Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Ayad Akhtar InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s guest is playwright, screenwriter, actor, and novelist, Ayad Akhtar. Ayad Akhtar attended Brown University where he studied both theater and religion, moved to Italy to study and work under Polish theatre director and theorist, Jerzy Grotowski, and then returned to the United States teaching acting alongside Andre Gregory, and earning an MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University. In 2005, he wrote and starred in the film The War Within which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. In 2012, Ayad Akhtar published his first novel, American Dervish, about a Pakistani-American boy growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which was translated into over 20 languages and was a Kirkus Reviews’ Best Book of the Year. Akhtar’s narration of the audiobook was nominated for a 2013 Audie Award. Akhtar’s first play, Disgraced—which tackled Islamophobia, 9/11, and Muslim-American identity—proved to be provocative, deeply controversial, wildly popular, and critically-acclaimed. Disgraced was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play, won an Obie Award, and ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was the most produced play in the United States in the 2015-2016 season. His subsequent plays include The Who & The What about identity, religion, and art-making, The Invisible Hand about both capitalism and terrorism, and Junk: The Golden Age of Debt of which Bill Moyers in his final interview described as, “Not only history but prophecy. A Biblical-like account of who’s running America, and how.” In 2017, Akhtar won the Steinberg Playwright Award and his acceptance speech at the Lincoln Center Theater, later published in the New York Times, championed the importance of live theater before a live audience. This year, Ayad Akhtar takes over from Jennifer Egan as President of PEN America, the non-profit organization that defends free expression through the advancement of literature and human rights. Ayad Akhtar is here today on Between The Covers to talk about his second, much-anticipated novel just out from Little, Brown called Homeland Elegies. With starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal, Salman Rushdie says of Homeland Elegies, “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.” Dwight Garner for the New York Times called it a lover’s quarrel with America. Ron Charles for the Washington Post called it, “A tour de force, a poetic confession of the agony of trying to articulate a nuanced critique of faith and politics in an age of shrieking partisanship.” Jennifer Egan says, “At the core of this flashing, kinetic coil of a story-part 1001 Nights, part Reality TV-is a passionate, wrenching portrayal of Americans exiled into otherness.” Finally, A. M. Homes says, “An urgent, intimate hybrid of memoir and fiction, Homeland Elegies lays bare the broken heart of our American dream turned reality TV nightmare. The book brilliantly captures how we got to this exact moment in time and at what cost. Stunning.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Ayad Akhtar.
Ayad Akhtar: Thank you David, quite an introduction. I had to remember all those things that I’ve been through. I tend to forget. [laughs]
DN: It’s quite an amazing journey. We are having this conversation less than two weeks before the election which feels fitting because you set Homeland Elegies just before the election of 2016, back when Trump winning didn’t seem entirely believable. I wanted to start with this question of believability. Your book could be considered autofiction, a book that intentionally holds us in the tension between autobiography and fiction. It is a novel but the protagonist is named Ayad Akhtar, and many of the book’s most basic details are verifiably true things about you and the world, that your parents met in Pakistan in the 60s and immigrated to the United States, settling in Wisconsin, that your dad becomes a high profile medical expert on heart arrhythmias with many celebrities as his patients because of this, that your first performed play invites controversy within a Muslim-American community, but also is unbelievably successful opening previously unimaginable doors for you because of it. But my questions around believability do not really center around trying to verify what we can’t verify in the story, most notably whether your father was the cardiologist for Trump in the 1990s and thus, a Trump supporter in 2016. But I did want to ask you about a way you’re using autofiction that seems unique to me. Namely that, unlike Philip Roth, who throughout his career toyed with the reader’s desire to conflate his real life with his characters’ lives, which is something you also do here. It feels like you’re doing it to a different end in that the form mirrors the way both fake news and performance have become a very real thing, and how the real has collapsed into the fantastical, all of which is embodied in the living caricature that is our president. There’s a way in which it feels like this autofictional move evokes and even maybe enacts a Trumpian move in order to maybe embody it and then examine it from the inside. I didn’t know how that felt to you but I wanted to hear you talk about this moment we’re in now, the moment from 4 years ago, and then the way the fake and the real, or the performed and the entertaining, and shared reality out in the world are intersecting with each other.
AA: Thank you for that question and thank you for having me on this podcast, David. Such a beautifully articulated and nuanced version of that question, which I get, of course, the vulgar version of that is, do you have a half-sister sired by a hooker in Queens?
DN: [laughs] Or do you have syphilis?
AA: Yeah, that’s right. Did you actually have syphilis? Do you still have an active case of syphilis? [laughter] It would be hard to comment on what you just said and do better, so let me just meet you and unpack some of the things that you suggested. Trump is a spiritual muse for the book, but in a way, I think that putting it that way puts the cart before the horse because perhaps—and this would be my proposition—that Trump is a reflection of a certain modality, a certain late-stage evolution or devolution of the entertainment model of politics and the entertainment model of thought itself. There is a cognitive corollary to this entertainment model of reality. That cognitive corollary—a diminished or shallow detention span, an ability to focus in very discreet, precise, and heightened ways on pieces of information moving through a stream with a high wattage concentration but that is unable to sustain moment to moment on a particular thing, the inability to have any need to brook contradiction because contradiction sits side by side in photo after photo—there’s no need for the cognitive capacity to hold those things together. There is a cognitive corollary to where we are and which Trump is the result of, that Trump is our president in part because we have become these people. The fact that Trump now plays to all of these things only made us those people even more so. In a way, by calling Trump a spiritual muse of the book, which I’ve done on a couple of occasions, it’s putting the cart before the horse. Because in reality, what I was trying to do was I was trying to reach the reader—the reader being myself—to whom all of the assault of advertising, of social media, of all of this, has done something to my concentration. I wanted to reclaim that vivid present and I wanted to find a way to do so to a reader today without asking them to change, without asking them to stop being addicted to the breaking news notification or the absorption in the Instagram scroll. Thereby, if I could breach that sanctum sanctorum of contemporary attention, that we could then together have a meaningful productive and perhaps even deep conversation about our politics. I was using the form, if you will, not to critique it in part to mirror it for sure, but ultimately to find a way to reach the reader more deeply.
DN: Speaking of reaching the reader, I wanted to ask one more question around form and around voice and vantage point. We have a lot of writers come on the show who are writing hybrid works or cross-genre works. Sometimes to capture impossible-to-capture moments by using these hybrid forms, but also often to capture irresolvable contradictions of a hyphenated identity. In the light of that, I wanted to ask you a question about audience, because you could say that your book is cross-genre not just in terms of fiction and non-fiction, but also that it was inspired in certain respects by a poem, a poem that addresses a nation. That suggests to me that this is a very different project than Disgraced, which you’ve described as something that you wrote with fellow Muslims as your intended audience. Talk to us about how the poem, ‘To Italy’ by Leopardi, relates to Homeland Elegies and what that relationship tells us about who you are addressing.
AA: It’s interesting, again, thank you for that question. I stumbled on Leopardi and I stumbled on his Canti when I was in Rome early 2018, a year after Trump had been in office—not incidentally, the first chapter of the book is called On the Anniversary of Trump’s First Year in Office—My mom had passed away and my father was in a state of pretty significant decline because of late-stage alcoholism. Trump was now elected. I have been seeing a picture of the country for some time. I’d been trying to write about it, David. I’ve been trying to write about what I was seeing and constantly found myself sequestered in the silo of identity politics writing, misinterpreted, or perhaps just dismissed because I was assumed to be writing about the plight of marginalized Muslim-Americans, which I often am but never for that purpose. It’s only my particular to write, to some, universal. There was a very rich emotional moment that I was going through. I felt my back was up against the wall as a writer that I had accomplished so much in part by being so deeply misinterpreted and yet wildly praised and awarded by all these awards, often by people who didn’t seem to have the first clue about what I was actually doing. This was the state I was in, I had jet lag, I found myself at the Library at the American Academy late one night and I stumbled on the Leopardi poem, it’s called To Italy. It’s the beginning of his Canti series, and he is addressing the Italian people, and he’s exhorting his fellow Italians to remember their great glories and how far they’ve fallen. To me, the parallels with my own American nation were so clear, and so I grandiosely wondered that evening if it was possible for me to summon a voice that could address my fellow American citizens as atomized and fractured as this American collective has become. Could I assemble them, if you will, in a moment just by speaking in some high lyric, serious, perhaps mournful tone about what had happened to America that I had been seeing for some time in some form, but the shape that it was now taking wasn’t even unexpected to somebody like myself, who believes that he’s a prognosticator or a Cassandra by profession. I went to sleep that night and, again as I said, a ridiculously grandiose thought, but I woke up the next morning and the first sentence of this book was already forming itself. It was interesting because I had gone to Rome to try to write a much simpler book inspired by my father’s malpractice lawsuit which figures in the book as well. I was going to write something very spare, and as a playwright, the discipline of dialogue forces spareness and economy. But something about this voice that was emerging in me—it was almost baroque in its richness and its paratactical, just conjunctions and junction after junction, phrase after phrase, and single sentences that went on for pages—I just went with it. Whitman was at the heart of, in a way, a language to embody or embrace the American experience today but not to the end of celebration rather to the end of lament. That’s where the book was born and it unfolded sequentially from that point forward.
DN: Could we hear a little bit of the Overture?
AA: Oh sure, of course. Context for this is just that my father, while a great champion of America and a great believer in America, knew not to be too vocal about it at home because my mother didn’t feel quite the same way.
[Ayad Akhtar reads an excerpt from his book, Homeland Elegies: A Novel]
DN: We’ve been listening to Ayad Akhtar read from his latest book, Homeland Elegies: A Novel. Something that is true about both the real you and your fictional avatar is an interesting irony. One could say that one frame of the book is the arrival of your parents to America as immigrants until the ends of their lives. And the ways that no matter how hard they tried, and your father tries very hard, America never loves them the way he tries to love America. That trajectory in the book is one of disillusionment but your dramatic arc, both in real life and in the book, is one where it is only when you stopped trying to write as if you belonged. Only when your own American disillusionment became part of your writing that you found yourself in a sense fulfilling the American dream.
AA: It’s true. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about how you found your voice, and perhaps, just as interesting to our audience—which includes many writers and artists—about the ways you wrote before you found it since you said that your desire to become a writer, at first, became a desire to be someone other than who you are.
AA: I had an amazing high school teacher who changed my life when I was 15. Her name was Diane Doerfler and she taught world lit at Brookfield Central High School in suburban Milwaukee. She changed a lot of kids’ lives. She was an aficionado of Modernism, Central European Modernism to be precise. She opened my mind in a way that just shaped me fundamentally. She was the first cause, if you will. From the age of 15, I wanted to be a writer, but in part what this meant was that I wanted to be the kind of writer that Diane Doerfler loved. She taught herself to speak German, read German, so she could read Rilke in the original and she made me read Robert Musil while I was in high school as well as Marcel Proust, and whatnot. I had a very, if you will, advanced training in Comparative Literature in suburban Milwaukee by this extraordinary high school teacher. But it imprinted me with an anachronistic vision, a literary vision. I love that thing that Franzen wrote in Harper’s years and years ago, it’s 20 years ago at this point, the difference between contract writers and status writers. This idea that a writer comes to the writing moment or the creative moment seeking to make a connection with a reader that is about some contractual feeling of equality versus the status writer who is someone who seeks to be separate from the reader. I was seeking to be a status writer in the classic Central European Modernist mode. This lasted quite a while and I kept failing. Notably in my own life, I wrote a 600-page novel inspired by Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, about a poet working at the Goldman Sachs databases, and it was a virtually unreadable book that I somehow was able to write. I had to admit to myself at some point that I didn’t even want to read it. It was not a surprise that other people didn’t like it either. There was some good sentence work and I’ve always been honing my craft in various ways. But there was some fundamental posture or gambit that I was trying to effect as a writer and this lasted basically, my early 30s. I would say it lasted a good 16, 17 years of my aspiring writing life. Then something started to happen to me. I don’t really know the mystery of what these internal processes of transformation are all about—what occasion what, whether 9/11 was part of it, whether it was just coming to my early 30s and realizing that my youth was beginning to end and the beginning of my middle age was coming. I don’t know. But I started to feel that I was trying to be somebody or I had been trying to be somebody for so long that I wasn’t and I started to get bored with it. In getting bored with it, I started to pace more attention to what it was that I was trying to avoid. In the process of doing that, I turned to the narratives, the stories, the characters, the experiences, the textures, their memories of my childhood—things that I had maybe written about in coded ways before but not directly and not feeling they were the subject of the status seeking Central European Modernist aspiring writer that I wanted to be, who was going to try to do something a little bit more in the penal colony or a man without qualities. From that, there was an explosion of creativity. I’ve been working for 16, 17 years at that point and craft and I have a lot of it, a lot of how to tell a story. In a way, the creative explosion expressed itself in form. It wasn’t just a burst of enthusiasm, it was also a burst of fully formed narratives. I already had some of the keys and the clues and the craft to be able to shape things into stories. Then I became a kind of writer that I probably would have despised in my late adolescence, if you told me I would become a Broadway playwright, I would have said put a bullet in me now, I don’t need to do that. The world does not need another Broadway playwright. But I became a contract writer and what’s been interesting about that transition of moving from status seeking to contract is that both of those categories have ceased to be as meaningful to me now because I feel—and maybe this is the sense of having come to acquire a level of craft where there is relaxation and patience, and where many things can coexist, where deep literary illusion can coexist with prurient sensationalist scenes—Proust can meet Jerry Springer finally.
DN: I want to take this notion of you adopting a Whitman-like approach in singing to the nation, but singing from the nation the vision that excludes or marginalizes you from the vision, not just you but many people from the vision. This indictment of the American dream, of freedom and opportunity as a false advertising, I feel like it runs through a lot of your work. Amir in Disgraced, does everything possible to assimilate. He changes his name to an Indian name rather than a Pakistani one because of the positive associations Americans have with India in contrast to Pakistan. He pronounces his first name the way a Hebrew speaker would as he works in a Jewish Law Firm. He accumulates large amounts of wealth and the status signifiers that go with them. He marries a white woman. Similarly, Ayad Akhtar, the character, is pulled over by the police and tries to pass as Indian. When he himself is othered and terrorized after 9/11, he starts wearing a crucifix, an act that appalls his girlfriend. But she isn’t appalled by the act of hiding itself but rather the using of a cross to do so as she mentions that her family bought American flags instead. There’s a line in the book that goes, “There is a culture here, and it has nothing to do with all the well-meaning nonsense. It’s about racism, and money worship, and, when you’re on the correct side of both of these things, that’s when you really belong.” This equation suggests that if you’re on the wrong side of race—no matter how much money you accumulate—you aren’t going to belong. But in interviews I’ve also heard you say, “It is less about race and more about money at the route of America’s rot.” I’m not asking you to rank them but I wanted to bring up both of them which feel intention to each other and have you maybe unpack it a little bit for us.
AA: Sure, of course. I think one of the things that I increasingly am allowing myself to do is to hold contradictions. I think I would probably stand by both statements that, I think, at the end of the day money is the thing that defines American success. There are probably individuals who, through the accumulation of property and wealth, have come to experience—notwithstanding the race a feeling of American belonging, I think, of the owner of Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, Shahid Khan, who has unrepentant apologies for American can-do greatness—I suppose the quote that you read from the book, it would be important to contextualize where it’s coming from which is that earlier in the dialogue scene between two characters that the quote comes from, one of the characters quotes Norbert Elias, the great German Sociologist, in which he says, “The established majority takes its we-image from a minority of its best, and shapes a they-image of the despised outsiders from the minority of their worst.” In a way, the conversation is revolving around this idea that the majority and the minority operate on similar terms. Every community or every group identity tries to derive its identity from a minority of its best and sees the other in terms of the minority of its worst. Within that context, the minority of the best in The United States invariably has been white and rich. That might be changing in some ways that there’s something about the get-rich-or-die-trying, the Jay-Z’s and Beyonce’s of the world who’ve recognized that the echelon to American being is wealth and that participating in full American citizenship is about money, and that in the process of making the money that they have, they have come to embody an alternative version of what is of Americans at their best. I’m not sure that it’s as convincing or widespread to all Americans, some may believe in it more than others. I do still think that race is a problematic dimension about whether or not one can seed to a full sense of citizenship in this country but I think wealth is obviously the more central one.
DN: I want to stay with money for a minute longer and then return a little bit later to race. But one of the ways Homeland Elegies is cross genre is not just between novel and memoir but also within nonfiction itself, as the book, at various points, veers into these long essayistic sections that almost feel like diagnostic monologues or dialogues. There are some of my favorite parts of Homeland Elegies. One of them is about money and debt and the way it has corrupted the American soul. The way it is portrayed in the book does not lay this at Trump’s door or even at Reagan’s door and also suggests that all the Democratic presidents along the way have participated in it. You trace it back in this diagnostic monologue to Robert Bork in the 70s who later on is known or most known as the Supreme Court Justice that never was. I was hoping maybe you could just orient us to Bork as one potential origin story for one of America’s ailments.
AA: I love the way you frame that, David, because it’s exactly right, it’s a potential origin story, and encourages, I hope, the reader to imagine the alternative histories that we have not understood the lines that are not drawn between the past and the present. I remember Christopher Lasch’s extraordinary book, The True and Only Heaven, which is really a history of American progressivism that never was and the history that we don’t pay attention to, and because we don’t pay attention to, it could not be. Robert Bork, I think, an important piece of context for the conversation about antitrust—which is, of course, upon us and is at the center of our national life now in ways that many people perhaps don’t fully understand though I think folks are starting to—the important piece of context was in the late 60s or early 70s, I can’t remember the year exactly, but there was an attempted merger between two grocery store chains in Southern California in which the combined grocery store chain would have 8% market share. Judges in that case blocked the merger because an even 8% market share was deemed to potentially be damaging to the local community, to the business owners of that community and to the workers that were going to be part of this merger, even though it was acknowledged that this merger would create cost cutting opportunities that would lead to lower prices for consumers. Of course, that’s a lot, we couldn’t even imagine a universe anymore. Today, Walmart owns north of 50% of market share for groceries in many markets across the country and the justification is the lowest price to consumers. Robert Bork’s main contribution to the American experiment was the thinking that went into a transformation around antitrust litigation, staying out of businesses’ ways and the way of business as long as business was delivering lower prices to consumers. This is what enabled the growth of these behemoth corporate concerns whose net worth dwarfs the GDP of many small countries. What has happened is, for example, with Walmart just to return to Walmart, 86 cents of every dollar that is spent in a Walmart leaves that community. But it’s not just the money that’s leaving the community, it’s all of the local businesses that die in the process. You put a big box store. People can spend less but they also have less money to spend. Over time, this thinking has led to an impoverishment of the heartland, an impoverishment of the rural regions, and that is fundamentally the argument, at least, at this point in the book as embodied by Mike Jacobs, The Black Hollywood Executive, who’s giving us this story that, that is really where the current of anger, disenfranchisement and nihilism is coming from that leads to Donald Trump in 2016.
DN: There’s a counterpoint in the book, in this book that is full of counterpoints and countervailing streams of thought to this notion of America and money and debt, and that is the character of Riaz who is a Muslim of extreme wealth who believes the way to win in America is to win on America’s terms, to become a behemoth, but for the benefit of Muslims. He argues that the reason Islam has fallen behind compared to the West can be traced back to the Roman invention of the corporation. I was hoping you could argue this on Riaz’s behalf for us, [laughter] so if you could embody Riaz and tell us his view and his way of approaching the American money fever dream on behalf of his community.
AA: Delightfully framed. Yes. Riaz believes in the model espoused by Sheldon Adelson that in order for Muslims to have full participation in American life, they have to be able to influence the halls of power and the way to do that is only money, full citizenship in America, and full suffrage in its fullest embodiment is about writing a check and not voting on election day. Riaz is making a lot of money and what Riaz is doing with this money is he’s funding a philanthropic organization called the Riaz Rind Philanthropic Organization which is committed to changing conversations, making lives better, and the conversations he wants to change are about Islam. His analysis of what happened to the so-called Muslim world is fundamentally financial and economic. He makes a very good case—and one that others have made as well—that Muslim inheritance laws which were in effect and could not be circumvented by any legalese or some legal loophole, there was no way to avoid when an owner of a business died, his immediate heirs had to be made whole upon death. The wives and children had to gain a share of whatever the assets were. There was no way to shelter material investment or material assets from individual death. That’s what the corporation enabled the West to do, which was to have a locus where the money was situated and where the money was allocated. As people died, as people were born, and as people came into the concern that their personal mortal fates did not affect the accruing of capital over time. What Riaz suggests is that the West had 600 years for its money to grow at 4% which is what has led to the extraordinary material bounty, material investments, and material innovations which is something that the Muslim world has not had, and in part, paradoxically enough because for Muslims, it was more important to take care of wives and children than it was to make money. This is a message that he wants to get out there. Ultimately, what Riaz’s philosophical position, as you rightly suggested, is that he’s accepting the American model. He’s saying, “There’s no way to change this model. They made it. Let’s figure out how it works.” The way it works most optimally is debt—and we can talk about that if you’d like—and we’re going to use that model that they’ve created. We’re going to make as much money as we can and we’re going to spend it on our own kind.
DN: I do want to talk more about debt. I want to talk about debt, not just financially, but also morally. I want to return to this question of whether when you’ve said that money and race are more defining of the American situation than freedom and opportunity but that, perhaps, money is more central—I admit when I hear that skepticism on my part, and I want to just put forth my thinking process and have you push back if you want—but in the book, we learn about the bizarre way things have devolved money-wise around debt, how the bundling and selling of debt is now one of the most profitable businesses. Ayad Akhtar in the book has a play called The Merchant of Debt which is both a nod to The Merchant of Venice and your actual play Junk: The Golden Age of Debt. You also talk about how Americans seem completely unwilling or incapable of having a reckoning around 9/11, and that instead of addressing that wound and its possible causes, in a way, I think by not addressing it and not putting it in any true historical or global political context—so those people over there are evil, and we’re innocent going about our day as if going about our day as Americans has no implications elsewhere—we continue to wound others rather than to really look at the wound. In a way, I feel like that also somehow has to do with debt or maybe I’m stretching that too far.
AA: No. I think it does.
DN: I wonder about our original debts in that light which feel like we have a similar relationship of avoidance too as we do to 9/11, that our country was formed through both chattel slavery and its coerced labor, and through stolen land and the stolen resources from the land, whether that’s coal, oil or Uranium. My question to you is couldn’t we say that instead of facing the debt we owe to African-Americans and Indigenous Americans, we continue to sell the debt forward, we create new debts and we leverage ourselves farther and farther rather than reckoning with our past and what we owe the way we’re now monetizing debt as something itself to sell in a true literal financial way, that maybe, we can’t separate money as central if that money was actually created through these racial categories?
AA: That’s such an extraordinarily wide-ranging perspective and, of course, accurate. If we’re going to talk about the enlightenment—it’s impossible to speak of the enlightenment without also recognizing the enlightenment is predicated on the despoiling of the colonies and the money that the European powers made off of sugar, rubber, and other such things, slave trade—and this movement forward in history is predicated on a certain predation on a terrorism, on a regime of murder and whatnot. All that’s true. I think that you, yourself, in your brilliant articulation offered what seems, not a way out, but the avoidance mechanism which is moving it forward. It’s the problem of debt. I think the irony of being a Muslim-American writer who comes from a culture where interest is forbidden has given me perhaps an unusual sensitivity to the workings of debt that it took me many years to make that connection myself. In any event, what I would say is that the way to not pay your debt is to take out debt on your debt. If you do that long enough, then the mechanisms of debt become themselves the art or the science. You become so distanced from the actual original labor asset thing itself. You have so many chains of derivative value that it extends—really ad infinitum—and that’s where we are. We don’t live in a capitalist world anymore. We need a new word for it because it’s not capital in any traditional sense of the word, it’s leverage. Everything is leverage. Getting back to the question of debt, the little anecdote that I want to share—which perhaps doesn’t answer your question directly but again speaks to the way in which you, yourself, have offered what I think could be an answer to that and why money still matters more than where it’s coming from—I was at a noodle bar on the Upper West Side before the pandemic hit. I was having some lunch and a fellow sitting next to me in his early 30s, Asian-American, we got to talking. He was very well dressed. I asked him what he did, he asked me what I did. I told him and I asked him what he did. He was managing the real estate holdings for one of the Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds—I won’t say which one because then you could identify him—but it’s one of those countries right around Saudi Arabia. He was in New York to close a deal on a building and we started talking about income inequality which he thought was a very big problem and something that needed to be dealt with. He said, “To me, the way that I think of it…” this is now I’m speaking as him, “The problem isn’t so much those who have and those who don’t. It’s not the haves and the have-nots. That’s really not how I see it.” The problem is that there are people who understand debt and there are people who don’t. That’s the difference between all of these categories because debt is the way that the system has figured out how to process time. We have transformed time itself, the contingencies of time, the possibilities of time into a financialized process that enables material growth and that process is debt. It ultimately doesn’t matter where the money’s coming from anymore and that’s part of the problem. That’s why we can have a president who is entirely a creation of debt and whose gap between appearance and reality is the very gap you’re talking about, so far removed from its source that there is no connection to reality anymore.
DN: We’re talking today to Ayad Akhtar about his latest book, Homeland Elegies: A Novel. You’ve cited Jewish-American writers as one of your influences, perhaps most notably, Saul Bellow but also Philip Roth and even Larry David.
AA: Yes. [laughs]
DN: For me, I see the most parallels between you—at least, with Homeland Elegies—with you and Roth in particular. Writing that is formally experimental but compulsively readable. Writing that is sexual, full of desire, that explores anger and rage that reveals something about the nation but by writing from and through the particulars of one very specific subset of it and where that subset doesn’t even feel representative to his or your own community, or perhaps, feels too representative of your own community. I’d like to pivot to your relationship to the Muslim community and use Roth as a launching point for that. The irony with Roth is he started receiving flack in 1959 for his book Goodbye, Columbus that is incredibly tame for Philip Roth.
AA: I know. [laughs]
DN: But the Jewish community argued that if not openly anti-Semitic, that his work, at least, catalyzed anti-Semitic thought, and people said the depictions of Jewish characters were depraved and lecherous. Ten years later, with Portnoy’s Complaint, the scholar Gershom Scholem argued that Roth reveled in obscenity and Scholem claimed that this was the very book anti-Semites had been waiting for. I’d love to talk about the response you received from some in the Muslim community for your play, Disgraced—not to dredge up something from long ago but because like Roth, where his critics and critiques are incorporated into his work and his critics actually appear as characters in his work—Disgraced, and the controversy around it, is also part of Homeland Elegies. Before we talk about it though, I was hoping you might read the opening section of chapter two. Tell us what you’re doing there.
[Ayad Akhtar reads an excerpt from his book, Homeland Elegies: A Novel]
After this very confusing, and hopefully compelling—maybe, even absorbing or even addictive—chapter about Trump and my “father”, I follow it up with the poetics of dissembling. I suggest to the reader that what they’ve read of me before certainly did not reflect my own opinion because I was transmuting experience into art. Now, I’m going to continue to transmute experience into art. [laughs] I’m going to give you the terms to understand it all as I lie to you, telling you, as D.H. Lawrence says, not to trust me, trust the tale.
DN: Yeah. I listened to a podcast called Otherhood that interviewed the actor Rajesh Bose, who at the time of the interview, had been playing the protagonist Amir in Disgraced for six months straight and he was on his third production of it. Since this interview, he’s gone on to act in several other plays of yours. It is clear from the interview that he has a lot of respect for the material and yet his experience of being Amir caused immense stress for him beyond the insomnia it created every night. [laughs] For one, he echoed something that you have also said, that if an audience member came to Disgraced with anti-Muslim sentiment that the play could confirm the prejudices that they already had, that they could walk out, go and see that’s how they are. He worried what the audiences were getting even as he felt that a competent production of the play wouldn’t lead a nuanced watcher to that conclusion. But the thing that he raised that I found particularly interesting is about representation and scarcity. He said that the year he was acting in Disgraced, there was only one play about Muslims touring the United States, and this was it, and the only play with South Asian protagonists as well. Bose felt, “If we were living in a world with an abundance of Muslim representation, of Muslim stories of all types being told, that the story of one man’s journey through self-loathing is a very compelling story as part of that array.” He found this question, that the play explores, of “Where does this type of self-loathing come from?” particularly fascinating to him. He cited the portrait of Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American Governor, he commissions a portrait of himself where he looks white. He said, it was fascinating to him, “Where does that come from?” Where does the self-loathing come from that would make him make a public portrait of himself with white skin but, at the same time, when there are no other plays touring about or starring Muslims or South Asians where this is the only one. He couldn’t help but wonder just why this play was so popular among non-Muslim-Americans, why this story in particular, one that could confirm a white person’s anti-Muslim prejudices, would be so inviting and lauded in the non-Muslim-American world.
AA: Look, it’s a characteristically thoughtful response on the part of Rajesh who’s just such a smart guy and a wonderful actor. I’ve been blessed to have his talents attached to my work. Everything he says is true. I don’t really know what more there is to say about it. It’s interesting, with Homeland Elegies, I suppose, I’m wrestling with or dealing with everything he’s suggesting and I’m saying, “Okay. So, here’s another five or ten stories. The landscape isn’t considerably more populated by popular stories about Muslims in the American imagination so let me throw another three huge ones out there, my father, Riaz Rind and Asha. Let me scatter another dozen much more truncated versions out there and let’s try to seed or populate a landscape so that I can be free to write.” One of the dilemmas is that I’m writing in a way as if there were an abundance and profusion of those stories because, for me, there is an abundance or perfusion of those stories. I’m not going to internalize that paucity and then react artistically to that situation of paucity. That’s been my attitude. I’m not going to let the environment determine my production. It’s a somewhat naive stance to take as an artist. Because in failing to account for that paucity, I have been forced to deal with the consequences of that paucity. In a way, Homeland Elegies is an attempt to wrestle with all of that.
DN: It reminds me of a recent episode on the podcast called Queer Beatitudes between the writers Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor. Brandon Taylor recently tweeted something that reminded me of that where he said, “We should evaluate art from an expectation of surplus rather than from a place of scarcity.”
AA: Yes, exactly.
DN: He’s saying that as a black queer writer.
AA: Yes, because that’s the only position of freedom, for him, as an artist. That also is reflective of his own experience of himself is what my surmise is because I’m imagining his perspective similar to mine—maybe rightly, maybe wrongly—that I exist in that space of abundance, my family’s stories, all of the rich background and the tapestry of life that goes into a family and its extended history and all of that. Just because the American people don’t know that doesn’t mean I don’t know that right.
DN: I want to take what you just said about providing more stories in Homeland Elegies and ask another elaborate question about representation. Bose goes on to talk about an incident you’ve probably heard about as the experience that happened became an op-ed of a queer Muslim-American theater owner in Chicago who went with his Muslim-American Pakistani partner to the first production of the play Disgraced in Chicago. His partner was the only visible person of color in the audience and his partner felt tangibly demonized by the other theater goers as they walked out. I’ve read of other incidents where the play has activated this animus in the audience and when I think about Bose saying before, I think, “A competent production and a nuanced watcher wouldn’t lead to this,” my own bias, I wonder about how abundant nuanced watchers are in the United States of today.
AA: Certainly, [inaudible 1:08:29]. [laughs]
DN: Yes. But this one experience caused the theater owner to write an op-ed calling for “responsible representation”. But Bose in the podcast thinks it is more complicated than that, that Ayad Akhtar shouldn’t have to write only Muslims who are good and that is an unfair burden. For instance, obviously, when Tennessee Williams writes a terrible white character, no one thinks that person is representative of the white race; also, the irony that Amir, speaking of nuanced watchers, the irony that Amir is an apostate and yet is being taken as representative of Muslims nonetheless. I wanted to take these hard-to-answer questions and ask you something about Disgraced versus Homeland Elegies, because I have a good friend who’s a writer and is also a Muslim-American. His parents are immigrants from India who really had trouble with Disgraced. He’s not a fan of this play. But he relayed to me something that I thought was interesting. He said to me, “Recently, I am meeting so many young Muslims, particularly Pakistanis who were deeply troubled by Disgraced but loved Homeland Elegies. One person even said, ‘Ayad is listening to me.’” Two questions for you around this, does that difference in response make sense to you or seem surprising? Do you feel like something has changed from 2012 until now with regards to your approach as a writer with regards to representation and Muslim-American experience?
AA: Is it possible to be overwhelmed by nuance? [laughter] I feel like you’ve whacked me over the head with nuance, I mean that is a compliment. That’s a lot of stuff that you put out there for me to unpack and respond to. Obviously, some of it I’m ill-equipped to do. I think one of the things about Disgraced that I think continues to be misunderstood is that it’s articulating a postcolonial, an unprocessed, and still incohate toxic postcolonial poisonous rage which, we, in the Muslim world—for lack of a better way of putting it—have been dealing with. It turns out that we, as Muslims in the 20th and 21st centuries, may just be canaries in the coal mine for the radical disenfranchisement that the entire world, and maybe even the planet, have been undergoing. This is a very lofty and grandiose proposition but I’m going to offer it. I’m going to suggest that the emotions at the heart of disgraced are fully real. In a sense, it’s really simply, the political act of violence which I see as an act of political violence, in which Amir, a brown man, hits a white woman who is an alleged ally. We are dealing now, post George Floyd, with the dilemmas of allyship and all of that in a much more clear way. That in a way, Disgraced is perhaps still relevant in ways that the audiences have found difficult to access because of this obvious signifier of a man hitting a woman. I don’t really know what to say to that because it happened. It happened to me as a writer—for me, to excise that from the play, the early review from The New Yorker said something like, “intelligent, wonderful, this, that, and the other, until a certain point at which Akhtar loses control of his play and the ending cannot recover.” The losing control of the play is actually triumph. But that triumph is so problematic that it continues to engender controversy and difficulty. I don’t want to claim something for the play, but I also cannot, in good conscience, disavow it. All of that to say, am I listening? I’ve always been listening. That is my feeling. My feeling is that I’ve always been listening. When Abe gets up on the stage at the end of the play and says, “For 300 years, they’ve been wanting us to look like them, be like them, marry their women. They disgraced us. They changed our laws. They took our land,” the audience doesn’t hear his speech, they just hear an angry young man and they go, “Blah-blah-blah-blah.” Of course, you’ve probably come across me making this comment that audience, the question I get after this play, nine times out of ten, every single time, is why is it called Disgraced? This character has spoken to use the title twice in a monologue center stage addressing them. That is enfolded inside the play, but for some reason, continues not to be heard. Is that a fault of the craft? Is it a fault of the audience? Is it a fault of the productions? Maybe, there just has not been a production that is able to do justice to it. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been listening all along. Am I listening anew? Well, I’m certainly listening to the landscape and what troubles Disgraced has brought into my own life. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. But what made me think of asking this question was partly related to you saying, “Now, I’ve provided five or six more stories.” When we were talking about scarcity, that’s where my presumption goes of why, these young Muslim-Pakistanis who have trouble with Disgraced, are feeling seen and love Homeland Elegies because I think of Disgraced—largely having one South-Asian Muslim on stage at a dinner party among a whole bunch of others—may be being viewed by a Muslim South-Asian in the audience who might be one or the only Muslim South-Asian in a white audience. We have that intensity around being in the live audience versus reading, I think, mainly because there’s a wide spectrum of Muslim representation that is contradictory and ever shifting within a given character in Homeland Elegies. There are many different characters who are Muslim in Homeland Elegies, there are these trenchant critiques of Islam in the book that surely are going to upset some people, but also has practitioners of Islam who are compellingly complicated characters. In other words, it feels like it allows many different places for a Muslim reader to find a place to stand within the narrative. It may not always be with the same person, because these people are living dynamic characters. But when you’re at a dinner party—highlighted, your journey, your heroes or anti-hero journey is in stark contrast to all of these people who are at your dinner party with you—there’s very little other place to stand but in Amir’s body, if you’re a Muslim.
AA: Yes. My response to that would be, I wrote two other plays about Muslim-American life and I all wrote these plays at the same time. The multiplicity of representations was already there. The Who & the What covers a gamut of four very different approaches to being Muslim. The Invisible Hand, to me, it’s right out of what’s happening right now; a government that has collapsed into corruption and a young activist who believes that violence may be necessary to change the world. It’s hard to feel that I can be on the side of recognizing some mistake. I don’t know that I feel that way.
DN: No, I wasn’t suggesting that.
AA: No, I’m just trying to respond to you open-heartedly. I’m going there because I think, for example, the fellow that you’re talking about who wrote the op-ed who then proceeded to write all of the regional American theaters and say, “If you’re going to do this play, just know that you’re going to have this, that, and the other, and you should do this.” The atmosphere of trepidation, it was a harbinger, the kind of things we’re seeing now—the Philip Guston exhibit or whatever—was already nascent with Disgraced, in part because of his response. I’m not sure that I can get on board with that as a response.
DN: Yeah. Well, before we leave this topic—or maybe, to further go into it but from a different angle—I wanted you to talk a little bit about Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses which was a transformative book for you in your real life, and plays a role in Homeland Elegies. I was curious if you could talk to us a little bit about it in relation to your development as a writer, but also the ways that you feel like his stance is similar or departs from yours. How is Rushdie’s project, and your project in Homeland Elegies with regards to its engagement with Islam, how are they similar and how are they not similar?
AA: Just as a prelude, Satanic Verses was a huge event in my life. I read it when I was 18 or 19, I can’t remember, just a year after it came out, it transformed me. I had not encountered—as I write in the book as the narrator, this is one of the things that overlaps with our lives, our two lives—I’d never encountered metafiction before, I’d never encountered magical realism. I’d also never encountered so much vivid detail from my own cultural background on the page. I was completely bowled over. I was bowled over to the point that I remember, as I was reading it, I was home from college and I was crying every day when I wasn’t reading this book. I was sobbing. My father thought something was wrong. He was really concerned because I was just sobbing all the time. So we went for a walk and he said, “What is going on with you, why are you crying all the time?” I said, “Well, because I’m reading this book and I don’t know that I’m ever going to be able to write anything like this.” It was so fundamental to me. It was such a formative experience. You can imagine the extraordinary thrill when someone read this book and gave me a blurb, and after being in it, after being criticized by my “family member” in it, the long tirade that she has against Salman Rushdie. I think, what Salman is doing in that book is still unprecedented, is still revolutionary, is still unhearable, and unreadable for the Muslim community. The kind of the refracted, fantastical, demonic version of the Islamic mythos that he presents is certainly satire, but it’s also critique. It’s a critique, it’s a multivalent critique. It’s a critique of our contemporary world, but it’s also a critique of the Islamic mythos. It’s hard to read it. It’s intended for us, meaning us, Muslims. But we don’t want it. We don’t want to engage in it. We’re still not interested in reflecting on our unreflected relationship to the Prophet, in part, because it appears that “we” and “I”—of course, I’m speaking largely for a cohort of a billion people which is totally unacceptable and absolutely untenable but I’m going to do it anyway, because I’m channeling something as I do that—I think we don’t see that the West, in sullying its own symbols, has really ended up any better. We still have one that we believe in. We’re not going to do the work of trying to figure out whether there’s historical truth or what the historical truth is or what the Qur’an might even be. We’re not going to ask the question about what it could be. It’s the word of God, What else might it be? We don’t know. We don’t ask the question. We’re so far behind on the levels of scholarship and what not when it comes to Western philological, historistic, historical analysis, and all that when it comes to crime. We’re hundreds of years behind the West in that respect. I don’t think of that as a quality or a value or of something useful. I personally believe, David, that the Qur’an is a great impediment to our relationship to the Divine as Muslims. Because in essence, what we’ve done is we’ve formulated the utterance of God, we’ve said it means very precise particular things. Your own relationship, your own personal relationship to the text or your own personal relationship to whatever this divine inflow might be has no bearing. It’s already happened. It came through Muhammad. It happened once in history. All we have to do is understand what it means. The living relationship to the Jewish tradition, this deep ongoing interrogation of the hidden meanings of The Five Books of Moses tries to resuscitate this living connection to the Divine source. We are foreclosed to any relationship. Any attempt to do something, like opening up a channel of interpretive experiential, it’s considered heresy, so what are you going to do?
DN: I want to stay with this thread of heresy for a second. [laughter] The Muslim Philanthropist in the book, Riaz, has his critique of Islam from a financial perspective in the book. But your character also has one too, where your character says, “My own journey from childhood faith to adult certainty about the very human contingency at the heart of Islam’s central narratives is a tale beyond the scope of these pages but one that, someday, I will try to tell in all its tortured entirety. When I do, I will attempt it without an ounce of malice and may still not survive its publication.” You then go on to measure how far you feel Muslims still have to go based on your own fear of reprisal if you were to fully go into just how far you feel Muslims have to go. [laughter] I wanted to bring this up in the context of the Charlie Hebdo attacks particularly, since you’re taking over as head of PEN America. Also, because those attacks are back in the news because of the trial now going on in France. So Charlie Hebdo has recently republished all of the offensive comics as the trial started. A Pakistani man attacked two people with a meat cleaver outside their offices since the trial began. Then earlier this month, a high school teacher, teaching a class on free speech, showed the offensive cartoons despite the warnings from some of his students that it wasn’t a good idea and was ultimately beheaded publicly by an 18-year-old Chechnyan. But if we return to the original attacks on Charlie Hebdo, PEN America awarded the murdered cartoonists the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. This was met with a lot of controversy. There were 242 writers who signed a letter and they included Teju Cole, John Berger, Russell Banks, Wallace Shawn, Junot Díaz, Deborah Eisenberg, and many others.
AA: I was asked to sign that letter as well.
DN: They argued that there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable. Something that they all supported and enthusiastically rewarding such expression, and they say, “But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.” They cite the long history of French colonial conquest in North Africa and the Middle East. But on the other hand, Salman Rushdie said, “If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.” [laughter]
AA: He said some other things too.
DN: Yes he did. [laughter] I didn’t include that, but he said some other things specific to some of the writers who canceled their attendance to the–
AA: He called them by a pejorative version of the female genitalia.
DN: I’m curious if we could take all these questions—which I think are alive in Homeland Elegies, they’re alive in a lot of your plays—but you’re also in this unique position where you are now going to helm a free speech social justice writers organization. This is on a live issue in the news. I’m just asking you to explore it with me a little in the moment.
AA: I was asked to sign that letter, Teju sent me that, and a couple of other writers sent me that email. I think I just joined the organization and had a long conversation with Suzanne Nossel, the Executive Director who was partly behind awarding the journalists. Charlie Hebdo was leading up the charge. I decided neither to sign that year nor to go to the Gala. There was no public statement about it. It was just something that I didn’t want to weigh on one side or the other. I saw both perspectives. I’ve lived in France for two years and speak French fluently. French culture has been an important experience in my life. I fully recognize the extent to which teasing, prodding, poking at, making fun of, marginalizing, defining, and degrading Muslims is a national pastime in France. It’s something that the French luxuriate in. Even one of their great modernist classics, The Stranger, is essentially about a French man coming to understand the condition of his own soul through the murder of an Arab. This is all well and good but it’s something that’s never really talked about in France. There’s a legacy its relationship with the Muslim world and its own Muslim colonies that is not open for discussion. So within that context, it certainly is a different thing. In this country, we wouldn’t get away with some version of the same if we were to put in minstrelsy or blackface or the vaudevillian traditions to have a contemporary cartoonist, unironically making fun of Cornel West or whomever. We’re not even going to the Prophet, I’m just talking about secular figures, just national personalities. They would be fired, would they be murdered? They probably wouldn’t be murdered. I think that’s where we’re talking about the line. I think the critique is right and Salman is right. But to not recognize that murder, it’s not an appropriate response to someone else’s expression. The fact that it exists, that’s the philosophical or let’s call it the ethical dimension of it, ethics, unpracticed, and ultimately unuseful dimension of philosophy. But on the practical side of things, the question of somebody warning this teacher to not do this because it was going to have an effect, that’s also true. That is to say, within that French context which is so explosive because of its history, to do certain things is going to have a certain effect, and to not recognize that is also in a sense to not recognize the reality that they are living in. So the Hebdo guys, they don’t deserve to die, of course not. It’s hard to imagine that they didn’t understand there was a danger. In between all of that lies some position, a quadrant that you can stand on one side or the other, you can align yourself with this cardinal point of that quadrant or that cardinal point of the quadrant. I don’t know where I stand ultimately in the sense that I am writing in ways that eventually, if I up the octane, it could get me into some trouble. But I’m aware of that. As a writer, my position is not that I shouldn’t have to suffer that consequence—I shouldn’t have to suffer that consequence—but I am also undertaking the writing, knowing that if I do it a certain way, I may suffer that consequence. I have tried, for the time being, to avoid doing that.
DN: Yeah. That’s a great answer. I want to move from talking about the Prophet and your belief that one should be able to engage with his life in the Qur’an in general, not as untouchable things, but evaluated historically as literature and as myth. That even doing so would be a benefit to Muslim culture. I wanted to move from the Prophet to a question more generally of prophecy. Because one might assume that your rejection of Islam would make you a secular humanist, someone who places human reason and human ingenuity, human knowledge, and human progress at the center of things, very much how I imagine in my mind, Salman Rushdie might be. But looking at your life, your interest in one point in sufism or Islamic mysticism, your interest in pursuing a mentorship with Grotowski who was a student himself of the Armenian mystic Gurdjieff, suggests someone seeking something beyond the human. But the thing that struck me the most in this regard was one of your essayistic sections in the book, a surprising section on dream work, and that both you, in real life and your character, have, for a quarter century, been deeply involved with dream work—tying a pencil to your finger to wake up multiple times at night to record your dreams—But you’ve also had multiple impossible-to-explain dreams that were ultimately prophetic that dramatized something that hadn’t happened, but that did ultimately happen. I was hoping you could talk about, if it isn’t too personal to ask this, but I’m curious how having such inexplicable dreams has either shaped your worldview or how it has rattled your worldview if it hasn’t shaped it.
AA: I would quote Emerson by saying that, “I have embraced proximities not covenants.” It’s a quote out of Self-Reliance. I think that these ruptures of the time-space continuum, that I’ve become accustomed to dreaming about things that happen in the future and what not, have made it clear to me that my waking consciousness and the rules of my waking consciousness are not the only rules by which reality appears to be unfolding in my life. So I say proximities and not covenants, there is no fixed reality it seems for me to trust. I could go crazy or I could just say, “Wow, I have no idea what the hell is going on, something interesting seems to be happening, I’m going to see if I can surf or be inside these moving plates that never seem to land anywhere in particular.” Now, that’s an acceptable answer. Here’s the unacceptable answer, “It’s clear to me that the mystical traditions have some awareness of other dimensions of reality.” Now, I don’t know how to account for what that means. Maybe, the physicists, in speaking about quantum mechanics probability, cats that both exist as dead and alive, particles that can be in two places at the same time, particles that when separated across a space of light years can affect each other’s spin factors, another breach of the time space continuum. That perhaps, to all of this, to the texture of reality at some very extraordinarily macro level and some extraordinary micro level is no longer operating in accordance with the middle level that we are at in our daily lives. That we do, on a daily basis, have some congress with the macro level and the micro level though we may not fully understand what the rules of this engagement, in this fluctuation if you will, are. I do think that the mystical traditions are one of the things that I’ve spent so much time in my life, studying, whether it’s the Christian mystical tradition or the Jewish mystical tradition, Muslim’s or Hindu’s—which really, the Hindu mystical tradition is the one that I’ve spent the most time studying—seem to have some way of formulating provisional makeshift to road maps for understanding these micro-micro levels in macro-macro levels and their interface with this middle level that is our daily consciousness.
DN: You say at one point in the book, “A dream is actually the experience of language in the body.” What does that mean to you?
AA: It’s a proposition that the mentor Mary Moroni in the book, incidentally, her last name, she shares with the Oracle in the Book of Mormon, the angel who comes to visit Joseph Smith, establishing that first American religion, Mary Moroni formulates the freudian unconscious in a number of different ways. One of the braining metaphors that she uses is language. That the unconscious is a language, a language which we are not aware of the possibilities, of experience that we are not aware of. The other proposition that she makes is that our perception is entirely defined by our corporality. That the experience of language is formulated by sight, hearing, the way that the arms move. That grammar is substantially informed or entirely defined by the body. Her suggestion is that the dream state is a state in which language is operating at that more primal level where it is not reified and separated from those processes of perception and bodily experience. The organs’ life, for example, the involuntary movement of the heart, all of that stuff is actually part of what determines our language. That access to that level of language is something we have in the dream state. It’s a complicated and confusing proposition. But it’s one that is less about an idea and more about another experience of language, a different dimension of language. One that we experience, for example, in poetry, more often than we do, say in prose where there is a presence, a corporal presence—I experience it quite often in Shakespeare—where the connection, the junctures between meaning, sound, image, rhythm are operating not in accordance with the processes of higher cognition executive function, rational thought, but some other order, something along the lines of the order of the body. Another writer who writes about it, I think eloquently in Molloy, is Samuel Beckett, where the process of the protagonist’s movement from one experience of language into another is a movement from the ego or the idea of the self into the experience of the body. I don’t know if any of that made any sense.
DN: It did. I’m thinking about listeners who haven’t read Homeland Elegies yet, who are wondering how we got from Muslim representation, Trump, Osama Bin Laden, 9/11, and Charlie Hebdo to a discussion of dream work. I want to tell you, I guess I want to bring up the ways I felt like dream work sat within Homeland Elegies and just see what you thought about it too. Because I felt like one way of looking at Homeland Elegies, in its critique of America, is a critique of America dying at the altar of the individual and the destruction of any sense of collective purpose. When I think about how your dreams connect to the world “out there”, that something we normally associate with something that’s as something deeply subjective as an activity of one individual’s brain could somehow be commingling with a sea of things out in the world. I also think about you quoting Plato in one interview where he asserts that the city is a metaphor for the soul and that Homeland Elegies is partially about the construction of the self from the fragments and debris of a society. Then I also think of Grotowski, and how he strove to connect to the collective unconscious through the non-verbal and preverbal with his actors. But perhaps, most of all, I think of something you say at the beginning of your Steinberg Playwright Award acceptance speech where you say, “A group of neuroscientists have discovered that watching live theater can synchronize the heartbeats of an audience. One of the researchers put it this way: ‘Experiencing the live theater performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience.’” It seems to me, much of your work is about people trying, in various ways, to belong, to become part of a collective, and of a country doing its best to make that impossible. [laughter] But the fact that our bodies in a theater would do this suggest something hopeful. I don’t want to overstate the importance of the power of art but I did want to hear any countervailing thoughts you have about us as a collective against the odds before I ask you a final question about Trump.
AA: Thank you for that extraordinary prelude to a brilliant question. Incidentally, I have not divulged this to anybody else, David, the mentor who suggested that I first note my dreams was Grotowski, actually.
AA: Grotowski’s advice is composited to my college teacher, Mary Moroni who’s inspired by Mary Cappello, the teacher who I had at the beginning of my sophomore year. She was a great officiant out of the analytic tradition and a great student of her dreams. But the technique itself for the pencil came from Grotowski. So yes, I do believe. People ask me a lot, “Are you hopeful?” I am hopeful. I am very hopeful. I’m hopeful because I feel that I am in the hunt. Every time that I get out there into a theater with a play or the writing of this book, I am closer and closer to finding a way through craft, to become one with the viewer or the reader. I am trying to create exactly the experience you are talking about. I’m hopeful because I see encouraging signs. I’m getting better at creating an absorbing sense of losing oneself, losing myself, the audience losing themselves in the eternal now of this collective experience that we are sharing together in the theater. It’s a mentality that I brought to the book as well, trying to create an absorbing state of consciousness in which memory, history, anticipation, empathy, jeopardy, seduction, all coexist. Yes, I’m hopeful that the process of doing this can create this sense of oneness. What is the purpose of that oneness? I don’t know. But it seems like the greatest possible thing that I could do with my life is to be in service of that oneness. Is that a political act? I don’t know. Maybe, it is. Plato would seem to suggest that it is. But I’m not clear in what way that is a political act. All I’m clear about is that I know, and this is something that I’ve said in the past, that experience itself contains some enduring, indestructible core of good. That the good exists, nested inside experience itself. It is indestructible and it is enduring. All we have to do is access it. Art can, I think, open us to the experience or the disclosure of the pathway to that nugget at the heart of experience. That is the very, very highfalutin formulation of what I try to do and what I wake up every morning to try to do. It’s the explanation that unifies all of these threads, the political and the mystical into this and that and what not. I don’t know if that answers the question, but that is the answer that comes to me. [laughs]
DN: I love that answer. To bring us full circle back to Donald Trump, you have a section of the book called Pox Americana which is a play on Pax Romana; the 200 years of Roman peace that came with Augustus assuming the throne. But you really aren’t contrasting the Pox that America is inflicted and infected with and the peace that Rome achieved with the ascent of Augustus, but rather, you’re drawing parallels between where we are now with Trump and where Rome was with Augustus. You said that Trump for you is more a symptom of the disease. You’ve also suggested that perhaps, this particular election—if the Roman parallel holds—isn’t the pivotal election it might first seem to be. I’m hopefully going to air this in the day or two before the election. [laughter] People will be listening to this with Trump even more on the brain than usual. Talk to us about Augustus and Trump, and how you see this election more in the relationship to the American trajectory or how you might imagine the trajectory of America going forward with this election being part of it.
AA: Thank you for that question. Three biographies into the life of Augustus. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the fall of the Roman Republic. I’m no expert. My thoughts are improvisatory and impressionistic, they might not stand, they may not bear the scrutiny of any moderately qualified roman scholar, irrespective. I start this thought process thinking about Hegel. I think about Hegel’s proposition about Julius Caesar. His proposition about Julius Caesar was that the fundaments of the Roman Republic had already crumbled to the point that within the state, there was antithesis and antithetic tendency versus the thesis of the republic, the antithetic tendency towards centralized power. The fundaments of the republic had crumbled enough that the need for centralized power was beginning to arise. That Caesar, in a sense, represented the expression of this within the Roman Empire. But the fundaments hadn’t crumbled enough for there not to be a counter-attack from the thetic as opposed to the antithetic—Brutus, the conspirators, the killing of Caesar for the sake of saving the Republic—which ultimately didn’t save the Republic, it only served to undermine those fundaments even further and led to the figure who would actually embody these centralizing impulses within the Roman Republic, Augustus, who then led to 200 years of prosperity and stability. That this shift in the political order was a process and it was one that was being expressed organically within the society, I think that I see some parallels. The parallels I see are notwithstanding, let’s not even talk about the obvious parallels, but the power of the aristocratic classes in Rome at the time and the way in which power was increasingly in the hands of the few who were making policy based on money, based on the dispensation of the state’s money. The fundaments of our own republic have been under attack for a half century by the rise of unfettered individualism. Those who have increasingly, making policy—I referred earlier to a nascent or corporate totalitarian global order—I do think that the global order is substantially comprised of corporations whose decisions and needs are what drive national policy increasingly. That we, the people, have no representation in that body politic. That body politic is entirely a private enterprise. It has a corollary to the aristocratic class that I was talking about earlier with the Roman Republic. They are making policy. Against their interests, the social body is creating or perhaps, offering the call for a need for a meaningful check against that. That in a way, authoritarianism represents a dysfunctional version of centralized power that could be a check against that class, if you will. All of this is playing out in an unconscious way that’s still inchoate, still finding its form. If the parallel holds and if the fundamentals of the American Republic seem to be crumbling, and if what has happened over the last four years has done enough damage, that rather than repair, the line of least resistance will be to finding an opportunity for centralizing power, to operate as a meaningful check, then the question is going to become about the military. Because that was what the question was in Rome. Those who controlled the monopoly of violence within the society, those were the ones who ultimately could attain power, could ascend to power. The problem for Trump is that he doesn’t have the military. If he had the military, this might be another conversation. What we might be looking at 2024, 2028, is a run for power that is aligned with the military in some way that means that when the tattered fraying claws really start to break apart, the newly enshrined political power will have the support of the monopoly on state violence. This is why this question of violence is so important, actually, because if the monopoly on state violence begins to break down, if we see widespread violence, we’re going to start seeing the organic call for centralized power. Somebody has to reassemble the monopoly of violence in order to have a functional society. That will become an obvious excuse/justification for moving to a new political order. Now, all of this is very far-fetched and very far-seeing, perhaps, totally imaginary, I have no idea. I just know what I’m interested in and what I begin to see. I’ve been paying some attention to this, it’s part of the reason I was in Rome when I first started writing this book. What we’re talking about now is in the book, but not really in any obvious way. It’s just part of the fertilizer that built the roots. I hope that was a coherent explanation of what I’ve been seeing and what I’ve been getting at.
DN: It was. Tell us just briefly before we end, I’ve heard that you’re now working—since we’re talking about reality television President, that you’re working on television now, is that true?
AA: I’m developing a TV show. I hope to have more news soon, but I don’t have news yet. I’m in the middle stage moving toward the actual making of the show. COVID has made everything complicated. But I hope to be able to speak about it soon.
DN: I loved speaking with you over the last two hours, Ayad.
AA: Me too, David. Thank you so much. This is one of the most engaging conversations of my life. [laughs] There’s no question.
DN: Oh, wow. [laughs] Thank you so much. We’re talking today to the author, Ayad Akhtar, about his latest book, Homeland Elegies: A Novel. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.