Homeland Elegies: A Novel, by Ayad Akhtar (Little, Brown & Co.; 368 pp., $28.00).
Mark Twain wrote in his 1897 travel book, Following the Equator: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” That saying came in handy as I read this book, described on its jacket as “part family drama, part social essay, part picaresque novel.” I couldn’t distinguish truth from fiction as I read this saga of the roller-coaster relationship between an immigrant Pakistani cardiologist and his American-born literary son. If reality limits fiction’s realm of possibility, then this book must be truth, despite its title’s contrary claim.
Let’s look at the evidence. Incest remains one of the last sexual taboos in the West. Akhtar, however, nostalgically recalls his native Pakistani mother’s lifelong sadness after her youthful crush married his second cousin. Later while living in Houston, the father of Akhtar’s girlfriend tried to arrange her marriage to a first cousin in Pakistan. Following Twain’s maxim, it’s because these scenarios stretch credibility that they ring true.
The American elite preach that only whites commit racism. So it must not be fiction when Akhtar mentions his “disgust for white bodies,” his humiliating encounter with a “bone-white” Pennsylvania state trooper, and his father’s legal accuser whose “mask of white … is almost ghoulish.” Donald Trump, who Akhtar calls the “racist real estate magnate embodying the rise of white property rights,” at least had the decency to spray himself orange. Readers might have expected Akhtar’s four years at Brown, which included many “an afternoon of prosodic analysis of ‘Leaves of Grass,’” to have accustomed him to America’s pallid visage.
He characterizes American culture as little more than “racism and money worship.” Christianity reduces to “an aggrandized misinterpretation founded on an ontological absurdity.” An American-born Muslim character in one of his plays confesses to a “sense of pride” on 9/11.
Yet poor Mr. Akhtar suffered “tense looks … double takes … shit people say under their breath” in the nerve wracking days after September 11. Thousands of Americans who lost spouses, parents, children, friends, neighbors, and colleagues would happily put up with a lifetime of such petty rudeness for just one more hug with their murdered loved ones. Politically, Homeland Elegies forces readers to consider how the neocons’ conception of America as a creed holds up against one character who complains “the longer we stay, the more we forget who we are” while another rejoices “I’m glad to be home” after returning to Pakistan. Pace Twain’s borrowed theory, Akhtar’s work inadvertently juxtaposes diversity’s fiction with culture-clashing truth.