Ayad Akhtar's debut novel American Dervish concerns seldom-explored territory in American literature: What does it mean to be both Muslim and American?
It's the coming-of-age story of Hayat Shah, the son of Pakistani migrants growing up in 1980s Wisconsin. Hayat's life brightens with the arrival of his mother's beautiful best friend Mina, who has fled a disastrous marriage in Pakistan. Mina's devotion to her faith provokes a spiritual awakening in Hayat, but his faith journey gets mixed up with his growing infatuation. When Mina falls in love with a Jewish intellectual, Hayat's growing passions merge with his feelings of betrayal, driving a dramatic rift through the Shah household.
American Dervish examines both a clash of cultures and a clash between religion and secular society, quoting extensively from the Quran in English as the characters bring their sometimes-shifting interpretations to its words.
Akhtar was an accomplished screenwriter and playwright prior to writing this first novel. "The story of Dervish was something that had been with me for a long time" says Akhtar, "and I felt I finally had the craft to be able to give it a try."
Q: Like Hayat, you grew up in the mid-west as the son of Pakistani immigrants. How much of Hayat's story is drawn from your own childhood experiences?
A: In some ways, yes. But mostly from the point of view of detail and texture. The events that unfold in the novel are not things that happened to me or that I did. And yet it's safe to say everything in the book comes from something I saw or experienced, or something someone close to me went through.
Q: Tell us about the significance of the title
A: The word dervish is often understood in American parlance to refer to whirling Muslim monks from Turkey, but the word really just connotes a renunciate in the Islamic tradition, the sort of person we could also refer to as a Sufi, that is, a practitioner of techniques intended to bring about the experience of the divine. Mina, the book's central character, tries to aspire to this ideal. She seeks to be shorn of her attachments to the self. The narrator, Hayat, goes through his own shedding of attachments, to his various ideas of God, faith, etc. So the title is meant to be one the reader reflects on.
Q: The book examines the contradictions between characters' beliefs and their actions. What interests you about this?
A: The book dramatizes the conflict between three points of view on faith: The rationalist-humanist rejection of it, the literalist orthodox accepting of it, and the personal mystical use of faith as a vehicle to a deeper sense of the present. These three points of view battle it out in the evolving consciousness of Hayat, the pre-teen narrator. In the end, everyone is acting based on their beliefs, and the rapture and pain that these beliefs occasion in the characters' lives is what the book is really all about.
Q: Unusually for a debut novel, American Dervish was snapped up quickly by the publisher and has been published in several languages. Why do you think the book has made such an impact?
A: I still don't get it! Of course, I am so grateful for it all. I think that the book responds both to a curiosity about Muslims in the West, but also tells a very universal story. I continue to be surprised by how many emails and comments I get from people saying: "I thought this book was going to be about people very different from me, but it wasn't. I felt like it was about my family." That's so gratifying.
Q: How does your background as a playwright, a screenwriter and an actor influence your writing as novelist?
A: I think the novel shows the influence of my work as a screenwriter. I always wanted the book to have that feeling of a continuous flow that a good movie does. So much of American Dervish is told in scenes, through dialogue, through gesture. I kept the language simple. I didn't want there to be any interference between the reader and the immediacy of the story and the characters. I was looking for a way for the reader to be able to feel a being-with that a viewer feels with characters in a movie.
Q: What's your next project?
A: In addition to getting up a couple of my stage plays up, I am currently working on my next novel. It's set in Europe. In Vienna, Austria, and is centred around an American-born Muslim American artist living and working in Central Europe. I am interested in exploring issues of art and representation, but in the context of a very politicised cultural climate, as there is now in Europe for Muslims.