Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ayad Akhtar is taking a break from opening his play The Who & The What in Southern California to deliver a free lecture Sunday at The Studios of Key West.
What is Akhtar, 43, a Muslim American, going to discuss?
For starters, he says, he will “talk about what I’ve been through as a writer, and how I find my way.”
He also plans to engage with the audience, “to sense what sorts of things are on their mind.”
Akhtar has a limited personal knowledge of Key West, a longtime writer’s haven, having made just a few trips to the island city for relaxation over the past five years.
Key West is a place with the motto “One Human Family.” The diverse population, with its constant influx of national and international tourists, prides itself on its welcoming attitude and ability to get along.
But Akhtar views that type of utopian vision, the kind of view Benetton embraces in its United Colors of Benetton campaign, as more a commercial image than a reality.
“That trained cynicism is not particularly a truthful statement about where we are as a society,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It can tell us something about the strategies that folks are using to sell products. Those are the kinds of gap that I’m interested in exploring in this play.”
The play he is referring to is Disgraced, which earned him the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It tells the story of Amir Kapoor, an affluent attorney in a high-powered New York law firm who changed his last name from Abdullah and hid his Muslim roots from his Jewish bosses.
Kapoor’s life tragically changes virtually overnight after an elegant dinner party with his WASP wife Emily, his African-American female law colleague and her Jewish art-dealer boyfriend. The celebratory affair, in which wine and the thread count of a $600 shirt are discussed, turns into a heated argument over religion and politics during which the Koran is called “one very long hate mail letter to humanity.”
The discussion evolves around a mention in a newspaper article that Kapoor was working on a case of a local imam who had been unjustly accused of raising money for terrorists. Kapoor did not want to get involved in the case but was guilted into it by his nephew.
Akhtar’s writing of Disgraced was fueled by a rage inside of him that was subconsciously decades in the making. It’s a rage that still partly exists, one too complex for him to explain in a few sentences, he said.
“I think as human beings, we all share a certain outrage over injustice,” he said. “Isaac [Baschevis Singer], the great Nobel Laureate Jewish writer, talked about his outrage against God, the confusion of its existence. Disgraced is trying to tap into something that is very archetypal and universal.”
Akhtar was born in 1970 in New York to parents who had emigrated from Pakistan in the late 1960s. His mother and father were among the sought-after medical professionals who were given visas, plane tickets, apartments and jobs to relocate to the United States as part of a federal program initiated by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
“We were part of that first influx of immigrants from the continent that were almost exclusively professional,” Akhtar said. “Soon after, a lot of relatives and friends followed. They were less skilled and began small businesses or driving taxis, the sort of thing now that people come to associate with that community. But we were part of the first wave.”
His mother was a radiologist; his father completed a residency in cardiology and became a specialist in the then-new field of arrhythmia technology. The University of Wisconsin offered his father an opportunity to open a lab, so the family moved to a suburb of Milwaukee when Akhtar was about 4. They found themselves in a place with few other Muslim-American families.
“Wisconsin has good, smart, open-hearted people,” Akhtar said. “But I don’t know if they had any concept of where I was from. I could have been from Jamaica or Antarctica. To them it was all the same. I was not Midwestern.”
While he experienced no exclusion in a hostile way while growing up, Akhtar said his childhood was a constant negotiation, in which he as the oldest child was translating the new American culture to his parents who were raised in a traditional Muslim system.
Akhtar got a theater degree at Brown University and would later earn his master’s in directing at Columbia University. His early writing unconsciously avoided anything about where he came from.
“I never thought it would be anything anybody else would be interested in,” he said. “I wrote a long novel about a guy who was a poet working at Goldman Sachs. I wrote about things I knew something about, but not really delving into the depth of my experience.”
Then came 9/11. The Muslim-American experience would never be the same. Many Muslim migrants began to reconsider their sense of self and belief.
Akhtar’s “gateway” into the exploration of his roots came in 2005, after discussions about the world with friends from Columbia’s film school. He co-wrote The War Within, a story about a conflicted student who was radicalized into becoming a terrorist. It became a movie, with Akhtar starring as the would-be terrorist.
“In the wake of making that film, I was confronted with a different understanding of who I was and who I had become,” he said.
It led to his play, The Who & The What, about the complicated interplay between Muslim tradition and beliefs and contemporary American life, and American Dervish, his debut novel about the coming-of-age of a Muslim-American boy. It has been published in 25 languages.
In all his works, the goal has never been to correct misperceptions that non-Muslims may have about Muslims and Muslim Americans, he says.
And while some people may see his plays, read his novels or hear him speak in order to learn more about Muslim culture, Akhtar says, “Most find meaning in my work because they find themselves in it.
“Not because they find Muslims in it.”