The PEN Pod: On the Lines Between Fact and Fiction with Ayad Akhtar
Author and Pulitzer-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar is no stranger to PEN America. He has served on our Board of Trustees since 2015, and in December he’ll take the reins from Jennifer Egan as our next president. His second novel, Homeland Elegies, publishes today. Tonight, in a special PEN Out Loud event, he joins Ben Rhodes for a conversation about the new book, but we at The PEN Pod get to ask him questions first. Ayad tells us about looking at a post-9/11 world from a Muslim American perspective, the verge of fiction and nonfiction in his new novel, and why he’s interested in literature about the Roman Republic.
Let’s talk about this book, Homeland Elegies. It’s a beautiful work that contends with, in so many ways, Americanness, at a really discordant moment for this country and the world. How did this book come together for you?
It was not really a planned thing. I was at the American Academy in Rome, and I was hoping to write something. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to write about, but I found myself immersed in the classical tradition. I was reading a lot of Roman history, and I was also dealing with the aftermath of my mom’s passing and Donald Trump’s election, and my father was showing signs of decline. There was something about my perspective on what was happening in America, while not being in America, that summoned a unique combination of outrage and eloquence in me, and I can’t really account for it. I woke up one morning after reading a poem by Giacomo Leopardi in which he was addressing the Italian nation. It was a poem from the early 1800s, and it was called “To Italy.” I remember—as I was reading the poem the day prior—I was thinking, would it be possible to summon some sort of a voice that could address my fellow Americans? I woke up the next morning, and the first sentences of the overture were already sort of coming out of me. And that was the goal—to try to pen a portrait of our nation in a time of its decay.
“I think 9/11 figures prominently in how the world has taken the course that it has. I think that the American response to the trauma of 9/11, the dysfunctional—I would call it even murderous—response, our inability to deal with the trauma of 9/11 is at root, it’s part of the problem. It’s part of what broke the world order in some fundamental way.”
The outrage and eloquence, I like that. The book does those things. It really extends a lot of the themes we’ve seen in your other work through this fictional Ayad character in the book.
Not everyone is convinced that it’s fiction.
I wanted to ask you about that, because I’m sure it’s interesting to contend with. But these themes of otherness, the immigrant experience, Muslims in America, late capitalism—all these issues, how did they shape your fictional Ayad in Homeland Elegies?
Here’s the thing: The argument of the book is pretty simple, and it’s outlined in those early pages that came to me almost in a flash of unprecedented inspiration in my life. The argument is that, yes, it’s hard to be Muslim in America. It’s hard to be Muslim, and it has been hard to be Muslim in America since 9/11. But even my difficulties, and the difficulties of my family dealing with that condition post-9/11, did not prepare me to see what had truly happened to our nation. Even my struggles with outsiderness or belonging were not sufficient to make me see the picture of the decay that our country had fallen into. It wasn’t until I started to see the bigger picture that was much larger than the question of identity—it was the question of our collective collapse—that I began to understand what had actually happened to this country, and how it had changed so fundamentally from the country that my parents came to a half century ago, and which was the only country I’ve ever known. So, in a way, it’s funny because I’ve been getting so many responses related to the questions of Muslim identity and all of that in the book, but ultimately the book is really about America. It’s not really even about Muslim America.
The book tracks 9/11 and the years that followed, but even the fictional mother and father characters, and the identities that they reckon with—it’s more complex than just a view from post-9/11 America. It definitely has its own elements, but it’s also an intimately personal story. There’s a character here, Ayad, that really is struggling among all of these factors.
Yes, and 9/11 does figure prominently. I think 9/11 figures prominently in how the world has taken the course that it has. I think that the American response to the trauma of 9/11, the dysfunctional—I would call it even murderous—response, our inability to deal with the trauma of 9/11 is at root, it’s part of the problem. It’s part of what broke the world order in some fundamental way. I think that the book does make a case that being Muslim somehow does give you not only a good perspective of outsiderness within the country, but it gives you a good perspective of what the consequences of the American mythos and the American foreign policy has had outside of the country over the last half century as well. In order to understand what America has truly meant historically for our time, for our civilization at this moment—perhaps being Muslim is a privileged perspective to understand that.
You’re very clear in the opening pages of the book that this is a work of fiction. But there is a character named Ayad, he was born in Staten Island and raised in Milwaukee. There are elements that hew closely to your story. Maybe this is a lazy interviewer question, but why adhere so closely to the character that maybe has some superficial resemblance to you? Why not have them have a different name?
First of all, it’s certainly not the lazy version of that question, because I’m getting the lazy version of that question every day. I think that’s a sophisticated version of that question. I wasn’t convinced that a third-person novel, a third-person narrative, or a clearly fictional narrator—that a fiction that had that kind of a structure was going to be able to get its arms, or its language, or its heart around the crazy reality that has become our reality in America in 2020, in 2019, and 2018 when I was writing this book. I wasn’t convinced I could do that. I don’t know if there are a lot of writers who would be able to do that, but I certainly was not one of them. It felt to me that writing a novel about what had happened to our country was invariably going to read like satire. The corrective to working against satire was to push it toward memoir, to ensnare the reader in this game, really, this trompe-l’œil—no pun intended—this tricking of the eye in terms of what’s real and what’s not real.
“It felt to me that writing a novel about what had happened to our country was invariably going to read like satire. The corrective to working against satire was to push it toward memoir, to ensnare the reader in this game, really, this trompe-l’œil—no pun intended—this tricking of the eye in terms of what’s real and what’s not real.”
Of course, the narrator has many of the facts of my life, my name, first and foremost, but also many of the biographical details—not all of them, but many of them, as well as my parents’. I am drawing substantially for my life, it’s not like I concocted the whole thing. Most of it, if not almost all of it, is real. But it is deformed just enough to serve the purposes—not of expressing some personal truth on my part; I’m not interested in my personal truth. I’m interested in expressing some expansive vision of what’s happened to our country. In order to do that, of course, I had to offer up my own life, I had to offer up my parents’ lives in order to do it in the way that I was doing it. At the end of the day, it’s a formal issue—how to create a form that feels new, that renews the novel, if you will, and that secures access for a reader to a feeling of what it is like to be alive right now. I think that this dissolution of the boundary between truth and fiction is very much part of our consciousness. So that’s the game the book is playing with the reader, and that’s the game that reality increasingly seems to be playing with all of us.
I presume you finished this book well before the pandemic period that we’re in. But that funhouse quality, that sort of trick of the eye—do you think that sense is heightened now? That this book is coming out at this unbelievable moment, when people read it differently than maybe how you had set out?
I could be wrong about it, and it might be arrogant to put it this way—and I don’t mean it this way at all—but I think anybody who’d been paying close attention to what’s been happening in this country in the last 40 years could see that, in the last 10, we have been sliding into the situation that we are in. I don’t know that we could have predicted the particulars, but the dysfunction and the tatters that our republic is in. . . The Chinese have a wonderful saying, an old proverb that in the house where the son kills the father, the causes do not lie between the morning and the evening of a single day. It’s the same for our situation.
I’d been seeing a portrait of the nation for quite some time—a nation divided, riven between the divides of rural and urban, and heartland and the coast, the divides between race, divides between economic status. All of those things have genealogies. They’re not something that just sort of came into being. Trump did not create these problems. He has been very smart about taking advantage of those divides for political gain. But, other than that, like I said, if you’ve been paying any attention, you’ve been seeing this picture for quite some time. I wanted to pen a portrait that would display that picture, that would portray that picture. I think that the pandemic, for many who maybe were more preoccupied by other things—the daily getting through your life—maybe that portrait of the country is much clearer to all of us because of the pandemic.
“One of the things that I’m really keen on is underscoring the importance of literary discourse and literary conversation as a meaningful contribution to the national conversation. I think that, in a time of increased polarization and stridency, literature and literary conversation are almost by definition one of nuance, one of emotionally valiant, intellectually rigorous discourse.”
You’re also assuming the presidency of PEN America to help shepherd us. We are at this really critical juncture, but also, as you know, we’re heading into our hundredth year of shaping—and working alongside—and perhaps providing some kind of space for the U.S. literary committee. What about that excites you? What challenges do you see ahead, and where do you think that maybe intersects with some of these things that you’ve been talking about in terms of the pathologies that we’re enduring?
I think the big challenge ahead for me is to fill Jenny Egan’s shoes. She’s been such an amazing president. I’ve had the good fortune of working closely with her over the past year and a half, and observing her move through all of these things in this complex moment. I hope I can bring as much fierceness, grace, and intelligence to the job and to the task as she has.
One of the things that I’m really keen on is underscoring the importance of literary discourse and literary conversation as a meaningful contribution to the national conversation. I think that, in a time of increased polarization and stridency, literature and literary conversation are almost by definition one of nuance, one of emotionally valiant, intellectually rigorous discourse. I think that in that way, it’s a unique form of human expression that our organization supports and celebrates. Widening the access in that community is an important mission of the organization, and celebrating the accomplishments of excellence in that form are also front and center. That’s something that I feel strongly about, and that I hope that we can continue to do. The organization is, of course, so much larger than that. It also is involved with a lot of advocacy on behalf of free expression issues, which are increasingly coming to the fore as flashpoints of debate and controversy in our national discourse. So, contributing to that, and also pushing this initiative to have the organization increasingly national and not just based on the coast; and really to have more satellites across the country—PEN Across America is a program that we’ve been involved in for a few years. All of those things are really what excites me the most.
We’re excited that you’re taking this on, and we’re happy about it. Lastly, what are you reading right now?
I’m a little embarrassed about it. I’m reading a biography of Augustus. I’ve been looking through the Roman emperor’s life—this is the third biography of Augustus that I’ve been reading. I’m just trying to get a very round portrait of him. Not to go off the deep end with pretentiousness here, but it seems to me that we’re dealing with a moment that’s not too dissimilar from the crumbling Roman Republic moment where Julius Caesar announced a kind of shift in centralization of power. That centralization of power was not effective. The Republic, although it had crumbled enough to allow that to happen, had not crumbled enough to actually allow it to become a permanent power structure. But it turned out that the next ruler, Augustus, was the one who began a regime of 200 years of centralized power, of what we would call a dictatorship.
I worry that we’re in a similar moment where Trump is a harbinger of what’s to come. Our democracy is faltering, and we maybe don’t have what it takes to really support us through this crisis. The year 2024 could actually be the real moment of existential question for the American project.