A conversation with Ayad Akhtar about American Dervish
Why did you choose to set AMERICAN DERVISH in 1980s Wisconsin?
Wallace Stevens writes beautifully of the process of creation as the fashioning of images with wood out of one's own forests, and stone out of one's own fields. I grew up in Wisconsin, and wanted very much to draw on the textures of my childhood. Though the story is fiction, I wanted to imbue it with a sense of lived reality, a register of authenticity I could only achieve by drawing on my own youth.
Also, I wanted to depict a time before the world had politicized being Muslim. Setting the novel in the 1980s allowed me to draw a picture of a community where much of the conflict engulfing the world today was already beginning to take shape.
How did you create the character of Mina?
In the Jewish mystical tradition, there is the idea of the Shekhina, the female divine energy wandering the world, forlorn, seeking union with the source. To me, Mina represents something of the feminine spiritual principle, the agent of change through experience, the spiritual side of the faith, in contradistinction to the rule-bound patriarchal form of the faith. She is also a composite of so many of the women who have guided me, and changed my life. The major agents of change in my life, in my education, have been women.
You have a broad range of characters who approach their faith (or lack of it) in many different ways. From Imam Souhef and Ghaleb Chatha and their hate, to Hayat's Mother and her lukewarm Islam, to Naveed and Farhaz and their open scorn. Mina is the only character who is both loving and devout, and her story is heartbreaking. What are you saying about Mina's path in today's Islam?
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 exploration of faith as a vehicle to a deeper sense of the present. Mina represents that last option, and in that way, she is closest to my own heart. I am non-denominational, in that I draw my inspiration from so many traditions, but I am in many ways a very devout person. As for what I might be suggesting about Mina's path, it would have something to do with an attempt to express the need for a feminine spirituality within the Islamic tradition. The Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—are all beholden in different ways to the dominance of a patriarchal notion of the divine. The rule-bound, defining, and demanding God-the-Father. To speak of God-the-Mother is to open up a different register of faith, one that has to do with the nurturing dimensions of experience, the relational, the importance not of justice, but a worthy dispensation of the present. Mina's suffering at the hands of the men in her tradition is, then, a metaphor of sorts.
You chose a 10-year-old boy to narrate American Dervish. What were the advantages and disadvantages of having someone so young tell the story?
The trick with American Dervish was not to be limited to the ten year old boy's consciousness as a narrator. Indeed, the truth is that the narration is actually set up as a reminiscence. This was the choice I made so that I would have the latitude to tease out subtleties and illuminate context in a way that was more ample than the limited perspective of ten year old Hayat would have allowed. But I had to do this without betraying the eternal now of the ten year-old's experience, as that forms the bulk of the story. Folding both parts of this dual voice into an undivided flow was, for me, the biggest challenge of the book. It took me the better part of three years to work this out fully.
What inspired you to combine study of the Quran with Hayat's family story?
American literature is filled with Biblical allusions, from Melville to Faulkner and Hemingway to Toni Morrison. Whatever else the Bible may or may not be, it is certainly the formational text of the Western literary tradition. Similarly, telling the story of a Muslim in America in literary form necessitated a familiarity with the Quran as the basis for the Muslim experience. As a Muslim-American writer, my task was two-fold: both to introduce these Quranic narratives and tropes to the American reader, and also to play off of these stories and locutions in evocative ways.
Further, the novel is an attempt to liberate the more heartfelt metaphorical version of religious experience from the literalist dogma of the orthodoxy. As such, the Quran has two faces: One that transcends its cultural specificity and evokes deeper, universal truths, and another that is bound by its origins, and which serves as a restrictive, atavistic force. I wanted to dramatize the tension between these two points of view. This is the real conflict of the novel.
Why the title American Dervish? To most, a dervish connotes someone who spins their way to ecstatic union with God.
In the Islamic tradition, a dervish is an ascetic renunciate, one who is laboring to be shorn of his or her attachments. There are dervishes who whirl, others who chant, and still others who deprive themselves of nourishment and comfort for the sake of this denuded state that is the precursor to union with the divine source. The ostensible dervish in the novel is, of course, Mina, who despite her tragic circumstances does indeed seem to be experiencing a kind of perpetual ecstasy of the everyday by the book's end. But it is debatable whether she is, in fact, the American Dervish. That, to my mind, would more likely be Hayat himself, whose journey sheds him of the obstacles that have kept him from his own heart, and whose story ends with a moment of quiet ecstatic grace. He has to lose all his ideas about God and faith and Islam in order to experience that deepening of the heart that the Sufi's identify as the result of closeness to the divine source.
How does your background as a screenwriter, playwright, and actor inform your fiction?
Fiction has always been my first love. I'd been writing short stories for years, and I have written another novel, which I shelved without ever trying to get published. That said, I think the acting process has deepened my understanding of creative process, and has given me techniques to identify and empathize and immerse myself in psyches that are not my own. The same holds true for playwriting as well, in that acting has helped me to be inside the characters I write. But the truth is, writing plays is very different than writing fiction. In a play, everything has to be revealed through dialogue, and this presents its own challenges. From a formal point of view, it's really my work as a screenwriter that is most responsible for the shape and feel of Dervish. I approached the story structurally as if it were a film in the form of a book, ordered around set pieces, and unfolding in a sequence of vividly realized scenes, with meaning conveyed through dialogue and gesture, with attention to visual detail., It wasn't that I was hoping the book would get made into a movie, but rather a formal issue: I see movies as the dominate storytelling mode of our time, and I wanted the reader to have a visceral immediate relationship to the main characters in the story, a being-with-ness, that they experience today in the movies.
You've said somewhere that writing this book was "the most difficult and joyous thing" you've ever done. Can you elaborate?
I spent a long time trying to write in what I thought was a "universal" way, but that was in fact an avoiding of the specificity of my heritage and background. About five years ago, that changed. I realized that, artistically, I had been running away from so much of who I really was, so much of what I'd seen and been through. That moment was key. I turned to face the past, and suddenly there was an explosion of creativity. Dervish was born of this encounter. To give form and life to the characters in the book was such an immense pleasure. They had a vitality that was all their own. And so enjoyed getting up everyday to let them be themselves in words.
Prejudice against Jews among some in the Muslim community is a powerful theme in your novel. Why was it important for you to explore this theme?
It's not going to come as a surprise to anyone who reads the book that I was exposed to anti-Semitism—and not just of the Muslim variety—as a kid in the Midwest. And yet, growing up, I first began to comprehend being identified as a member of a minority religion in America through experiencing the works of Jewish-American artists—Bellow, Roth, Woody Allen—who have been at the process of defining an immigrant voice for a community identified by its religion for much longer than Muslims have. These artists inspired me to find my voice. And so, in a sense, the book is an act of making artistic peace.
When did you first become interested in writing? And did anyone in particular influence/encourage you?
Diane Doerfler – or Ms Doerfler as she was known -- was in her mid to late fifties at the time that I took her class. Her reputation preceded her: She was known for changing kids' lives. But not only. She was also an eccentric and remarkable woman, who lived on sixty acres of land in the northwesterly forests of Kettle Moraine, with a farm-sized garden she awoke at four AM to tend every morning, usually surrounded by her ten great danes. She'd been married five times, divorced all her husbands, and carried herself with an assuredness that belied her station as a high-school teacher. Her bearing was at once regal and acute. She didn't suffer fools well. And she didn't take kindly to kids who didn't do the evening assignment. Suffice it to say, I never witness an incident of insubordination in her class.
Our first assignment that semester was to read Friedrich Durrenmatt's short story, The Tunnel. It's about a man who wakes up on a train and doesn't understand how he got there, or where the train is going. He goes from car to car, asking the passengers, the conductor, the workers, but no one seems to know. Most don't care and shrug. Others point to someone else further up the chain of command for an answer. Finally, having made his way to the locomotive, the protagonist finds the driver: A madman shoveling coal maniacally into the engine. The protagonist asks him where the train is going. All the driver can do is point at the ceiling. The protagonist climbs the short ladder and peers over the perch to see: A tunnel of darkness into which the train is headed with unstoppable fury.
I hadn't the slightest idea what to make of it. When Ms Doerfler strode purposefully into class the next day, her right hand buried -- as it always was -- in her sport coat pocket and playing with a set of keys there, she asked us to explain the meaning of the story. I was confounded. I couldn't understand how anything so incoherent as the story I'd read the previous night could have a meaning. No one had an answer. And so she proceeded to explain: The train was life. And sometimes we awaken to the question of where it is headed, how it began. Unfortunately, as we look for an answer from others, they often have no interest in the question, and those who might have an interest have no answer. The most that one could do was to confront the truth -- after great effort -- and that was itself a conundrum: That life is unknown headed into a deeper unknown.
I was stunned. I remember the moment I understood what she was saying. It was like lemon juice on the surface of milk, parting the murkiness, revealing something clear underneath. It struck me then (and it still does) that giving shape in stories to the deeper questions of existence is the greatest calling I could know.
Ms Doerfler responded to my newfound passion with care and guidance. I spent a great deal of time around her my senior year, doing independent studies and writing essays about what she had me read. She introduced me to Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka. And when I was done with those, she had me read Sartre and Rilke and Mishima and Proust. It was quite a baptism in world literature, a formation I still draw from everyday...
Were you hesitant in including the more troubling aspects of Islam in the novel and thereby perhaps confirming some people's prejudices against the faith?
In many ways, the book is a challenge to the hegemony of a way of approaching the Quran that is very widespread in the Muslim community. In that sense it is an act of rebellion, a rebellion of the heart, expressed through the journey of Hayat. There was a very astute review of the book in The Brooklyn Rail that discussed Dervish's attempt to address the elephant in the room, the relationship to the Quran, the "fraught question of Muslim scripture." In a post 9/11 world where there is very real and rampant anti-Muslim bigotry, I certainly understand that folks would like to have me perform a corrective, to pen a portrayal of Muslim life that would mitigate the cultures prejudices. But I can't be guided by these sorts of considerations. As an artist I have to have the freedom to wrestle with my own demons, allow for my own ecstasies, and those of my community. In the end, my aesthetic mandate is two fold: That the work must give pleasure, and that it must be guided by a pursuit of the truth. It is up to the reader has to make what they will of what I've done.
In the novel, Hayat ends up rejecting much, if not all, of his Muslim identity in order to complete his moral development and become a balanced person. Why did you make that choice – is that the only way for an American Muslim to survive in the world?
Rupture and renewal. It is the classic American paradigm that one finds in American literature over and over. Breaking with the traditions of one's forbears and staking out a new identity. It's how America came into being, and it is the trajectory that every American generation seems to fulfill in one way or another. This endless renewal is part of what's at the root of the extraordinary vibrancy of American life. In Hayat's case, though, the situation is more complicated. His moral development is not finished at the end of Dervish. He spends the book relating to his faith in one way, then turning his back on his tradition, but only to have it appear anew in different—now metaphorical form—at the end of the book. The truth is: He has a long journey ahead.
What is your own relationship with Islam today?
It is an ever-evolving relationship. For me, as for Hayat, the death of a child-like way of seeing and relating to religious faith was the precursor to another kind of spiritual opening. And the Islamic spiritual heritage is one that figures very prominently in my life, personally and artistically.