Actor-writer Ayad Akhtar

The actor-writer talks about the real-life experiences that inspired his first novel, American Dervish, relates Islam to Christianity and discusses his challenges as a storyteller to expose new truths that readers would not normally consider.

Actor-writer Ayad Akhtar is the author of numerous screenplays and was star and co-writer of the feature The War Within, for which he received an Independent Spirit Award nod for best screenplay. He's also a playwright, whose recent work, Disgraced, is headed to New York's Lincoln Center this fall. Akhtar won multiple awards for his work while earning his degree from Columbia University's Graduate Film Program. A first generation Pakistani American, he looks at the powerful forces at work on young people who grow up Muslim in America in his debut novel, American Dervish.


Tavis: Ayad Akhtar is a noted playwright and actor who can now add acclaimed novelist to his resume. His first-ever novel, in fact, “American Dervish,” is easily one of the most-lauded books of the year thus far. The book is based on his own experiences as a Muslim from Pakistan growing up in America and has already been sold to nearly two dozen foreign publishers. Ayad, not bad for a first novel.

Ayad Akhtar: Yeah, no kidding.

Tavis: Good to have you here.

Akhtar: Good to be here, thank you.

Tavis: I mentioned, obviously, a moment ago that this is based on your life’s experiences, so I guess semi-autobiographical. I think each and every one of us has a story. Put another way, each of us is a story.

But what is it about your story, your growing up, that you wanted us to come to terms with?

Akhtar: I think I wanted to tell the story about faith in this country, and I wanted to tell the story about religious faith. I feel like one of the things that is central to American life is the religious experience, and I think that the experience of being Muslim in America is as valid and as important a perspective on the religious experience of America as evangelical Christianity or Judaism – whatever it may be.

I also wanted to tell – I think I wanted to tell a story that was familiar. It’s a coming-of-age story, it’s a story about a dysfunctional family, it’s an immigrant story. Those are all tropes that are common to the American literary canon.

But I wanted to tell that story in an idiom that as new – that is to say, the Muslim American experience.

Tavis: The way you choose to get into that in this novel is interesting for me. So it’s told through the eyes of, the experiences of a young boy who falls in love with a woman who breaks his heart, eventually, when she falls in love with a Jew.

Akhtar: Yeah.

Tavis: So you got religion in play here already.

Akhtar: I do.

Tavis: I’ll let you take it from there.

Akhtar: Okay. The story is about a beautiful, brilliant Pakistani woman named Mina who comes to America to rebuild her life after a horrible divorce back in Pakistan. She has a 4-year-old son she brings to this country.

When she comes here, she lives with the family friends that she knew back in Pakistan, but who have emigrated here, and the book is narrated from the perspective of the boy of that family that she comes to stay with. His name is Hayat. Takes place over the course of two years that she stays with them; he’s from the ages of 10 to 12.

She opens him up to his faith. His parents are secular Muslims and they’re not particularly interested in religion. His father is actually violently against religion, he’s a real rational humanist.

Hayat is at that point in his life where maybe the soul and the body haven’t yet separated, and there’s an awakening that’s happening in him that’s both sexual but also still spiritual.

So she opens up vistas of experience and emotion that he’s never experienced before. That kind of all gets conflated with his appreciation for an inculcation and education in Islam, the folkloric tales and the experience of the Qur’an that she introduces to him.

So what ends up happening over the course of the story is that this 12-year-old boy ends up in a way, without realizing what’s happening, falling in love with this older woman, and when she begins to have this courtship with his father’s best friend, who’s a Jewish doctor, he begins to feel, again, things he doesn’t understand, which end up being destructive jealousy.

It ends up becoming a destructive jealousy. What he ends up doing in the book is what the book is about, in many ways, but what the book offers – what that story offers me the opportunity to do is to explore the awakening of a legitimate childhood experience of faith, and then how that begins to evolve in his evolving consciousness.

There are three points of view on faith in the book. There is the literalist orthodox sort of acceptance of a rule-bound faith, there’s the rational humanist rejection of it, and then there’s the mystical, personal use of faith as a vehicle to a deeper expression and experience of the present, of life, and Mina, this woman who changes his life, is a representative of that point of view.

So those three points of view on faith are sort of battling it out in his evolving consciousness to very dramatic and ultimately destructive ends.

Tavis: Why faith? I ask that because of all of the stories that have not yet been told, of all the ways in to get us to wrestle with – put another way, to appreciate the humanity of Muslims, why faith as the way in?

Akhtar: Because it’s important for me. It has been important for me in my life. I think that not to be overly heady about it, but in a way, I think that a lot of the world is grappling with the heritage of the enlightenment, which has not been able to respond to certain fundamental human needs.

I think that we are looking for those answers, even if we won’t find them. We’re looking for those answers and more often than not we’re looking to religion. So the way that religion has taken on a kind of violent amplitude in the current political landscape across the world is part and parcel of the fact that I think there are holes that are trying to be filled. People are looking for things to fill those holes.

Faith is an important part of our history in the civil rights movement; you can’t imagine the civil rights movement without the experience of the Southern Black religious experience.

So there’s a lot to be gained from our history in faith, and I think sometimes it gets a bad rap. But you obviously can’t write a book that’s going to be of any interest from a sort of intellectual point of view. It’s something that is deeply important to me. It’s an important part of my life.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because I wanted to ask, and I will now, how it is that you write a book like this, that has not just faith but Muslim faith at the epicenter of the novel when you know full well that this happens to be a subject matter yet that Americans have not been able to wrap our brains around.

Maybe, speaking of the way in, the way forward, maybe the way forward is through a novel, since we all love to read books. Maybe that’s what you were trying to get at here.

But why even attempt something when you know that the majority of the American public – if not the majority, a lot of us – have not been able to wrap our brains around even just respecting it as a legitimate faith tradition?

Akhtar: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think that when you pose it to me in that way, I see what you’re saying, but I think that when – and me as a writer, I don’t live in that perspective because the questions are of such moment and such immediacy to me that I’m writing from things that just feel very second nature to me.

I’ve also been around a while. I’m 41 and I’ve been writing for a long time, and it’s only recently that folks have really started paying attention to what I’m doing. I think that in some ways I’m not sure I expected anybody to read the book. So I’m as overjoyed as anyone that it’s getting the kind of attention that it’s getting.

So I don’t think I wrote the book with the idea in mind that a vast American public was going to read it, but I definitely wrote it – I come from the movies and from the theater, and the audience, the reader, is essential to me.

I don’t want to be talking above. I have a sort of twin aesthetic mandate which is that it must give pleasure on the one hand, and it must also be guided by a pursuit of the truth. Those two things have to kind of coexist.

So I wasn’t thinking about answering the question of how to expose the wide American public to the Muslim faith.

Tavis: How do you juxtapose those two things, the point that I made and the point you made; namely, that a lot of Americans have not wrapped their brains around yet – or their hearts, I should say – about respecting the Muslim faith tradition with the fact that the book has been so wonderfully and wildly received and reviewed?

Akhtar: Well, I think there must be a connection there, because I think that there is a desire for – I think folks have a desire to sort of experience the Muslim experience in a way that’s accessible to them, and I think they’re hoping for vehicles that are going to give them that opportunity.

I don’t know if my book is that, but some people seem to think it is and if it is, I think that that’s great. Ultimately I feel like I’m trying to write a story that’s universal. I want to write a story that is about the experience of faith, no matter what tradition you come from.

There’s a perception out there, I think, that somehow Muslims are inured to doubt, that they don’t have doubt. That something about the Islamic faith is somehow different, and that people are going to be willing to do things for the sake of faith in an unquestioning way that nobody else would do.

I think that one of the deeper messages, if there is a message in “Dervish,” is that Muslims grapple with doubt, too, because doubt is an essential part of the experience of faith.

Tavis: You said something that may have been a Freudian slip, and if it’s not, I’m going to take it anyway, because it leads me down a path of questioning that at least I find interesting at the moment, which is when you suggested that Muslims, those who practice and believe in Islam, wrestle with faith, you meant to say “doubt,” and you said, “faith.”

Akhtar: Yes.

Tavis: Now, there are a lot of Christians and a lot of Americans who happen not – there are a lot of Christians, let’s put it that way. There are a lot of Christians who are, in fact, Christians, but they still wrestle with faith. Do, to your earlier point, that earlier slip, do Muslims wrestle with faith? Doubt I get.

Akhtar: Yeah.

Tavis: But do they wrestle with faith the way that we do?

Akhtar: I think so. I think what’s happening across the world right now is I think there’s a younger generation of Muslims who look to the older generations and see two examples, and one is the assimilationist rejection model, and the other is the model of a sort of oppositional to the West, which has a long history. It’s a sort of post-colonial response to Western invasion and Western occupation, Western definition of the Middle East and further East in the subcontinent.

I think that those models are obsolete, and I think that young Muslims are looking for different ways to relate to Islam. Not necessarily to reject it outright, and not necessarily to have to accept it as it has been interpreted and understand for over a thousand years if you’re Sunni, because the way of approaching the faith is still very rigid, in terms of reading the Qur’an, for example, which is one of the things that the book challenges.

So I think that young Muslims across the world are asking the question and are struggling and grappling with the issue of faith, because there is this sense, I think, amongst young people, you sort of read the statistics about monasteries in Korea, which are filled with Westerners, young Westerners who are meditating.

There is this movement across the planet, people looking for answers where they feel that there might still be wisdom to be gotten.

Tavis: What answers could those of us who happen not to be of that faith tradition, what answers can be gleaned? I ask that because I think there’s something to learn from every faith.

Akhtar: Absolutely, absolutely.

Tavis: To your earlier point about the Qur’an in the book, we’re not going to go read the Qur’an, necessarily.

Akhtar: You’d be surprised how many people have read “Dervish” write me emails later. They say, “The first thing I did is I got a Qur’an after I read your book.”

Tavis: Tell me more. I want to hear about this, yeah.

Akhtar: Well, there’s a few things about the Qur’an. One is that the translations are – they’re so difficult to penetrate, so one of the things that I did was I excerpted – I’ve got sections of the Qur’an because young Hayat is memorizing the Qur’an. In Islam there’s this tradition of being hafiz, where you memorize the entire book.

He doesn’t realize he’s memorizing it in the wrong language, but he’s memorizing it in English, and there’s sections of the Qur’an in the book, and I wanted to create reader-friendly versions that would preserve the meaning, but that would have a poetic access.

I think one of the things that has made it difficult for Westerners or non-Muslims to penetrate the Qur’an, which is a difficult text, in many ways, is that they don’t find a way in on a linguistic level.

The other thing about the Qur’an that’s so important is that you can see the Qur’an as many different things, and I think one of the important ways of seeing the Qur’an that people don’t talk about enough is as a secondary source commenting on the Old Testament.

In the Qur’an, there are so many references to stories and figures from the Old Testament told in fragmentary ways, as if to imply that the audience that the Qur’an was intended for already had an understanding of those things, so that the links between Judaism and Islam are actually very, very deep, and they’re much deeper than anybody will give them credit for, for obvious sort of political reasons.

So I don’t know if that answers your question about the Qur’an, but that’s where your question took me.

Tavis: No, it does answer it. The other part of that, though, is – the first part of the question was what is it you think we can learn from the faith tradition by at least trying to learn more about it.

Akhtar: Right. I appreciate the question and I’m going to answer. I just want to – the caveat being I don’t want to offer myself as some fountain of wisdom about it.

I think that one of the things that I find very meaningful in the faith, and I consider myself a cultural Muslim. I have studied religion in college in addition to theater and have had a very active relationship with a number of traditions over the course of my life.

The notion of submission, Islam means submission, and the notion of submission can be understood in a way that’s not dissimilar to radical acceptance from the Buddhist tradition, where there is a real acceptance or surrender to the present.

I think that that represents a real attainment, the extent to which we can aspire to live with some sense of radical acceptance of others, of ourselves, of the situations that we’re in.

It gives us an ability to understand what’s really happening, what’s really here, how can we really address what is happening, if that makes sense.

Tavis: I asked you earlier, Ayad, why faith as the way in. Why a novel. It occurs to me now that we’re having a pretty interesting and intense conversation about issues that are real that could very well have been addressed through a nonfiction text. So why a novel?

Akhtar: I’m a storyteller. I feel like the issue of discourse is an important one because there’s a lot of political and ideological discourse that goes around, and we relate to that on an intellectual level.

I think it’s important to strip away the ideas sometimes and to give people a felt human experience, an emotional experience of the issues at play, because people are living and dying not just for ideas, but for the way that they experience and live the meaning of those ideas.

The way that they experience the meaning of those ideas is through the stories in their lives, the stories that they tell about themselves, the stories that they hear, and the stories that their lives become.

I am a storyteller. I’m a playwright, I’m a filmmaker, I’m a novelist, but it doesn’t mean I don’t think. I think that, as I said earlier, my twin mandate is that it must give pleasure and it must be guided by a pursuit of the truth. I don’t want to compromise either of those.

So if you can tell a really good story – as the Chinese say, “The truth that is sweet to hear is often the truth that is heard.” So I think that as a storyteller, the extent to which I can really draw a reader in, draw and audience in, it makes them available and open to consider things that they might not otherwise consider.

Tavis: Since we’re talking about truth, I’ve always believed that there is the truth and then there’s the path to the truth.

Akhtar: Right, the latter being more interesting.

Tavis: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. (Laughter) And oftentimes more difficult to navigate.

Akhtar: Right.

Tavis: But there’s the truth, there’s the path to the truth. What does the young boy’s story here tell us about the path to the truth?

Akhtar: The book is many things; at least it’s intended to be many things – a coming-of-age story, an immigrant tale, a dysfunctional family story, a conversion narrative. But I think fundamentally what it is is it is a challenge to finding the answer outside yourself.

Sooner or later we’ve all got to confront the reality that we have got to come to understand who we are and what we’re doing, and the extent to which we are guided or manipulated by forces that are beyond our control. Anyway, so I think that if there is a deeper – Faulkner once said that literature worthy of the name must deal with the question of evil, and I think that “Dervish” is an attempt to answer that question with something like perhaps evil can come from a sense that one has been abandoned by the good.

That when this child who lives in a home where he’s neglected finally finds some source of life, when he feels that that has left him, that can lead him to a sense – lead him to do very destructive things.

Tavis: Navigating that journey on the way to truth can be difficult for one who’s born and bred as an American. I would imagine that that journey –

Akhtar: What do you mean?

Tavis: Well, if you’re born and raised in this country, as I am.

Akhtar: Right.

Tavis: Born and bred here –

Akhtar: Which I was too, I was born here.

Tavis: Exactly – trying to find your way to the truth can be difficult. I would imagine, though –

Akhtar: Because of the majority –

Tavis: Because of the culture, because of everything around us.

Akhtar: I see.

Tavis: What I’m getting at is whether or not that journey to the truth is more difficult for an immigrant and an immigrant who happens to be of a Muslim faith tradition.

Akhtar: Oh, I see, I see, okay.

Tavis: You see what I’m getting at here?

Akhtar: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: I wonder how much more difficult that –

Akhtar: I get it, I get it.

Tavis: Okay.

Akhtar: I think it’s easier.

Tavis: Are you serious?

Akhtar: Yes.

Tavis: I did not expect you to say that. (Laughter)

Akhtar: I think it’s easier because you’re –

Tavis: I took five minutes getting that question out and you say it’s easier?

Akhtar: Because I didn’t understand the question before.

Tavis: No, I’m being funny. Yeah, I didn’t expect it to be – I didn’t expect that. Tell me why you say that.

Akhtar: Because I think that as a thinking, feeling individual, as a member of a minority, as a thinking, feeling individual, it gives you a perspective on the larger majority. It makes it much easier to see that what everyone believes to be true is not necessarily true.

Tavis: But you’re still in the minority and nobody understands you or your journey or your faith.

Akhtar: I’m not sure that the path to the truth is contingent on other people understanding your truth. I think that those are two different things.

Tavis: I accept that.

Akhtar: Right, and I think that other people understanding one’s truth is an important part of the developmental process for an artist and for an agent, a social agent.

But I think that you have to come to understand your own perspective. It’s much easier to do that when you’re in – I grew up in Milwaukee. We were the only Muslim family on the west side for I don’t know how long, Pakistani family, anything. There was maybe one Filipino family as well.

That gave me a perspective on both my own house, because what was happening inside my home was very different than what was happening in the homes of my friends, so what does this mean? Are there universal values? It made me question values that were being taught to me, but it also made me question the values that were being taught to my friends.

Tavis: But there are reasons, as you suggested earlier, there are reasons, though, why there is that assimilationist category that has a whole bunch of folk in it, because the pressures of the culture, the pressures of the civilization that you find yourself in, when you’re on the out looking in, when you are the other, when you are the different, forces people to abandon, to sacrifice, to assimilate.

Akhtar: But it also offers some individuals the opportunity to see that it’s all, as Shakespeare would say, that all the world’s a stage. That it’s all an unfolding play, in a way, and that the only agency that we really have is to come to understand our own place in it. Does that make sense?

Tavis: Makes sense to me. I take it. I could have asked this minutes ago in this conversation, but dervish, defined, means?

Akhtar: One who gives up everything for God, a sort of wandering mendicant in the Islamic tradition. Somebody who has given up the home, given up everything, and wanders the world in search of God.

Tavis: What were your expectations? We talked earlier about what they were not. What were they when you wrote this text, and are you starting to sense that, given the response to the text, the novel, that those expectations are beginning to be fulfilled?

Akhtar: I feel that the book has created a lot of dialogue. I think that there are some people who are pretty upset with me about it because –

Tavis: Some of them Muslims.

Akhtar: Yes, a lot of Muslims have celebrated the book, but there’s lots of Muslims who have been very upset about it, in particular because the book is not trying to massage the optics of Islam in a post-9/11 landscape. It’s just not – I was not interested in doing that.

I don’t feel that as an artist my job is to offer PR propaganda, whether for the good or for the bad. I have to try as much as possible to tell my truth, and in doing so I don’t think I realized that so many people would be upset about me doing that, so.

But there’s also, of course, as you said earlier, there’s been lots of people have deeply embraced the book, so I feel very gratified by that.

Tavis: How do you process when your own receive you not?

Akhtar: Oh, God. Everything from frustration and anger to patience and attempts at compassion. (Laughter)

Tavis: Are there elements of their critique, though, that have resonated with you?

Akhtar: No.

Tavis: Wow.

Akhtar: No. (Laughter) It’s an important point, because the Qur’an is approached as the literal eternal word of God, and the Christian and Judaic traditions have had generations and generations of scholars chip away at that bedrock belief.

Now, it doesn’t mean that folks across the Bible Belt still don’t believe that, but it’s a mostly untenable intellectual position, and I think that within the Islamic tradition, the rigidity of approaching the Qur’an literally means that it’s more difficult to access its real wisdom.

So I feel like what I’m doing is I’m trying to offer a different perspective that leads to a deepening and a heightening of our relationship as Muslims to the Qur’an. I think that a lot of people feel that I’m being disrespectful.

Tavis: Whatever you think of it, and you’ll know when you get a chance to read it, it’s being talked about greatly across the country, a lot of wonderful plaudits for the book, but some controversy as well, as you just heard Ayad say.

The book is called “American Dervish,” written by Ayad Akhtar. It is his first novel, and if this is where you start, then I don’t know where you go from here. (Laughter) You’ve done something with this one, so all the best to you.

Akhtar: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to have you on the program.

Akhtar: My pleasure.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Be sure to download our new Tavis Smiley app for free at iTunes in the app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 27, 2012 at 5:58 pm