Published March 25, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Ayad Akhtar (Homeland Elegies) discussed his latest novel, 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. In conversation with Rafia Zakaria.

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Watch the recording of this event here and read the transcript below:

Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.

“An unflinchingly honest self-portrait by a brilliant Muslim-American writer, and, beyond that, an unsparing examination of both sides of that fraught hyphenated reality. Passionate, disturbing, unputdownable.”―Salman Rushdie

“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… it has candor and seriousness to burn.”―Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A profound and provocative inquiry into an artist’s complex American identity.”—Kirkus Reviews

Homeland Elegies is the astonishing work of an absolutely brilliant writer. With exquisite prose and lacerating honesty, Ayad Akhtar reveals the intersections of art, finance, race, religion, academia, and empire, and in the process, shows us a troubled reflection of our country in the twenty-first century.”―Phil Klay, author of Redeployment

A Best Book of 2020 according to The New York Times * Entertainment Weekly * The Washington Post * O Magazine * Publishers Weekly * NPR * The Economist * Shelf Awareness * Library Journal * St. Louis Post-Dispatch * Slate

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Transcript

SARAH LAWSON: Hello, and welcome to “Homeland Elegies with Ayad Akhtar,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. 

A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.

Thanks to our community partner for this event, the Wisconsin Book Festival. We also greatly appreciate the support of all Festival sponsors, donors, and community partners. 

Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers:

Ayad Akhtar, author of Homeland Elegies, is a novelist and playwright. His work has been published and performed in over two dozen languages. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among many other awards. 

And our moderator: Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, Veil, and Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption. She has served on the board of Amnesty International USA and is currently a research scholar at City University of New York’s Colin Powell School of Global Leadership.

Thank you both for joining us today. Rafia, take it away.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Hello, thank you so much, Sarah, and hello, Ayad.

AYAD AKHTAR: Hi, Rafia.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: It’s an honor to be talking to you today. I’ve been very, very excited about this event and the opportunity to have this conversation. I’m a Pakistani author, and I don’t usually get to speak with someone who understands the context that I’m coming from. So this is a treat for me.

So we decided we were going to start off with a short reading that Ayad will do. And Ayad, if you could please set it up for us.

AYAD AKHTAR: Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Thank you, Rafia. Thank you for doing this. And thanks to you all for being here tonight. So Homeland Elegies is the book. It’s an odd fish. It reads like a memoir, but it’s a novel, and there’s a lot of sort of nonfiction-type elements in it. Sort of essayistic rhetoric and whatnot. So it’s neither fish nor fowl. Lots of different things. And one of the ongoing stories is the story of the writer’s family, and the family has the last name that my family has. And the writer in question, like myself, is a playwright. So there’s a lot of seeming overlap.

My mom also passed away as the mother in this book passes away. And before she passes away, the narrator and the mother have a conversation. So she’s on something of a deathbed—not really exactly the deathbed, but approaching that. So I’m just going to read a short scene between the narrator and his mother:

One of the final proper conversations I had with my mother while she was still mostly in possession of all her wits—and with her habitual reserve softened by the approaching end—was about Pakistan, or our respective relationships to it. She was sitting up, nibbling on a piece of freshly made laddoo from the sizable new Indo-Pak grocery that had opened a couple of miles west of us, in a strip mall behind the new casino that now sat where, when I was a child, there’d been a middle school. She was munching on that piece of besan laddoo, its beige crumble adhering to her lips, when suddenly, she stopped chewing. Her mouth sagged; her eyes welled; her voice quivered with sudden regret:

“I’m so sorry, meeri jaan.”

“For what, Mom? You don’t have anything to be sorry about—”

“You were so happy there.”

“Where?”

“Back home. You were always so happy back home.”

I paused, moved. With her end in view, her emotions had never been so clear, her face never as radiant; in moments like these, her beauty was heartbreaking.

“Why are you apologizing?”

“I never saw you like that here.”

“I don’t know, Mom.”

“No, no,” she said with an endearing firmness. “I never did.” And then, all at once, shifting. “You didn’t know that?”

“What?”

“That you were happier when you were there?”

I smiled to hold her attention as I continued. The most vibrant of my childhood memories were those of life in my father’s village and of the interlocking rooms in my mother’s family’s sprawling Rawalpindi bungalow. I loved being there, but I never pined for it when we returned. Not like she did. As a young boy, I often remarked how much happier she was when we were in Pakistan. I used to pray to God for her to be happy like that in America, too. “I was happy you were happy, Mom. It was nice to be with family.”

“It was, wasn’t it?”

“And it was nice not to be in school.”

“You didn’t like school,” she said, frowning playfully.

“No, I didn’t.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That you made me go to school?”

“No,” she moaned, her face collapsing with sudden despair.

“What is it, Mom?”

“I’m sorry we brought you here.”

“Mom, I’ve had a good life here.”

She stared at me for a long moment, as if confused. “You have?”

“I’m happy.”

Her forehead creased with sudden concern. “I don’t think so.”

“I am. I’ve always been a little serious, right? Isn’t that what you say?”

“Too serious.”

“But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy.”

“Strange happiness.”

“I get to do what I love. I’m a writer. Can you believe it?” I smiled. “I’m happy.”

She studied me for a moment, her head cocked cutely, a loving tenderness pouring into her eyes. “That makes me happy,” she said finally. Then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “I never really liked it here.”

“I know, Mom.”

“You do?” She seemed both surprised and pleased to hear it.

I nodded.

Then her expression changed again abruptly, narrow with a troubled thought.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Don’t be mad.”

“About what?”

“You’re one of them now. Write about them. Don’t write about us.”

“But I don’t choose my subjects, Mom. They choose me.”

“You can change that.” 

The laddoo finished, she closed her eyes and leaned back to rest…

So just a little bit.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Wow, that’s beautiful. That’s just beautiful. For a number of reasons, I think that was one of the parts of the book that really resonated with me. Because you were born and raised in the US. I’m actually an immigrant. So that wistfulness and that constant sort of questioning of whether things are better here or things were better there is something that I carry with me.

But one of the reasons that I wanted you to read this portion is because your father looms very large in the book. Your mother less so. But the portions that are about her are rendered with a subtlety that is very, very poignant. And one is what you read just now. Maybe talk a little bit about how you saw your mother, how you saw, for instance, the fact that she loved someone she wasn’t married to, and how that perception also colored your perspective of Pakistan and what Pakistan was like emotionally.

AYAD AKHTAR: Right. Thank you for that beautiful question. In the book—it’s interesting to talk about the mother versus the mother in the book. Because of course she’s drawn from my real mother, but there are so many things that I changed. Like notably, the second chapter of the book is called “On Autobiography; or, Bin Laden,” which is really about the history of American foreign policy in the late part of the twentieth century in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it tells the story of my mother’s secret love, who was somebody who ended up as a mujahideen and who ended up being killed by the CIA in Pakistan in the early nineties.

And there was somebody close to our family who was killed by the CIA. There was also somebody that my mother was secretly in love with. They were not the same person. So I collapsed those two stories and created a kind of fiction that told the tale of a war-torn sort of region during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and what the consequences were to not only Pakistan, but to those who were here who were of Pakistani descent and ultimately the events that led to 9/11. Because so much of the American public seems to feel that 9/11 came out of nowhere and that, even twenty years on, we can’t have a conversation about American involvement with the world that led to 9/11. We still can’t have that conversation. We still don’t talk about it. And the fact that the United States has never really been able to process that wound has meant that we Americans have gone around the world and basically destroyed the world order. We have torn apart the Middle East, which has torn apart so much of the world order.

Anyway, without getting too heavy into the political side of things, the mother in the book, who is like my mother but isn’t my mother, is homesick. And she misses Pakistan, and she came to this country because her husband had opportunity, and she never really felt at home, and she never really felt like this place ever understood her. She’s irritated by the fact that everybody is always asking where she’s from, and they don’t know what the country is that she tells them she’s from when she tells them. And she finds America very self-absorbed in ways that trouble her and in denial of death and lacking respect for the elderly. All kinds of things that she feels her native Pakistani culture does better.

But she also has an experience of Pakistan during Partition, which means that Pakistan is a traumatized part of her soul—a traumatized body, if you will. A part of her existence, her experience. And so she has a terror of something that could come to destroy her, which is something that she saw as a very young girl.

The narrator’s experience of Pakistan is all mediated by all of these complex things, knowing so much more about the history of America and its involvement with that part of the world and the way that it affects his mother and her homesickness. And the father seems to think that the son—meaning me in the book—that my understanding of the mother’s perspective on Pakistan means that I love Pakistan and I hate America. So he’s constantly litigating that side of the issue because he loves America and hates Pakistan.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Speaking of 9/11, I think it would be fair to say that 9/11 has played a pretty significant role in your artistic career. Your play, the Pulitzer Prize–winning play Disgraced, begins with—one of the initial scenes of the play has the protagonist, Amir, who feels a blush of pride from the fact that the towers came down.

The question that I was puzzling over was: what was that like? What was it like to be in the theater on the opening night of Disgraced? Set that scene for us and also give us your inner monologue that played out during that moment.

AYAD AKHTAR: I mean, the opening night of the first production of Disgraced was also the first professional production I had ever had. And so it was the first time that I was at an opening night for a play that I’d written. I was unaccountably moved. I was so moved. And I was sitting next to my agent, and as the curtain came down and people started to clap, I started to cry. And I couldn’t stop crying. And then I was sobbing. And I remember Chris Jones, a wonderful critic of the Chicago Tribune who loved the play and wrote a really wonderful review and is really the reason why the play ended up in New York—he had apparently called the publicist afterwards. He said, “That handsome gentleman who was sobbing in the corner—is that the writer?”

I didn’t realize how public a display of my emotion I was making. I guess everybody knew I was the writer. I didn’t realize that people would even know that. And here I am sobbing. I’m like sobbing—open-mouthed sobbing—because I can’t stop. It was so extraordinarily moving to see that play which contained so much pain and rage and confusion—so much self-revelation, so much crying out—for it to see the light of day and for people to hear it and then to clap and then to stand up.

And obviously that moment that you’re describing—at the climax of the play, there’s a dinner party. Everyone has gotten very drunk, and then people start talking about religion and politics, which of course they’re not supposed to talk about, but it’s a play, so they’ve got to talk about it. And the protagonist, Amir, is trying to demonstrate that we all have tribal identifications. Then he serves himself up. He says, “Even me. Even on 9/11, if I’m honest, I felt a blush of pride.” And nobody can fathom what he’s saying. And I remember the silence that went through the audience as he said this. And here I thought he’s just telling the truth. He’s telling the truth of his experience. And yet somehow it was taken as an unspeakable thought that perhaps reflected some larger reality. And maybe it does. I don’t know. It’s not my place to say. But, yeah, it was quite a moment. But walking you through the experience of that opening night was really an experience of emotion.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Just another quick question about the play is to what extent did you envision this as—because there’s one interpretation of the play by Muslims, that this is just horrible. It confirms everyone’s fears about Muslims and the fact that they have these secret divided loyalties and were happy on 9/11. And of course, since then President Trump—well, ex-President Trump—used that idea of the fact that Muslims were rejoicing. But a different interpretation of it would be that here you are, and the usual audience for these plays are white liberals who would otherwise not really be open about their animus towards Muslims or anyone of any particular religion. They would consider themselves above that. But here they are being extremely smug about how this character feels. So is that something that you were considering? How easy it is to make—or rather how thin that layer of civility and tolerance really is? Maybe talk a little bit about that.

AYAD AKHTAR: Sure. All of the above, Rafia. First of all, I had no idea that the play would sort of have the life that it’s had. I didn’t write it knowing that people would respond to it the way that they did. And it has created a lot of consternation amongst Muslims. Some of that consternation was intentional. There is a reading of the Quran which Amir sort of chides and makes fun of, which does mirror some of my own feelings about how literalistic we tend to be when it comes to the Quran in our community. But that’s really one of the only things we share. There’s so many things we don’t. And I share things with lots of the characters in the play.

But at the end of the day, the interpretation of the play says a lot more about the context than the play itself. And with time, I think Disgraced has proven to be prescient in terms of the kind of Balkanization that we’re seeing socially around race. I think in a weird way the play is still ahead of its audience. It knew things I didn’t about how discourse was going to change in this country and how we were going to become increasingly antagonistic toward one another because of race openly. And that all of these discourses were going to become very intellectual, that people were going to intellectualize these tribal affiliations. Which is, of course, exactly what is happening.

But yes. Both of those dimensions of what you’re saying are present in the play. And Amir, for lack of a better way of putting it, basically falls into the trap of playing the very part that he’s trying to demonstrate he doesn’t want to play. And that’s the dilemma that he is experiencing in the play.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: So that disgrace was about 9/11 or around those events. This book deals with Trump or the ascent of Trump. Your writing somehow manages to be both very political and very personal. How do you understand—for instance, you just spoke about race as being one of the biggest divisions. But in this book, that looms very large. And the acquisition of money is very central. How do you square those two things? Would you say that they have equal pull in the United States? What would you classify as the governing divide in this country, the big chasm?

AYAD AKHTAR: That’s an amazing question and a difficult question to answer simply. I think that we in the last half century in this country—and the book really takes place over the course of a half century. My parents were here for a half century. And the saga of their lives and what happened to them and what happened to the American-born children that they and their cohorts had in that fifty-year period tells the story, in many ways, of what’s become of America. And that in fifty years, America has gone from a much beloved presence around the world to a much reviled one. And that there is something about the collapse of our infrastructure and our communal sense as a nation that has to do, I believe, with the legislating and idealizing of the accumulation of wealth.

I’m not a so-called bleeding-heart liberal or socialist or whatever somebody may assume about me because I say that. Henry Ford, love him or hate him—and there’s lots of reasons to hate him—but Henry Ford put it really well when he said that if you can’t pay your workers enough to buy the cars that they’re making, you’re going to have a long-term structural problem sooner or later. We’re fifty years into a long-term structural problem. What that has meant is that when you’ve changed the economics and the philosophical bedrock around money and how we think about it and feel about it—our shame and lack thereof around it, around acquiring it at any cost—at the cost of our neighbors and whatnot. When you change that, you change people’s behaviors. And I think what this has been has been an incredible support for individualism.

So we’ve seen the rise of a kind of individualist ethic that’s not just monetary but also spiritual, and so people are clamoring for their individual rights, whether it’s the right to use as many guns as they want or the right to make as much money as they want or the right to use whatever bathroom that they want. That the individual person—the sanctity of their right has become the sine qua non without which there is no nation. But I’m not sure how individualism like that could ever be the basis for a nation. The nation has to have a sense of collective identity and sacrifice in order for it be meaningful. But we’ve dispensed with that.

So I think what I’m trying to say is that something has changed in the American experience in the last fifty years, and I do think fundamentally it has to do with money.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: I see what you’re saying. But at the same time, I wonder how—I mean, this sort of turn towards individualism is not a new thing. The American whatever you call it—experiment—has survived for as long as it has. So I often wonder whether this sort of feeling of impending decline—is that something that has been perpetual since the very first days of the founding and we are just feeling it in our own time-locked, specific way? Or if it is something unique.

AYAD AKHTAR: Right. There have been discourses about decline. I think that time will tell whether this period represents a meaningful decline. I think it does. I think that the centrality of America to the world order—a centrality that was memorialized and made immortal for a few generations by the American support of the Bretton Woods system—the world’s economy was basically tied to the dollar, and the dollar became the world’s reserve currency—that for fifty years the United States really was in pole position. And I think that we’re looking at a time where the United States has retreated from that. And I think that we may see within the next two decades the rise of China and the Chinese model, which we find so abhorrent, is the dominant political model.

And if that’s the case, it will be because we have ceased to be able to hold our own. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I’m just sort of seeing the picture that I see. And I do think that the decline has fundamentally to do—I believe—with individualism. That’s how I see it. Of course, as I said, I could be wrong.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Well, in keeping with what you just said about the Bretton Woods consensus and kind of the erosion of liberalism and liberal ideas around the world—in the West, in particular—

AYAD AKHTAR: I mean, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. I’m not really talking about the erosion of liberal values. What I’m talking about is the erosion of American power.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: I would say those two are incredibly intertwined, wouldn’t you say? 

Because liberalism has given the gloss to American power—the sort of propagation of liberalism has given, until now, even arguably a sense of nobility to American exceptionalism.

AYAD AKHTAR: Totally, totally. But I think it’s a hollow promise without the cash. That’s my point. It doesn’t really mean that much until we are giving the world, through the IMF and the World Bank—we’re funding the world. And to the extent that we can fund the world, we can also tell people we’re trying to do good by giving you this money. But ultimately it really is about the money. Your ideas are great insofar as you have the money to propagate them and the money to support them and the money to make people believe that, if they do these things too, they’re going to be prosperous as well.

It’s a somewhat cynical view, but I just think of it as realist. I think that’s how foreign policy has been conducted over the years. And when I look at the stretch of history, that’s what I see. So therefore, the wealth gap is very meaningful. It’s a meaningful problem that if we’re not able to attend to our own people and the wellbeing of our nation, we’re going to have a problem in the long run.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Yeah, yeah. I see what you’re saying. But at the same time, I’m curious then, based on what we’ve been chatting about—I listened to some of the interviews you gave right around the time that Homeland Elegies was released. And at the time—this was just before the election and also obviously before the events that followed that election—I was wondering, when I was looking over the book again—because I read it for the first time when it first came out—two things: One is could you as a brown, culturally Muslim author see yourself writing a play in which one of the people who stormed the Capitol—say even the guy with the big horns—makes a confession that is similar to the one that Amir makes at the end of that play? Like could you see that?

Because I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I reread the book, it seemed very prescient in almost—an almost warning that that sort of thing was coming. You know, without sort of being prescriptive.

AYAD AKHTAR: Sure, sure. I think it is. I worry that the process of this Balkanization around race that’s happening in this country is going to accelerate a kind of social dissention. And it seems like we’re in for it; like we want it. That’s what seems to be happening. And the motivations fundamentally are not cultural; they’re economic. They have to do with the shepherding and husbanding of our pleasure principle by the devices that we’re dealing with. So our brains—our very brains—and our interactions are being remade so that our consciousness itself can become a source of constant revenue for larger and larger piles of money. Those piles of money are never going to get returned to the system. They have been removed from the cycle of circulation.

So where does this end? It tends, historically—and I’m not the only person—Ray Dalio runs Bridgewater Capital. I’m in his company. Historically, this tends to end in bloodshed. That tends to be the way that this goes. I’m not sure why the United States would be excepted from the historical process. So I worry that the only meaningful check against this kind of stuff is really the Chinese model. And sooner or later, the societal structures are going to support a move to stability that is going to mimic—echo—some of what they’re doing in China. And that’s a very scary thought.

We are drifting far afield from the book, which is totally great. I’m enjoying this conversation a lot.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: I didn’t mean to do that at all. It’s just that the layering of these ideas is so compelling in the book that it’s difficult—I mean, it’s difficult, I think—for instance, like the last section in the book is called “Pox Americana.” And that’s what I was getting at, when I was talking about this insurrection and the idea of decline and how central that is and how sort of almost prophetic it is in terms of what ended up happening.

AYAD AKHTAR: It’s interesting, you know—sorry.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: I was just going to say—so you are—okay, I’ll give you a simpler question. And that is—and this is actually now proven true by some early demographic work. And that is that a lot of South Asians and a lot of Arab Americans voted for Trump.

AYAD AKHTAR: Yeah. As the father in the book does in the first chapter.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Exactly, as the father in the book does. How would you explain that? In your father’s case, it’s something very specific. He’s a cardiologist. He has this interaction with Trump. So there’s a very specific and personal story attached to it. Even though I could see if my father did that. Actually, my father who lives in Pakistan thought Trump was the greatest thing, so I definitely can see—that’s where your father’s character was very, very real to me. But what would you say to that? Here’s a guy who like actively hates Muslims, immigrants, every aspect of identity that South Asians, Arab Americans, Muslims, etcetera, have.

AYAD AKHTAR: I think that what happens in the novel is that the father falls in love with Trump because he is briefly his doctor in the mid-nineties and has an experience of Trump’s ersatz glamour and sort of buys into a vision of American life in which appearance is everything and reality doesn’t matter. Where you fake it till you make it. Where your lifestyle is fueled by debt. It’s America. It’s not Trump. That’s America—what I just described. So the father falls in love with America. It just happens to have a name in the book, which is called Trump. So it seems to me that Trump was an expression and is an expression of a certain essential American passion for unreality. And that, in this era of the spectacle, he’s about as good an entertainer—and he’s not the first entertainer we’ve had running our country. Ronald Reagan was an actor. So anyway, there are layers to the way that the narrative in the book approaches the father’s relationship to Donald Trump that I think go to answer some of what you’re talking about.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Okay, I was looking at some of the questions. We have a few, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to get to all of them. One question that I had—and it goes on a different topic from the book—but I have to ask because I’ve been waiting to ask it, and I get a moderator’s privilege. And that is you just became president of PEN America, whose task is obviously to champion free speech around the world. And around the same time, it is my view that having this role at this particular period in history would be particularly challenging but also—I’m curious to know how you make sense of it. And I’ll give you the two specific things that I’m thinking of. One is say, for instance, the issue of blasphemy in Pakistan. It is directly connected to some of the literature—you know, to Salman Rushdie, some of the literature that inspired you. But that is still leading to people being imprisoned on counts of blasphemy—writers, professors, etcetera. That’s one context.

The other context is France, where the French state has ordered an investigation into people who teach critical race theory and intersectional critique of race. As the president of PEN America, how do you see those two things?

AYAD AKHTAR: That’s a great question. And I would be lying to you if I said I know. I don’t. I think that it’s a really fraught moment, and I think that the consequences—the dominant model of the free speech debate is the marketplace of ideas. You have a marketplace of ideas, and you put whatever speech is out there, and the best ideas rise. So you have free speech.

But unfortunately, the internet has led to a Petri dish where it’s possible for anybody to speak, and the consequences of that speech are far more unpredictable, and in many cases significant, than anyone could have imagined. So trying to police speech, which is what blasphemy, what they’re doing in France, what we’re thinking about doing with Facebook and Twitter, banning Trump—all of it—this is the fundamental tension of where does freedom of speech end. Where should it for the social good? Of course, they have a different approach in Europe than they do here and all of those things, and they’re all nuances. There’s no simple answer to the question. And I wish that I knew.

All I find as the president of PEN for the time being is that I’m becoming more and more immersed in the granularity of the problem. I think there will be moments to speak clearly about these issues. The organization has done so, continues to do so. There will be moments where I have to do so. But I think that it’s important that I understand—really understand the nuances. I do believe—from an artistic perspective, I think that freedom of the imagination is important. I think it’s paramount. You know, Ishiguro had some beautiful remarks that he made recently about his concern for younger writers not writing outside of their own experience or their own identities because of their concern or their fear of the online pressure. The sort of folks who will call them out for inhabiting a voice that is not theirs. And I think it is a real concern. But I think that what Ishiguro was able to do with those remarks was to offer them with tenderness. Because I think sometimes, in defending free speech, there’s a hectoring quality to it. And I’m not sure that that hectoring quality is helping for whatever reason.

So there’s a lot of issues here that need to be unpacked and will be unpacked over time and hopefully I can contribute in some meaningful way. Some of this stuff is definitely above my pay grade for the time being.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: How much would you say is the particular trickery—a very sort of literary, engaging trickery that is Homeland Elegies, right? Because it’s a novel, but it’s also kind of a guessing game in terms of you can’t help but try to figure out what is true and what is not true. Of course, it speaks to your brilliance that it’s almost impossible to do that. You cannot see the scenes where you’ve sewn it together. They’re just invisible. I mean, you would have to be very, very brilliant to be able to copy that. I don’t mean copy in like a very prosaic sense. But what I’m trying to think of is that is this—I mean, how much did you consider this form of writing a way of evading those pressures?

AYAD AKHTAR: Yes. Yes. I was asked by Reza Aslan at an event for the LA Times Book Club—she said, “Aren’t you part of the problem? You’re saying disinformation is the problem, but you’ve just created disinformation. Aren’t you a part of the problem?”

My response was, “Well, I suppose I am.” I think artists are always part of the problem, to use John Lewis’s quote. They’re about making a good kind of trouble, right? And I think to mirror the texture—the philosophical confusion about reality that is out there right now, that is very much a part of our experience—it’s not conceptual. It’s experiential. To mirror that felt to me an important thing that I wanted the book to do because I wanted it to mirror the feeling of our time. So that was also the way to a different kind of engagement with the reader. A kind of engagement that mirrored the way that they are connected to the world today, as opposed to connected to what they already understand to be a straight-up third person novel, if you will.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Yeah, and you do it impeccably. That is precisely, at least for me, the imaginary space that I felt like I was inhabiting while reading this. And, yeah, in that sense this book is almost like a—it continues the narrative that we are inhabiting. And in that sense, it is really masterful. Because those sorts of narratives—it’s easy to be sort of retrospectively prescriptive. It’s much harder to be prophetic. And I really found this book and the way you create the characters and your sort of perspective on America, given what Muslims and brown people and Pakistanis have been through, through most of your life in the US, really feels very almost Cassandra-like, in terms of where the United States is headed.

So I wanted to end—I don’t want it to end.

AYAD AKHTAR: I don’t either. Thank you for all those comments, by the way. It really touches me, and I have so much respect for you and your work, and it just means a lot for you to say that.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Oh gosh, no. But I wanted to ask you did your mother really say those things, and also do you ever think about whether you would have been happier in Pakistan?

AYAD AKHTAR: Yeah, I was thinking about it the other day. When I was in college, there was a time when I thought maybe I’d go to Pakistan and see what it would be like to live there. And then I got involved with a French woman and then lived in France for a while. So life kind of takes you on its tour, however it’s going to go. So I didn’t end up doing it. There was a window where I was really thinking very seriously about it, and then I didn’t.

But I have thought about it over the years, and I miss—I had a very good time in Pakistan growing up. We would go every year up until just after 9/11. I think in the book, 2008 is the last episode that takes place in Pakistan. It roughly mirrors the time that I was there. You know, I do wonder.

My own personal mother never actually said those things in those ways, but she expressed all of those emotions at different points. And I think that as she watched some of what was going on in Wisconsin and the ways in which the political culture was sort of collapsing and the vitriol and the new aggression—you know, after 9/11 there was one level of aggression, and then there started to be a whole new level of foreign, anti-immigrant aggression in an otherwise very friendly state. I think she started to sour, and I think she started to worry what was our life was going to be like here. Would we ever be accepted—me and my brother. So, yeah, some of those things were.

My dad never had that attitude. He was like you can be what you want to be. So it was an interesting juxtaposition to be caught between those two perspectives.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Well thank you so much, Ayad, for this amazing conversation and really for this incredible book. I highly, highly recommend that those of you who haven’t read it pick it up because it really captures our moment in a very, very riveting and unique way. And I’ve been told to end on this—not the part that was complimenting Ayad’s books—but I’m going to read right now.

And that is: It’s time to wrap things up, and please consider buying Homeland Elegies using this link that’s provided in the chat, so all of you who are listening can do that. And then you can also check out other events that are taking place in this all-virtual 2021 Virginia Book Fest. And with that, we will leave you guys. Sorry that I couldn’t get to the questions, but hopefully you enjoyed our conversation. Thank you, and good evening.

AYAD AKHTAR: Thank you, Rafia.

RAFIA ZAKARIA: Bye-bye. 

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