I finished reading Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies recently. I went into it with high expectations, since it was on a bunch of best-of lists for 2020.
Sadly, I came away from the book pretty disappointed (and not, I think, because my expectations were too high).
It felt like the sort of book that I should like, or maybe that I am supposed to like. Akhtar is a technically gifted writer, and both the stories he is telling as well as the perspective he has on life in contemporary America are compelling.
However, something felt off about the entire book.
Part of my what I struggled with was the mix of autobiography and fiction. Maybe it would have been better had I not read the synopsis on the cover flap and gone into the book imagining it was either straight-up fiction or entirely autobiographical. As it was, though, I found that, as I read it, I kept getting hung up on which bits were true and which were fictional. It shouldn’t matter, but I found it distracting.
Through many passages of the book, I found myself thinking “This is private stuff and I shouldn’t be reading it.” That’s not something I would ever think about a purely fictional narrative, but it kept cropping up here.
My usual rule is that if a book has not grabbed me by the 100-page mark, I stop reading and move on to something else. I broke that rule with Homeland Elegies, because I kept thinking Akhtar would eventually pull all the piles of stories together. That never happened, and maybe that was the point. He keeps returning to the idea that while Muslims have a different perspective on what it means to be an American, there is not a unitary notion of what it means to be a Muslim in America.
That makes sense, and maybe that’s what he was trying to do with the structure and style of this book. “Here’s a bunch of fractured stories about one person’s experience as a Muslim American.” Maybe had I not also been struggling with he fiction/nonfiction question, it would have worked better for me, but it didn’t.