The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright on his relationship to Jewish artists, “the simple sense of being human,” and experiencing his work for the first time along with its audience.
Image by Morgan Moroney.
Standing over the stove in a baseball hat and sweatpants, the writer Ayad Akhtar is making chai. It’s the perfect antidote to a misty gray afternoon in solitary central Harlem. Chai is volatile—boiling liquids, agitated tea leaves, stinging spices—but also reassuring, always finally settling into a deep brown. It is a blend of tradition and intuition, mood stirred together with habit. And it tastes different every time.
Akhtar’s tea is strong and sweet. More impressively, it retains its heat for the hour that we discuss his writing, prizes, and current projects. Akhtar began his career in acting and screenwriting, but his debut novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown, 2012), turned swaths of post-9/11 American readers on to the pre-9/11 Muslim-American experience. Its narrator, the sensitive, ten-year-old Hayat, tells of his childhood curiosities, in particular the allure of Islam, which he gleans from the mystical stories his beloved aunt tells him each night.
In his play Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, Akhtar’s protagonist is Amir, a South Asian-American corporate lawyer who has long rejected youthful notions of tradition, religion, and even ethnicity. The play’s five main characters are as distinct as cardamom pods from cloves; thrown into a pot on New York’s Upper East Side, they dance and hiss their opinions. Akhtar, who loves drama because it can be experienced in the body, insists that the play he spent four years writing came to life only when it did for the three hundred strangers sitting in the audience with him. “That’s the beauty and disappointment of the theater,” he says.
It is a big year for Akhtar. His latest dramatic production, The Who & the What, began previews at Lincoln Center Theater this past Saturday, and its questions—about faith, identity, contemporary America, the possibility of bridging the divide between one’s heritage and modern life—echo those posed in Disgraced. The New York Theater Workshop, whose mission is to promote “aesthetically, thematically, and methodologically diverse” productions, will be showcasing another of his works, The Invisible Hand, along with three other plays. It goes up in November, and is the centerpiece of the company’s recently announced 2014/15 season.
It was a rainy Friday afternoon in mid-April when Akhtar and I met at his book-lined apartment, which sits one floor above his office, in Manhattan’s Hamilton Heights. Akhtar believes his work is “reflective of a kid brought up on TV who spent all of college reading Ibsen and Beckett and Shakespeare.” And he gives his characters the same diversity of thought and experience.
—Aditi Sriram for Guernica
Guernica: You are described in various interviews as an actor, screenwriter, author, and playwright. How do you see yourself and the work you do?
Ayad Akhtar: I think of myself as a narrative artist. I don’t think of myself as a novelist or screenwriter or playwright. All of those modalities of processing and experiencing narrative are obviously very different, and I’m not sure that I prefer any one to the other. I think the novel gives you the opportunity to have a kind of interiority that you can’t have in the theater, which is pure exteriority. That pure exteriority, paradoxically, creates a much more heightened interiority for the audience. So if you want to really deeply touch the viewer or the reader, the theater might be the most powerful way to do it. When it’s done right, obviously. When it’s not done right it’s really boring.
I’ve had very powerful experiences in movies, but seminal experiences in the theater and as a reader of great novels are the things that have marked me most.
Guernica: You’ve described your play Disgraced as “deeply American.” Would you use that same phrase to describe your upbringing in Milwaukee? You were raised in a secular home, yes?
Ayad Akhtar: Basically. My mom is devotional in a sort of traditional, South Asian pre-Zia Ul Haq [the president of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988] way, before Islam became this big thing in Pakistan. [Islam] changed a lot, and became a much more politically and socially visible phenomenon in terms of its performance after Zia. So my parents’ generation was not particularly interested in religion per se as an identity marker. They tried to be more like the West. My mom grew up loving Elvis Presley and reading Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She had a poster of Johnny Cash on her wall. She was educated by convent nuns. It was a completely different orientation. And my dad has always been particularly uninterested in matters of faith.
Guernica: As a kid, were a lot of your friends churchgoing? Did religion come up?
Ayad Akhtar: It did. I’ve always felt a connection to kids who go to church. I think I’m fundamentally a religiously oriented and religiously minded person. It’s very easy for me to communicate with people who have that same grounding, that same vocabulary or modality of thinking and expressing themselves. I wouldn’t say that I got interested in Christianity, but I certainly was interested in what they said about their experiences and their faith. My exposure to it as a kid in Milwaukee meant that I found a personal meaning in a lot of it, and in the American tradition of people—Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich—who’ve been thinking about Christianity in very interesting ways.
Guernica: What about Judaism?
Ayad Akhtar: My relationship to Jewish artists and writers began when I was very young. It started with Chaim Potok, and in college I discovered Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Seinfeld. All of that stuff was hugely influential in helping me think about my experience. There seemed to be so many commonalities; I found myself and my community in those works, oddly.
I think there is a lot of continuity between the Jewish and the Islamic traditions. We know this historically, though people don’t want to talk about that—especially Muslims. There is a common source for both Judaism and Islam, or let’s say that Islam finds its source in Judaism. The commonalities of practice and sensibility, ethos and mythos, create a lot of overlap.
Growing up, the only part of my identity that mattered was being Muslim, and I knew that. Being Pakistani was not as important as being Muslim.
Post-9/11, the notion of “Muslims” taking on a potential truculence [corresponds to]—although it’s different—ways in which Jews were seen pejoratively within dominant Western cultures. Something about the orientation of faith being your identity marker as opposed to nationality or ethnicity. Post-9/11, that is an issue: folks get labeled “Muslim” no matter where they’re from. If you are Muslim, then that is part of it, but here’s the complicating factor for me: growing up, the only part of my identity that mattered was being Muslim, and I knew that. Being Pakistani was not as important as being Muslim. So the black guy whom I met who’s a Muslim, I’m much closer to him than the Christian Pakistani guy who is my dad’s friend. We have a closer bond. This was innate to me as a kid.
I don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish, but I suspect there is some aspect of that: being Jewish is the thing that bonds you as opposed to being Jewish from Poland, or Jewish from Hungary.
Guernica: But both Disgraced and your book American Dervish show a very bitter antagonism between the two faiths.
Ayad Akhtar: I think American Dervish is much more about the confrontation and confluences between Jewish and Islamic stuff, and I think Disgraced is much more about the political dimension: the way that the Muslim Ummah, or consciousness, has framed the Jewish question post-Israel. So there is an overlap, but also a huge difference, in the two works.
I want to write a sequel to American Dervish that will go much deeper into all of this—less the political and more the spiritual, the religio-historical. I imagine Hayat working with a Kabbalistic master in the sequel, somebody who brings him back to Islam. Oddly, he has to find a Jewish master to bring him back to his own faith.
This is the interweave: you can’t even think about the Prophet without thinking about the Prophet as a literary meditation on Jewish tropes of prophetology.
The Quran is many different things, and we also have to see the Quran almost as a secondary source commenting on the Old Testament. I was just reading about Moses in both Exodus and Genesis, and in the Quran. There’s a precision with which the Quran is quoting the Old Testament, but also transforming certain details: Moses not hiding his arm in his armpit to show a leper’s arm, but a healed arm. The Quran heals Moses’s arm, whereas the Old Testament is very happy to use that sign in the opposite way. There’s such a tight-knit connection between the two texts.
John Wansbrough went through the Quran and demonstrated borrowings at the level of locution from Judaic texts. And so, again, we know that that was part of pre-Islamic Arabia. Part of the mythology of the Prophet pre-visitation by Gabriel for the first time is his exposure to Christian holy men and Jewish holy men.
Guernica: What do you make of the American preoccupation with memoir and the autobiography? Novelists will write a book in the first person and many readers will think, “That has to have happened to them in real life.”
Ayad Akhtar: Especially if you’re a writer of color or if you’re a woman. Because if you fall into either of those categories, you’re expected to be writing of your experience. But if you’re not, then you can write about anything.
It’s always perplexing to me, the ways in which my own autobiography has found its way into my work. And it’s often very misleading. I’ll take details, and they are working in the opposite way from which they existed in my life. The story begins to have its own demands: I need this, that, and the other, and I could use this thing, but I have to change it. And so that comes into the story, and it has the register of authentic life, and people think, of course, it must have happened exactly like that.
They’re going to get confused if they keep reading what I’m working on. They’ll think, “How can he be that and that? It doesn’t make any sense!”
Guernica: But Disgraced did arise out of an actual dinner party that took place. You saw the potential in that experience.
Ayad Akhtar: What I saw, subtly, was the way in which folks’ idea of me, even people who knew me very well, changed because I articulated certain things about my experience of being Muslim. And that struck me as an inherently powerful vehicle, or idea, for a story. About three years passed between that dinner party and me even having the thought that I could write it as a play. And when I went back to do that, I had this thought process: OK, here are these characters, and a dinner party, and I remember what we talked about, but I can’t have them talk about those things, so what happens if we just put these things into motion? A very early draft of the play was much more talky, and not as driven by backstory, by onstage needs, things that people want from one another. That was something that began to evolve over a very long process.
I’d say for the first two and a half years I didn’t know what the play was about. I was just writing, and Amir would keep talking.
I finished writing Disgraced at the beginning of 2009 and it had its first production in 2012, three years later, and I continued to rewrite it through London [in 2013]. So it was basically four years of really, really writing, constantly writing. And I’d say for the first two and a half years I didn’t know what the play was about. I was just writing, and Amir would keep talking, and I would keep trying to understand what in god’s name he was saying. And it was so strong, and it just kept going, and then I finally got it. But it really took me a whole production to understand that.
Guernica: It must have been helpful to have a character yelling at you as you wrote your way into the story. Can you talk more about the workshopping process?
Ayad Akhtar: I’ve been in the theater for most of my life, I just had never written a play. I’ve written a lot of screenplays, long-form fiction. After I finished Disgraced, I actually wrote three other plays back to back, so in eight months, I wrote four plays. And then I had the first reading of Disgraced. The work that’s now coming out all comes from that time, and has all been through workshop, and first production, and I did huge rewrites before we went to Lincoln Center.
I’m still coming to understand my own process as a dramatic writer. But the thing I’m discovering is that there’s no substitute for it being on its feet. I could not have imagined the quantum shift in perspective that happens when I’m experiencing the work as embodied by a group of actors, as opposed to imagining it on the screen, on the page. [Seeing it is understanding] its capacity for impact, and understanding what impact means, what action is.
I experience that story for the first time when the audience does. Up until then, it’s just notes toward a story.
Guernica: What happens when you see your play come alive, the characters moving and speaking?
Ayad Akhtar: I have the experience in my body. My body experiences the work for the first time, and I know when something’s missing. I’m like, “Where’s this—why did that end there? Oh, because I ended it there!” I feel the audience’s trajectory. And I’m a very traditional storyteller, it’s not like the audience is having radically different experiences of the narrative. They’re having one experience, which they like or don’t like, or have conflicted feelings about. They’re experiencing a thing, which is a story, and I experience that story for the first time when they do. Up until then, it’s just notes toward a story. That’s the quantum shift that happens for me.
And it’s wonderful—my god, it is so wonderful. It’s also nerve-wracking: I don’t really know what I’ve done, and the first time I’m going to know what I’ve done is when three hundred people are sitting in the audience watching it with me. “Oh, that’s what that is…that’s what the story is… I thought the story was this other thing.” It’s a beautiful process.
Guernica: American Dervish ends with “Reading Guide Questions,” and Disgraced includes your essay “On Reading Plays,” as well as an interview about the play at the end. Do you think these contribute to a better understanding of your work?
Ayad Akhtar: Here’s the problem: we are living in a time when the act of reading is changing. The nature of a reader’s attention is changing. The capacity for deep literary engagement is changing. I don’t believe that that is a harbinger for a less profound experience with a viewer or a reader, but it means that the terms of that interaction are changing. Enormous prima facie demands on a reader are going to limit, in today’s day and age, their capacity to engage in a multivalent conversation with a work. Folks are not even reading articles on the Internet anymore: you read two sentences, you scan the rest for some opinion or some nugget, and you move on to something else.
I think that the thematic, formal history of the literary form ultimately harkens back to a different political system. That is to say, a feudal order: the aristocratic dispensation of leisure time, the refinements of the self. With the shift from feudal aristocracy to democracy there has been a long process of evolution. I think we’re in the throes of a kind of steep, logarithmic shift, and I think that literary forms are losing their capacity to connect people to issues, to the experiences that feel most meaningful to them.
I had a readership, because of American Dervish, that I suspected might be interested in Disgraced, but I suspected might also not be in the habit of reading plays. And so I wanted to offer some way of conceiving how that experience was going to be different, and what to pay attention to in the process of reading. And then at the end of the play, everyone is always asking me, “What does the play mean?” so I thought, let me offer an interview that talks around what it means, without answering the question, and opens up the possibility for folks to have that conversation on their own.
Guernica: Given the guides in your books, do you have a specific person in mind when you write?
Ayad Akhtar: No. I’ve suffered a lot in this business, working as an artist in America. One of the things that I have learned, one of the attainments of the long travails and tribulations, has been, I think, coming to a simpler sense of myself that I think correlates to a simpler sense of others. Something closer to what I now call the simple sense of being human, a sort of Wallace Stevens-esque formulation. I know that I can reach this in the audience, because when they start hearing a story, they wake up in this very clear, simple way. Almost like children. It’s the same thing: a child asks, “What’s going to happen next?” When they sense that a story is being told to them, they wake up. When they sense that it’s not being told anymore, they lose interest. I take this very seriously, because the sacred trust that allows openness is the precondition of the kind of exchange I want to have, the kind of relationship that I want to have. I don’t want to test that simple sense of being human. I don’t want to transform it.
Arriving at an innate appreciation and capacity to recognize that has been the attainment of my life. I have no interest in problematizing things. So what I am writing to is that simple sense of being human in myself. And if I do that, I know that I’m going to do it with others, because it’s the same thing: I have it, you have it, everybody in the audience, all the readers, have it. Is everybody going to appreciate it? Maybe not. But that’s what I write to. I don’t have an ideal reader. I’m trying to reach something simple and, I believe, universal, in every single person.
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