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