Mary Beth Writes

I heard part of an NPR / Fresh Air interview with writer Ayad Akhtar so I borrowed the book from the library and read it.

In the 1960’s his parents earned medical degrees in Pakistan and then emigrated to the US where Ayad was born and has lived all his life. (His parents are now deceased.) His dad was a highly respected cardiologist. In the 1990’s, when Donald Trump was having heart issues, Dr. Akhtar was flown to NYC to examine Trump.

The Akhtar family lived in Elm Grove, Wisconsin which is a 15-minute drive from where I live. I’d never heard of him even though the man has written novels and plays that have won prestigious awards including a Pulitzer for his play Disgraced. I have been paying attention to local news for 25 years and I had never heard his name previously. Because he isn't a Packer?

Akhtar’s novel Homeland Elegies was released recently. It is powerful and fascinating.

Here are some things to know about Homeland Elegies.

1. Akhtar insists his book is a novel though it reads as a memoir. He uses his own life as his story, the main character is himself and he writes about real life events. BUT – it is fiction.

As a writer with no Pulitzers, I understand what he’s doing.  Why does one want to write? Because life comes hard and fast and there are things to say. But the world says one can either “make it up” or “tell the truth” and often those choices aren’t enough. If I tell you as autobiography that I was held up at gunpoint twice in my life (I was), you are going to respond to ME. You are going to be shocked or dismayed or curious. But you are going to think about me or maybe you will consider how gun violence impacted your life.

If I write about a young woman being held up at gun point when she was a bank teller in Chicago, you are going to read it as fiction and wait for how it moves the narrative.

By defining clearly for you when something is “real” or when it’s fiction, I have removed you a little distance from the impact of the incident.  

When Akhtar says his story is real but he also has fictionalized parts of it and he is not going to say which is what – then we the reader have to live with that unease. And he, the writer, has to deal with the complicated truths of his own life and family.

Dave Davies, the interviewer, talked about this too much. That Akhtar’s father treated Trump became too much of a question of when and where, instead of a question about how that event played out in Dr. Akhtar’s life and then how his dad’s feelings played out in the writer’s understanding of his own life.

2. I think the novel is about alienation. For Akhtar this is the alienation of being a person with Pakistani/Indian features and an Egyptian first name – who was born in the US and grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee. As a kid he had friends, his parent provided loving stability, he regularly traveled to Pakistan to visit relatives and learn the culture and language from which his family’s story emerged.

Adulthood becomes more complicated. He meets a professor who is incredibly supportive of his intention to become a writer. His parents do not respect this career yet in his early adulthood, they help support him financially. He lives in a 4th floor walk-up in Harlem yet he becomes friends with some of the richest and most successful financiers and artists in New York City. He reads and writes voluminously, distancing himself from most Americans by the sheer breadth and width of his knowledge. His career won’t really “take off” until he’s in his 30’s. It isn’t hard for him to find sex but it’s complicated to find intimacy, mostly due to the racism and stereotypes that have affected him as well as every sensitive person he meets.

The relentlessness of racism and of his financial situation changes him. He becomes angry. He loses money he can’t afford to lose. He has an experience that causes him to determine to never again rein in his personality. Our dominant culture prefers POC to “tone down” the way they present themselves in society. The understanding that he has internalized geniality comes to a boil in him. It is from this honest and angry decision that his mighty and uncomfortable writing arises.

3. The novel explores in amazing conversations with fascinating characters he meets along the way - the economic system in which we live in our nation and this world. If you don’t have enough time to read the whole novel, check out chapter “On Pottersville”.

The professor who is Akhtar’s mentor says this in the opening paragraph of this book. “During a class on life under early American capitalism, Mary (…) looked up and remarked almost offhandedly that America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order was always an afterthought.”

Let me say as simply as I can how I understand this. This is ridiculously abbreviated but here is what I have learned and am learning from lots or reading lately, especially from the powerful conversations in Homeland Elegies.

Consider what colonialism means. Consider the process.

To colonize means to move away from where you are and what you have to find a new place to farm, work, build, and exploit for one’s own welfare and wealth. Not every person who came to The New World was greedy but almost without exception, people who explored and immigrated in the 1500’s and 1600’s, and people who move out of town to bigger houses and to new communities for bigger jobs now, nearly everyone was and nearly everyone is on the make to “get more.” Seldom did they or do we stop to consider what we are doing to the land and to the people who are already in the places they were “settling” and in the places we are visiting, buying, building homes, cottages, and infrastructure. We almost automatically move towards more income and more property. This is a colonialism - what’s out there is mine to get and exploit if I can make it happen with my income and influence.

Colonialism is deceptive. What on earth is wrong with the energy and chutzpah to better one’s life and their kids’ lives? If all you want is a cabin in the woods, and you are interested in buying it for a reasonable cost from the woman who owns it now, and you are going to bring a cake to your new neighbors and you assume you are going to live in a modest reciprocity with those neighbors, then you are at least clear about what’s going on here.

But generally, the colonial mindset does not urge individuals to settle down and collaborate. It urges folks to buy that next plot of land and build a factory or grow more crops to sell for more money. Then another person might realize they could build a railroad or highway to move those products to market. Or launch more satellites to capture more information to exploit to make more wealth. Building infrastructure will be super expensive. A great way to reduce costs is to tax people who don’t have much power and also to pay poor wages. Or don’t pay benefits to workers. Or enslave people to do the work. Now those rich people have so much more property and can pursue even more wealth building strategies – all in the name of building and improving life in the society.

Racism rationalizes exploitation. Those Africans … Those Chinese … Those (insert all the awful names you know for every wave of European immigrants). Women don’t need equal wages. Internships give people who already have another source of income a way to survive, so workers without wealthy families can’t accept those powerful opportunities. Those Muslims…

Religious institutions need money and of course the more ornate their building is, the more it intimidates. The richest people give big amounts and in return priests, bishops, imams, popes, ministers, leaders, and Sunday School teachers explain that obedience to the system is obedience to God.

If some people along this path protest cheating, injustice, harm to people and the land – the powerful folks, government officials, and religious leaders insist protestors are (insert pejorative here).

Colonialism in thought and action leads to “the highest value is the lowest price”. The only intrinsic obstacle to colonialism is- falling stock prices. Everything else is ‘leftist flim-flam’.

This is the question in front of us this election. Does anything have more power than the colonialism of Wall Street?

Can survival of the generations coming after us overcome the profit-driven power of the richest among us right now?

Can we understand that racism allows me to feel superior to others so that I won’t challenge those who have power over me?

If religion isn’t about obedience aka “righteous living” – then what is religion good for?

This is the podcast of the interview. Listen here



Leonard's picture

That’s what this is. Like Racism, it takes what we honor and respect about ourselves, ambition, loyalty, love of family, and shows that there is a cost - that someone else is losing something so that we can enjoy what is “ours.”
Leonard's picture

That’s what this is. Like Racism, it takes what we honor and respect about ourselves, ambition, loyalty, love of family, and shows that there is a cost - that someone else is losing something so that we can enjoy what is “ours.”

I hereby nominate you to be considered for a Pulitzer Prize. You are endlessly fascinating & introspective with fresh angles explored. Thank you for sharing! I have added this book to my reading list.
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you! I was tired after finishing this, it took me two days to figure out how to say what I wanted to say I had learned. Just woke up from a nap to this and you made me laugh. I didn't say enough about how fascinating, and familiar in some respects, it was to follow him making sense out of the strong religion he was raised in. When "what's my culture" and "what's my belief system" are not the same thing - and at the same time he experiences such prejudice and racism for beliefs that are not his.

I second the Pulitzer Prize nomination. You write about things I don’t even think about!

Mind blowing - I had to read your piece yesterday several times and again today in order to respond. Brief highlights for me from your writing: "Colonize means to move away from where you are..." "...colonial mindset does not urge individuals to settle down and collaborate." What a shock to think of my paternal Scottish ancestors in this light. I just ordered Akhtar's elegy. Thanks for writing!
Mary Beth's picture

Thanks for reading this. I know it's dense but Akhtar knocked my socks off, too. Len just finished it, we've been talking about it more. That we live so much of our lives "going forward" as if to get more. I'm thinking about Native American artifacts from cultures not about owning but about just living. Pots with designs. Beautiful woven and tanned clothing. Not to be sentimental, but to look at how we would live if we already were/are invested. How would we use our imagination (instead of fear or greed) to get through our days?

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