Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Presenting Ayad Akhtar, Author of American Dervish, at Boswell, rescheduled for Friday, January 13, 7 pm

I may not love shoveling snow that much, but one of the reasons I look forward to January is because it is a great time to publish new authors. 2012 looks particularly bounteous, as we've got three authors visiting whose books are featured in the January Indie Next flier. I've read all three, and plan to talk about them at more lenth soon, but none has as much local importance as the first novel by Ayad Akhtar (photo at right credit Nina Subin), American Dervish.

American Dervish is the story of Hayat, a boy growing up in the Milwaukee area. He's a first-generaton American of Pakistani parents, and he's got a lot of influences in his life. His father, a research physician, is a nonbeliever. The Muslim Pakistani community that his family is immersed in is very devout and conservative. And then his mother's closest friend Mina arrives with her son. On the run from a bad marriage, she must leave Pakistan in order to hold onto custody of her son. Mina is also very religious, but she observes in her own way, rejecting doctrine for spiritual intent. I think one would call this Sufi-esque.

Now everyone knows that there only four of five great plots that tell all the great stories, a story that, and one of my absolute favorites, that drive my several of my top fifty books of all time (that I never gave to Hans at Micawber's, my apologies, thank you for trying) from Pride and Prejudice to An Unsuitable Boy, is a character choosing between two suitors. And in Mina's case, she has two doctors--what could be more difficult than that? One is a devout Muslim opthalmologist, who though perhaps not the most attractive or effervescent of guys, is nonetheless accepted by the community. The other is a Jewish researcher, a friend of Hayat's father, who is nonetheless willing to convert to be with Mina.

Hayat watches all this from the sidelines. As an astute observer, he breathes in every pronouncement, from those of his father and Aunt Mina, to that of the local religious leader. And from that you begin to get a sense, as he makes a number of decisions, some rather disastrous, that it's not exactly easy for a young Muslim to grow up in America. And mind you, this novel is set before 9/11. And yet Hayat's journey is one that anyone of a strong faith must come to terms with as he or she grows up in America, whether you are raised Muslim or Jewish, Amish or Dawkinsian Athiest. You've got family, you've got community, and you've got everything else--your journey is your story, only it might not be as well written as Akthar's.

And what a story it is! Akhtar's novel is positively cinematic with a broad canvas, and yet with the sharp dialogue and tight setting of a stage play, and that's not really a surprise, what with his work as an actor, screenwriter, and playwright. Akhtar co-wrote and starred in the film, "The War Within," which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, as well as playing Neel Kashkari in "Too Big to Fail." He is also an accomplished playwright, and has not one, but two plays premiering in 2012, "The Invisible Hand" in Chicago and "Disgraced" in Saint Louis."

I'm excited to note that Ayad Akhtar will be speaking/reading/signing at Boswell for a special Milwaukee launch of American Dervish, now scheduled for Friday, January 13 (note: this was edited after publication). Since I met Akhtar at a pre-publication author dinner last fall, I can tell you that he is an erudite speaker (and I assume reader), full of charisma and wit. Yes, I know this is beginning to sound like an author crush. But isn't that a little about the allure of these events? The best ones, the Ann Patchetts and Jeffrey Eugenideses and Geraldine Brookses and T.C. Boyleses (did I really have to use so many authors whose names end in "s" and their ridiculous pluralization issues?), are nothing if not charmers.

For more information on Ayad Akhtar, visit his website.

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