Writing About The Midwestern Muslim Experience
Ayad Akhtar's debut novel, American Dervish, tells the story of a Pakistani-American boy in Milwaukee coming to terms with his religion and identity. Akbar drew on his own experiences exploring the Muslim faith as a teenager growing up in Wisconsin.
Other segments from the episode on January 17, 2012
January 17, 2012
Guest: Ayad Akhtar
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting while I took a few days off.
My guest Ayad Akhtar has written a new novel set in the 1980s inspired by his own experiences growing up Muslim in a rural suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The main character, Hayat, is first-generation Pakistani-American. His parents met in Pakistan and moved to Wisconsin so his father could complete his training as a neurologist.
Hayat's parents are secular, but Hayat becomes devout when his mother's dearest friend Mina moves in with them after fleeing with her young son from an abusive husband in Pakistan. Mina is deeply spiritual and teaches Hayat about Islam, but through his increasing involvement in his Muslim studies, he meets extremists who are anti-Semitic, which leads to dramatic consequences.
"American Dervish" is Ayad Akhtar's first novel. He's written plays, and he's also an actor. He starred in the movie "The War Within," which he also co-wrote, and in the HBO movie "Too Big to Fail," about the financial crisis. He played Neel Kashkari, the head of the financial rescue program TARP.
Ayad Akhtar, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a short reading from "American Dervish." Why don't you set it up for us before you do the reading?
AYAD AKHTAR: Sure. The book begins with the arrival of Mina Ali, a beautiful, brilliant woman from Pakistan who has just been through a divorce, and she comes to America to rebuild her life. When she comes here, she stays with an old family friend who is married, and she has a son, her friend has a son, and the book is narrated from the point of view of that boy, sort of looking back, many years later, after Mina's visit to their house.
Mina is a remarkable woman who has a very unique and personal relationship to Islam. She's very devout. She's very inspiring, and she doesn't really see the contradiction between using reason and having faith. And she inculcates, or introduces, Hayat, the narrator of the book, to Islam.
And I'm going to read a section here that - well, I guess another piece of the context here is that Hayat's parents are constantly bickering. They're sort of vital and constantly at odds with each other. And there's a lot of conflict in the house. But when Mina comes, everything sort of changes.
She kind of enchants everybody, and essentially, she brings a higher sense of things to their daily life. So this is at the end of the sort of honeymoon with Mina's presence there, and there's lots of conflict and dramatic events ahead. But this is a bit of a summary here.
(Reading) For once, life in our home was settling into a peaceful, lively rhythm, which none of us was accustomed to by nature or experience. I'm not convinced we were prepared to be happy. After all, we were formed and informed, to various degrees, by an Eastern mythos, profoundly at odds with the American notion of happily ever after.
(Reading) For though we longed for happiness, we did not expect it. This was our cultural text, the message imprinted in even the movie videos my parents rented from the local IndoPak grocer, the only place you could find Indian films in town - lavish tales of unconsummated love or love consummated at the price of death.
(Reading) These films were so unlike anything a paying American audience could ever have taken seriously. As the truth about life, Americans would only have laughed in disbelief. How ironic, then, that such disbelief was what Mina and my parents felt for the relentlessly hopeful narratives they would sit through at the local multiplexes, just then opening their doors for business in the early '80s.
(Reading) They couldn't see in Hollywood's rosy pictures of life's possibilities anything other than, at best, wishful thinking and at worst childish distraction. As a vision of life, they couldn't have taken it any more seriously than the popcorn they ate during the show could be taken for a meal. Instead, it was to the Indian weepies that they went to experience the pathos and color that felt to them like the truth about life.
(Reading) These were the moving pictures that had given shape and sound to their souls, stories painted from a darker palate, limbed with haunting songs and built from imagines of elegiac beauty that conveyed an unvarying message: do not expect anything other than loss, pain, sorrow.
(Reading) Like the odor of masala lingering along our halls, the expectation of unhappiness hovered in the air we breathed, and even though Mina's presence among us had opened a window, brightening our lives, she was from the same world as my parents. And confident as she claimed to be in Allah's ultimate good will toward humanity, I think she fully expected things to turn against her in the end.
GROSS: You know, listening to you read that, I can't help but think of how equally pessimistic Jewish culture often is.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: You know, about, like, expect a bad outcome. I mean, even Mel Brooks has a song "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst."
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AKHTAR: Yeah, right, right. Well, that's a very apposite, sort of, I think, analogy just in general because those are - that's the sensibility that I really drew from as a young adult and as an aspiring writer, to understand how to give form to the experiences that I had been through as a young Muslim in this culture. You know, the writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, you know, movie-makers like Woody Allen and, you know, frankly also Seinfeld.
Just, it was a community of immigrants - a minority community that was identified by their religious association, by their religious identity. And it was the same thing for us, for Muslims. I mean, I know that a lot of - there are some folks who identify more with the nationality that they come from, but in my experience, and certainly my experience was that being Muslim was the primary sort of identifier.
GROSS: What was religion like in your home when you were growing up in Milwaukee?
AKHTAR: I came from a pretty secular household, I mean, similarly to the novel. You know, my father was very much a sort of secular humanist, and...
GROSS: And we should mention both your parents are from Pakistan.
AKHTAR: They are, yes. And my mother's also a secular humanist, but she also - she has more of a devotional streak, more of an interest in faiths, in religion. I actually kind of found my way into being very - I was very devout as a kid, very interested, very obsessed with the Quran, very obsessed with understanding what it means and understanding how I should live, and it was a very important part of my childhood.
But it really didn't come from my parents. And, you know, I think it had a lot to do with trying to understand how and why I was different and what that meant, growing up in Milwaukee, where we really were the only Muslim family, you know, in the 80s in our area of town, though there was a, you know, a relatively small community in the city, which is something that is mirrored in the narrative of "Dervish." A lot of families that might not have anything to do with each other back in their homeland, but because they're all here, they end up spending more time around each other than they would otherwise.
GROSS: Did your parents want you to actively practice being a Muslim?
AKHTAR: No, you know, there wasn't any - certainly no pressure. I think there was some degree of intrigue as to, you know, what was going on though I don't want to overstate the case. I think that it wasn't like I became, you know, I became a purist or anything like that. But it was - I had my own interest, and I sort of taught myself how to pray and began to, you know, study the Quran.
And I just found meaning in it. I ended up studying religion in college, as well as theater, and religion has been an important part of my understanding, my inquiry into, you know, what it means to be human. I feel like that religions generally ask the biggest questions. They may not always have the best answers, but they're the zone of human activity that regularly asks the biggest questions.
GROSS: How surprised were your comparatively secular parents to see you turning to the Quran to help you understand life?
AKHTAR: You know, I think my dad might have been a little bit more perplexed about it than my mother. You know, it was - one of the things that I experienced in my household was that there was a respect for religion. It wasn't that there was a disrespect for it, certainly, especially amongst, you know, my mother and her side of the family.
So I think that, you know, some of her sisters were very devout, and when we would go to Pakistan, and I would sort of - you know, I would recount dreams, and one of my mom's sisters would, you know, interpret my dreams, and we would talk about - she would tell me stories about, you know, the prophet. All of that's kind of getting woven into the book in a, kind of, refracted, you know, way.
That's the funny thing about writing a novel where so much of the experience mirrors, in some way, what you were through but is in fact fiction. So - but, you know, I think there was a respect â there was a obtaining(ph) respect in the household for the prophet, for the stories of the prophet, for the way of life, even if it wasn't practiced.
GROSS: Where are you with religion now? It sounds like you've been through a lot of twists and turns in your life in terms of your relationship to Islam and to the religions of the world. So where are you now?
AKHTAR: I have been through - I have been through the journey that Hayat went through, through sort of a childlike relationship to faith and the depth of that, and then sort of a turning away from the heritage and then a reopening, something that I've been exploring for many years.
Islam is an important part of my artistic and spiritual inspiration. I am not a literalist in the sense that I don't - you know, I'm not practicing in the way that some folks would like to define practice, but I meditate about an hour a day, and a lot of those meditations I learned at the feet of Sufi masters.
So that said, I - when people ask me, you know, are you Muslim, I generally say I'm a cultural Muslim. I sort of follow the lead of a lot of my intelligent Jewish friends who say they're culturally Jewish because I consider myself to have been formed by a lot of the locutions and aesthetics and principles of the Muslim way of life, and those are an important part of my childhood and my identity.
GROSS: So you studied with Sufi masters. Was this in the United States, or did you have to travel to find them?
AKHTAR: No I've - well, I've studied with lots of folks over the years, and some out of the States and some in the States. I mean, there's some amazing people here in America.
GROSS: How would you describe the Sufi tradition?
AKHTAR: It's very heartfelt. It's a heart-oriented tradition. I've done a lot of work in the Vedic tradition, which is more intellectual, in a way. And my experience of the Sufi path has more to do with the opening of the heart and I think is an important part of the journey.
I actually, you know, I guess I have a sort of post-modern sensibility when it comes to spirituality. Which is not to say that I treat it like a candy store, because I approach it with a lot of discipline and a lot of commitment. But I think that the particular embodiment, as it were, my particular embodiment as a person, has its own, you know, its own narrative, its own challenges, its own neuroses. And certain techniques and certain traditions are going to be able to respond to the opening that I seek, the heightening of experience, the deepening of my relation to the present and my commitment to the work that I do.
GROSS: Would it be too personal to ask you what you do during your daily hour of meditation?
AKHTAR: It might not make a whole lot of sense. I mean, it's - I've been through all sorts of versions of, you know, meditation and breathing meditation and non-doing and, you know, observing thoughts.
I've - you know, my relationship to meditation has evolved to a point where it's pretty idiosyncratic, and I will go inward, and there's a quiet that begins to arise, and then something happens. And it can be, you know, on the order of light, or it can be on the order of emptiness, but it has content.
And I sit with that content and allow it to be and allow it to lead me where it will.
GROSS: And how do you structure your day so you are confident you will have an hour to devote to meditation?
AKHTAR: I don't - all I do is work. So it's very easy to find an hour. I mean, I usually actually do more. An hour is what I - is my sort of main, you know, that's my go-to line is I meditate for an hour. I usually do more.
GROSS: It's really hard to sit for an hour, isn't it?
AKHTAR: No, not if you've been doing it for 20 years.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ayad Akhtar, and he's an actor, playwright and now novelist. His new novel is called "American Dervish." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ayad Akhtar, he's an actor, playwright and now novelist. His new novel is called "American Dervish," and it's about a boy growing up in Milwaukee. His parents are from Pakistan, and he is Muslim, and it's about being Muslim in America, and it's about being exposed to many different forms of the - of understanding Islam.
There are clearly, you know, clearly in your book you're investigating both generous and destructive ways of using religion and of understanding religion. And your main character is young and therefore very impressionable to what he hears around him.
And part of what he hears is anti-Semitism. Jews are called loathsome by one character, they just take and take and take, and they're never satisfied. Were you exposed to that kind of anti-Semitism growing up in Milwaukee?
AKHTAR: Yes, I was exposed to all sorts of anti-Semitism, not only of the Muslim kind. There's an episode in the book in which Hayat's best friend in fourth grade, a fellow by the name of Jason Blum(ph), who is a tennis star and classroom brain. And Hayat looks up to him very much - the embodiment of what Hayat's mother has taught him to think about Jews, which is that they're special in a good way.
He is subjected to an anti-Semitic, you know, he gets tied to a tree and gets peed on by a bunch of the Christian boys at school for talking about Jesus in a way that they felt was disrespectful.
But yes, I was exposed to anti-Semitism of the Muslim variety as a kid.
GROSS: So when you hear anti-Semitic things coming from Muslims or others, was there a point in your life when you were impressionable when you believed it?
AKHTAR: I think that I went through a similar trajectory that Hayat went through, which is that I - you know, my folks had a very, you know, respectful and loving relationship with, you know, both personally with Jews and also, you know, sort of looked up to them and felt that they, you know, the values of education and certain things that were central, as they saw it, to the Jewish culture were things to emulate.
And, you know, oddly enough, the first author whose works I ever, you know, read completely all of the books of between the ages of 13 and 15 was Chaim Potok, who I - you know, "The Chosen," "The Promise," "My Name is Asher Lev," "In the Beginning," those were books that I finally felt like I had found some writer who was writing about a community that I understood, and it was a bunch of Hassidics, Hassidic Jews.
So I - you know, I was exposed to that, as well as to the anti-Semitism, and I think there was, at different times, a confusion about, you know, what was right, what was true. And I think true to life, those questions don't necessarily get answered. They don't get answered in any clear way that, you know, this group of people is right, and that group of people is wrong.
That doesn't actually happen until, I think, at least in my case, until you get older, and you kind of have to make that decision about what you think is true and what you think is not true. So I think it was kind of a free-floating thing where I would hear certain things at dinner parties, and I would hear certain things at the mosque, and then I'd hear other things at home.
And I don't really know that I had any kind of definitive relationship to it, but I will say that oddly enough, as I grew up into a young man who wanted to become a writer and wanted to give form to my observations and my experience in the - as a storyteller, it was really to the Jewish-American artists that I turned because that's where I found the articulation of an experience that was similar enough to mine to be a model.
GROSS: So I know you read a lot of Philip Roth. When did you start reading him? How old were you?
AKHTAR: I discovered Philip Roth in college. And actually it was Saul Bellow that I had discovered before Philip Roth and I think probably affected me a little bit more, though I read many more of Philip Roth's books.
GROSS: Since Philip Roth is more overtly sexual, let me start there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AKHTAR: Yeah, OK.
GROSS: Because I'm wondering what it was like for you growing up in a culture of such sexual modesty and abstinence until marriage. I'm not saying you practiced that because I have no idea what you did, but I mean that's the culture. To read Philip Roth, you know, especially like his earlier books, well, the later ones, too, where the male characters are so, kind of, obsessed with sex, and there's so many, you know, pretty vivid sexual descriptions of women's bodies, of the sexual act, what impact did that have on you?
AKHTAR: Well, it was pretty glorious.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AKHTAR: I mean, for a kid who did grow up pretty, you know, pretty sexually let's say modest, I don't know if I want to say repressed, but I'm sure there was a fair degree of repression there. I think it was like opening, you know, is it that wonderful Andrew Marvell poem, you know, to his mistress, you know, thy naked body, the brave new world, or I can't remember exactly what the locution is.
But it was, you know, it was a discovery of a whole new world, and it was - those stories again were close enough to - they were emanating from a community that was close enough to my own that there was just a lot of overlap and a lot of aspiration and a lot of inspiration that I took from - and in particular from that particular aspect of the body of work.
I think that the erotic impulse is close to the creative impulse, may actually be identical, just expressing itself in a different way.
GROSS: OK, so let me just cut to the chase here: Did you feel guilty about reading it?
AKHTAR: No, no I think at that point I was - it was not. I don't want to overstate the repressive, you know, aspects of Islam on my own sort of development, moral development or sexual development. I didn't feel guilty about - I don't think - yeah, no, I don't think I felt guilty about anything having to do with sort of sexual awakening. And yeah, I wouldn't have attributed that guilt to having been brought up Muslim necessarily if I did feel it.
GROSS: My guest Ayad Akhtar will be back in the second half of the show. His new novel is called "American Dervish." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ayad Akhtar. He's an actor, playwright and now novelist. His debut novel "American Dervish" is inspired by his own experiences growing up Muslim in the Midwest. The novel is told from the point of view of Hayat, whose parents moved from Pakistan to the U.S. so his father could complete his training as a neurologist. Hayat's parents are secular, but he becomes devout when his mother's devout friend Mina flees an abusive husband in Pakistan and moves in with Hayat's family.
Interfaith relationships and the beauty of love and the friction that - potential friction within an interfaith relationship are one of the things that's central to your novel, "American Dervish." So if you don't mind my asking, have you been in an interfaith relationship, and have you found that faith was an issue?
AKHTAR: Yes. I was married for 10 years. And we met very young, and I think we grew up into people that we didn't really know we were going to become. And I think that's really what was at the root of us, you know, no longer being together. But part of that did have to do with differences in culture, fundamental differences in culture, differences in ways of seeing life.
In my case, perhaps from her point of view, a little too much ease with the notion of resignation or surrender to life and to what it has to offer, which I think does come from a deeply - it comes from, you know, I guess, again, why I call myself a cultural Muslim. It's part of my heritage. It's part of what it meant to grow up Muslim.
GROSS: When you say surrender, do you mean surrender to that things aren't going to work out, or just acceptance of each minute as it is?
AKHTAR: Well, I think that that is the - there's a very fine line between those two things. And I think that's the journey. That's the journey of Hayat, in a way, and that's what Mina is trying to teach him in the book, is - and she doesn't always get it right herself. You know, the Buddhists have this notion of radical acceptance, the radical acceptance of the now. And, you know, the great mystics and the great saints all talk about the will of the Lord being done through them. Where that ends and where masochism begins is...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That's a question that's in the book, in a way.
AKHTAR: Yes it is.
AKHTAR: It's part of what the book's about.
AKHTAR: And I don't know that there's an easy answer to it.
GROSS: You co-wrote and starred in the movie "The War Within," which is about a Pakistani student in Paris who's suspected of being a terrorist, is taken captive in Paris by intelligence agents, sent back to Pakistan, where he's interrogated and tortured. And he wasn't a terrorist. He was falsely accused. But that experience turns him into a terrorist, and he becomes determined to attack the United States. You starred in the movie as this student-turned-terrorist.
GROSS: So here's what I'm wondering. I've interviewed several Muslim-American, Arab-American actors who feel like they're so stereotyped, that all the roles that are available are, like, terrorists or suspected terrorists. And, you know, it just aggravates them, because it's not what they want to play.
AKHTAR: Yeah. Sure.
GROSS: So, here you are, a Muslim-American, you get to write a movie for yourself, and what do you write? You're a Muslim who becomes a terrorist.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AKHTAR: Yes, indeed.
GROSS: So why did you want to do that?
AKHTAR: At the time, you know, I was - my colleagues Joseph Castelo and Tom Glynn, who I wrote the film with and Joe directed and Tom produced, we were at film school and sort of having conversations every day about what was happening in the world and bemoaning the level of discourse that had been - that people were engaged in around the issue. And I think we saw it as our - as a kind of vocation or as a kind of calling to come forth and put together something that was going to give people a different perspective on what was in the news every day.
And similar, in a way, to the intention behind "Dervish" is to give - is to open up an emotional field rather than a discursive field. I mean, so much of what is happening in the world today is happening at the level of political discourse - people jockeying for rhetorical positions and trying to defend this or vilify that without really having any felt experiential, emotional understanding of the issues at play. And I think as artists, we felt uniquely positioned by our sort of idealism as young film students and our intelligence, or at least our avidity to explore and research and give form to that, to offer meaningful contributions.
I never really saw it as - I've never really approached anything that I've done in terms of building a career and - which is perhaps why, you know, it's taken me as long as it has to really be able to not struggle as much as I have in the past in order to do what I do. But it's just never - it's never been something that I've thought about. So I never thought about, well, you know, I'm going to be playing a role, and it's as a terrorist, and maybe that'll get typecast. And it was an attempt to write a very nuanced and hopefully, you know, as profound as it could be, or as profound as we could - as much profundity as we could bring to it, exploration of the issues that were at the forefront in people's minds every day.
GROSS: My guest is Ayad Akhtar. His new novel is called "American Dervish." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Ayad Akhtar. His debut novel "American Dervish" is inspired by his own experiences growing up Muslim, first generation Pakistani-American, in the Midwest. Akhtar is also an actor.
So we've been talking a lot about religion, because it's so central to your novel, "American Dervish." And it sounds from your bio like theater kind of became your religion for a while.
GROSS: After studying with Andre Gregory, the actor and director who became well-known for co-starring with Wallace Shawn in the film "My Dinner with Andre," you went to study with Jerzy Grotowski when he was in Tuscany.
GROSS: And he's one of the fathers of experimental theater. Why did you so passionately want to study with Grotowski?
AKHTAR: It's - the narrative is - the biographical narrative is actually converted. I studied with Grotowski first, and then started working with Andre afterward. I got very interested - in college, I was studying religion and studying theater. And I got very interested in the ways that theater was a ritual, was a way to enact ritual narratives and to - for the audience to have a ritual experience.
In other cultures, it's more obvious, perhaps, than in the United States. And I was studying the theater of other cultures. And I got particularly fascinated with Andre after "My Dinner with Andre" because of that question of authenticity. You know, the central conceit of "My Dinner with Andre" is that this very successful theater director drops out of life and goes on a quest to discover who he really is and how to live authentically, and in the process, you know, studies with this famous, mysterious, Polish figure, director, Jerzy Grotowski, in a Polish forest and has these amazing experiences.
And I think that - well, I don't think. I know that watching that movie gave me a fascination for the figure of Grotowski. And I began to study Grotowski in college, you know, writing research papers about him and trying to understand what it was that he was getting at. And as I understand it - or as I understood it before going to work with him - it had to do with the search for how to be true. It's a question that actors have to ask on stage. You have to feel real in order to convince anybody else that you're real.
And that feeling of reality, Grotowski felt, if you could bring that into your daily life and not just have to live it on - not just have to have an opportunity on stage to explore it or find it, if you could do that in your life, how different would life be? So that became the central, driving question for his work after 1970, when he essentially stopped doing theater and began to use acting technique almost as a spiritual and psychoanalytic tool to help people experience states of authenticity and states of reality.
GROSS: So could you describe an exercise or a thought process that you learned from Grotowski that helped you either as an actor or as a person or as both?
AKHTAR: There was one - I remember one episode that was ended up being very foundational for me, and it's actually very simple. And I think any good actor knows this, but the trick is figuring out how to get your brain to do it. We were doing a scene, and in the scene, I come into a room and I close the door and then take a seat. And Grotowski went into great detail about this moment of me entering the room one day and said, you know, you're entering the room as if you are opening the door, closing the door and then sitting down.
You should just open the door, close it and then sit down. And it's the notion that watching myself as I was doing it was somehow changing the audience's or his relationship to what I was doing, that it didn't feel real because I was observing it. So how not to have the self-consciousness be an impediment to the action?
Grotowski's technique had a lot to do with practice. His belief was that if you really, really practice something for a long time and you've got it completely fixed and you've got it completely right, that your body and your mind would begin to take over and begin to do it by themselves. And then that structure, that commitment to structure actually led to true spontaneity. Which is kind of at odds with the notion of spontaneity that we have in the American theater, certainly, you know, in the American film world where spontaneity has to do with improvisation, where there is no structure at all.
GROSS: Right. So let me see if I understand it. Basically, he's saying if you're thinking now I'm walking through the door, now I'm closing the door, now I'm sitting down, you're going to look like you're following a script. Whereas, if you happen to be walking in the door and then sitting down, then it's going to look real if you look like you just happen to be doing it.
AKHTAR: Other acting teachers would talk about it, might talk about it by saying do you do have an objective? Why are you coming into the room? Is there somebody in the room who you're afraid to meet? Is there somebody who you're anticipating meeting? So your thought process is related to the larger dramatic circumstance.
AKHTAR: In the case of the exercise that we were doing with Grotowski, there was no circumstance. It was really - and that was what was so difficult about a lot of the work, was that it was broken down to the absolute essence of just doing things and the relationship of consciousness, self-observation and the action that one is performing. It's a very stark place to be working from, but if you can begin to get your mind to work in a certain way where you're not observing it in the way that you would when you have nothing else to do, it's something that you can start doing, you know, for example in front of a camera, where the camera's there and you're not thinking about it.
GROSS: Did Grotowski help you integrate your interest in religion and spirituality with your practice as an actor?
AKHTAR: Absolutely. That was in my - I think that was my unconscious yearning, was to find these two seemingly opposed impulses to find union. You know, the great question of, you know, what is the connection between aesthetics and ethics? And that was - I'm not sure that I resolved that question, you know, working with Grotowski, but it certainly opened the door to understanding how I could practice art in a way that would make it a vehicle towards something else.
GROSS: So was there anything similar for you about, like, meditation and acting in terms of getting out of yourself?
AKHTAR: I mean, the simple answer to that question is yes. But the more interesting answer to that question, I think, is no.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AKHTAR: Because Grotowski was actually very explicit about this. We would do these yoga-based exercises, which were - essentially looked like a bunch of cats playing when you watched it, you know, moving through yoga poses and working with the spine in these very supple, alive ways. And I remember somebody asking at one point, you know, why don't we do Hatha yoga? Why don't we actually work on these poses and stillness? And he said, well, because the purpose of yoga is actually to still the mind. And the purpose of these exercises is to make the body more available to the impulses of the psyche, so that there's a transparency between mind and body. We don't want to quiet the mind. We want to make that connection solid.
AKHTAR: But we want the vitality to still be there.
GROSS: So you taught with Andre Gregory after studying with Jerzy Grotowski.
GROSS: He's such an interesting figure. But can you talk a little bit about what it was like to teach with him?
AKHTAR: He was amazing. I mean, I started working with him because I had learned a lot of physical work with Grotowski that Andre liked to use as part of the teaching method. And the thing that struck me was he was a polar opposite of Grotowski, because Grotowski was all about fixing structure and, you know, learning it. I remember - you know, there was one sequence we worked on for probably three months. It was an eight seconds sequence that we worked on for three months, you know, just have every action, every inflection of the voice, every thought choreographed so that the mind was not asking what does it need to do. The body was not asking what does it need to do.
And it was true that my experience was when that had been fully learned and integrated, there was a level of energy and freedom and inspiration that was released through the action that I hadn't experienced before. Andre has a different way of getting to a similar kind of organic place in my experience, and it has to do with allowing. He will allow an actor to make a choice and to explore the choice, and he'll just offer love and acceptance, love and acceptance - and not in some rosy-colored, rosy-lensed way. There's really a very fierce commitment to the present, to being with that actor and letting that actor explore whatever it is that actor is interested in.
And what ends up happening over time is the actor gradually begins to come to a place of authenticity, a place of what's really interesting to him or her, and suddenly the action or the text or the scene is alive in a different way, similar to what - the result Grotowski would get but from a completely different angle.
GROSS: So with all your devotion to theater and to acting, have you been able to find roles, and has being of Pakistani descent affected your ability to get roles?
AKHTAR: Absolutely. I think I would have loved to have had a career as an actor, but it just was not an option. And I think in the end that was probably a good thing for me in the sense that it forced me to write my own work. I have a play going up, I mean here in Chicago we're rehearsing a play that's going to be going up at the end of the month, which is essentially an attempt to write a very powerful role with a lot of range for a Pakistani-American actor.
There aren't roles of that quality out there for folks like myself to be engaged with, and so, you know, I have another play going up in St. Louis in March, same intention, same endeavor. Of course I do have themes that I'm exploring, but the actor in me is - wants to write great roles for folks like myself so that there - so that we can really practice the craft at the highest level that we can get to. You can't do that if you don't have the material to work with.
GROSS: So that's what led you to be a writer?
AKHTAR: I don't know if it's what led me to be a writer. I think, you know, it's a complicated, interwoven story. I was - had that awakening with relation to literature, and my high school teacher, Diane Derfler(ph), and then, you know, discovered theater in college and found that I had a knack for it and that I loved it.
And, you know, then it kind of dovetailed into my interest in religion and identity, and gradually over time something like an artistic project began to develop. But I wouldn't say that there was, you know, one mission that I sort of started out with and that I have been true to.
GROSS: So have you found that reactions to you as a Pakistani-American have changed depending on what's in the news?
AKHTAR: Yeah, of course. I mean, let's say they changed overnight after 9/11. Growing up Muslim in this country was, you know, not that - it was not a political matter before 9/11. You know, I was certainly other and, you know, what was going on inside my house was different than what was going on in houses of my friends, and I was trying to make sense of that.
But it didn't have a political inflection, didn't have political consequences. I think growing up in the culture today, if you're Muslim, absolutely has â it has all of that, and you know, things changed certainly after 9/11.
I like to think of it - I like to think of the positives, you know, that have emerged from it. I think one of the things that has emerged from it is an increased interest in Islamic identity or to Islamic stories or in Muslims. Sometimes that - there's an intensity that's brought to that which is perhaps negative.
But at its root there is more of a place, there's more of a question, and I think that that can be turned to the good.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
AKHTAR: Thank you, Terry. This has been such a pleasure.
GROSS: Ayad Akhtar's new novel is called "American Dervish."
TERRY GROSS, HOST: On Sunday night the Iranian film "A Separation" won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. This was the 35th international award for the film, including top prize at the Berlin Film Festival and major prizes from American critics organizations.
It's currently playing in theaters in this country, and our critic-at-large John Powers says that "A Separation" isn't just a remarkable film but one that takes us inside a country that's far more complicated and fascinating than the one we get from the news headlines.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Over the years, we've grown used to thinking of Iran and the United States as enemies - from the Ayatollah Khomeini dubbing America the Great Satan to the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which has led President Obama to spearhead international sanctions and some of his Republican rivals to talk of bombing Iran.
It's beyond my pay grade to say what all this means in geopolitical terms. But I do know that such enmities had one obvious cultural consequence: It stopped most Americans from seeing, or even wanting to see, Iranian movies. This is too bad, for over the last quarter-century Iran has produced some of the best and most artful filmmakers anywhere. They take us inside the Iran we almost never see, the country as it's actually lived day to day.
No Iranian film has done this more accessibly than "A Separation." Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, this domestic drama is smart, beautifully acted and astonishingly gripping. It grabs you like a crackerjack thriller. I'm not kidding when I say that it's better than any of the Hollywood films currently films being touted for the Oscar.
The story begins with a wife, Simin, played by the ravishing Leila Hatami, trying to convince a magistrate to let her divorce her husband, Nader, played with superb prickliness by Peyman Moadi. You see, Nader refuses to emigrate with her and their teenage daughter, Termeh. He won't leave because he insists on staying to take care of his aging, senile father.
While this may sound like a routine divorce picture - you know, "Kramer vs. Kramer Goes to Tehran" - Farhadi quickly spins things off in unexpected directions. The upper-middle-class Nader hires a devout working-class woman, Razieh, to look after his father.
But Razieh hasn't asked her hotheaded traditionalist husband, Houjat, for permission to take the job. Soon there's a scuffle, the authorities get involved, and through a series of clever, revealing plot twists I won't spoil for you, we start seeing everyone in a whole new light.
If you look carefully at the film's architecture, you can see a metaphor for today's Iran. You see how Nader and Simin's life is dominated by the needs of an imperious old man who is hopelessly out of touch, just like those ruling mullahs.
You see how Simin and Nader's story is emblematic of changing ideas of men and women. She wants to get away from the old patriarchal ways, with all its kowtowing and lies, while he, though sensitive and decent, is grappling with the loss of male prerogative.
And in Nader's bitter dispute with Razieh and Houjat, you see a clash that, in both class and religious terms, echoes our own culture wars between the so-called blue and red states. This is a country brimming with all manner of separations.
Yet what makes the movie so good is that Farhadi never makes you feel you're watching a sociological tract. You're watching living, breathing characters who, just like real people, turn out to be far more complicated than you first think they are.
Nobody is a villain, everybody has their reasons. The devout, downtrodden Razieh has secrets up her sleeve. The angry Houjat is actually a decent man. Simin does love her husband, while he adores their daughter, Termeh, and craves her respect. In fact, it's the watchful Termeh, like all the young of Iran, who will pass the final verdict on who's right and who's wrong.
"A Separation" is a movie that keeps expanding, like one of those paper pellets that, when you drop it in water, blossoms into a flower. In the process, Farhadi turns the story of one couple's collapsing marriage into a vision of an entire society.
We see its tyrannies and fanaticisms, its explosions of violence and small moments of tenderness, its bullheaded men who refuse to lose even if it means lying, and women who believe in telling the truth, but not always.
GROSS: John Power is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. So I have a double-dose of good music news. Catherine Russell, a terrific singer, has a new album, and next week she's going to record a FRESH AIR concert. We'll close with a song from her soon-to-be-released album "Strictly Romancing."
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.