Homeland Elegies – When do You Qualify as American?

Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies is several things. Part memoir. Part economic treatise. Part fiction. All of it is factual, but the reader is left wondering how much is fictional. For example, the narrator and the author have the same name. So are they the same person? Did the author’s father (a doctor) actually treat Donald Trump (as the narrator’s father did) for heart problems in the 1990s? Or is that simply a metaphor for a presidential administration with heart problems? Does it matter? Did the author actually have syphilis (as the narrator does)? We’re just asking for a friend on that one.

While we do not know the answers, the uncertainty over what is fact and what is fiction, which runs throughout Homeland Elegies, is one of the essential queries of our times. It also drives a compelling story. But be careful of your conclusions, because (as Mr. Akhtar informs us) “interpretation has more to do with the one interpreting than the one being interpreted.”

There are two homelands in the novel: Pakistan and the United States. Both have problems. The narrator’s parents left Pakistan as young adults and immigrated to the U.S. And the book is filled with many other characters who immigrated from Pakistan, with each having varying degrees of trouble assimilating. As the narrator’s mother states, “[i]t’s not our home. No matter how many years we spend here, it won’t ever be our home. And maybe this brings out things in us that were never meant to be brought out.” Now a natural response for any American, whose family has lived in the U.S. for more than two generations, is go back to where you came from, you ingrate. And that would be one of the more polite renditions. However, Homeland Elegies makes clear that anyone whose family has lived in the U.S. for more than two generations should just shut up when it comes to opining on how easy it is for immigrants in this country. We don’t know what we’re talking about – and we should be thankful for that. Even the narrator, who was born in the U.S., has trouble considering himself American – and that is in no small measure related to how people react to him after the attacks on 9/11.

The author/narrator (again, not entirely sure there is a distinction) is several kinds of American, including Muslim-American and Pakistani-American. The question is this. Is he American-American? And that question (wonderfully) is not answered until the final sentence of the book. And even then the answer is not definitive. Throughout the book, Mr. Akhtar is concerned about how the majority of Americans perceive him. At times his physical safety depends upon it. “If all this sounds somewhat paranoid, 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.”

We can tell this is a serious book that demands being taken seriously because the narrator quotes the 20th century’s seventeenth most famous sociologist, Norbert Elias. “The established majority takes its we-image from a minority of its best, and shapes a they-image of the despised outsiders from the minority of their worst.” So what does that mean? No idea. But perhaps white Americans should stop pretending that we are all like Abraham Lincoln – just better looking.

Finally Homeland Elegies also makes clear that it doesn’t matter whether you are Muslim-American, African-American, Irish-American, or Obnoxious-American. If you are Thinking-American, there is cause to be concerned about the current state of our country.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Americanah the Beautiful

When discussing race or immigration in the United States, the maxim “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” applies. In Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrestles both issues without lace gloves and without apologies. And while we cannot say for certain that she is an angel, Ms. Adichie is clearly no fool.

The title refers to a Nigerian who travels to the U.S. and returns with the affectations of an American. That sounds like high praise to us, but surprisingly the term is not considered a compliment in Nigeria. Yes, we are confounded, too. The main character, Ifemelu, is a young Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. to attend college. Upon arriving, she is confronted for the first time with the concept that she is black, and she describes this experience humorously and forthrightly in her blog. “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now.” And as the book details, being black in America (whether you are American black or Non-American black) means the backpack you carry as you climb the steep mountain that is the American dream is heavier than anyone else’s.

Now we know what you are thinking. Forget this awkward race stuff. Ifemelu has a blog? Oh, that’s so original (said with dripping sarcasm like maple syrup running down a stack of pancakes). Everyone has a blog. They are as ubiquitous as sunblock on a Block Island beach in August. True. But Ifemelu’s blog is intelligent and successful (that’s how you know the book is fiction), and it allows Ms. Adichie to shrewdly and effectively comment on all sorts of racial issues in the U.S., such as (a) Why Dark-Skinned Black Women – Both American and Non-American Love Barack Obama; (b) Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What do WASPs Aspire To?; (c) Job Vacancy in America – National Arbiter in Chief of ‘Who is Racist’ ; and (d) A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor. Major Metaphor Alert: the novel opens in a hair salon for a reason, and Ms. Adichie’s use of hair to illustrate her points about race is compelling and engaging.

Race is a major theme but so is immigration. Ifemelu’s high school sweetheart, Obinze, leaves Nigeria for London soon after Ifemelu arrives in the U.S. Neither leave Nigeria to flee poverty or war. Their reasons are far more complicated and intriguing. They leave to escape the “oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.” As Ms. Adichie writes, they were “raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in the somewhere else.” They (and other similarly situated immigrants) were “now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.” Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s divergent paths allow Ms. Adichie to comment on the different immigrant experiences in England and the U.S. “[I]n America blacks and whites work together but don’t play together, and here (London) blacks and whites play together but don’t work together.” Glib, perhaps, but not devoid of truth. Ironically, Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s individual quests bring them back to a vibrant Nigeria.

More than anything, Americanah is a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze. It follows them from the early romantic stages (where just the heart is engaged) to a more complicated stage (where both the heart and brain are engaged). It develops into an “aware” love, which also could describe Ifemelu’s feelings for America and Nigeria.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans