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February 17, 2012

Book Notes - Ayad Akhtar - "American Dervish"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Ayad Akhtar's American Dervish is a bittersweet and moving coming of age story, an auspicious debut novel from Ayad Akhtar.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Ayad Akhtar's wonderful first novel tells a quintessentially American coming-of-age story: The child of immigrants struggles to find a place in his life for the traditions and beliefs of his ancestral homeland in a new world of broader possibilities that are both enticing and threatening. Although the main narrative unfolds in the early 1980s, it speaks to issues that collectively preoccupy us even more today. The Shah family is Muslim, and the position of women in the Islamic community is a central, agonizing concern. "American Dervish" so richly depicts a wide variety of humanly inconsistent and fallible characters that it feels reductive to call it a Muslim American novel, yet it is impossible to call it anything else because it is steeped in the tenets of Islam and a fierce debate over their deepest meaning."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is Ayad Akhtar's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, American Dervish:


American Dervish tells a dual story: That of Hayat Shah, a pre-teen growing up in Wisconsin; and also that of Mina Ali, the brilliant, beautiful Pakistani woman who comes into (and changes) the Shah family's life. Hayat's parents are secular Muslims, uninterested in the faith, but Mina -- Hayat's mother's best-friend -- is deeply devout. Practicing a provocative and mystical form of the faith, she introduces Hayat to his religious heritage, an introduction which dovetails with his burgeoning sexual awakening. The book is about faith, the rationalist rejection of it, the orthodox submission to it, the mystical use of it as a vehicle to a deeper sense of life. And the book is also about the immigrant experience, the kinds of rupture and renewal at play in the Muslim community I saw growing up.

There isn't much music in American Dervish, at least not in the story itself. But music pervaded the writing process. And there was a version of the book that was almost twice as long, and in which characters were listening to CCR or Mehdi Hassan. But those passing references, like whole story lines that weren't serving the book, got cut. What's more, listening to music is part of my writing ritual. And I listened to no one or nothing as much as I did Beethoven. What an enormous pleasure it is to have the chance to revisit the emotional trails lost in the edit, and the hidden sources of so much of the book's inspiration.


Beethoven's Third Symphony; Leonore Overture

I won't hide the obvious. Anyone who reads Dervish will realize that it takes a nerd to be able to write a nerd. I was a nerd. The first album I ever bought was Beethoven's Greatest Hits. (The second was a 45 of Eddie Grant's "Electric Avenue.") I can't count the number of afternoons I spent lying on my back in the family room, listening to the first movements of the Moonlight Sonata and the Fifth Symphony and the Turkish March. And usually while thinking of my latest crush at school. There is something about the Romantic sensibility I have never been able to shake. And of the great Romantics, there is no one who communicates with the force and directness of Beethoven.

In his savagely beautiful and utterly inimitable paean to American rural life, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," James Agee quotes Beethoven as saying: "He who understands my music can never know unhappiness again." It's a bold statement, and wholly untenable. And yet it points to something true: A brightness of expression, a directness of contact, a will to move the human soul to its possible limits. It's likely gauche to admit to such a goal as a writer in today's ironic literary landscape; it is certainly presumptuous. But, holed up in my apartment -- as the music blares through my Polk Audio speakers -- I can pretend to avoid the zeitgeist. And there, during the composing of Dervish, I listened to more of Beethoven's Third, and the Leonore, than should be ever be admitted to. What to say about this extraordinary music? This: That I hoped it would embolden me. I hoped that the driving rhythms and vertiginous crescendoes, the expansive, unfettered emotional release would inspire me to be more direct, more human. Rendering the journey of a young boy, through faith, into a full spectrum of human experience, high and low...this was the task. And for it, I was drawn to Beethoven -- a childhood love, to be sure -- who I hoped would push me to test my limits.


"There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" - The Smiths

Not a unique choice to evoke the longing and textures of an American adolescence in the eighties. And yet, for me, there's nothing like plangent Morrisey and Marr's lush, lamenting strings to bring back the angst and hope of the nights spent listening to The Queen is Dead on my Walkman. And while Hayat in American Dervish is younger than I was when I came across The Smiths, I can't think of a better analogue to his pre-teen confusion and anguish than Morrissey. Odd, though, to realize that years later Mr Morrissey would be outed as a racist with a particular animus for Pakis. He might not have taken kindly to the fact that his words brought comfort to a brown soul.


The Ghazals of Mehdi Hassan & Ghulam Ali

After a dinner at the Chatha's house where the skinny, graying Ghaleb Chatha inveighs against the Jewish people for the first time, the Shahs drive home through a Wisconsin blizzard. In the first draft of the book, the scene in the car was longer, punctuated by the subtle plaintive wailing of the great Mehdi Hassan, whose bare feet Indian singing legend Lata Mangeshkar kissed as a sign of respect. His was the voice of God, she is said to have told others once. The Ghazal poetic form is native to Persian/Urdu tradition -- most often used to express the pain and loss and beauty of love -- and represents the heart of the classical musical tradition in Urdu culture. In Dervish, Muneer, Hayat's mother, is a big fan of ghazals, and I have often thought of the book itself as a kind of long-form American ghazal. Mehdi Hassan is the great practitioner of the tradition, but a close second is Ghulam Ali, who makes a yearly trip to the States, and whose concerts in America -- often at high school and college auditoriums -- are a yearly highlight for the Pakistani community across the country.


"Have You Ever Seen The Rain" - CCR

While so much of American Dervish is fictional, the world of the book is fed with sources drawn from my own life. Notably, Hayat's relationship with his parents, and most specifically, with his father. There is a section that didn't make its way into the final book that drew directly on my Sunday fishing outings with my father, and which were always accompanied by us listening to his music on the drives out to the lake in Sussex, Wisconsin. This song by CCR was my father's favorite, and hearing it still can bring a knot of nostalgia to my throat, the very same nostalgia that animates the deleted paragraphs I'm sharing below. Losing this material was the most painful cut I had to make in bringing the manuscript from its initial 550 pages to its final 320, and while it is likely an indulgence to share it now, it does bring me some pleasure to know that this homage to my father's passion for fishing has finally found some issue:

How exactly a rural Punjabi man came to find something like hallowed ground in the Teutonic landscape of lakes and forests an hour’s drive northwest of us, I can’t say. There is nothing either he or Mother ever revealed about his youth that could account for the affection he felt for trawling those woods-enclosed waters for bass and pike; neither any affinity with his native landscape—in his corner of the Punjab, there were no forests, only dusty plains—nor any childhood fascination with fish, which he never liked to eat and which, in any event, were in scant supply where he grew up. There was just nothing in his past that could begin to explain the intensity of his attachment.

There was a monastic rigor to the unfolding of our routine on the water that, to some shoreline observer, might have appeared like a ceaseless search for the perfect gesture. Father liked to think of himself as a craftsman. Nothing was more abhorrent to him than sitting put in an anchored rowboat to drop live bait into the water and passively wait for fish to bite. There was no craft in it. Instead, Father tipped our lines with artificial lures, and we scoured the contours and depths—he was always equipped with maps purchased from local bait shops showing the lake’s hidden, inner landscape—trying to draw our prey to us. Pulling our rods across our bodies, always careful not to collide, we hurled them with timely snaps of our wrists, releasing our artificial baits soaring into the air. We watched as they fell to the lake’s surface with a plop and gently sank out of view. After a breath or two, never longer than a count of eight, we began to wind our lines back to us, reels spinning as our fingers turned the handles. We retrieved our decoys with guile and artifice, the light jerks and haphazard movements of our rods intended to breathe life into the plastic playthings. Naturally we hoped with each cast that some fish would be fooled into snapping at our hook-lined traps. But this was rare. Usually our lures came back empty. And we would begin the sequence anew.

Father and I fished through the Sunday mornings and afternoons—with a single break for lunch—in a silence imposed not only by his fear that chatter might announce our unwelcome presence to our prey, but also because silence was the truest expression of his nature. On the water, he would sit beside me enshrouded in the very quiet that, at home, was at the root of our family drama, that cloak of inscrutability that had always provoked Mother into the wildest states of frustration and rage. But as we fished, Father’s wordlessness was transfigured, endowed with a dignity that made this reserve seem noble. And though, without a doubt, his silence was the forbidding façade behind which I spent an entire childhood trying to peer, the sphinx at whose feet I stood confounded and frozen well into adulthood, even so, there is nothing forbidding, or even quiet about my recollections of those silent Sundays we spent on northern lakes, recollections that brim, now, with a bounty of treasured sounds: the whipping of rod-tips and clicking of reels; the slapping of spring waves against the aluminum siding of the boat we would haul about from lake to lake, always strapped to the top of our car; the piercing cries of hawks circling in the broad blue of a cloudless early-summer day; frogs croaking from the shores on evenings in August as we packed up to return to land; or, on what were always our last and painful outings of the season, the biting November winds that howled and hissed in leafless trees, and against which Father and I rowed back to shore to prepare for the return home.


"Qawwali" - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; Abida Parveen

The word dervish is often understood in American parlance to refer to whirling Muslim monks from Turkey, but the word really just connotes a renunciate in the Islamic tradition, the sort of person we could also refer to as a Sufi, that is, a practitioner of techniques intended to bring about the experience of the divine. There are a number of such techniques, and one of the most common is the dhikr chanting that Hayat experiences at the South Side Milwaukee mosque in the book's tenth chapter, in which worshippers sing the name of the Lord in a cycling chant that can induce something like a trance state. Hayat's fascination with the dhikr mirrors my own. And as I grew older, something of the same passionate, otherworldly abandon I felt in the dhikr, I would rediscover in Qawali music, the form of devotional singing made famous in the West by that legendary mountain of a man and voice, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His female rival master of the form, Abida Parveen, was also a mainstay of my personal playlist as I wrote Dervish.


"Stand By Your Man" - Tammy Wynette

I always found it odd that my mother so loved American country music. I can't account for it. But I grew up being driven to school and soccer practices listening to the stuff. My mother's taste tended toward the gravelly and dissolute, Merle Haggard, say, or nasally crooners like Willie Nelson. I was taken by the likes Tammy Wynette. I can still remember the first time I heard her classic ballade to doomed love, the languid, elastic notes of a slide guitar and the searing wail of her heartbreaking sorrow. If there is any American song that can convey the mood of the suffering of so many of the Eastern women in Dervish, this, I think, is it, a song that conveys a piercing sadness so close to the melancholy moods and modes of the music that those Pakistani women might have heard in their native homeland.


Ayad Akhtar and American Dervish links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Chicago Tribune review
Daily Express review
Entertainment Weekly review
Globe and Mail review
Guardian review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
Newsday review
Open Letters Monthly review
Toronto Star review
USA Today review
Washington Post review
Winnipeg Free Press review

Bookworm interview with the author
Chicago Sun-Times profile of the author
Fresh Air interview with the author
Wall Street Journal profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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