I had no idea Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies contained a whole multi-chapter section titled “Scranton Memoirs” when I downloaded the audio book for only $3.95 as Audible’s Daily Deal one day back in February. I vaguely remembered seeing press coverage when the novel was released in September 2020, and I was aware of Akhtar as the playwright who wrote the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Displaced (which I have yet to read and had little hopes of seeing on stage in Scranton, PA). For a long time now, Akhtar has been one of many names on a mental list of writers whose work I should get to know better.
In Homeland Elegies, the protagonist’s parallel play does not win the Pulitzer until after the Scranton-seeded epiphany that leads to his success as a writer. A note on the genre of this book for those who have not yet encountered it: Homeland Elegies is an intentionally confusing, fictional memoir. That is, while it is written as the memoir of a protagonist named after the book’s author, Ayad Akhtar, much of the book has been imagined to suit the author’s storytelling devices. Elements of Akhtar’s own experience have been extracted for the writing of this prose, but the book is not a “true story.”
What is obvious to a Scrantonian like myself upon reading Chapter Four, “God’s Country,” is that Akhtar must have driven through Scranton and probably in the back of a cab driven by a local, just as he describes in the book. His detailed account of the drive from North Scranton to a downtown hotel (we’ll guess The Hilton, because he did not bother to describe the historic beauty of the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel) is too sharp to be gleaned from internet searches and map views.
I was hoping for some kind of twist, that unlike so many other depictions of Scranton we’ve seen over the years, would reveal how there is more to this place than meets the drive-by eye. Unfortunately, the impoverished, decaying sections of town left a greater impression on the writer than the beauty of our historic architecture. Maybe it was easier to leave the beauty out, easier to describe only the facets of the city which served the purpose of making us a sad metaphor. Of what use would it be to Akhtar to acknowledge Scranton’s complexity.
We’ve gotten used to visitors making a fuss about our shabby bits. On some level, Scranton has become loved for our willingness to serve as a scapegoat and punching bag by creators who imagine themselves (and their desired readers) as more sophisticated, cultured, and enlightened than this notoriously “hardscrabble” city will ever be. We are their low bar. An easy target. They can safely imagine that they are better than us. We are the battered woman who continues to love her abusive husband for the flowers he brings her after he bloodies her eye. You can count on Scranton. We aren’t going anywhere.
Akhtar’s car did, in real life fact, break down in Scranton. He spent 24 hours here, he told Reza Aslan in in a conversation about the book produced by The L.A. Times. for the virtual 25th Annual Festival of Books. He later explains that his protagonist’s relationship with the city, as depicted in the novel, was the product of three to four years of experience and reflection.
The author’s vision of Scranton is only a metaphor, a name likely to trigger recognition in his reader’s mind, but the result is another blow to the city’s reputation. I did not read all the reviews of Akhtar’s book, but at least one critic summed up the city for the protagonist’s “racist encounter” here.
I’m not going to talk about all my anti-racist friends or pretend there aren’t racists in Scranton. Of course there are. Is there a racist-free place on this planet? Is America more racist than other countries or did the U.S.A. just sell itself as “the land of the free” for so long that people actually believed in American exceptionalism.
“Have we really been a different country than we thought we were all along?” Akhtar asked Reza Aslan.
Even a good number of Scrantonians understand that the American Dream was a marketing ploy. A great manipulation of social structure. As the grossly ballooning economic inequality in America has exposed itself as the inevitable collapse of the Capitalist lie – it has become clear that the Dream was really a Delusion.
Could this be why Scranton has been repeatedly exploited as a a setting? Here is where people can feel the real. We provide a handle to hold on the slippery truth. Our streets may be a little gritty, but they convey some like-it-or-not authenticity. Scranton wears reality on its sleeve. In most of the depictions penned by visitors, the city is dimwittedly honest. It’s nothing we are given credit or praised for. It is assumed to be an accident.
The same mechanic who doesn’t know enough to make himself more presentable, is smart enough to operate – in the protagonist Akhtar’s mind – an elaborate and ongoing scam involving police buy-in and a suggestively-dressed, suspiciously flirtatious Latina secretary who unconvincingly plays along with her boss’s schemes.
By presentable, I mean the posters on the wall of his office, and mainly the pre- #metoo exposed-vagina pornography Akhtar describes in uncomfortable detail.
Do I need to tell you there is more to Scranton than dumb ugly naivety for which we are depicted?
We are more than a sitcom punchline, a laughing stock of a back drop where no one would choose to live on purpose.
We are not only a post-industrial rust belt remnant crumbling in the shadow of wealthier times.
We are more than an exit off I-81.
We are more than the handful of racists that famous people who do not live here insist on ridiculing and punishing in their art.
We, too, make art, in hopes of showing the world the city’s softer and more cultured side, but we are not famous enough for you to bother with it.
In Homeland Elegies, the protagonist’s Scranton-seeded epiphany to “stop pretending he is American” (he was born in Staten Island and raised in Wisconsin) leads to the writing successes that allow him to pay of his debt and meet monthly expenses. (Akhtar is a year older than me. Despite decades of hard work, I have not been able to pay off my debts and I continue to struggle to meet monthly expenses. But duh … if I wanted to succeed, I shouldn’t have chosen to live in Biden’s hardscrabble hometown. This is a place you have to leave to become someone important. It is not a place you move to unless you want to waste away in obscurity.)
Akhtar elaborates that his Scranton epiphany was “to accept a certain failure” that he’s not going to be able to be the person he wanted to be. The fact that the narrator cannot make the world see him as he wants to be seen is what leads him to create the work that makes him a successful American writer.
The failure, he says in interview with Reza Aslan, is a failure to feel like he belongs. Akhtar attributes this to his foreign-sounding name, his immigrant parents, and brown skin. This is why he feels like an outsider.
Note also that Akhtar has described his own growing in the suburbs of Milwaukee as “wonderful.”
“The kids were great; the parents were welcoming. We played baseball and had crushes on girls. There were some cultural issues navigating that, but I never felt myself to be coming from the outside,” he told The New Yorker in Sept. 2020. The sense of conflict, he said, came from the other Pakistanis he knew. His earlier novel American Dervish does not shy away from showing the darkness of that immigrant culture.
All this leaves me to wonder what’s my excuse? I, too, have wondered what it means to be an American. And I’m surely not the only pale-skinned American of European descent to feel like she doesn’t belong. The only place I ever felt I belonged was in the imaginary realms of books and the theater, until four years ago when I started teaching college courses. I had always loved school, where as an awkward bookworm I flourished, except for the politics of popularity at which failed miserably. As a college professor, I finally felt like I was allowed to be all of myself, at work, without censure.
Born on an air force base in California, my younger sister and I moved often after Mom and Dad divorced when I was only 3. I was always the new kid. The trauma of that displacement is why I tell people I moved my children to Scranton when they were still toddlers. I thought growing up in one place, knowing without question where they are from, would give my daughters something I must have longed for more than the financial and critical success Akhtar has achieved and I have not. Scranton is where my ancestors from rural Eastern Europe settled when they moved here in hopes of a better life in the early 20th century. This is as far back as our roots in America reach.
Even if my daughters go on to shun Scranton like so many of its natives have done (no one likes to dump on this place more than the people who have left it for greener grass) being from here won’t hurt them. It’s the sticking around they need to worry about.
Later in Homeland Elegies, we hear how wealthy Pakistani-American hedge fund founder Riaz Rind, who takes Akhtar under his wing, coincidentally grew up near Scranton. In Chapter 6, Rind describes his father’s failed attempt to start a mosque in Wilkes-Barre in 1979. Neighboring businesses tried to shut it down, but failed. The mosque opened to hate crimes and vandalism. The police failed to act on those threats and the sheriff harassed the Muslim worshippers. Later in Scranton, in 1983, they couldn’t even get a permit to open a mosque.
In the book’s present, Riaz Rind spends a small fortune every week to have a city florist deliver thistle plants like those that grew rampantly for free in his NEPA back yard.
Rind convinces Akhtar to invest the $300K left to him by his mother into 125,000 shares of stock in a rental properties company that is about to go public.
Akhtar’s stock doubles in value overnight but encouraged by Rind to hold out, he waits until the price reaches close to nine times his investment. He is a millionaire when the Securities and Exchange Commission knocks on the door of his one-bedroom Harlem apartment to investigate. Law suits had been filed, Akhtar learns. The municipalities that blocked Muslims from building mosques in their communities were targeted and intentionally scammed by Rind company. This is some fancy using-capitalism-against-America kind of vengeance. The corrupt council members of those towns didn’t understand the securities they were purchasing with city money, yet didn’t hesitate to indulge in the perks and bribes extended to them.
Other municipalities are mentioned but Scranton is the only one you are likely to remember.
It will be easier to forget that Riaz Rind is a fictional character. That the story of his family is not real. That there never was a Lackawanna Glassworks. That, according to the ACLU, the anti-Mosque activity reported in Pennsylvania since 9/11 did not, in fact, take place in Scranton but elsewhere in the state.
But Scranton is easier to pick on. You’ve watched The Office. You’ve heard of it. Someday, when I meet you, you’ll laugh when I tell you this is where I am from.
-ag, April 11, 2021
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