Books

The Blurred Boundaries of Memoir and Fiction in Homeland Elegies

Ayad Akhtar’s new novel gets at the truth of what’s happening in this country—even if the story isn’t all strictly true.

A serious looking, bald East Asian man wearing cool glasses.
Ayad Akhtar. Vincent Tullo

On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar about his new book, Homeland Elegies, which grapples with the fissures dividing Americans, Trumpism, and living as a Muslim American in the wake of 9/11. They discussed his writing rituals, how being a playwright influences his approach to writing prose, and the process of finding his literary voice. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: One of the very basic creative decisions that shapes your book Homeland Elegies is that it’s written like a memoir, but it’s actually a novel, which I found a delightfully destabilizing reading experience.

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Ayad Akhtar: Some people have not been as delighted by the destabilization.

I’m wondering how you arrived at that decision, and how you realized you were going to play with those two forms and mix them up?

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It was so organic, and I haven’t had a real chance to explain this. A lot of times people ask me, “What was your intention?” Then I give them the ex post facto decision that I made about how to talk about what I did, as opposed to reflecting the actual process of how it happened.

I wrote an overture that was using some facts of my life but that was also twisting some things to make points. Some of those places in the novel that my father loved to go to are true, and some of them are not—we never went to Philadelphia, but my dad was obsessed with the Kennedy brothers, and we did go to Brookline.

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Figuring out rhythmically how to complete a gesture, or complete a phrase, or complete a thought would sometimes require me to work from my own experience, using my own voice, but then I’d add details that were totally concocted for certain purposes, dramatic and otherwise. That was something that I did from the get-go.

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I didn’t stop myself from doing this as I went forward. And since I didn’t stop myself, I started to realize it was not going to make sense for me to use another name [for the protagonist]. It’s all me, but so much of it also has an added concoction. So it’s me, but it’s not me. I’ll write it in memoir style, but I’ll call it a novel, which will give me the freedom to write whatever I want. In the process, people won’t know the difference, and that’s OK. It’s not OK for my life, but it’s OK for the book.

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Did you have any reluctance about that because people might confuse the details from the book with your life? I’m sure you get asked all the time: Oh, is this true? Is that true? Is this a stand-in for this person?

All the time. I worked through the dimensions of that question in thinking about my father, because what I was doing to myself, I was also doing to my father. I was concocting things in his life as well. The father in the book doesn’t have the name of my father. My own father’s name was Masood, and the father in the book is Sikander, but that doesn’t matter. People just are going to assume. … I thought to myself, the purpose here is not for me to express something about myself, but for me to try to have a meaningful conversation about what’s happened to the country. That’s why I’m writing this book. If my dad understood that, he wouldn’t mind, but because I’m doing this to my father, I’ve got to do it to myself. I have to do it in a way that’s not about making me look better. So there are some things in the book that are not true that may hurt the reader’s opinion of me, but I had to put them in there, almost to balance this alchemy with my own father’s image.

To listen to the full interview with Ayad Akhtar, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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