I recently listened to a special presentation of this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest: a 90-minute conversation between Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright, and Eleanor Wachtel, the host of CBC’s Writers & Company. They talked about his recently-published book, Homeland Elegies. (Links to the conversation are at the end of this post.)
Akhtar is a writer who won’t compromise his ambition or soften his language to make his points more palatable. After all, he is the writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 play Disgraced, described in a Chicago Tribute review as “a howl of rage.”
Akhtar’s mission is urgent and begins with a “Letter to America” in which he appeals to his fellow citizens to examine the reasons for what he calls his country’s state of “institutional rot.” Certainly, having a president whose “insanity and childishness” are manifested every day hasn’t helped, but Akhtar believes that the current moment is also the result of long-term resentment against colonialism and US global interventionism. Also, how are Americans complicit in allowing this to happen? What moral values and social culture led to Donald Trump’s being elected president of the United States?
The pursuit of wealth, entertainment, and the “hot story”
The way Akhtar sees it, Americans have always been fascinated by the pursuit of wealth. He explains Trump’s popularity as coming from the way Trump performs success. Americans know Trump lies, but “we love the performance . . . too many people prefer a hot story to the truth. If you want entertainment and distraction, that’s what you get.”
Modern technologies and social media have insidiously encouraged a short attention span. According to Akhtar, “entertainment is the dominant mode of politics and thought.” But what happens when people become unable or unwilling to read deeply and think for themselves? Those whose education comes from hatred-fueled Twitter and Facebook feeds and rallies intended to push their emotional buttons of fear, inferiority, and entitlement? People who refuse to engage in civil conversations or to listen to an opposing point of view?
You get a country where conspiracy theories are growing like wildfire, even among members of Congress. You get a country where a large percentage of the population can’t even perceive reality, what Akhtar calls “widespread mass psychosis.”
Akhtar sees America as a place where the accumulation of individual wealth is idolized and the long-term consequences are ignored, where no one asks, “What is the collective good?” It is culture of entitlement, with the idea that the self is central.
Akhtar gives the example of a Walmart store taking over a town, killing almost all of the local businesses with countless trickle-down effects. Why is this allowed? It’s because people accept the rationale of “lowest prices” without giving any thought to the deeper implications of global monopolies. According to Akhtar, this is part of the reason why “we have technical behemoths who are transforming our very cognitive functions to make money—for themselves.”
Akhtar’s perspective as the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants
Akhtar is the son of Pakistani parents who emigrated to the US in the late ’60s. His father was a doctor who made huge contributions to his profession and his society, a man of great appetites who was a successful example of achieving the American Dream. His mother was a less flamboyant, more thoughtful person who missed Pakistan. Akhtar, with his family background and his outstanding career as a writer in America, seems the ideal person to be a role model for the Muslim community, to write a book that “explains” Muslims to Americans and shows that not all Muslims are like the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
Yet that was not the book he wanted to write. He acknowledges that questions of identity, which include not only the immigrant experience but minority experiences based on skin colour, religion, and sexual identity, are significant, but they are not what he calls the “fatal illness” he wanted to address in his book. His ambition was to write a book that would probe American history, global military interventionism, and current social culture to explain the crisis in America today.
This is not a book written to make Americans understand Muslims, but being a Muslim in America gives Akhtar (and his alter ego in Homeland Elegies) a unique perspective. Akhtar sees himself as an American, but one who can also see and articulate the flaws of his country—he describes himself as “a kind of conscience for his fellow citizens.”
As the son of immigrants, Akhtar can see the consequences of American interventionism since 9/11. He notes that immigrants have relatives in their countries of origin who have suffered, and in many cases, died, because of America’s warmongering.
Also, he says, most Americans don’t understand the complexity of what lay behind 9/11. “What we are seeing now is a consolidated pushback against the heritage of colonialism.” He reminds readers that the Industrial Age, a so-called time of enlightenment and progress that changed the world for the better, was built on horrific systems of slavery and exploitation; on individual fortunes made in sugar, rubber, and cotton.
“What can’t be disputed are the long-term emotional impacts on cultures. Burning resentments still exist.”
In both Homeland Elegies and Disgrace, Akhtar’s Muslim characters say shocking things. One says, “I felt a sense of pride watching the Twin Towers falling” and another, “They deserve what they got and what they’re going to get.”
Of course, many Muslims hate Akhtar for writing such things. They expect him to be a role model for other Muslims and to give a positive representation of the Muslim community in his books. Akhtar explains that such an expectation shows a “fundamental misunderstanding of what an artist is meant to be doing.” Akhtar is trying to write what he believes to be the deepest truths. He is not trying to be a PR person for the Muslim community.
Why does he have his Muslim characters say such inflammatory comments about 9/11? It’s not that these comments reflect his own feelings. Yet, as he explains to Wachtel, this dialogue is necessary to explain the complexity of the Muslim reality in America. As the son of Pakistani immigrants, he understands the deep-seated resentments of minorities in a way many Americans do not. What has it been like to be a Muslim in the US since 9/11? Akhtar says: “Seeing the word ‘Muslim’ is like hearing the word ‘cancer’ in this country,” and “Muslims could only be from somewhere bad.”
Akhtar says the US has not healed from the wound of 9/11. Whether people are conscious of it or not, the country is motivated by revenge and has “inflicted the wound on others” with its interventionist foreign policies.
Why I felt compelled to write this blog post
I wanted to write about this conversation because I admire Akhtar hugely for having the courage to write the book he wanted to write, the book he felt was necessary. His comments about the purpose of art are compelling. Artistic integrity does not mean doing what people expect of you, even if doing so would accomplish something positive and helpful. It means following your own ambition and purpose. In Akhtar’s case this meant writing a book that could help both Americans and an international audience understand what is at stake because of the failure of the United States and its leadership.
This interview stretched me to my intellectual limits. Akhtar’s comments about the current situation and its historical roots rang of truth, of personal experiences tempered with much thought. In his book he uses words and arguments that go against the political correctness of every country and religious group. He had the courage to expose himself to hatred and misunderstanding from all sides.
He speaks the same way in this interview. He doesn’t try to simplify or soften his comments to make the interview easy to listen to. Indeed, he tells Wachtel that he appreciates what he sees as her open, welcoming questions. They encouraged him to speak on a radio show with as much honesty as he does in his writing.
When Wachtel asks Akhtar whether the Covid-19 pandemic has made the message of his book even more urgent, he confirms that the pandemic has made the “institutional rot” he talks about more obvious. He compares this particular moment in American history to “an absolutely dreadful [TV] program that does not seem to end.”
Wachtel asks him why he chose to write Homeland Elegies as fiction rather than as a memoir; its characters are clearly semi-autobiographical. Akhtar explains that as a playwright and dramatic writer, he doubted he would be able to write memoir. Moreover, he says, he wanted to address reality in his book, but forming it as fiction allowed him to give it an addictive thrill, like reality television. Writing in this way would enable the book to capture a large audience, he hoped.
I considered what Akhtar said about the shallowness of people’s engagement with serious issues, their desire for constant entertainment and distraction.
I can’t help but think how much of this Ray Bradbury predicted way back in 1953 with Fahrenheit 451, a book depicting a society where mindless entertainment is pumped into people’s ears constantly, the walls of their houses have become TV screens, and books are banned. But even Bradbury could not have foreseen the horrific depths to which the United States has sunk. He couldn’t have predicted the power that each individual has, with their personal computers and smartphones, to willingly take part in the “dumbing down” and their own demise by spreading hatred, conspiracy theories, and mindless (though cute) entertainment.
This blog post is, in a small way, my own attempt to engage more deeply with a subject and a book I feel are significant.
I felt a surge of inspiration and hope because of the artistic integrity Akhtar demonstrated in writing Homeland Elegies. He tells Wachtel that writing this book has given him a feeling of “something settled, something secured . . . something integrated to the centre.”
This comment reflects what I mean by artistic integrity. He has accomplished what he was driven to do. His family background was what created him and he has the unique experience and genetic makeup that could have produced Homeland Elegies. So it was most satisfying to get it out, despite the risks and criticism he exposed himself to.
To me, Ahktar’s words “integrated to the centre” articulate the way maintaining artistic integrity is part of maintaining our personal integrity—our sense of wholeness as an intellectual/spiritual/physical being—and being at peace with ourselves.
Listen to the conversation (full or abbreviated)
Spotify link (87 minutes)
iTunes link (87 minutes)
Writers and Company (59 minutes)