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Pakistani American Ayad Akhtar’s Novel Among President Obama’s Favorite Books of 2020

Pakistani American Ayad Akhtar’s Novel Among President Obama’s Favorite Books of 2020

Staff Writer
  • In “Homeland Elegies,” the author explores post-9/11 America through the eyes of a Muslim and his father.

Former President Barack Obama has picked Pakistani American author Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies” among his favorite books of 2020. In what has become an annual custom, the former president shares his favorite books, music and movies as the year draws to a close. 

On Dec. 17, in a Twitter post announcing the 17 titles he chose for his list of books, Obama wrote: “As 2020 comes to a close, I wanted to share my annual lists of favorites. I’ll start by sharing my favorite books this year, deliberately omitting what I think is a pretty good book – ‘A Promised Land’ – by a certain 44th president. I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did.”

Akhtar’s writing covers various themes including the American Muslim experience, religion and economics, immigration, and identity. In “Homeland Elegies,” he “incorporates elements of memoir, essay and history to explore post-9/11 America through the eyes of a Muslim and his father,” according to a review in The Guardian.

The New York Times called it a “hybrid: part memoir, part novel.” The book’s narrator “shares the author’s name and much of his biography,” the Times says in its review of the book. “Both were born in New York City and raised in Milwaukee by parents, doctors, who were born in Pakistan. Akhtar and his narrator each attended Brown University; each has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and has worked in Hollywood.” 

Akhtar, who was recently named president of PEN America, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Disgraced,” that deals with Muslim-American life, 9/11, money and identity politics.

According to the Times review, “Homeland Elegies” is “presented as a novel, but often reads like a series of personal essays, each one illustrating yet another intriguing facet of the narrator’s prismatic identity. Akhtar tells stories that fracture and ramify and negate. Sometimes they’re comic. Sometimes they’re wrenchingly tragic”

The New Yorker describes him as “an obsessive autodidact, with a mind like a grappling hook for any subject that attracts his interest.” In 2015, The Economist wrote that Akhtar’s tales of assimilation “are as essential today as the work of Saul Bellow, James Farrell, and Vladimir Nabokov were in the 20th century in capturing the drama of the immigrant experience.

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“Homeland Elegies” is Akhtar’s second novel. His first, “American Dervish” (2012), was a coming-of-age story about a boy in a Muslim family in pre-9/11 America. It had its charms, but was tentative and ultimately minor. Reading it you didn’t sense, as you do in this new one, the cascade of Akhtar’s thinking, informed as it is by wit and banked anger.

Akhtar, 49, who was recently named president of PEN America, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Disgraced,” that deals with Muslim-American life, 9/11, money and identity politics. As a playwright, he has written “Junk,” which was nominated for a Tony award and won the Kennedy Prize for American Drama; “The Who & The What” and “The Invisible Hand,” which received an Evening Standard nomination as well as an Obie Award and a Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award. 

As a screenwriter, Akhtar was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay for “The War Within.” Among other honors, Akhtar is the recipient of the Steinberg Playwriting Award, the Nestroy Award, the Erwin Piscator Award, as well as fellowships from the American Academy in Rome, MacDowell, the Sundance Institute, and Yaddo, where he serves as a board director. He lives in New York City.

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