Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

A Review of Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.

Regardless of where we think we fall on the continuum of civility, one thing is certain, we can’t assume that we understand others automatically or that they understand us. In the places where we cross paths with strangers, faulty perceptions and skewed conclusions are ever-present. Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies does a brilliant job of playing out this conundrum in the experience of immigration.

The author considers himself authentically American, a child born in the United States and a man shaped in its culture. But he is also an immigrant son, and that allows him to see a complication in American identity. In the words of one of his characters Akhtar says, “The thing I never got used to here was not really understanding what people are thinking. Everybody coming from so many different places, so many different experiences, everybody looking at the same things in completely different ways.” We are a nation of people whose family trees have been transplanted. Our histories have been interrupted, and we often are confused about where we fit in. Reflecting this, Akhtar challenges the idea of the melting pot. As an alternative, he borrows an idea from chemistry and he asserts that the country is a “buffer solution – which keep things together but always separated. That’s what this country is. A buffer solution.”

Akhtar’s deft storytelling in Homeland Elegies streams together the story of a father, born in Pakistan and making his way in the United States, and a son born and raised in the United States, but still puzzled about his connection to another place where there are people and habits that resonate deeply with his own primordial sense of “family.” The father in Akhtar’s story, a physician lured by the dream of being both a healer and an entrepreneur, finds both boom and bust in his fearless pursuit of the American Dream. He takes his chances, and the gamble undoes him.

The son in Akhtar’s story is his father’s opposite. He grows up in the United States, culturally nurtured on the advice to follow your own dreams. He is determined to be a writer, does well in school, and immerses himself in creative ventures, which for a time require that he live on loans and handouts from his father. The plays he writes and the fiction he weaves reveal the puzzles and complexities of the immigrant experience. He reveals the insults of being judged by the color of his skin or his name, the insults born for being Muslim, and his confusion about the meaning of wealth and success in America.

In the eyes of his father, the son is a wastrel who is failing to embrace the opportunities of the American Dream. With so many opportunities available to him, the father cannot understood why his son would squander his options for the luxury of telling tales about the people in his life. Even after the son becomes successful, his father remains disappointed with what he considers a lack of ambition. Why would his son want to be a writer?

Akhtar masterfully portrays the way children born in the United States to immigrant parents, live in two cultures and form a double-consciousness. What other children assume, these children must assert. A name, a religion, a skin-tone, and sometimes the bald prejudice of others are relentless reminders of another identity. For Akhtar the moment of assertion comes when he is already a successful writer and making a public presentation. A member of the audience takes exception to comments he has made about the role of the arts in addressing social problems. His interlocuter suggests that if Akhtar doesn’t like the way things are in America, he should go somewhere else.

“It took me a moment to speak: I didn’t expect to be emotional, but I was,” Akhtar writes. It is a break-through moment. “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.” Who but someone aware that others see him as an outsider needs to make this assertion for himself?

The son of Akhtar’s story, who asserts his American identity, is witness to the fact that his father has never been truly at home in the United States. Akhtar says of his father: “As much as he’d always wanted to think of himself as American, the truth was he’d only ever aspired to the condition . . . . he’s been playing a role so much of that time, a role he’d taken as real.”

Immigration creates misalignment in the relationships of parents and children. They feel embarrassment for each other in places where, each in their own way, they are not understood: the parent in the new country, and the child in the old country. They are also witnesses to each other’s sadness. The child sees the parent’s rejection and feels pain for losses that are inevitable. Even for the immigrant who embraces the new home wholeheartedly, it is a “cruel paradise.”* Even the most assimilated immigrant is shadowed by consciousness of being an outsider.

The children of immigrants know a world that is not their world anymore, but it is still the world of people they know and cherish. In the old familiar places from which the family has come, the child born in America will always be a visitor, welcomed and doted on, but a visitor nonetheless. Inside the immigrant household, settled in America, there are layers of life that are strange beyond its walls. The immigrant child, crossing the threshold of the house while coming and going from home day by day, is crossing cultural borders. It is not possible to transplant homes and home places. The immigrant child is always, to some degree, an emotional nomad.

In a stirring scene toward the end of Homeland Elegies, as the son says farewell to a father who is returning home to his place of birth, both the pain and the love are evident. The weeping son tells his father he is sorry. “I didn’t know what I was apologizing for, but I knew I had to apologize,” he says. His father does not accept his apology. “No, no . . . ,” the father says. But the son needs to be heard. He grabs his father’s coat and pulls him toward him, while the father is still objecting. “. . . I pressed in and drew him closer, pressing myself to him, feeling him as tightly against my body as I could. I held him there until he stopped resisting. It wasn’t until he tried to speak that I realized he was also crying now. . . . Only the embrace between us mattered now. If only I could hold him close . . .hold him longer. Maybe what was broken in both of us could finally be mended.”

Many immigration stories are either victim stories or resentment stories. They focus on the undeniable hardships of immigration or the injustices acted out on those who are judged by others to be outsiders. Both of these are true to the experience of immigration, but there are additional elements in Akhtar’s account, and that is the merit of his story. He does not destroy the bond between father and son even as he narrates its difficulties. Instead he brings into view the indescribable sadness of immigration as it creates irreparable separation between the generations.

The sadness of immigration is felt in the second generation when children look at their parents who remain alien no matter how long they have lived in American and no matter how hard they have tried to fit in. They may be citizens, they may be taxpayers, they may vote, they may serve in the military, they may be eligible for social security, and eventually they may be buried in American soil, but they will always be partly alien. They will never be as completely American as they assume other Americans are. That is the sadness of immigrant children. The title of Ayad Akhtar’s novel is accurate. It is an elegy. It is a sobering reflection on something that has passed away and is gone.

Akhtar’s novel is autofiction: the protagonist has the author’s name, and many of the elements of the story parallel events in the author’s own life. Despite this Akhtar deftly avoids the blunders so common in this genre. He does not conceal himself behind the excuse that his self-revelations are “only fiction.” Whether they are identical to the particulars of his life, they are true to the experience of his life. He writes with the forthrightness of someone who has been cut on the sharp edges of immigration. So is Akhtar’s writing fiction or memoir? Who cares? The writing is fluid and lean. The story is frank and colorful. And within a few pages the reader is hooked. The story deserves to be read. It surfaces so much that Americans need to be considering with each other.

*Hylke Speerstra and Henry Baron, Cruel Paradise, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005.

The Misappropriation of Age: When Books About Old People Aren’t Funny

A Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 years old, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans,  Grand Central Publishing 2017.

There is a growing genre of comic fiction about old folks. In 2014 Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg wrote The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules. It was originally released in Sweden, but was translated and distributed worldwide, eventually becoming a bestseller in Canada and selling over one million copies. She had followed in a trail blazed by Jonas Jonasson whose book The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared sold over eight million copies. Fredrik Backman gained attention when his novel, A Man Called Ove, was translated from Swedish to English and distributed worldwide in 2016. Most recently Dutch author Peter de Smet has captured a spot in the genre with The Secret Life of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ years old. After first holding a place for over thirty weeks on the bestseller list in the Netherlands, it has now been released in twenty-one other countries, along with its sequel On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 years old. Each of these authors has gotten rave reviews.

The authors are brilliant observers of ordinary people, but there is another key ingredient they all share. They make people laugh with impossible details and slapstick scenes about old people. What hundred year old man can climb out of a window? In a scene reminiscent of the sad clown in the circus taking a prat fall, Hendrik Groen tells of Mrs. Been, who fails to lock the wheels on her wheelchair, and when it tips over she falls onto a fully loaded tea cart. It may be funny when this happens in a circus, but it is a disaster in a nursing home. So hold the laughs. Backman recounts Ove punching out a clown in the waiting area of a hospital. The clown offers to entertain children by making a coin disappear, but uptight and stingy Ove, a man who has barely survived dire poverty, thinks the clown is trying to rob him.

These stories have a problem with cultural appropriation. When Oprah’s Book Club promoted Jeanine Cummins American Dirt, a story about migration, it caused a stir because Cummins was not part of the group whose story she was telling. It began a conversation about who gets to tell stories? What gives an author legitimacy? This is an important issue when victims of discrimination are portrayed in literature. It is also a fair questison when applied to portrayals of aging.

Stereotyping is a way of locking those from whom we want to be separate in the space of “the other.” Laughing at them might make the distance seem less brutal, but for the object of the put-down the shaming intensifies the insult. Portrayals of race, disability, gender, ethnicity, and alternate lifestyles have frequently been portrayed this way in stories. Values are changing. Blackface on stage isn’t funny. Lisping jokes about gay people aren’t either. And a president who mocks a man with a mobility impairment is totally out of line. Isn’t it time to add age to the list?

Fredrik Backman

When Fredrik Backman wrote a story about Ove, the author himself was thirty-five years old. He created a troublesome old man, rigid in his ways, and full of self-pity about his losses. If Ove were your neighbor you wouldn’t be laughing, and if he were your grandfather, then shame on you for laughing. We laugh about our prejudices because we lack the intention to do anything about them. We might call this the “guffaw defense.” We use it to avoid having to look at tragedy squarely. What gives a young author legitimacy in writing about an older perseon if he crosses the line into stereotyping, disrespect, and bullying?

Peter de Smet was just over sixty when he wrote the story of Hendrik Groen, a character in his mid-eighties. What de Smet turns into humor is far from humorous for real older people. Hearing loss and visual decline are not comical, they are the stuff of daily humiliation for those who are isolated by these losses. Woven through his stories are comic images of older people using mobility devices ranging from canes to mini-cars. Getting around is a problem not a joke for many older people. The author stoops to calling aging men “old coots” and older women “biddies.” His name calling crosses the line into bullying.

One of the most painful scenes in Hendrik Groen’s story occurs at the bingo table when the number “44” is called. An elderly woman bursts out with the words “hunger winter.” In the winter of 1944 during the occupation of the Netherlands by Germany over four million citizens of large cities lived with drastic food shortages. Twenty-thousand died of starvation. Many ate cats, rats, and grass. Children went to bed night after night with the ache of hunger in their bellies. Is an older woman’s memory of this funny? Does she deserve to be reminded that younger people tire of hearing the same old stories? De Smet was born after the war. He did not live through “the hunger winter of 44.” Does he get to speak for those who did?

Humor directed toward those who are considered marginal carries with it an unspoken message of social expectations. When we laugh at older people for being old, we are also telling them that they should minimize their inconvenience to others, accept that their time of usefulness is past, remain silent about past events because we aren’t interested in hearing about them over and over and over again. In short, we are telling them to suck up their loss and step aside.

It is hard to talk with the young about aging, because they are trying to put off dealing with it as long as they can. Perhaps that is nature’s way. They have other important things to do at earlier stages of life. That which they hold at a distance will inevitably catch up with them, however, and sooner or later they too will die. If they are fortunate enough to put it off for a while they will get old along the way. The pain of that inevitable truth is what gets laughed away with “guffaw defenses.” Meanwhile through all the laughter we fail to ask what the value of growing old might be. Is it a wasted stage of life? To get a purchase on that we might have to stop laughing and ask someone seasoned with age.

I am not suggesting that authors give up writing fiction about older characters, but I am suggesting that when authors do write about them they not bully this age group. Older characters are interesting, but age-shaming isn’t funny. There are examples of authors who’ve gotten it right. In 2017 when Elizabeth Berg wrote The Story of Arthur Truluv, she herself was seventy years old. She understands the meaning of loss that comes with age. Her novel has depth that some of the others in the genre lack. She also understands that loss does not begin with age, and she creates a touching alliance between a colorful young woman and two older adults. Berg makes it clear that they need each other. Her writing mixes humor with compassion. It is not a mushy novel; it’s a respectful one. We might even call it “age appropriate.”