I had to remind myself of the exact definition of elegy as I was reading Ayad Akhtar’s latest novel, Homeland Elegies: A Novel. In a promotional video on the Little Brown publishing page, he mentioned this book was not only about that longing for the home country that his parent’s generation felt, but an elegiac response to the death of his mother and the decline of his father.
An elegy is a poem of serious reflection written, usually, as a lament for the dead. In more modern terms it can also be a lament for a tragic event, expressing mournfulness and sorrow. Or as Samuel Taylor Coleridge says in Specimens of the Table Talk of the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol 2 (1835):
Elegy is a form of poetry natural to the reflective mind. It may treat of any subject, but it must treat of no subject for itself; but always and exclusively with reference to the poet. As he will feel regret for the past or desire for the future, so sorrow and love became the principal themes of the elegy. Elegy presents every thing as lost and gone or absent and future.
Documenting the regrets and desires, sorrows and loves of Muslims in America over the past fifty years is the aim of Homeland Elegies, but most of the drama plays out in more recent times. Akhtar himself is our reference point, as he explores the changes in America post 9-11 and post-Trump, via the lens of his own family. His sense of being ‘other’ or an outsider informs his perspective. He explores the hope and eventual disillusionment of his parents generation as they struggle to be American, to belong and to be accepted.
The confusion I experienced when I started to read Homeland Elegies was a deliberate device used by Akhtar. It worked. I got very caught up in trying to work out what was real and was not, because the story reads like a memoir. Akhtar is our main character. He is a writer and playwright, who writes about the Muslim experience in America. He is a writer who needs to ‘deform actual events enough to be able to see them more clearly.’
I found myself googling Akhtar and reading his wikibio to try to sort out the truth from the fiction. It wasn’t easy. Again, it was the video linked above that revealed Akhtar’s intent to play fast and loose with the facts, pushing the boundaries between reality and fiction. He wanted to write a story that collapsed real life into a tale. He wanted to confront our fascination with fake news; how a good story has become more important than the truth. Or more accurately, how a good story (or even a bad story) has become confused with the truth until no-one is certain where the truth lies anymore.
It is a discombobulating read.
It was also rather sad. The story revealed a family and a country in decline. It was an indictment on a country that claims to be proud of it’s migrant history, accepting the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse, the homeless and the tempest-tossed. But not really. Unless you happen to be uber-rich. Being non-white and non-Christian and not rich is a problem every single day for anyone who is different. Especially since 9-11. Especially since Trump.
Akhtar has written a fascinating, absorbing and heart-breaking story.
- Akhtar was born 28th October, 1970, Staten Island, New York
- Grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama 2013 for his play, Disgraced
- In 2017 he won the Steinberg Playwright Award
- Homeland Elegies is a September release with Little Brown.
- the treachery of an American society that abandoned the weak and monetized the unlucky.
- the incompetence – even malfeasance – so abundantly on display at the municipal level. It was startling to see in this picture of America a nation so much like the one my parents described in Pakistan, where cutting corners, taking bribes, selling perks – all this was just business as usual.
- justice is the will of the strong borne by the weak.
- We were a nation in thrall to our own stupidity.
- students’ growing intolerance for difficult ideas….they slap you with moral rhetoric about why you’re wrong to make them do something they don’t want to do.
- College was now a consumer experience, not a pedagogical one.
I’m here because I was born and raised here. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. For better, for worse – and it’s always a bit of both – I don’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve never even thought about it. America is my home.
Book 8 of 20 Books of Summer Winter