By EW Staff
September 23, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Little, Brown and Company; Pantheon

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar wants you to know: Homeland Elegies is a novel. Even though the main character is a man named Ayad who, like the author, is a Pulitzer-winning playwright. Even though the book breaks narrative format for essayistic asides. Even though the book races at the speed of bare-your-soul memoir.

And he’s right. A searing entrant in the burgeoning field of popular auto-fiction — a category that boasts authors Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, and Sheila Heti — Homeland Elegies is as elastic in shape as it is dazzling in execution. A deeply personal work, the novel probes vital questions about American identity today. Its considerations are economic, political, cultural, and religious in scope, as Akhtar (the 2012 play Disgraced) explores his immigrant upbringing, his professional success, and his ongoing, combative relationship with the country in which he was born (to Pakistani immigrants), but that has always regarded him as an “other.”

Akhtar’s forceful, direct prose conveys a poetic sense of anguish. But while the critical insights are consistently sharp, Elegies’ family portraits linger longest — Ayad’s mother pining for her homeland, his father chasing after an illusory American dream. Donald Trump appears as a character here too, not as the cartoon villain who’s suffocated a good chunk of post-2016 literature but as a man whose deception, empty promises, and (to some) inexplicable appeal get at the heart of a national identity crisis. So maybe this is more than a novel. It’s a document — furious, unwieldy, tragic — of our time. —David Canfield

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami

“What are you? Muslim or human being? It’s impossible to be both at the same time.” For Lalami, an email like that — sent by a reader in response to an otherwise innocuous piece on her first novel in USA Today — was remarkable mostly for its unfiltered ugliness. After more than 25 years in America, the Moroccan-born professor and writer (The Moor’s Account) has become accustomed if hardly inured to the fear, suspicion, and outright anger that so often greets otherness in America.

And in Conditional’s sharp, bracingly clear essays, she lays out all the ways that the basic rights of citizenship are unevenly applied to those whose faith or skin tone fall outside the realm of “traditional” Judeo-Christian values. By fusing deep research with lived experience, the book doesn’t just ask you to consider that the personal is political; it makes you marvel that anyone could still presume otherwise. —Leah Greenblatt

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