An American Writer for an Age of Division by Alexandra Schwartz [Article Commentary]
Oct 19, 2020
I used to regularly add my commentary to articles on my tumblr as I read, as a way to track what I read and just reflect on what I was consuming. Let’s try that again
This is an absolutely killer profile of a Pakistani-American writer named Ayad Akhtar that I didn’t know about. Reading it was a thrill, for standard “representation reasons,” since it’s rare to see multiple identities of mine (Punjabi + writer + strong fascination with religion) line up with anyone I see on a big stage. Obviously the connections aren’t perfect, mainly because of his Muslim background and my Hindu background, but I was drawn to the work regardless. There’s a few different aspects of the profile that stood out to me: his writing style, relevance of his upbringing, and cultural representation.
With “Homeland Elegies,” Akhtar was just as intent on capturing his reader’s attention. The novel wears its erudition boldly. Discourses on Islamic finance, medical-malpractice suits, and Robert Bork’s antitrust theory punctuate the narrative. Writers of the show-don’t-tell school might worry about didacticism undermining artistry, but Akhtar has a different philosophy. “Telling is amazing—some of my best experiences have been being told stuff,” he told me.
When I think about the way I have conversations with people, oftentimes I’m explaining different ideas I’ve discovered or been diving into. I’m usually not that clear or that accurate, but my greatest joy is sharing with people new facts or information or theory or models that make the world more interesting or help me to understand the world more clearly. If I were to think about how I write, I’m just telling things about my own life, often using the models or frameworks that I get so excited about. Everything is just telling!
“He’s able to take this huge, complicated infrastructure and distill it down to visceral character drama in a way that is unique.” As arcane as his intellectual tastes can be, Akhtar is determined to appeal to a broad public. “Proust meets Jerry Springer” is how he described his work to me when I met him, earlier this summer.
At the same time, Akhtar, aware of his competition in the attention economy, wanted the visceral effect of reading the novel to feel like scrolling through social media, fluid and addictive. “It’s essay,” he said. “It’s memoir. It’s fiction. It just had to be seamless, in the way that a platform like Instagram is seamless. And one of the pivotal dimensions of that content is the staging and curation of the self.”
These two quotes appear in different parts of the piece, but I think they’re more related than not. I wonder if the rise of the attention economy and the narrowing of our focus will lead to an overall change in how our literature looks— will the average sentence shorten, will the length of our works shrink, will our language become simpler?
The novel, which turns on Akhtar’s sense of alienation as a Muslim man in the United States after September 11th, leans into provocation: we see the narrator fucking a white woman in an ecstasy fuelled by racial fetishism and hostility, and watch as he trades on his cultural capital to become, as he caustically puts it, “a neoliberal courtier, a subaltern aspirant to the ruling class.”
I just wanted to call out this line because it’s fire.
While the men went off to hunt, he stayed inside drinking tea with the women, absorbing their Punjabi chat and gossip. “I was really into the domestic interior, family dramas,” he said. One aunt loved Shakespeare; another enthralled him with stories of the Prophet Muhammad. Embedding in this protected female space helped him make better sense of his mother. “Her pain was, in large part, the pain of being a woman in a culture that made it very hard to be a woman,” he said. “I saw all of her sisters go through this dilemma. Very smart, charismatic, resourceful women who were subordinated, and separated.”
As a teen-ager, he’d loved soap operas. “There was something about campy melodrama that felt real to me,” he told me. “The melodrama of a Punjabi household is much closer to that than it is to post-Jacobian naturalism.”
In Akhtar here, I see myself. Though no one in my family ever went hunting, I always gravitated towards the women of the family, and their seemingly infinite set of topics to talk about. Even among their rich stories and deep interests in whatever subjects, there was always this sense that it was a woman’s role to suffer in our culture— that their sacrifices were not only holy, but required. It was always bizarre to me that the ones who seemed to keep the family running smoothly and effectively had to suffer so much.
When he was growing up, he had been subjected to the double vision common among first-generation kids. “It was an awareness that there were two ways of seeing the world and they were both probably wrong,” he said. “But they were both right. American society was pretty homogeneous where I grew up. And wonderful. I mean, the kids were great. The parents were welcoming. We played baseball and had crushes on girls. There were some cultural issues navigating that, but I never felt myself to be coming from the outside. And then there was this very, very different world view within the Pakistani community in Milwaukee, which was that this society was illegitimate.”
“I have an abiding interest in things that the somewhat narrow middle of contemporary Western life—economized life, if you will—tends to ignore,” he said. “The sort of declivitous lows and ecstatic highs. I was very interested in religion because it seemed to be the only thing that spoke to that register of experience.”
I’ve been aware of the idea of having to exist in two cultures simultaneously for as long as I can remember. However, I never really thought about how one may cast the other as illegitimate, even though it’s always been true. In my religious community, the standard way of living in the West is frowned upon. Beyond the obvious rules against drugs and sex, there’s this underlying idea that the West is focused on greed and individuality. In implicit terms, we learned that living like everyone else would mean losing sight of divine unity and being confounded by maya1. In my eyes, I always understood that my life in American society was this material world and that my life at home and in my religious group was meant to find a greater experience in life. When I went to college and left home, these worlds collapsed into one, which continues to be a major source of dissonance in my life.
Akhtar is wary of what he sees as a limiting trend, in American theatre and literature, of writers making work that strives to promote, rather than to interrogate, their racial or ethnic identities. “The audience is increasingly responding to the politics of representation,” he said. “But I don’t think an artist should be in advertising, which is sometimes what I worry we are becoming—advocates for certain points of view, as opposed to thoughtful instigators. It can go all the way back to Horace. What’s the purpose of art, to delight or instruct?” Such committed iconoclasm can sometimes put Akhtar in strange positions.
I understand where Akhtar is coming from— purely appreciating the positive aspects of one’s culture can be simple-minded. However, I see those works as valuable when our society has been focused on praising Western culture for hundreds of years. Then again, re-building white power structures filled with POC isn’t necessarily going to make anything better. I need to think about this more.
In Hinduism, the illusions of the world that prevent people from identifying their divine unity. It includes basically everything material in our lives. ↩︎