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Ayad Akhtar stars in The War Within, which he also wrote. Magnolia Pictures
Ayad Akhtar stars in The War Within, which he also wrote. Magnolia Pictures

Pakistani-American author finds success when he returns to his roots

David Lepeska talks to the über-prolific novelist, screenwriter, playwright and actor Ayad Akhtar about the struggle to find his voice and what it means to be a Muslim artist in the West.

Ayad Akhtar’s writing career may have begun with a whimper, but aspiring writers and literary historians may someday study his early years for clues to his eventual meteoric rise.

In a freshman-year fiction class at the University of Rochester, in New York, Akhtar’s professor urged him to send one of his short stories to The New Yorker for publication.

“I never sent it, I was too scared,” the 41-year-old recalled during a recent interview at the American Theatre Company on Chicago’s North Side. “I felt I was going to be called out as a fake. So I stopped writing and didn’t write for seven years.”

Akhtar fell into theatre, teaching acting in New York and Europe before studying film and writing screenplays. He gained confidence, life experience and a firmer grasp of drama. Then, several years ago, he found his voice and tapped into a geyser of creativity.

His script for the 2005 film The War Within – in which he played the lead role – earned several screenwriting honours. More recently, critics have lavished praise on his debut novel, American Dervish, published last month. His first play has won mostly positive notices since its late January premiere in Chicago, and its producers hope to move it to Broadway. To top it off, another Akhtar play will debut in the United States in March.

“This is an embarrassment of riches that I don’t understand,” he says with a shrug and a bewildered grin. “I think this business, show business, is a business of attrition. Sooner or later your relationships, your craft and your voice will coalesce into something, but you have to stick it out.”

Born in 1970 outside Milwaukee, Akhtar grew up in a mostly white, well-to-do suburb. Both of his Punjab-born parents worked as doctors. Much like the parents of Hayat Shah, the 10-year-old, Milwaukee-reared protagonist of his novel, Akhtar’s parents maintained a certain distance from the local Pakistani community, and from Islam.

Today, Akhtar lives in New York City’s Harlem. He is slim and poised, with long, elegant fingers and a standard expression of Midwestern welcome. He moves with an actor’s deliberateness and speaks with the confidence of a man in firm grasp of his art.

He remembers being drawn to Islam at nine years old. “There was something about the Quran and stories of the Prophet that pointed at an unfathomable depth of experience,” he says, before recalling a less austere touchstone from that period. “In the Empire Strikes Back, Yoda’s discourses on reality with Luke Skywalker resonated in the same way.”

A similarly open-minded approach to identity stands out in his work. In Dervish, a key Jewish character considers converting to Islam for marriage, while the young protagonist negotiates between the minimalist Islam of his parents, the devout Islam of a live-in family friend and the liberated Muslim adolescents of 1980s Wisconsin.

After swearing off writing, Akhtar transferred to Brown University, in Rhode Island, to study theatre. He earned a film degree from Columbia University and, by age 25, had become a struggling screenwriter.

“I worked with all these amazing producers and got beat up,” says Akhtar, citing executives from Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Pictures and Mark Burnett, of reality TV fame, among his mentors. “That four-year apprenticeship in writing screenplays taught me so much.”

The main lesson may have been a shift in perspective. After years of writing about external, less familiar subjects, he returned to his own life, to Pakistani-Americans, and writing became a joy. “At some point I realised I was avoiding who I really was, and that’s when people started connecting with my work,” says Akhtar.

Over the next eight years he wrote The War Within (with a Columbia film school classmate), American Dervish and his two plays, Disgraced and Invisible Hand. The day after his agent sent it out to publishers, the novel sold to Little, Brown and Company, a top literary firm, for six figures. Within a fortnight the rights had been snapped up in nearly 20 countries.

The plays may be a more difficult sell, with their grim portraits of contemporary Muslim life. In Disgraced, the cousin of the protagonist, Amir, advocates taqiyyah, or dissembling to protect one’s faith. In a recollection from his childhood, Amir’s mother spits on her own son for his adolescent interest in a Jewish girl – a dismissal he in turn passes on to the girl. Beaten down by the delicate politics of post-9/11 America, Amir ultimately destroys his marriage and his life.

In Invisible Hand, which opens next month at St. Louis’ Repertory Theatre, an American investment banker working on emerging markets in Pakistan is kidnapped by extremists who force him to generate his own ransom by trading stocks. The story draws a connection between violent extremism and the havoc wreaked by the global financial system.

Akhtar admits that his stage works – set in the post-9/11 world – are darker and less optimistic than his novel. “The plays are both pretty dystopian,” he says. “They pose dark questions about the realities of where we are politically.”

Kimberly Senior, the director of Disgraced, reads three or four plays a week and watches close to 100 every year. Yet she saw something new in Akhtar’s first play. “It blew me away,” she says, “I was shocked and couldn’t believe that Ayad had gone there. This is a story that hasn’t been told.”

New York’s Araca Group, which recently produced A View from the Bridge, starring Scarlett Johannson, co-produced the Chicago production of Disgraced with ATC and hopes to take the play to Broadway.

Akhtar is doing his best to stay grounded. He calls himself “deeply devout”. His disdain for bigotry against women is clear in his work, particularly in the character of Mina Ali.

Intelligent and strikingly beautiful, Mina is an undeniably charismatic presence in American Dervish. She is also a devout Muslim and, as Akhtar wrote in a recent essay for The Daily Beast, “subject – in tragic ways – to a patriarchal order with which she struggles”.

The New York Times described American Dervish as “effortlessly told” and “immensely entertaining”, comparing it to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri and Neil Simon. The latter reference greatly pleased Akhtar, who cites Jewish-American writers such as Simon, Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld among his influences.

“I feel like they’ve given me a way to tell stories about a religious minority in the American project,” he says. “That’s really the sensibility that’s informed me more than any Muslim writers of my generation.”

In his writing Akhtar strives only to give pleasure and to be guided by the truth. It’s an artistic mandate that appears to be working. He’s completed his third play, a comedy. He’s talking to Hollywood about producing one of his screenplays. And he’s waist-deep into his next novel, involving a Pakistani-American artist living in Vienna. “It’s about young western Muslims dealing with identity in a very highly politicised environment,” he says. “Things in Europe are of course disastrous right now.” On a recent trip, says Akhtar, German border guards rudely asked only the Muslims aboard a train from Austria for their papers. Days later, a German villager, muttering under his breath, called Akhtar a “Taliban” and told him to get out of the country.

Much as Europeans are grappling with a staggering influx of immigrants and their unfamiliar culture, Akhtar sees Muslims the world over struggling to balance modern life with Islam. Some are moving towards a more fundamentalist interpretation, while others have embraced a more moderate stance. “The jury is still out as to what direction this is going to take,” says Akhtar.

Though his writing focuses on Muslim life in the West, Akhtar has a message for those looking to anoint him as the spokesperson for Muslim America. “People expect a writer to be a spokesman for a community,” says Akhtar. “I am not a spokesman for anything. I’m an artist, and I should be judged on how convincing my portrayals are.”

David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National’s Qatar correspondent. He lives in Chicago.

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