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A Novelist’s Reckoning With Identity Politics

Ayad Akhtar’s novel “Homeland Elegies” confronts a culture that expects Muslim Americans to explain themselves.

Chester Higgins Jr./The​ New York Times/Redux

When Trump won the 2016 presidential election, an editor I worked with asked me: What did I think as a Muslim American? The question troubled me, because I had never thought of myself as a “Muslim American.” A few months later when Trump became president, a friend from high school, who only gets in touch every few years, wrote asking me whether the “Muslim ban” upset me; again, the question troubled me. Soon, I was having arguments with friends about my refusal to identify as a “brown man.” These arguments forced me to say “yes” in one form or the other—after all, I am Muslim, and I am not white—while wanting to deny the conclusions toward which my answer pointed: I don’t think as a Muslim American, and I don’t—and strongly believe, I should not—premise my political thinking or my writing upon the idea of skin color.

Homeland Elegies
by Ayad Akhtar
Little Brown and Company, 368 pp., $28.00

These questions hover over Ayad Akhtar’s new novel, Homeland Elegies, a semi-autobiographical memoir of the relationship between a father and son, and their relationship to the United States from 9/11 to the first years of Trump’s presidency, much of it written in the style of an essay about the social, economic, and cultural condition of the country. Every member of his family seems to represent an aspect of what it means to be Muslim: the fundamentalist uncle who embraces jihadism; the literary aunt who takes Edward Said’s Orientalism as her gospel; the uncle, Shafat, who runs off to marry a white woman and convert to Christianity. Akhtar tells us how the Prophet’s life overly influences the way Muslims live now, leading the narrator’s cousin Ayesha into a deeply unhappy early marriage.

Akhtar’s narrator, also called Ayad, represents a fictionalized version of the novelist himself. He doesn’t spare himself or any of the people he meets as the story moves between Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, and his parents’ birthplace, Pakistan, and the book’s characters often stand in for opposing views on politics and identity. Ayad’s father, Sikander, a cardiologist who holds onto the American dream even as he accumulates mountains of debt, supports Trump, whom he met briefly in the 1990s while treating him for a rare heart condition. Unlike his father, Ayad’s mother scorns the reality of the American dream as a frenzy of consumerism at home and bombing Muslim countries abroad.

The book is caught between two desires: one is to evoke a family’s experiences in a period that has been hostile to Muslim Americans. Another is to avoid being pushed into offering an apologia for all Muslim Americans—to reject the question I was asked: What do you think as a Muslim American? Are you for or against your own identity?

Homeland Elegies opens with Mary Moroni, the narrator’s teacher at Brown University, telling him that “America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder.” For the narrator, this is a revelation. He has been raised by parents and a school system steeped in the myths of American exceptionalism. “I’d come of age in the era of the hilltop city gleaming for all to see,” Ayad says, about his years growing up in Reagan’s America. Moroni’s words are a corrective to the hubris of “endless American self-congratulation.” Ayad sets out to show us an America riven by debt, consumerism, low-paying jobs, home foreclosures, personal depression, and anxiety, where corporate capitalism and the attention economy have left behind “the toxic flotsam of a culture no longer worthy of the name.” Ayad glumly states that his stories “will no longer be songs of celebration,” unlike Walt Whitman’s poems of the American self, but hymns to “our ailing nation and its foundering myths.”

The novel goes on to link money and racism in America. You only have freedom in America, his uncle says, if you have money. Akhtar develops this connection without insisting on any one theory that explains the relationship between the two. Martin, a Black lawyer, scoffs at Obama’s faith that the “arc of history” will bend toward justice. In the American colony, he believes, the power of property and capital, which has traditionally served whites, trumps any flimsy “arc of history.” That’s why he thinks the best thing he can do as a Black man in America is to make as much money as possible and pay little taxes.

Ayad’s father would appear to share this view, though it does not always serve him well. Sikander’s medical career goes through two and a half boom-and-bust cycles. The easy money of the Reagan years ends in reckless debts and bankruptcy. He gets back on his feet by setting up a chain of doctors’ offices in underserved rural parts of Wisconsin in the years after 9/11, when many “brown” doctors lost patients across the country. He’s successful and cashes in when a corporation wants to buy his practices. But before long, he’s hit with a medical malpractice suit: One of his patients, the pregnant daughter of farmers, has died suddenly from the heart condition for which he’s treating her. His lawyer explains that in declining rural America, his hard-to-pronounce foreign name stirs up, for the jury, both irrational fears of Muslim terrorists, as well as the hatred for wealthy-looking city professionals.

Akhtar’s storytelling is at its best as he recounts this unraveling. His father’s outrageous and maudlin downfall brings together many of the polemical points of the novel—what place, after all, is there for Sikander in America without his money?—without sacrificing any of the absurd contingencies that the best characters in fiction—or real life—often carry. Sikander sinks into debt and drinking as life in his adopted country flounders, and the novel ends with his abrupt return to Pakistan. “As much as he’d always wanted to think of himself as American,” Ayad reflects, “the truth was he’d only ever aspired to the condition. Looking back, he said, he realized he’d been playing a role so much of that time, a role he’d taken for real. There was no harm in it; he’d just gotten tired of playing the part.”

Despite his parents’ financial ups and downs, this is a novel of the American upper-middle class. Most of the Muslims whom the narrator meets are educated and relatively well-off and have used their class position, as lawyers, business owners, or hedge fund managers, to win a place for themselves in the “American colony”—a position which, in his father’s tale, is won and lost. Ayad, for all his wrangling about his identity, holds a privileged place within this society because of his upbringing in an affluent suburb of Milwaukee and his Ivy League education. In the novel’s essayistic passages, he draws almost entirely upon liberal American politics, and his use of that bourgeois discourse is much more central to the novel’s arguments than the religious identity that his voice foregrounds.

No character better understands the power of money to shape—and paste over—America’s identity troubles than Riaz. A fellow Pakistani American, Riaz owns a hedge fund and wants to use his fortune, which is built on peddling other people’s debt, to improve the conversation about Islam in America. He befriends the author and puts him on the board of his charitable foundation. Soon Ayad is the jet-set guest of the world’s moneyed classes, where his identity is just another commodity to be traded, a mark of liberal global society’s “diversity” that is hollow insofar as it does not redress a brutal class system.

Ayad has an epiphany when he visits Scranton, Pennsylvania, the impoverished town where Riaz grew up. His unplanned stay in the town begins when the police pull him over on the highway. The cop asks him where he’s from—Egypt, Pakistan, British India, New York, Milwaukee?—and Ayad hesitates to answer, as he anticipates the prejudice behind the cop’s questions. The following days waiting on his car’s repair in the depressed hinterland of Pennsylvania drive him toward an emancipatory decision. “I would soon begin a series of works,” he says, “founded on my new unwillingness to pretend I was not conflicted about my country or my place in it.”

Ayad goes on to win a Pulitzer Prize and later writes The Merchant of Debt. The lead character in this play is partly based on Riaz, whom he depicts as neither hero nor villain, but as a man driven by the spurned rage of Shakespeare’s Jew of Venice. The play’s moral ambiguity confounds its critics, who lament that Riaz doesn’t represent the good Muslim whose unimpeachable motives rebuke his country’s prejudice. In America, says Ayad, you are either for or against the downtrodden victim—in this case, Muslims. The conversation around art, like everything else in America, he says, is “drowning in the tidal wave” of anger. “The politics of representation,” he concludes, “were in ascendance, increasingly mistaken for the poetics of narrative craft.” The perennial lesson of the American colony, which Moroni doesn’t teach Ayad, is that zeal and earnestness of purpose in art trump the ambiguity that often supplies the best literature.

When I matriculated at Brown University—around ten years after Akhtar was there—I received an invitation to join the campus’s Third World Center, a space for students of color to “explore their identity.” (The facility was renamed the Brown Center for Students of Color, in 2014.) My Iranian family, which finds its literary reflection in Leo Tolstoy more often than in Chinua Achebe, was deeply puzzled: The brochure’s language of “being proud people of color” didn’t speak at all to our past or my idea of who I was.

This language of identity politics represents the misuse of the American experience of civil rights. Black people, women, and LGBTQ people in the United States have fought for rights and respect by claiming and being proud of their identity. But what if that language, and the historical experience it carries with it, simply does not reflect who you are? After 9/11, liberal America has been under the misapprehension that Muslims are in need of some kind of redemption, as Ayad finds when critics are disappointed that his play doesn’t present an idealized Muslim. Here, the problem is not Islam; it is the American idea of identity. Ayad’s “Muslim American” voice cannot overcome the idiom of the conversations that it laments, so long as he speaks with asides about “how far we, Muslims, still have to go” and dramatizes his story as a conflict between an identity—here, Islam—and a country, the United States.

Akhtar has written of the problems with the American politics of representation. He told The New Yorker that he worries artists are becoming “advocates for certain points of view, as opposed to thoughtful instigators.” Yet it is hard to see what value Homeland Elegies’ digressions about Islam have, besides representing a minority group before the majority of a society that is reflexively anxious, if not hostile, toward this religion. The chapter titled “In the Names of the Prophet” puts a colorful emphasis on the importance of the religious roots of names in his family—even when these names are carried by people like his uncle Muzzammil, who is “in no way religious.” It’s telling that the strongest character, Sikander, is the least touched by these heavy and portentous quibbles over the Islamic identity—indeed, he wryly scoffs at religion when forced into discussing it.

Representation is important. Akhtar’s narrator says that reading The Satanic Verses gives him a literary and “potent form of self-recognition” that he hadn’t before experienced on the page. But the reception of Akhtar’s and Rushdie’s writing in the United States shows again the crude and magnetic poles that pull the American conversation around identity in one of two directions. In America today, we must claim our identity—no matter the nuance or self-exposing critique that we bring to it, as Akhtar does—or we must celebrate our total emancipation from our past, as Rushdie does when he boasts he is not Muslim anymore. For or Against. Of course, simple positions are easier to commodify, too, like Riaz’s sponsorship of Sufi organizations that brand Islam as friendly and loving.

Even as Akhtar’s writing critiques the politics of representation, he carries on speaking in the American idiom of identity. His book articulates the problem sharply and carefully, but he isn’t able to overcome it. Arguing over Said’s Orientalism with Riaz, Ayad struggles to articulate “the necessary critique” of their position as Muslim Americans. “Constantly defining yourself in opposition to what others say about you is not self-knowledge,” he says about Riaz’s desire to correct Western perceptions of Islam. “It’s confusion.”