more of a plot run-down it shouldn’t be too hard to find in reviews. My interest piqued in this novel upon watching Dessa interview the author for a Rain Taxi event in 2020. This was a masterful, eloquent book that was also fairly difficult to decipher at times. On one side the title is a perfect metaphor for Akhtar’s life in the United States as he gained notoriety as a playwright. But on the other it is also a crying out for how Muslims have been treated in this country, especially after the 9/11 attacks. As has been noted in many reviews this could be considered a piece of “autofiction” as the main character just happens to share Akhtar’s same name and profession and the only other name change that I noticed was not using his step-sister’s real name (or including her much at all). This is an interesting concept but it did confuse me as it seemed this book was a straightforward retelling of the author’s life story that very well could have landed on the nonfiction side of things. But as I’m not quite sure how much the author drew from his own life (it seems like a lot) I am going to review it as it stands.
The book revolves around many major themes: racism, capitalism, religion, and other weighty objects that resonated with me as I am dealing with my own issues in life. Crucial among these are the author’s relationship with his parents and how he has turned away from their version of Islam in favor of his own relationship to that religion and the unknown. The parts in which the fictional “Akhtar” deals with his parents were familiar to me as I have also dealt with overbearing religious parents for much of my life and it was very relatable. But the story winds its way through those parts leading to more challenging perspectives such as the plight of Muslims in America and how they have had to adapt over the years. There is a strong portion of the middle of the novel in which his car breaks down outside Scranton, Pennsylvania and he is taken for a ride by the repair shop that illustrates just how badly people still treat those with brown skin. This is balanced out with the author later joining up with a billionaire “merchant of debt” named Riaz, who ends up getting investigated by the SEC for saddling municipalities that refused mosques with incredible amounts of debt, which his company then bets against. Akhtar is masterful in concluding sentences, like this one from the Scranton repair shop bit: “I was going to stop pretending I felt like an American.” And as he finds a significant other (later discovering she transmitted to him a sexual disease) who claims their meeting was ordained by her psychic, Akhtar comes clean with his own belief in a power guiding him through life via dreams: “I have to own it, this brand of crazy is fully baked into me.”
I found this book to be quite difficult to read at times and had to look up more than a few words from the author’s remarkable breadth of language. There were also many Muslim and Pakistani words I had not encountered before and gave an even more lucious illustration to the world Akhtar paints throughout. But despite this I would highly recommend this book as it deals with every major thread of the past few decades, the narrative of the fictional “Akhtar’s” life tightly wound around them. I am still wondering how much of this book was based on real life and how much was embellished but perhaps that is the point. The real Akhtar, as the video interview shows, is quite erudite and this makes for a riveting page-turner despite the immense and flourishing language. And I have to say again the parts that spoke to me the most were when the author had to deal with his ailing parents. As somebody who has turned away from that I found these bits moving as they resembled my own struggles with the Christian religion and belonging as an atheist.
Up next I will continue the path of reading more BIPOC (and women) authors in taking up a novel I haven’t looked at since my college days: Chinua Achebe’s 1958 landmark novel Things Fall Apart. Thanks again to all readers out there for bearing with me as I take up this series once more for the website.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.