Homeland Elegies: A Novel

by Ayad Akhtar

Hardcover, 2020




Little, Brown and Company (2020), Edition: 1st, 368 pages

User reviews

LibraryThing member brangwinn
Although written as a novel, this felt more like a series of connected essays. For me, that helped solidify the complexities of being a Muslim in America, and particular a Pakistani. It also helped illustrated how American foreign policy has failed in many ways. If I had to make a “required” reading list for understanding other cultures, this would head the list.… (more)
LibraryThing member linda.a.
In his opening letter to the reader, the author shares that he wrote this book “in something of a fever dream” following the death of his mother, the election of Donald Trump and when his father was showing signs of decline. He wanted to reflect on what had brought his parents from Pakistan to America fifty years earlier, their lives, their hopes and dreams for themselves, as well as for their children, whose homeland was America, how the country had changed and what those changes had meant for all of them. However, he insists that this is a novel, not a work of autobiography, that “as a writer who has always felt the need to deform actual events enough to be able to see them more clearly, I have not resisted the inclination here.”
When I read this, and knowing that the narrator of the story shares the same name, personal history and professional career as the author, I did wonder whether I’d feel constantly distracted, maybe even irritated, by wanting to try to separate fact from fiction. However, I needn’t have worried because the author’s observations, whether of family relationships, national or global events, political manoeuvrings, racial and religious bigotry, xenophobia, the vast divide between the rich and the poor, the debt culture, sex, the death of the American Dream (and much, much more) felt not only unsparingly honest, but also disturbingly recognisable. Even if not everything described had been experienced by the author, it felt without doubt that they had happened to someone and that underpinned the story with a disturbing authenticity.
The story is divided into eight chapters which move backwards and forwards in time and place, incorporating a huge number of themes. These range from deeply personal reflections on family relationships and conflict, a man struggling to discover who he is in a world which defines him by the colour of his skin and being a Muslim, tensions between a son born in America and his immigrant father, to almost essay-like analyses of the wider social, political and economic issues which have shaped America, as well as the rest of the world, in recent decades. This could have felt disjointed but for me it never did because it allowed the author to demonstrate the impact this inextricable intertwining of the personal and the political has on his characters’ lives. I found that this sense of a ‘wholeness’ was reinforced by the two short chapters which ‘book-ended’ the story. The first, ‘Overture: America’, showed the narrator as a student, with his benign views about his country of birth already being challenged by the prescient observations of one of his professors. The second, ‘Free Speech: A Coda’, showed him and that same professor reunited as, together, they address a group of her current students against a culture in which feeling able to speak freely is becoming ever-more difficult.
Throughout the story the author’s prose is supremely eloquent, passionate and thought-provoking. Although it’s immediately engaging, compelling and page-turning in its intensity, nevertheless, as I was reading I found myself needing to stop frequently, either to think about something which I found challenged me to think about something in a different way, or just to re-read a section which so clearly and precisely captured what had led to a particular moment in history. Just one example: his reflections on Trump’s unexpected, to many, rise to power made total sense when seen against the background of an increasingly ‘corporate autocracy’ the pursuit of personal wealth and rampant consumerism, all of which had led to an even wider divide between the richest and the poorest, leaving so many Americans feeling disenfranchised, scared and angry. Trump had accurately read the national mood and knew exactly what promises to make to make their lives better, careless of whether or not he’d be able to make good on them. As I was reading, I was reminded of some of the parallels in Britain, where a similar feeling of disillusionment and marginalisation had led to the 2016 referendum and Brexit. However, from start to finish of this remarkable story there are many similar examples of the author’s skill in teasing-out the salient points of all of his arguments and observations. His portrayal of a narrator who was prepared to examine, often with brutal honesty, his own attitudes, prejudices and beliefs added to his moral authority to challenge and question those of other people.
An elegy is a song of mourning, a reflection on what has been lost and Homeland Elegies has a sense of loss and mourning running through its core. By the time I’d finished reading I felt that I’d seen not only into the heart and soul of the narrator’s life, his struggles with identity and how to present himself to a world which viewed him with suspicion, but also into the heart and soul of a nation, and a world, which has lost its moral compass and was so profoundly changed by 9/11. This is such an insightful, challenging and thought-provoking story (although it does also contain some very humorous moments!) that it feels impossible to encapsulate its complexity in a short review. What I can do is urge you to read it and discover for yourself the insights this story offers.
Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with his play Disgraced, about the challenges faced by upwardly mobile Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 era – I believe his superb Homeland Elegies would be a worthy winner of second Pulitzer.
With thanks to the publisher and NB for my copy in exchange for an unbiased review – I wish I could give it more than 5*!
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
Part fiction, though it reads as narrative non fiction, part memoir and could even be described as a book of connecting essays. Very different, original and thought provoking, this insight into a Muslim author and his family.

How we as Americans are viewed, how we treat those we consider other, untrustworthy, unwanted. How it feels to be the other, judged, condemned, trying to fit in, live alongside, be part of, but never quite fitting. After 9/11 judge and condemned as a whole, hated, attacked, even though many were born here and considered themselves Americans. Looked at always with suspicious eyes.

Does there always have to be an other? In this country it seems so. Though it gets off to a slow start, its candid and forthright manner gives one room for thought. Are we so unaccepting, fearful that we cannot judge a person for who they are as a person instead of surrounding religions, races within a wall of suspicious hate? Questions that each individual needs to answer for themselves.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
Homeland Elegies was a revelation, a chance to see American culture and history and politics from the viewpoint of an 'outsider,' even if that outsider was American born.

Ayad Akhtar has written a novel with a strong narrative voice that reads like memoir. It's compelling storyline and conflicted characters engage the reader. It is also a novel of ideas, a dissection of social and political culture.

How Christian is America? Consider the commercialization of Christian holy days, the Christian based place names of cities, the King James Bible language and words that are woven in our writing and speech, how we do personal hygiene, dogs in every home.

The accumulation of wealth, buying sprees dependent on credit cards and interest, and the importance of corporate wealth and the power it wields is another theme. It's a Wonderful Life, that beloved Christmas movie, the narrator realizes, was really about money and power.

Central to the novel is the experience of living in a racist culture, especially after 9-11. When the narrator's car breaks down in rural Pennsylvania, the narrator finds himself vulnerable.

The narrator travels to Pakistan to visit family. Is returning to one's family homeland the answer? The anger that fuels people here is also found abroad.

"America is my home," the narrator affirms.

Homeland Elegies, this poem that mourns the country of our hopes and dreams, reveals our character like a mirror. It isn't pretty.

I was given access to a free galley by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
A memoir of pre-/ post 9/11 set in America and Pakistan. Chock full of digressions both personal and philosophical, Akhtar shows us what it's like to be a Muslim and face the constant prejudice of being Pakistani. This is a chronicle of his effort to understand his family's motives, balancing his own desire to be a writer against their cultural expectations and coming to the realization that his life is in direct conflict with theirs politically. Definitely a wonderful hybrid of fact/fiction. It really doesn't matter which is which because the nebulous nature of it brings out the truth in both. I love the way he drifts in and out of interior musings and blends in exterior events...[in progress]… (more)
LibraryThing member amydross
Started out a little thin, but the argument deepened over the course of the novel, and I found myself engrossed by the author's observations about the nuances of money, race, and politics in America.
LibraryThing member technodiabla
There is so much going on on this book I don't quite know how to describe it. It's classified as fiction but reads 100% like a memoir. The author and narrator relays his version of The American Experience. It's a modern telling and much is universal, but some is very specific to immigrants, first generation Americans, and Muslim-Americans. It's also the tale of a family and of a writer.

I disliked the author very much early on but he grew on me, somewhat. Still, it's hard to say I liked the book. It's more accurate to say I got a lot out of the book. History lesson, personal insights, with interesting little narratives thrown in (like the story of the heart surgeon who harmed his patients) make this book hard to keep track of and wrap your head around. That's not bad, it's just not wholly satisfying.
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
Reminded me of Middlesex - and that's high praise, right? Gloriously sweeping in scope, but I yearned for a bit more of my favourite bits. And good for Barack Obama for recommending a book that slags him off.,,
LibraryThing member Luciana43
I read and enjoyed 55 pages. Then I grew curious about the 'novel' label, since it certainly doesn't read like fiction. Saw an interview with the author, where, when asked why he wrote it as fiction, said, more or less, that he didn't want the audience know what was true and what was fiction, and something about the audience's attention span. I can't deal with that. When I thought that it was true, to the best of his ability, it was intelligent and appealing. As fiction, it's a failure. Like docudrama.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
“Trump was no aberration or idiosyncrasy, as Mike saw it, but a reflection, a human mirror in which to see all we’d allowed ourselves to become. Trump had just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.”

“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 always an afterthought.”

Akhtar, an award-winning playwright, was born on Staten Island to Pakistani physicians. His father, a cardiologist, treated Donald Trump, in the early '90s for an irregular heartbeat. He became infatuated with the man and began to drink the capitalistic kool-aid, leading to his own downfall. The author has chosen a unique narrative structure for this novel, blending fact and fiction. It is an American pastoral, with looks at identity, hope and dispossession. It also explores the immigrant experience, post- 9/11.
The writing is excellent. Smart and insightful. I had to reach for a dictionary, more than once. A book for the times and another top read from 2020.
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