Awakenings can be brutal. Consider Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author Ayad Akhtar, growing up in Wisconsin as the child of Muslim doctors who came to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1968, riding his bike around the neighborhood and listening to a father who thought America was the greatest place in the world. Along the way to becoming a celebrated American playwright, Akhtar would learn harsh realities about the only country he has ever called home, a country where the treatment of people of color is very different from that of white people.
In Homeland Elegies, Akhtar mixes fact and fiction about the awakening that marked his journey to Broadway. He has divided the book into eight chapters, bookended by an overture and coda about a professor who has conflicting feelings about her role as a teacher and who taught Akhtar that America is still “a place defined by its plunder.”
Racism dominates each story. Among the characters is one of Akhtar’s father’s best friends from medical school, a devout Muslim who grows disenchanted with America and who was secretly the love of Akhtar’s mother’s life. There are also white police officers and mechanics in Scranton, Pennsylvania, whose prejudices become alarmingly manifest when Akhtar’s car overheats on the highway, as well as an unscrupulous Muslim businessman who gives white America a taste of its own capitalism by exacting revenge on U.S. towns that wouldn’t build mosques.
The book’s most nuanced sections involve Akhtar’s father, a complicated man who grows to like Donald Trump after treating the future president for a mysterious ailment in the 1990s. In a powerful closing chapter, Akhtar documents his father’s disillusion with Trump as part of a larger story of a malpractice suit in which the elder Akhtar’s religion is a complicating factor.
Despite long tangents, Homeland Elegies shows what American life is like for people with dark skin, as when Akhtar and his father park their car poorly outside a convenience store, a miscue that gives a gun-toting white man an excuse to hurl racist imprecations. For readers unaware of such assaults, Akhtar’s latest will be a rude awakening, and an important one.