Playwright wins Pulitzer with ponderings on identity
There are some people you feel you've known all your life. Ayad Akhtar, the actor, screenwriter, novelist and playwright whose debut play Disgraced has just won the Pulitzer prize for drama, is one of them. Twenty minutes into the interview, I'm asking whether he believes in God, and whether the marriage in his play resembles his own failed stab at matrimony. He has a go at answering the God question, but wisely dodges the one about his former wife.
Disgraced, which enjoyed acclaimed runs in Chicago and New York, opens at the Bush in London this week. Akhtar has been sitting in on rehearsals intermittently. "I'm here as a resource," he says. "Nadia [Fall, the director] is the master of ceremonies. They have to make some discoveries of their own."
Disgraced tells the story of Amir, a lawyer whose family came to the US from the Indian subcontinent. He is living the dream on New York's moneyed Upper East Side, but is about to suffer a fall as he tries to come to terms with his multiple identity: American versus Asian, Muslim versus secularist, passive observer of injustice versus activist. Things come to a head at a dinner party hosted by Amir and his wife.
Akhtar's parents, both doctors, migrated to the US from Pakistan in the 1960s, and most of his work in the past 10 years has examined his dual identity. In the 2005 film The War Within, which he co-wrote and starred in, he examined what turns a Muslim everyman into a terrorist; his 2012 novel American Dervish is a study of a boy in the US midwest - Akhtar grew up in Wisconsin - coming to terms with Islam.
Disgraced is a powerful variation on the theme. But it took Akhtar, who is 42, a decade to begin to tackle the subject. He studied theatre in the US and Italy, did a film course at Columbia University, had read the modernist classics and decided he wanted to write his own. "I thought writing meant writing existential parables about the meaning of life. I worked on a novel for seven years, which I thought was amazing, but which was godawful. It was about a poet working in … Goldman Sachs, a kind of knock-off of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet."
He also wrote "fragments of plays", he says, and screenplays, but was still ignoring the golden rule: write what you know. "In my early 30s, I started to realise I was avoiding something on a personal level, but also as a writer. I was in denial about who I was, and was trying to be someone who I was not," he says.
"Fake it to make it", Akhtar says, is an American mantra. "But what happens after you've made it?" He adds: "All I did metaphorically was to turn and look over my shoulder at what I was running away from. And at that moment there was an explosion of creativity."
Inevitably, September 11, 2001, was instrumental. "Post-9/11, folks who looked like me became very visible," he says. "Life changed. I and a lot of people like me felt differently after that. Like Amir, the fact of being Muslim, whether religious or cultural, became a significant fact that could not be avoided."
Although identity politics underpin everything he has written over the past decade, Akhtar is determined not to sermonise.
"I can't be a spokesman for anything other than my own concerns. I have to be free to wrestle with my own preoccupations, and if I bring political awareness to that process, that mitigates my freedom.
"I also believe that at a subtle level it's perceived by the audience. Even if it's a very uncomfortable experience, the audience must experience some pleasure - or, if not pleasure, they must be rapt. If I can do that effectively, I can trust audiences to decide how they feel about this, that or the other."
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