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Debut novelist no stranger to the writing experience

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By Ayad Akhtar

Little, Brown,
357 pages, $24.99

◆ The author will discuss and sign his book, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb 7 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron.


Updated: March 6, 2012 8:04AM

American Dervish is not Ayad Akhtar’s first novel. Tucked away in a drawer somewhere is the proverbial “first novel,” one that he says will never see the light of day.

“After several of my friends read it, they advised me to put it away,” Akhtar said, laughing. “So I did and moved on.”

Akhtar, who also is a playwright, screenwriter and actor, has followed that initial attempt with the critically acclaimed American Dervish in which he opens a window onto the vibrant and complex reality of the Muslim-American experience.

Set in 1980s Milwaukee, the story focuses on an impressionable Pakistani-American teen, Hayat Shah, who has grown up in a secular family with little time for religion. He finds his life upended by the arrival of his mother’s best friend, Mini Ali, who with her young son, has fled a life of abuse and repression in Pakistan. Immediately striking up a friendship with Hayat, she schools him in liberal interpretations of the Quran, instigating his spiritual awakening and attempt to memorize the Quran. But when Mina falls in love with a Jewish doctor, a colleague of Hayat’s father, clashes between old world and new result in tragic consequences.

Akhtar, who describes himself as a “cultural Muslim,” says he wanted to engage readers in a new way around the subject of Muslims and their relation to Islam. The structural elements of the story are familiar within contemporary literature — a coming-of-age, dysfunctional family story revolving around redemption and guilt.

“But I wanted to drop the reader into a Muslim skin and make this a unique reading experience,” Akhtar said. “I think it’s a reflection on faith and the different versions of approaching Islam. But it’s also a universal story about faith that can resonate across religions.”

A first-generation Pakistani-American, Akhtar, 41, who now lives in New York City’s Harlem, grew up in Brookfield, Wis. His father, a cardiologist, and mother, a retired radiologist, left Pakistan in the 1960s. Like the family in the novel, the Akhtars are secular but sometimes attend a mosque on Milwaukee’s south side. “The problem with the first novel,” Akhtar said, “was I avoided the specificity of my own life, my background and upbringing.”

Once he honed in on that, ideas began to flow. “The story is fiction but so much of the observation and feeling of the book is drawn from real experience,” Akhtar said. “I took parts of my life and wove them into the story.”

Akhtar’s creative diversity is pretty astounding. His screenplay for the 2005 film “The War Within,” in which he also starred, was nominated for a Spirit Award, the Oscar of the independent film world. Last year, he was cast in HBO’s film “Too Big to Fail.” He also has written two plays — “Disgraced,” which is having its world premiere at American Theater Company, and “The Invisible Hand,” which opens at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in March.

Akhtar’s interest in writing began in high school, thanks to a teacher whose class “broke me open and changed my life.” Things came to a screeching halt when he got to Brown University and hit a wall of doubt after a professor suggested he submit a short story to the New Yorker.

“I freaked out because I knew if the story was accepted, then people would expect another one from me, and I didn’t know for certain if I could do it again,” Akhtar recalled. “I would be called out as a fake, and I’d never be able to write again.”

Akhtar never submitted the story. He also didn’t write again for seven years: “It was a gnawing pain inside me. I battled a lot of depression that I think revolved around not being able to write.”

A friend who was directing a play suggested Akhtar help with the production; he soon discovered he had a talent for acting and ended up majoring in theater and religion. He went on to study with experimental Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, teach acting with Andre Gregory and receive a graduate degree in film directing from Columbia University. All of this by the time he was 25; two years later, writing worked its way back into his routine, and he began work on that first novel: “It took five years to write, and one day to shelve. But I finally found my voice; a way to express both my experience with the world and my inquiry into the world.”

Akhtar’s play “Disgraced,” about a Muslim-American corporate lawyer with no interest in Islam, who defends a wrongly accused imam from a local mosque, is a much different view of the immigrant experience than American Dervish.

“It’s a much darker picture about where we are with Islam today,” Akhtar said. Again, inspiration came from personal experience. Before 9/11, Akhtar says his friends didn’t identify him as Muslim, but after the tragedy, they came to understand that “there was part of me that was Muslim, which was a shift in their perception. And I found that fascinating.”

While Akhtar says he wouldn’t turn down an acting role if something great came along, for the time being, he’s committed to writing. He’s already written two more plays, is at work on a second novel (about a Pakistani-American artist living in Vienna) and has several ideas for screenplays, one of which he’d like to direct.

“I just try to keep my ear to the ground and do my best to turn what I experience into compelling stories. I feel that is my job, and if I can do that well, it will contribute to the larger conversation.”

The world premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” runs through March 4 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron. For tickets ($35, $40), call (773) 409-4125;

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