Homeland Elegies: A Novel

by Ayad Akhtar

Hardcover, 2020




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


"A deeply personal work about identity and belonging in a nation coming apart at the seams, Homeland Elegies blends fact and fiction to tell an epic story of longing and dispossession in the world that 9/11 made. Part family drama, part social essay, part picaresque novel, at its heart it is the story of a father, a son, and the country they both call home. Ayad Akhtar forges a new narrative voice to capture a country in which debt has ruined countless lives and the gods of finance rule, where immigrants live in fear, and where the nation's unhealed wounds wreak havoc around the world. Akhtar attempts to make sense of it all through the lens of a story about one family, from a heartland town in America to palatial suites in Central Europe to guerrilla lookouts in the mountains of Afghanistan, and spares no one--least of all himself--in the process."--… (more)

Media reviews

Akhtar’s forceful, direct prose conveys a poetic sense of anguish. But while the critical insights are consistently sharp, Elegies’ family portraits linger longest — Ayad’s mother pining for her homeland, his father chasing after an illusory American dream. Donald Trump appears as a
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character here too, not as the cartoon villain who’s suffocated a good chunk of post-2016 literature but as a man whose deception, empty promises, and (to some) inexplicable appeal get at the heart of a national identity crisis. So maybe this is more than a novel. It’s a document — furious, unwieldy, tragic — of our time.
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5 more
An elegy is a mournful poem expressing regret for something lost. Ayad Akhtar’s brilliant new novel, “Homeland Elegies,” mourns an America that has lost its way in the half century since it welcomed his parents’ generation of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan.... Akhtar — recently named
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the new president of PEN America — wrote it in “a fever dream” after his mother died, Donald Trump was elected, and his father started showing signs of decline. He wanted to remember what brought his parents’ generation to the United States, how the country changed, and what those changes meant for all of them. The result is a searingly honest, brutally funny, sometimes painful-to-read account of being a Muslim in America before and after 9/11.
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The presidency of Donald J. Trump, like a motorcycle that sets off two-thirds of the car alarms on a city street, has affected different writers in different ways. Some have gone nearly mad, for worse and sometimes better; some have tightened their noise-cancelling headphones and pretended the
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moral disruption isn’t there. For Ayad Akhtar, the Trump presidency has led to “Homeland Elegies,” a beautiful novel about an American son and his immigrant father that has echoes of “The Great Gatsby” and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life.... “Homeland Elegies” is a very American novel. It’s a lover’s quarrel with this country, and at its best it has candor and seriousness to burn.
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With its sprawling vision of contemporary America, “Homeland Elegies” is a phenomenal coalescence of memoir, fiction, history and cultural analysis. It would not surprise me if it wins him a second Pulitzer Prize.... The interior design of “Homeland Elegies” may include elements of fiction,
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but the architecture is clearly the author’s life: The narrator is a man named Ayad Akhtar, the son of Pakistani doctors, who writes a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a Muslim American and then struggles to negotiate the rising xenophobia of the Trump era.... Ayad sees in his father’s unlikely attraction to Trump something essential about contemporary America. It demonstrates, he says, “the full extent of the terrifying lust for unreality that has engulfed us all.” ...We’re living, Ayad warns, through a systemic collapse of confidence fueled by “thoughtless and obsessive suspicion.” ...paradox runs like a wire through this book, which so poignantly expresses the loneliness of pining for one’s own homeland.
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One comes to this book not for the pleasures of conventional narrative fiction (though Akhtar certainly can spin a tale); this is a novel of restless exploration that finds no pat answers about what it means to be a Muslim American today. A profound and provocative inquiry into an artist’s
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complex American identity.
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Akhtar’s work is a provocative and urgent examination of the political and economic conditions that shape personal identity, especially for immigrants and communities of color. With an audacious channeling of Philip Roth’s warts-and-all approach to the story of an American writer and his
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family, this tragicomedy is a revelation.
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User reviews

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
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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 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”
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reading list for understanding other cultures, this would head the list.
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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
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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,
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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 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
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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]
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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 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
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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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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
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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 KarenRice
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
This is a semi-autobiographical novel of a first generation American Muslim Pakistani man and his father, an immigrant from Pakistan.

It’s a wonderful look at the problems of being a non-Hispanic brown man in America – you’re assumed to be Arab and an enemy, especially after the 9-11 attacks
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and especially if you are Muslim.

It’s a very political novel, as Trump occurs as a character for whom the protagonist’s father was briefly a cardiologist. Trump’s policies are examined in the light of making life more complicated for Muslim Americans.

The author also addresses how America is an oligarchy ruled by the money of the very rich. As few of the very rich are immigrants, we see how one very rich immigrant aspires to break into this class. In addition, we see the problems of a credit based society and how it can enslave people on the lower rungs.

There was one chapter towards the end that seemed to appear out of nowhere as a black man tells our protagonist why he is a Trump supporter and how he feels that will help him to the higher rungs of economic class.

Besides US politics, the author expands on the political and personal consequences when Britain partitioned Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India.

There is lots of food-for -thought in this book. I found it very readable, and feel that besides being entertained, I learned a bit about how the world works for others. What more can one ask from a novel?
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
I learned a lot about attitudes toward the United States, and this was very illuminating. I did not care for much of the writing, nor all of the details of the author's life, but the education was worth it. I also may have enjoyed it as much as I did because I have seen some of the author's
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thooughtful plays.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
The story is well written and intellectually challenging. Akhtar writes in a form of meta fiction where the protagonist has his name and many reference points match those of the author, but cautions that this is a story and not autobiography. The narrative unfolds in various stories about his life,
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from growing up in Wisconsin with a father, a renowned heart specialist who once cared for Trump, to a mother who pined to go back to Pakistan and grieved over the murder of the man she truly loved. There are scenes of Akbar's own education from his aunt in Pakistan to college professors, one of whom convinces his to record his dream. We read of his economic understanding of the world according to Robert Bork’s contributions to the elimination of checks on private enterprise, and how he benefits from the insider market help of a friend. In addition there are personal stories about his experiences as Muslim after 9/11 and his ventures into romance. After reading the novel I happened upon an interview on a podcast called Tin House where the author further impressed with his sheer intellectual bounty of reflections and his ability to articulate how his reading and education shaped his writing.
For Ayad Akhtar, the Trump presidency has led to “Homeland Elegies,” a beautiful novel about an American son and his immigrant father that has echoes of “The Great Gatsby” and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life...
There’s a lot more in this novel. There is good writing about Salman Rushdie and Edward Said (one of the narrator’s aunts really wanted to get him into bed) and syphilis and hoof stew and Scranton, Pa., and screenwriting, among many other things...
Homeland Elegies” is a very American novel. It’s a lover’s quarrel with this country, and at its best it has candor and seriousness to burn.

I would highly recommend this book but only for the reader that will give it the attention it will need.
I date my mother's intensifying anti Americanism to that summer, the summer when, in response to attacks on two US embassies in East Africa, Bill Clinton bombed a Sudanese medicine factory. When Mother-herself a doctor trained in the Third World-learned that the factory had been responsible for producing every ounce of Sudan's tuberculosis medications, she was particularly incensed. She already despised Clinton for his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky, and the attack on the factory came three days after Clinton's disastrous address in which he admitted he'd been lying about the affair all along. She saw in this sequence a murderous cynicism: an American president under political siege distracts the nation by killing Muslims.”

It was from her that I first heard the analogy comparing love and arranged marriages to kettles of water pitched at different temperatures: the former already boiling, with no chance to get any hotter; the latter cold at the outset, requiring steady application to be sure but with ample room to heat up over the years.”

The established majority takes its we-image from a minority of its best, and shapes a they-image of the despised outsiders from the minority of their worst.”

Because being American is not about what they tell you—freedom and opportunity and all that horseshit. Not really. There is a culture here, for sure, and it has nothing to do with all the well-meaning nonsense. It’s about racism and money worship—and when you’re on the correct side of both those things? That’s when you really belong.”

Obama's victory had turned out to be little more than symbolic, only hastening our nation's long collapse into corporate autocracy, and his failures had raised the stakes immeasurably. Most Americans couldn't cobble together a week's expenses in case of an emergency. They had good reason to be scared and angry. They felt betrayed and wanted to destroy something. The national mood was Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, nihilistic-and no one embodied all this better than Donald Trump. 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. Sure, you could read the man for metaphors-an unapologetically racist real estate magnate embodying the rise of white property rights; a self-absorbed idiot epitomizing the rampant social self-obsession and narcissism that was making us all stupider by the day; greed and corruption so naked and endemic it could only be made sense of as the outsize expression of our own deepest desires-yes, you could read the man as if he were a symbol to be deciphered, but Mike thought it was much simpler than all that. 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. “
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LibraryThing member booklove2
It didn't occur to me that it could be much easier for a writer to pen a (mostly?) true narrative and then stamp NOVEL on it. It would lead to much less trouble, wouldn't it? Even if every sentence of a book is true, labeled as "fiction", the writer certainly can't get into legal trouble, and
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because of some of the questions posed on his past work, I can see why it would be easier for him to label 'Homeland Elegies' a novel. I'm not sure if this readerly brain likes such blurry lines -- I want any book to be either full fiction or full truth. I realize that is a tough ask. It's definitely an interesting concept to me though. I can imagine labeling as "novel" gave Akhtar the freedom of honesty.... but maybe ALL of this is fiction - I don't know enough about Akhtar to really know. But I was expecting fiction and this reads like non-fiction, like a collection of essays, delving into being Muslim, American, the economy, money, family. But these "essays" very cohesively fit together here, to make the bigger picture very clear.
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LibraryThing member banjo123
Very good writing and definitely worth the read. This book explores Muslim and Pakistani-immigrant experience in the US pre-an post 9/11. I really liked the beginning of the book, but he lost me a bit in the middle. I thought he did a better job exploring the character and motivation of his
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parent's generation than his own.
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Wonderfully written, beautiful language, and it kept my interest all the way. I was a bit thrown off about how to classify it — it says in big type in the cover that it is a “Novel” but it reads as a memoir with a few obviously fictional bits. But how much is fictional? 10%? 50% Not sure why
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it should matter but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t distract me a bit. It wouldn’t have been an issue if it had been told in the third person, lots of novels incorporate some parts of the author’s life history. But by making it a first-person memoir-style story, there was some tension there. What’s fact, what’s fiction? Maybe that was totally deliberate on the author’s part, it wouldn’t surprise me. Anyway, totally recommended as long as you’re ok with the gimmick of a semi-fake memoir. (I suppose even “true” memoirs have some amount of fiction in them, after all.)
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LibraryThing member MugsyNoir
I couldn’t tell where fact moved into fiction and I didn’t care. The stories/essays Ayad Akhtar built Homeland Elegies around are compelling, heartrending, compassionate, and thought-provoking. A powerful book of ideas, some simple, some complex, all timely. Highly Recommended.
LibraryThing member cherybear
This is a challenging book. I like to think I'm a "good" person, but I know my outlook is colored by my white privilege, and my American-centric opinions of the world. (Is there a word for this?) But I try to have empathy for people different from me: different colors, religions, sexual choices,
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country of origin, etc. Learning about the narrator's (who may be the author?) life, his family, his upbringing, education, prejudices against him, etc. reminds me how little I know of others who have entirely different upbringing and world view.
It is billed as a novel, but I believe most of the stories related are true. There may be some things he has fictionalized, and I think a couple of times he says he's changed the name of someone.
What is it like to grow up Pakistani, in the United States? To have your every thought and action questioned simply because of your name, the color of your skin, and assumptions others make about you? This book will make you ask these questions, but will you come up with definitive answers?
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LibraryThing member ZeljanaMaricFerli
The narrative of this self-proclaimed "novel" (which reads like a memoir) explores the fictionalized lives of various members of the narrator's Pakistani family and friends.

It offers a perspective from the American "other" - Muslim immigrants before and after 9/11 and their experience of
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However, unlike in many stereotypical immigrant "underdog" stories, the narrator is (like the author) a Pulitzer winner coming from a well-educated, economically stable family.

It is easy to see why Ayad Akhtar would call this a novel while keeping the deceiving format of autobiographical essays. In an interview, he explained it was his answer to our "illusion of reality" powered by social media and our own fictionalized realities we present to others.

My overall impression, however, was that this wasn't an organic attempt, as it seemed he was really trying hard to be innovative, echoing Rushdie (who he mentions quite a bit in the book) and Roth to varying degrees of success.

The narrator in this novel is often condescending and detached from his surroundings, hence not very likeable. While this was planned by Akhtar in order to depict how success affected the narrator, I did find myself enjoying the novel less because of it.

Where this novel shines is the emotion of love towards his family which really comes through on the pages. Also, knowing the real story about Akhtar's father, the last chapter in the novel is especially heartbreaking.

I want to root for Akhtar and believe he truly is the great American writer of the moment. But, I can't get over the feeling that he is the one who on purpose creates a disconnect with his audience, perpetuating the "age of division".
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