Someone gave me Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies as a gift last year, and it sat on my shelf unread before I found the time to eventually pick it up this summer. I chose it somewhat randomly from my shelf of unread books, not fully realizing just how timely it would be given the events in Afghanistan that would unfold over the next few months.
In Homeland Elegies, a narrator – who shares the name and background of the author – muses about contemporary American politics, capitalism, and his relationship with religion. Having grown up in Wisconsin with parents who immigrated from Pakistan, Ayad the narrator recounts deeply personal stories about his family: his father’s embarrassing infatuation with Donald Trump and long affair with a sex worker, his mother’s trauma from violence she witnessed as a child and her persistent disdain for the most conventional aspects of American life.
We get to know a man tempted to embrace the extravagant, rapacious life his father coveted who also intuitively understands his mother’s aversion to the country that made her feel lonely and foreign. We can sense Ayad the narrator’s struggle to reconcile his materialistic lust and appreciation for the quintessentially American privilege to pursue his career as a writer with the attachment he has to his parents’ background. He is at once innately ambitious and bitterly frustrated with the discrimination he faces here. Perhaps most provocative is the sympathy he displays for his parents’ friend who moved his family back to Peshawar, a city in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. This friend had left first to help in the resistance against the Soviets, but later he appeared to turn on the United States as many of the mujahideen, previously backed by the U.S. against the Soviets, began to evolve into Al Qaeda.
Akhtar the author has repeatedly said this story is fiction, which is good to remember because Akhtar the author did not always fictionalize himself in a particularly flattering manner. In fact, there were times I struggled with his perspective and wondered about the extent his own opinions were appearing in the pages. I was particularly uncomfortable reading the unflinching descriptions of his own flaws without knowing how much self awareness was actually present in the tone. As a result, I do wonder how I would have approached this novel and its troubling narrator had I been familiar with Akhtar and his writing beforehand. Akhtar was, of course, already a Pulitzer-winning writer when he published Homeland Elegies; the book is largely about this. This also isn’t the first time I’ve become acquainted with prolific writers through their memoirs or autobiographical work—it’s not even the first time that I’ve reviewed for bookclique the memoir of an author new to me. Maybe I’m really missing a key perspective by reading these memoirs with fresh eyes, but, in this case, I must credit the author’s outstanding writing for making this book engrossing and moving, even with as little background as I had. Needless to say, he would insist it’s not a memoir anyway.
Which brings me back to this eventful year: as reports that President Ghani had left the country and that the government would be falling to the Taliban swiftly, I felt that Akhtar had given me more insight to understand the circumstances than most historical reporting I have come across. While I sat glued to my phone, reading tweet after tweet analyzing the region’s history and parsing President Biden’s words, I realized Akhtar accomplished with Homeland Elegies what most writers dream of doing: producing a nuanced narrative of a difficult history to inform a prescient account of tragic current events.