DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today is writer, playwright and actor Ayad Akhtar. He was born in the United States to parents who immigrated from Pakistan, and much of his writing deals with the experiences of Muslims in America. He cowrote and starred in the 2005 film "The War Within." His first produced play, "Disgraced," won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. He was last on FRESH AIR in 2012 to talk about his first novel, "American Dervish," inspired by his own experiences growing up as a Muslim in a rural suburb of Milwaukee, Wis., in the 1980s. He has a new novel which also draws on his experiences and those of his extended family. It's part family narrative, part social and political commentary and a reflection on the meaning of religious and national identity. It's called "Homeland Elegies." Ayad Akhtar joins me from his apartment in New York City.
Ayad Akhtar, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
AYAD AKHTAR: Thank you, Dave. Good to be here.
DAVIES: I'd like to begin with a reading from the book, which is told in the first person by someone named Akhtar.
AKHTAR: Ayad Akhtar, actually.
DAVIES: Ayad Akhtar, yeah. OK. Not exactly you, but someone like you - a person who bears your name. Anyway, this is kind of a rather remarkable coincidence in that the narrator's father is a cardiologist who actually has had Donald Trump as a patient. You want to set this reading up for us and read it?
AKHTAR: Sure. The book begins with a narrative in which, you know, my father in the book is the doctor for Donald Trump in the mid-'90s for a few years and is part of a medical team dealing with certain heart arrhythmia issues. And my father, in reality, was also a specialist of arrhythmias - and a world specialist - and was often called in on such occasions. And so my father in the book is flown to New York City, and he is put up at The Plaza in order to examine Donald Trump for the first time. And I think the section you'd like me to read is really their first conversation because Trump doesn't show up to his appointment. So I'll begin there.
(Reading) That night, in the room at The Plaza Hotel that had been arranged for him, Father's bedside phone rang just as he was falling asleep. It was Donald himself. What follows is my approximation of their conversation shaped by father's recollection of, above all, the man's solicitousness.
No one seems to know how to say it, Doctor.
Nothing new there.
How do you say it?
So Akh (ph), like octopus?
But is that how you say it where you're from? Where are you from?
And we pronounce the name differently there.
I'm talented. I can say it right.
So we say Akhtar.
Father reverted to the native K-H guttural sound that no white American in his experience had ever been able to master. There was a moment's silence on the other end of the line.
Oh, that sounds hard. I don't know about that, Doctor.
Akhtar is fine, Mr. Trump.
They both laughed.
OK, OK. Akhtar it is. And you call me Donald, please.
Trump then proceeded to apologize for missing his appointment. Disarmed by his warmth, father demurred. Trump asked if his room was big enough.
It's New York City - hard to feel you ever have enough space, but I had them put you in a nice suite. Do you like it? We redid those rooms when I bought the place.
That hotel is a masterpiece, Doctor. The "Mona Lisa" - that's what it is.
Call me Donald, please.
Please excuse me, Donald. I didn't come to New York to stay in a nice hotel. I came here to help you. I'm not sure you understand how serious this problem with your heart could be if you have Brugada. I'm not exaggerating when I say you are a walking time bomb. You could be dead tomorrow.
There was silence. Father continued.
I am flattered to receive the royal treatment from you, Donald. But I just came from Brunei where I treated the sultan of Brunei. He is a king and he was on time for his appointment because he understood that if he doesn't get it taken care of he might be dead tomorrow.
OK, Doctor, Trump said blankly after a short pause, I'll be there. What time?
I'm sorry I missed it today. I'm very sorry, Doctor. It wasn't respectful of you or your time. I apologize. I mean it.
It's fine, Donald.
You forgive me?
OK, good; you're laughing, Trump said. I'm sorry about today, but I will be there tomorrow first thing. I promise.
DAVIES: And that is our guest Ayad Akhtar reading from his new novel "Homeland Elegies" a reconstructed conversation with the narrator's father, the cardiologist, and Donald Trump. And I have to say this is completely unbelievable because we hear Donald Trump actually apologize in this exchange.
AKHTAR: Well, that becomes the basis of the whole chapter because during the 2015 and 2016 election, as folks were complaining about Trump not being able to apologize, you know, the narrator's father is constantly saying, of course, you see, they're wrong because he can apologize. I know it. He apologized to me. He was very nice to me, and he's not the person that they're making him out to be. And that's really - the subject of the first chapter is the support that my father in, you know, in this case in the book is showing Donald Trump during this period during his election.
DAVIES: But just so that we're clear about this, you - Ayad Akhtar, the writer - it is true that your father was a cardiologist who did treat Donald Trump?
AKHTAR: I'm not going to answer that question, Dave, and not just for legal reasons. I mean, you know, there's so much in the book that's drawn from fact and so much of it that's, you know, deformed for the purposes of fiction. And, you know, there's a purpose behind it. I wanted to find a way to write about the present, to write about the political realities that we're dealing with, to write about the nation that we have become, the insanity that has become our lives today, and I wanted to do it in fiction. But any form of doing it in fiction felt, to me, in my hands at least, that it was going to read like satire. And the only way to work against that was to pivot into memoir and to sort of begin the process of ensnaring the reader in this game of illusion and reality, of truth and fiction.
Again, there's so much that is true and so much that's verifiably true and so much that's unverifiably true. But that question about what is real and what's not real is at the heart of what we're dealing with every day in our lives, and I wanted the texture of the book to reflect that confusion.
DAVIES: Well, let's just - just for the audience, we want to be clear that the book is told in the first person by a man who is a playwright named Ayad Akhtar who has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and, like you, grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee to parents who had emigrated from Pakistan. I mean, so it's not you. It's a story about a narrator drawn in part from your experiences.
AKHTAR: You know, again, we'll get back into the same conversation. You know, I wanted to portray our country. I wanted to reach the reader where he or she is today - addicted to the breaking news notification and absorbed in the social media Instagram scroll. I mean, that reader's me. I wanted to reach myself. I wanted to break out of that or break into that level of absorption that we seem to have with this sort of ephemera. And in order to do that, I had to find a form that was going to really assault reality. I mean, I'd like to think I'm trying to write a philosophical novel that has the addictive thrill of reality TV, right? And that's really what - that's what the form of the book is doing.
And so, of course, I get this question all the time. Is this real? Is that real? You know, do you have a half-sister in Queens? Did all of these things happen? Well, sure, some of them are true, and some of them are not. But for the time being, I'm trying to avoid as much as possible the correspondences.
I quote D.H. Lawrence in the book. It's really in the second chapter after that long chapter about Trump and my father in which I say that people are always asking me what's real in my work. And invariably, I tend to quote D.H. Lawrence where I say, don't trust the teller; trust the tale. And that's the advice I would give anybody who is reading this book.
DAVIES: All right, trust the tale. Well, it is a great tale to read. I will say that. The father of the narrator in your novel has this experience with Donald Trump, and he treats him - sees him as a cardiologist. And then they have a couple of dinners and a couple of lunches. And he has this enduring affection, like, you know, you people who criticize Donald don't know him like I do. Does this character's - does he continue to support Donald Trump after he becomes a candidate and proposes a ban on Muslims, for example, immigrating?
AKHTAR: Yes, and it becomes a big source of conflict between myself as narrator and my father in the book in which, you know, I don't understand how he is saying that. Why doesn't he believe he is also going to be subject to the Muslim ban? But, you know, the father in the book doesn't seem to think that he's Muslim. He doesn't define himself as Muslim. He thinks of himself as post-Muslim, if you will - doesn't believe anymore - he has all of these opinions that he goes on about - and so for some reason, doesn't think that he's going to suffer the consequences.
DAVIES: So he has embraced the American Dream, believes the country has been terrific for him, right?
AKHTAR: Yeah. He's embraced an outsized, debt-fueled ersatz version of limitless American individualism. And all of that is embodied by Donald Trump, and all of that is embodied by his passion and his bromance, if you will, with the Donald. You know, and of course, right after that chapter is a chapter about my mother's political consciousness, which is really the other side of the coin, sort of anti-Americanism. And it was, you know, something that was very - it was - that conflict was something that I experienced in my house very vividly and very similar to the way that it unfolds in the book.
DAVIES: Well, I was going to ask you about that - what kinds of conversations you heard your parents have involving Pakistan and whether they wanted to stay in the United States or how they felt about the country they'd come from.
AKHTAR: Well, my mom, as the narrator's mother in the book, was very homesick, I think, for the homeland, for what she called back home and I don't think quite understood what all the big deal was about the United States in the sense that, you know, it felt like opportunity was really just the opportunity to make money and that American superiority was really just about wealth. And she didn't feel, I think, that the compensations that she had - that she was getting from her new culture were worth what she had left behind. And there was a moroseness to all of that. And my father, you know, was very much a sort of self-made, self-styled businessman-entrepreneur-doctor (ph) who, I think, believed that he was thriving and loved the freedom to make money in this country and the freedom to sort of innovate, if you will. And that was a constant source of back-and-forth. And, you know, I think my mom always felt I was a little too friendly to my dad's point of view, and I think my dad always sort of looked at me and thought I was a little too friendly to my mom's. So I was caught in the middle, but it gave me a good perspective on both.
DAVIES: And what was your mom missing?
AKHTAR: Home - she was missing her family. She was missing the smells, the tastes, the sounds. She was missing a sense of belonging. She was missing a culture that knew where she came from. She was missing a culture that valued death. She was missing a culture that respected elders. She was missing everything she thought mattered in life because life here was lonely. And, you know, she was - she ended up in a part of Wisconsin where it was covered in snow most of the time and, you know, by herself. And, you know, my dad was off at work, so, you know, you could - one can understand the sense of exile and the sense of homelessness or at least homesickness.
DAVIES: And did she and do you remember experiencing discrimination then? I mean, there weren't a lot of Muslims around that community, right?
AKHTAR: You know, this was before Sept. 11. And my feeling growing up in Wisconsin, you know, was - and Wisconsin has changed a lot over the years. But I didn't feel excluded. I mean, I knew we were different, but nobody ever made me feel discriminated against because of it, you know? I grew up with good, smart wholesome people. I mean, it sounds cliche, but it really is true. I think things have changed in Wisconsin since. I mean, but back then - and this was before Sept. 11, mind you. And that was - it was - there wasn't really a sense, really, that anybody knew who we were, where we were from, what it meant that we were from Pakistan or that we were Muslims. That's part of what irritated my mom, too - is that, you know, Americans don't seem to know anything about anything other than their own stuff.
DAVIES: And weren't interested in it.
AKHTAR: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with writer Ayad Akhtar. His new novel is "Homeland Elegies." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor, playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar. His new novel is called "Homeland Elegies."
There was a family friend from Pakistan who had gone to medical school at the same time as your father; again, the narrator in the book or you. His name is Latif in the book. He had a different perspective on life in the United States, and this guy and your father talked about it. What were the exchanges they had?
AKHTAR: Well, you know, the person that Latif is based on and my father - Latif - we'll just call him Latif. He was somebody that everybody in medical school admired a lot. He was sort of a person who - back in Pakistan, you know, my folks, when they were in medical school - he was a person who kind of embodied a higher way of being that was a kind of innate - he exuded a kind of virtue or a nobility and was committed to charity and committed to giving back to the poor and was religious but not in the traditional sort of way that we would think of somebody who was this, you know, religious or, you know, Muslim in that sense, I mean, at least in this culture - the sort of stereotype about it.
He was a Samaritan, if you will, like, in the truest sense of the word and also felt, you know, as he had immigrated to the United States that life was a little bit more frivolous here than he felt it should be, especially given the political realities at the time. This was the late '70s, early '80s. The United States was involved with proxy warfare in Afghanistan and supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets. And, you know, growing up, when I was going to mosque, was going to the Islamic center on the weekends, you know, there was a collection plate for those fighters, fighters who, you know, Reagan had trotted out in the Rose Garden and compared, you know, to the folks fighting who were like freedom fighters, really, the Founding Fathers and whatnot. So at the time, you know, support for militant Islamic resistance to the Soviets was considered a good thing. And that's what I grew up with.
And so this pivot to it being a bad thing was a very strange development for us in our community. But just getting back to Latif or getting back to the character Latif is based on, you know, he eventually did move back to Pakistan, and he eventually got involved in that fight. And then when that war was over and the United States no longer needed those people - abandoned them, essentially. And that's the beginning of the story of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
DAVIES: Right. After the Soviets were defeated, the mujahedeen eventually became a lot of them, people who comprise the Taliban. What did this character, the one we call Latif in the book - what did he actually do in Pakistan? And he took his entire family, right?
AKHTAR: Yeah. Opened a clinic, was tending to the poor, which is a big preoccupation of his. Even in the United States, a clinic in Pensacola where on the weekends he was seeing the poor. And yeah, he was involved in in a clinic in Peshawar. And that clinic was also doubling as a place for the United States to meet, you know, mujahedeen fighters and, you know, exchange intelligence and sort of resources. But again, once the battle was over, once the United States prevailed in this proxy war, abandoned all of those folks, at the time, it was, you know, widely rumored that Americans were killing, you know, militants who were now anti-American. And the method of delivery was a bullet in the head.
DAVIES: So it was after that many of the mujahedeen had basically become the Taliban. And then...
AKHTAR: This was in the interim. This actually - the events themselves take place right in the middle of all of this unfolding. And, you know, in the book, which, again, substantially borrowed from events in real life, my father discovers this on CNN when he's in an airport lounge. And the news is being reported as a celebration - terrorist spies killed.
DAVIES: And what became of his kids?
AKHTAR: In the book, his daughters go to medical school. He has two daughters. And his sons - one of them dies in the fight, continued fight as a member of the Taliban. And another one dies of a drug overdose.
DAVIES: And how did that whole experience impact your family?
AKHTAR: You know, this is an interesting (laughter) interview because were toggling back and forth between the depiction of what I've written and then, of course, the substantial basis on how, you know - so how it affects my family in the book is that my mother, you know, who had a very, very deep affection for Latif her whole life, was secretly in love with him, is embittered by the United States.
And this is happening at the time that Clinton is being accused of, you know, nefarious personal doings in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky and is, you know, perhaps distracting the nation by bombing Somalia. Again, another instance of imperial abuse that that forces my mother to really articulate some very, very nasty things about America, which end up becoming the basis of a play that I write in the book, which is very similar to the play "Disgraced." And many of the lines that I quote from that play are in the book. So the whole chapter in a way is a kind of way to talk about how real life finds its way into art and the mysterious concordances and correspondences.
DAVIES: As I understand it, you were not raised in a observant Muslim home but that you undertook a serious study of the Quran and a lot of other religious and spiritual texts as an adult. How would you describe your relationship to Islam today?
AKHTAR: You know, I tend to follow the lead of some of my, you know, Jewish friends who since college have called themselves cultural Jews. And I sort of appropriated that and started calling myself a cultural Muslim in the sense that, you know, Islam is an important part of my childhood. It's an important part of my formation. And it's an important part of how I am sure I see the world at a very profound level. And I'm proud of all those things, but I'm not a believer in the sense that I don't think that the - you know, the revelation to Muhammad by Allah is the unique source of truth in human history. So yeah, I mean, I find inspiration in it, but I'm not literal believer.
DAVIES: Ayad Akhtar's new novel is "Homeland Elegies." He'll be back to talk more after we take a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with writer, playwright and actor Ayad Akhtar. He grew up in Wisconsin the son of Pakistani immigrants. His new novel drawn from his experiences and those of his extended family is Homeland Elegies.
You were born and raised in the United States. You were about 30 when 9/11 happened if I'm doing the math right. Were you in New York then?
AKHTAR: I was.
DAVIES: Right. Well, the narrator, in this case, goes down in Manhattan and - he lives in Manhattan - goes on the street and ends up joining a lot of people to donate blood, and then is accosted in line by some people who recognize him as, you know, other. And he gets a lot of grief.
AKHTAR: I mean, a mild version of the sorts of things, obviously, that not only I but many others have experienced. So you know, in this case, it's a harrowing scene because everyone's terrified. And everyone's aggrieved and confused. And when this argument erupts in this line, the narrator urinates himself out of fear, which then leads him to sort of flee, if you will, and ends up in a Salvation Army store where he is shown some kindness by a fellow in a priest collar.
And as the fellow goes back to get him a glass of water, the narrator pilfers a cross necklace - a necklace that's got a cross on it - from the jewelry stand, tries to pay for it before he leaves. But the priest won't take any money - and then wears that cross for months in order to sort of signify, to pass, if you will. You know, yes, the marker of the skin is clear - is a clear indication of some otherness. But the cross tells a different story. And as he tells this story to his Pakistani American girlfriend, she's appalled. She's absolutely horrified (laughter) that he's telling her all of this and that he would wear a cross to pass in order to protect himself.
DAVIES: So let me ask you, the real Ayad Akhtar, apart from the narrative in the book, I mean, did you feel the treatment that you received from strangers changed immediately after the 9/11 attacks?
AKHTAR: No question. No question. We went from being, you know, invisible to being visible as a threat. You know, as my mother would say, before 9/11, they had no idea who we were, where we were from. And after 9/11, we could've only been from somewhere bad. And I had the good fortune of not growing up as a kid in that environment. I think the real challenge has been for kids having to grow up post-9/11, you know, in the Muslim community, in the Muslim American community. That's been hard.
DAVIES: Right. Well, I was - I would imagine that your experience in New York was probably different from your parents', who were stolen in Wisconsin. What was it like for you? What was it like for them?
AKHTAR: Well, you know, for my mother, there was a period of time where she didn't leave the house. So it was - you know, it was a long period of time, actually. You know, every time - you feel the suspicion, just be worried, concerned. And then that would lead to - that led to a sense of, you know, maybe unwarranted degree of paranoia around all of it, but, obviously, coming from some very real experience that she had been having. In New York, you know, it felt that it lasted a few months. And the apex of it really was the anthrax, you know, sort of the anthrax scare.
There was the World Trade Center attacks. And then there was the, you know, the plane that came down in Queens. And then there were these anthrax attacks. And that was really - felt like the apogee of the fear and terror. And that was a hard time to just be on a city bus or to be walking down the street or anything. You know, again, we - and something the narrator says to his Texan-born girlfriend in the book, you know - we had it a lot easier than folks down in Texas, you know, because folks down in Texas were experiencing people coming into their convenience stores and just shooting them behind the register.
DAVIES: You know, your father, who embraced life in the United States and always said he loved the country, he liked visiting, I guess - the father in the book, at least, you know, loved visiting historic sites in the United States, in the end returns to Pakistan after he retires. And there's a long and fascinating story about his life that we probably can't get into here. But I'm wondering, how did your dad feel about Pakistan? And how did he hear about - feel about his American experience after he died? And this was after, I should say, after his wife, your mom, had passed away.
AKHTAR: You know, at the end of his life, he was talking constantly about wanting to go home, you know? While he had felt America was his home most of his life, now home was Pakistan. And he longed to return and, I think, felt that his American journey had come to an end, and, I think, felt that, you know, he wanted to experience again the things that he had grown up with and the people that he'd known. And he missed family.
And he missed - you know, the things that my mother had missed her whole life, my father didn't seem to miss until the end of his life. You know, one of the weird concordances in writing the book - you know, it's one way that I sort of talk about the kind of complexity of this fact and fiction interweave. My father, actually, there's - the last quarter of the book is a chapter about the end of my father's life in America, the end of his story in America. And the day that I finished that chapter is actually the day that my father fell, hit his head and ended up in ICU and died shortly thereafter.
And I hadn't yet written the coda in which he returns home to Pakistan. So in a way, the coda is my gift, if you will - I mean, you know, he's no longer here to receive it - but to his idea, to the thought of him, to the memory of him - giving him what he was longing for in the last few years of his life, which, for whatever reason, he was not able to make happen. So he returns home to Pakistan and says some things that he did say but he didn't say them to me over Skype from - on a mango farm in Pakistan. So...
DAVIES: So in real life, your father did not return to Pakistan?
AKHTAR: No. He passed away. He passed away. Yeah.
DAVIES: But he was interested in it, huh?
AKHTAR: Well, he was obsessed by it. That was the - that was what he longed for.
DAVIES: What do you make of that, I mean, his, you know, decades' long embrace of life here and then his longing to be at home?
AKHTAR: I make of it that he never felt fully American and that he never stopped feeling fully Pakistani, and that, in a sense, perhaps, it's something that a lot of immigrants feel - maybe not all. But certainly, in the case of my father and my mother, it - a sense that the American experience was a temporary one for them, that their more enduring identity ended up being their homeland. And the book is called "Homeland Elegies." So it's really about, you know, the passing of those ideas for them.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting, the very last page of the book - and I think this is actually you, Ayad Akhtar (laughter), at...
DAVIES: ...Speaking to some college students or at a university event in Wisconsin. I think it's in Wisconsin.
AKHTAR: Iowa. Iowa.
DAVIES: OK. It's in Iowa. And, you know, a guy stands up and says, you know, you're so critical of the United States. You know, why don't you just - why don't you leave? And you tell them what?
AKHTAR: Well, I say, I'm not sure where you would have me go, sir. And he says well, that's not my problem, you know? I just want to know what - you've got such a problem with it here. Well, why don't you just go somewhere else? And so, you know, I reflect for a moment in the book. And the mentor - my mentor in the book is a woman named Mary Moroni who is - kind of figures throughout the entire book. And she's there, and she's looking at me with love. And I sort of get choked up. And I say, you know, I was born here. I've never lived anywhere else. And, you know, for better and for worse - and it's always a bit of both - this is my home. America is my home. And I've never wanted to live anywhere else.
And those are - that's - it's not exactly the final words of the book, but that's the basic sentiment at the end of the book. And the notion really is - because it's true - is that at the end of the day, I am American. I don't know that being critical of our experiment and sort of pointing up the ways in which we are blind perhaps to some of our consequences not only in other lands but in our own land and that our own ideologies have worked against us - pointing that up, as a writer, it's something that writers are supposed to do - is to hold up a mirror, is to act, if you will, to put it pretentiously, to act as a conscience of our culture. And so I think that the purpose, I believe, of art to some extent is to critique. And if that critique is taken as criticism that means that you should live somewhere else, I think the point's being missed.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you here, so we can take another break here. We're speaking with a Ayad Akhtar. His new novel is "Homeland Elegies." We will continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with novelist, playwright and actor Ayad Akhtar. His new novel is "Homeland Elegies." There is some fascinating stuff in here about dreams. And I want to ask you, Ayad Akhtar, if these are your dreams. But then we're going to be back to where we were, as you're not going to tell me. But the...
AKHTAR: Maybe we can give it a shot. I mean, who knows? Maybe we can a find a way to - we could figure out how to talk about this book (laughter).
DAVIES: I don't know how to say it other than just to ask you. I mean, the story here - I mean, the narrator kind of thinks that as a kid, he dreamt a lot - doesn't really remember them anymore. And his mentor - this writing professor says, you've got to write them down. Have a pencil right by the bed. And there are some amazing things that this person remembers, like being in the hospital with typhoid when he was 2 and premonitions that are kind of eerie. Is this a part of your experience?
AKHTAR: Yeah, it is. I mean, dream work has been an important part of my creative process and my life, really, since a mentor suggested - as the mentor in the book does - that I pay closer attention to my dreams. And in my early 20s, I started writing my dreams down. I would sleep with a pencil tied to my finger, and I would wake up every 45 minutes and write down the dream I was having. I was remembering up to nine dreams a night. And then I would sort of write them out the next day. And I would sort of pay attention to them. And I had worked my way through half the collective works of Freud, and I was working my way through the collected works of Jung and anybody who had some sort of science around what dream interpretation was and what - how one could approach the contents of the unconscious as they were expressed in dreams.
And its work that lasted a very long time. I mean, I don't do it with the same systematic nature, but I am still attuned to my dream life. And yeah, there have been very eerie - you know, I think the narrator says at some point, you know, paying such close attention to his dreams has made him question the space-time continuum. And that's certainly an experience that I've had, you know, meeting people in my dreams who I meet in my dreams before I meet them in real life. You know, it's not an every night occurrence, but it happens often enough that it does make you wonder what's going on.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, there were things as, you know, relatively trivial as something about melons the day before melons come up on a critical exam that you took. But also two days before the 9/11 attack - having a dream about an attack on New York.
AKHTAR: Yeah. You know, again, yes, I had that dream. That was a dream that I had. And it was a terrifying dream, and I didn't understand it at the time. It was this, you know, terrible attack on the center of New York. And everybody was running around like insects that had lost a colony, like ants losing a colony - a sort of frenzied activity. And I woke up in a panic and a sweat. And two days later, you know, it was September 11, 2001. So, you know, I mean, who knows? What is that about? It's hard to - I have no idea. But, you know, when it happens often enough, you just start wondering - something's going on that we don't understand.
DAVIES: Do you still have a pencil on your finger when you sleep?
AKHTAR: No, not on my finger. But I do try to keep - I do try to keep a pad by the bed.
DAVIES: So you're still trying to write them down.
AKHTAR: I mean, it depends. I mean, like I say, because I've spent so many years doing it, I will generally remember it without having to write it down. But sometimes, you know, sometimes, I - the pad is there in case I want to.
DAVIES: There's one more episode here in the story, which I really have to wonder if the Ayad Akhtar I'm talking to also experienced. And that is a friendship with a very wealthy guy who also is of Pakistani descent - a hedge fund manager. And the friendship gives the playwright, the writer, the narrator entree to this world of super wealthy intellectuals and artists and celebrities and, eventually, some major league money from an investment. Is this made up of whole cloth, or is this you?
AKHTAR: What the narrator is relaying, you know, is the story of his relationship with this guy named Riaz Rind, who is a hedge-fund-billionaire wannabe who is trying to move the needle politically for Muslims in this country, aspires to someone - to the example of someone like Sheldon Adelson and an advocate for Muslim causes and who is also a purveyor and merchant of debt, which is a real paradox because, of course, interest is forbidden in the faith. And after winning a Pulitzer, the narrator is befriended by this hedge fund manager who begins to sort of trot him about at events for his foundation and asks him to join the board. And in the process, the narrator comes to experience and hobnob with, you know, creme de la creme of finance and entertainment and money.
And it's really - I mean, yes, I have had the experience of after winning, you know, the Pulitzer of having entree to a world I probably imagined existed, but I didn't know. And, you know, I think that what the narrator's experience is depicting is a vision of achieving the American dream and, one hopes - or I hope as the writer - the hollowness of that accomplishment. And yet not irrespective of its hollowness, its seductive allure remains.
And that ersatz, that quality is, of course, the same quality that is at the heart of the Trump example. And what in - what, you know, ensnared the narrator's father. You know, it turns out that the narrator, who thinks of himself as so different than Trump, is actually in many ways falling prey to all of the same American allurements. You know, if America is a casino, then the father and the narrator are marks, if you will.
DAVIES: So the wealth, the trips, the cars, the parties are all seductive to him, too.
AKHTAR: Well, I think they - I mean, I think they evidently are in the book, yeah. I mean, I think he does come - there is a come - there's an awakening to the poverty of this, you know, worldview. But it maps against, you know - you know, to use a term everyone is using now - a sort of neoliberal dream of success in America.
DAVIES: One more thing. You know, you've won a Pulitzer as a playwright. Your novels have been very well-received. Are you going to go back to acting at any point?
AKHTAR: I doubt it. I mean, nobody hires me.
AKHTAR: I can't even get an audition. So, you know, every now and then, I'll get one. You know, it'll take you a few years. And then somebody will say, well, what about him? He could - but, you know, it's all fine. I'm so busy with writing these days. And it's - you know, it's - being an actor gave me a real immediate sense of what it means to be inside a character. It has helped me learn how to write dialogue. It's helped me to stay vivid inside a story because I can feel it from the inside. So it's been a great, great experience, great learning experience. And if I never act again, that would be OK. Might be a little sad, but it would be OK.
DAVIES: All right. Well, Ayad Akhtar, thanks for speaking with us. Congratulations on the book.
AKHTAR: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Ayad Akhtar's new novel is "Homeland Elegies." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FRENCIS'S "JEUX D'EAU: FOUNTAINS (CLASSICAL PIANO LESSONS)
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Happy Fits are a New Jersey trio featuring guitar, drums and cello. Rock critic Ken Tucker says these young men who met in college and formed their band just a few years ago are making some of the freshest, catchiest pop music around right now. The band's new album, its second, asks the musical question, "What Could Be Better." Here's Ken's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO INSTRUCTIONS")
CALVIN LANGMAN: (Singing) Wonderin', waitin', lookin' up around the bend. Contemplating words I wish that I had said. I'll take the blame for not being all right. But something should change if all we do is fight. Oh, when? Oh, when?
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Sharp and snappy, the melodies of The Happy Fits are quick and concise. Their pleasure derives from the precision these 20-somethings exert in performing a series of songs about how tricky love and life in general can be. Consider the new spin the band puts on "Get A Job." No, not the 1957 No. 1 hit for the silhouettes but rather The Happy Fits' new take on unemployment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET A JOB")
LANGMAN: (Singing) I've got to, got to get a job. Your teeth have chewed me to the cob. I'm sure somehow I'll make my pay. Just give me five to lay my head. I don't want to go, darlin'. I got a whole lot of reasons to be home at the moment. I don't wanna go. I don't wanna go, darlin'. I don't wanna go. I don't wanna go, darlin'.
TUCKER: Well, the line in the chorus that goes, I got a whole lot of reasons to be home at the moment - that certainly sounds timely now, doesn't it? The Happy Fits are three clever fellows who started a band just for kicks while attending Rutgers University in 2016 and promptly dropped out the following year when they realized people really dug their sound. They quickly released their debut album in 2018, called "Concentrate." The band features Ross Monteith on guitar and Luke Davis on drums and is fronted by Calvin Langman, who sings lead, writes much of their material and is a classically trained cellist. You can hear Langman sawing happily away at his instrument in the beginning of "Hold Me Down."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ME DOWN")
LANGMAN: (Singing) Voices that come rushing in like a 10-ton truck into soft cement. Now the words make sense, but I can't repeat because sense don't make what it used to be. I'm here my love, but I'm floating, baby. Hold me down tight when I'm losing my mind...
TUCKER: At one point deep into that song, Langman sings, I never cared for fancy art or poetry on old guitars. But he's being a bit coy. He did care enough for fancy art to study the cello. And if we interpret poetry on old guitars as an allusion to music that predates his birth, it's clear from his melodies that Langman is one very astute scholar. Many reviews of The Happy Fits over the past few years have compared their music to bands such as the Violent Femmes, Vampire Weekend and The Killers. But I hear their music echoing much further back to pop acts like The Turtles, Paul Revere & The Raiders and, in the case of this song called "Moving," the early Beatles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVING")
LANGMAN: (Singing) From you to me, I sense a little animosity. So stay away or maybe, baby, maybe you should stay. Don’t you make my heart beat faster. Don’t you make me mad. Doctor call the undertaker, this one might be bad. Won’t you love me all the time? Please don’t make this be goodbye. Darling, can’t you see that I would be so sad? I would be so sad. That would make me sad. So please...
TUCKER: Calvin Langman is a witty overachiever who had to rebel against his parents to form a rock band. He told an interviewer recently, I grew up in rural New Jersey and was one of three Asian kids in my high school. He went on to add, it feels really good to be someone that Filipino kids growing up in America can look up to. This is also a sentiment implied in the lyrics of the album's title song "What Could Be Better."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT COULD BE BETTER")
LANGMAN: (Singing) My heart keeps beating, and I'm getting scared. A pound, pound thumping trying to make me care. My heart keeps beating, and I'm getting scared. There's a hole in my consciousness where I feel I belong. Where'd it go? Oh, for now, my mind is dead. My eyes are red. I sit alone and watch the hours. What could be better? My heart keeps beating and...
TUCKER: This album clocks in at just under half an hour, but it gets a remarkable amount of work done in that time. It establishes The Happy Fits as first-class chroniclers of unrequited love and makes you, or at least me, yearn for that moment in the future when we can go see this band crank out these exciting songs live. What could be better? I honestly don't know.
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "What Could Be Better," the new album from The Happy Fits.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "DESAFINADO")
DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, the story of a company that was mining data on people in order to predict their behavior as consumers and voters as far back as 1959 - writer Jill Lepore says social scientists of the Simulmatics Corporation managed to get clients from the Defense Department to John Kennedy's presidential campaign before the company collapsed. Her book is called "If Then." I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "DESAFINADO")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Charlie Keyer (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "DESAFINADO")
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