Book Review: Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar was published by Tinder Press. Thank you to Louise Swannell for my gifted copy. It’s author, Ayad Akhtar, is an American-born playwright, novelist, and screenwriter of Pakistani heritage who received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The premise of this book was quite simply fascinating. This is the story of a Muslim man, born to first generation Pakistan immigrants in the USA. Both his parents are doctors, although his mother does not practise. He is born and raised in Western Society; his father embraces and adores his new homeland, his mother never feels at home and the author himself always feel as strange disconnect, a feeling of being on the edges of the culture he is surrounded by.

Told through a mix of memoir and fiction, which is deliberately impossible to tease apart, the reader is taken through the complex journey of growing up a Muslim in modern day America. There is a careful and cutting examination of American norms and ideals; the fact that their very society is built upon the drive and need to consume; that human beings are judged by their financial success rather than their moral fibre. Juxtaposing this with the foundations underpinning the Muslim religion and the seeds of discord are sown. There is an immediate and obvious tension around how Muslims, both immigrants and those born in the country, assimilate these differences; is it ever possible to be at home under such circumstances?

Here is a portrait of a community attempting to find their path. There are no common and easy answers. Take for example the author’s father; drifting further and further away from his roots. He becomes a successful cardiologist, in the 1980’s he becomes Trump’s own doctor. He is wholly taken with the man’s success and lifestyle, almost falling into mourning when the relationship abruptly ends. He supports Trump in his bid for the Presidency, wholly believing that none of the xenophobic chatter and proposed measures will apply to him. The reality of Trump’s Presidency is a world apart from his fantasy, and yet another nail in the coffin of his American Dream. This man, who embraces the capitalist culture, is brought twice to the edge of ruin.

Through the journey of the author and those around him the complexities of this picture are laid bare with a starkness that is at times uncomfortable. There is no attempt to shy away from the fact that it was Muslim Terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers; 911 and it’s ramifications are at the very heart of this book. With brutal honesty the author looks at the reactions of American Muslims, the long and complicated history that led up to these attacks and the way life has changed beyond them. At times I drew breath and had to stop reading as I wadded through a complex picture and forced myself out of my Western comfort zone.

The author explores and details the history of conflicts within the Afghanistan and Pakistan. From the horror of Partition, witnessed and never forgotten by his mother, to the 1970’s conflict with Russia; when American troops embroiled in the Cold War trained up these young fighters. The ensuing American retreat, that left a gaping hole of discontent and fury, filled by the regimes we see today. The complex wider picture is presented and picked apart, whilst maintaining an individual focus too.

For here our author give countless examples of what having a brown skin in America today os really like. How people judge; be it at the side of the road when your car has broken down, on the subway or when you are in court.

It’s a long time since I have read any book that has been so unflinchingly honest and direct. If you want a read that will challenge and enlighten then Homeland Elegies will definitely fit the bill.

Rachel x

Book Review : American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

It seems that this book is popping up on many, many ‘One to Watch’ lists this year…and with good reason.

Back in the long hot summer of uninterrupted blogging and reading that was August 2019, I requested a review copy of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins after seeing a growing buzz on Twitter.

The lovely people at Tinder Press were kind enough to grant my wish and the book has winked at me from the shelf for quite a while.

However, just for once I have made a conscious decision to delay my reading. This was based on the fact that everyone I have spoken to who has read this book has been immediately blown away by it. I quickly picked up the vibe that it was a book I would want to review and probably struggle to contain my enthusiasm for. So I have shown uncharacteristic reading restraint and waited.

And I am so glad I did.

There is no doubt in my mind that this book is going to be huge. It is current, original and filled with compassion and grace. Just what the world needs at the beginning of a new decade which it would appear is getting off to a rather shaky start.

American Dirt is the story of Lydia Quixano Perez and her 8 year old son Luca. A middle class woman, running a book shop in Acapulco, Lydia is married to Sebastian, a talented journalist who likes to push the boundaries. Writing about the drug cartels which infiltrating the city means that Sebastian is, at the very least, a person of interest.

The novel opens with Lydia’s normality being ripped apart by unimaginable tragedy. In the blink of an eye she and Luca are fugitives and their own lives in danger. At risk within their own country their only choice is to flee, to run north to the US border, trying to reach el norte.

Taking cold hard cash and little more the clothes they stand up in, Lydia has to take risks she has never imagined she could. Gone is the life of safety harnesses in cars and worrying about school and vitamins; she is now sleeping with a machete strapped to her thigh and asking her 8 yyear old to jump on to moving trains, la bestia.

Written largely in the present but interspersed with flashbacks to Lydia’s previous and comfortable life, we become starkly aware of the contrasts and contradictions of Mexico. The rule of the drug cartels is wide reaching and it is clear that is not only Sebastian’s actions that have put the family in danger.

This is far far more than a fugitive story. Within these pages you will find a tender portrayal of grief and loss. Through the characters of Lydia and Luca we see how quickly a life can be torn apart and the lengths people will go to survive.

Their journey brings them into contact with many other migrants, all with individual tales to tell. All moving forwards motivated by desperation, the desire for a better life but overwhelmingly the very human instinct for survival.

There are no cliches in this book. There is just humanity in all it’s heart breaking forms. Not all migrants are saints, but they are all people and deserve to be treated as such whatever their ‘immigration status.’

This is a book that will terrify and move you in equal parts. There is nothing in this life that we take for granted more than freedom. American Dirt might just make you stop, think and even appreciate the more important things in life.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is published on 21st January 2020 by Tinder press. You can preorder here

Rachel