Provocatively blending fact and fiction, paradox and contradiction, Ayad Akhtar’s second novel, Homeland Elegies, presents as the memoir of a man of the same name and similar pedigree – a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright of Pakistani-Muslim extraction whose doctor-father became enamoured with Donald Trump after treating him for a heart ailment, then disillusioned after he assumes the presidency. Akhtar spoke with The Globe and Mail from his home in New York State via Zoom on the eve of Joe Biden’s presidential win.
What was your feeling about this book while writing it?
I had a feeling I was doing something I’d wanted to do my whole life as a writer, that I finally had the craft to do. But I wasn’t sure if it was something people would accept. Whether the breaking of form, the robust, muscular language was something people would go along with. Whether the positing of meanings and their negation from page to page was a flux that people would be willing to countenance.
I wrote it really kind of unexpectedly, and suddenly there was this feeling of a linguistic space that I could move forward and backward and that was centred around this mise-en-scène of a narrator whose voice was so much like my own. But I didn’t feel the obligation to hew to the facts. And I wasn’t sure if at some point I would play a game, like in Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock and The Counterlife, where I’d undermine the reality and then throw it into relief.
I decided not to because it felt like reality itself had done that and I didn’t need to put a hat on a hat [laughs]. What that’s meant is that most people assume it’s autobiography, which substantially it’s not.
I assumed this until about halfway through, despite the giant “A NOVEL” on the cover...
Oddly it hasn’t stopped people from assuming it’s nonfiction. A theatre critic in Chicago wrote a review, and it was basically: “I’ve known this guy for years, I’ve followed his work, we’ve had meals together. And he didn’t tell me that his father is Donald Trump’s doctor, that he has a half-sister in Queen’s whose mother was a hooker, and that he’d made millions of dollars with shady dealings in the stock market. Wow, he can keep a good secret.”
I imagine you were having fun spinning these lies about yourself?
I was, but the book was written with a really high serious moral purpose. My mom had died, my dad was drinking himself off a cliff, the politics of this country were falling apart, it was becoming increasingly impossible to do what I wanted to do because of the rampant groupthink everywhere around art production. So the book was a kind of cry or howl, if you will. There was a hijinks quality to it, but even the hijinks had a purpose.
Most would consider Homeland Elegies autofiction, a genre much on the rise these days. Why do you think that is?
For this book, I thought of it in terms of the curating of self that everyone’s engaged in. Our social selves are increasingly constructed in ways we can externalize and be stewards of. The dominant way of knowing anything these days seems to be: What do I think of it? When is someone going to hear my story? When am I going to get what I deserve? It felt like playing this game of the self: telling you about myself, even as I announce at the beginning of the book that this is not going to be about myself. These multitudes are not my own. Playing this game was a way to get inside.
Your character rails against the valuing of representation over art in fiction these days – do you feel the same?
The politics of representation have supplanted any of those other criteria as the primary content. I’ve spent my whole life trying to tell a good story, not, how do I do the “right thing” in terms of the politics of how I represent the people I’m representing. I’m not interested in that.
There are so many things I’m trying to write against in order to create a sense of space for myself as a writer. I’m not in this to get a certain message out, to be a cheerleader for my people. I’m in it to lose myself with the reader in some other place. I’m not an artist because I’m trying to change society.
Where do you fall with the, I think related, cultural appropriation debate in literature?
My favourite writer is Shakespeare, who probably didn’t know any Moors. His representation of a Moor is most likely most appropriately played by someone in blackface because it’s not an actual representation of someone from Africa, or wherever Shakespeare thought he was writing from. And in Merchant of Venice he clearly has lots of anti-Semitic feelings, is not able to overcome them, and yet endows a character he clearly doesn’t like with more humanity than anyone else in the play. So I can’t say Shakespeare is my favourite writer and then say only certain people have the right to represent the way they want, because even in misrepresenting people Shakespeare did extraordinary things. I’m firmly of the belief that everybody should have the right to write whatever they want. I certainly want to keep that freedom for myself, and I’m totally willing to pay the consequences if I don’t get it right.
You share with your character a love of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. What do you admire about it?
I read it when I was 19 and I’d never encountered anything like it. I’d never encountered metafiction, natural realism. I’d never read Gabriel Marquez. At 16 I’d started questioning my faith in God and the Islamic mythos, and a couple of years later I read this book and it just blows a hole into all this stuff with such gusto.
How did your father feel about your depictions of him?
It had been two years since I’d lost him to alcohol. He was five vodkas in by 11:30 a.m., so in a weird way the book was an attempt to bring back a figment of that older person I still had a relationship with inside that person who was drinking himself to death. He didn’t read my first book in which he was a major character. I gave him a copy and he opened it and read two or three pages then he put it down on his nightstand and it just stayed there for seven years unmoved.
The day I finished my last chapter, I closed my computer. An hour later my brother calls me and says, Dad’s hit his head, he’s in ICU, you’ve got to get home. And that’s when he died. It’s one of those weird things. But the coda, when he goes back to Pakistan, I wrote after he died, because he’d been talking about wanting to go home for two years. He was very loving. I adored my father.
This book is about the logic of why Trump came to power. Do you think you would have written it if he hadn’t?
I can’t imagine I would have been motivated. The social analysis of the country divided between urban and rural and heartland and coast and classes, and the predominance of money – all value reduced to its purely monetary expression – the rise of finance, the choking presence of debt on the world stage, the despoiling of local communities and locality in this new global totalitarian order, all of this I had an eye on before Trump. But in the stupidity that led to Trump and the sort of authentic rage that led to Trump I finally had what Eliot would call the objective correlative to encompass all these things. And for the record, I don’t think we’re dealing with the problem. The analogy I use is that Trump was a cancer, but the cancer was caused by a toxin in the environment, and we’ll get rid of the cancer, but we’re still living in an environment that’s contaminated. So I’m glad he’s gone, or will be soon, but I’m worried that it’s just the beginning.
Biden is now the president-elect. Do you feel hope? Cynicism?
I feel relief that I won’t have to internalize the insanity of the leader of the country every day and make some sense of how to get through my day when this crazy person is infecting everybody’s mind. It also feels to me like half this country decided they didn’t want the show to end.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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