Homeland Elegies

Rowan Watts Reviews "Homeland Elegies"

When I first picked up the copy of Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies” that I soon purchased in my local bookstore, I skimmed the prologue, what the author dubs the “Overture” of the book, and then I committed baleful, disgraceful blasphemy: I skipped to the end (“Coda”) and read it. This bifurcated glimpse of the book that had initially convinced me to buy it gave me the impression that this story was told in the framing device of a campus novel. I read conversations with an influential English professor set 30 years apart that dealt with the Eddas, Moby Dick, and the other works written by the narrator (who, like Akhtar, is an author; more on this below) just as readily as they unpacked how the university has become a consumer experience, rather than a pedagogical one. The narrator and his professor trading Whitmanisms (the narrator claims that his “tongue, too, is homegrown”) felt like the deep breath before the plunge into the depths of American culture, America as a colony (“a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought”), and the world that 9/11 came to shape. But I should’ve know better. When Pulitzer-winning, Tony-nominated, Pakistani American author Ayad Akhtar deigns to discuss “home” in its kaleidoscopic plurality of meanings, he will not stay in one place, but take you on a globetrotting and equally unburdened journey to where you least expect to go. “Homeland Elegies” is part campus novel, part American boyhood, part capitalist success story and part artistic manifesto, part essay, part memoir, and part fiction, Akhtar has written a book that contains something for everybody to love, and perhaps recoil from too.

The New York Times uses the designation “autofiction” to describe the genre of this book, attempting to compel a marriage between the incongruous forms of autobiography and fiction. This form results in similarities between the narrator’s past and Akhtar’s biographical history. Both men are playwrights; have won the Pulitzer; were raised in Wisconsin; Pakistani American. The question, then, is “How much of this book is true?” Another way to ask this question is “How much of Akhtar is in this book?” The narrator deals with this version of the query much more explicitly. Both the narrator and Akhtar have written an accoladed play that addresses September Eleventh in, let’s say, bold terms. A Pakistani American man admits to having felt a “blush of pride” while witnessing that horrible thing. (The play that Akhtar wrote is called Disgraced and I recommend you read it too; a .pdf file is floating around online for free.) According to the narrator, though, the most common question that he gets asked by anyone and everyone is “How much of yourself is in this play?” What people really mean, he suggests, is “Do you agree with this character?” They are asking about his politics. So, instead of wondering about the substance of this book, such as “Did his father really treat Trump for an obscure heart condition, get enchanted by his glossy libertinism, and vote for him in 2016?” (that happens in this book) “Did he really visit Abbottabad, the city famous for harbouring Osama bin Laden less than two years before his capture and assassination?” (that happens) “Did he really become a millionaire by trading debt and as a result share martinis with billionaires and the Clooneys?” (yeah) and “Did he really contract syphilis?” (oh yeah), perhaps we’re really wondering about Akhtar’s politics. Speculation of this calibre is, I think, not inherently bad. In fact, I further venture to propose that Akhtar wants us to engage in this particular speculation.

Sections of “Homeland Elegies” read like essays buried into an out-of-time account of oftentimes episodic scenes. While the discourse begins with an introduction to a cornerstone of the dramatic conflict—the narrator’s father—and an explanation of how this frankly stubborn ox of a parent ended up with a personal investment in Trump’s cardiovascular fitness, the story begins even further back than childhood, with father and mother experiencing Pakistan’s separation from India. This history lesson, and the anecdotes that accompany it, are worth every irascible word out of the father’s mouth that you have to read. These chunks of text woven throughout the book most often divert into intelligent and poignant social commentary, with the exception of conversations had with two characters: a Muslim multimillionaire who makes the narrator rich by dubious means (he’s a multimillionaire; of course his means are dubious), and a Black Hollywood agent who enjoys sharing blunt and unflattering opinions on the management of movie studios. These two secondary characters, plus the mother and a lover named Asha, are without a doubt the most sagacious and charming people we meet, although the millionaire and agent receive far more screentime than the women. These folks, plus the secondhand memories of Pakistani independence I found courageously illuminative and interrogative.

To say that I enjoyed every minute of reading this novel would be a lie; some moments were so violently revolting that I had to physically put the book down, such as a description of some murders committed during the Pakistani-India rive. But other moments had me dogear the page and shut the covers to simply digest the new information and opinions shared and received. This book took me quite a while to read because it encouraged me to think about each sentence: rhetoric or reality? (I stole this question from the narrator’s professor.) The only moments I actually disliked (I came around on the choleric father) were scenes depicting racial violence targeted at the narrator. They were almost comical, and that was clearly intentional on the author’s part, but I have not figured out the point, the effect, or the feeling that this comedy is supposed to communicate to me. Yet. I’ll think about it.
Rowan Watts
Rowan Watts is a fourth-year UVic student double-majoring in English (Honours) and Theatre. Born and raised on Lekwungen Lands, he enjoys reading and writing (not often enough) locally-attuned fiction.