Ayad Akhtar was a writer in residence at the Academy in Rome when he read “To Italy,” in which the early-19th-century poet Giacomo Leopardi addressed the Italian people. Donald Trump had been in office for a year, and Akhtar was, he says, “getting some perspective on what had been happening in America.” Could he—a 21st-century playwright and novelist, born in the United States to Pakistani immigrants—similarly address the American people? “I woke up the next morning, and the first lines of ‘Overture: To America’ were already roiling around in my head,” he says. “And so I wrote that out.”

Akhtar is referring to the incantatory opening passage of his new novel, Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown, Sept. 15). In the novel, a character named Ayad Akhtar reflects on his immigrant family history, his contradictory position in American society as an intellectual and a Muslim full of reservations about the faith he was born into, and the vast political and economic changes that are altering the nation. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it a “profound and provocative inquiry into an artist’s complex American identity.”Akhtar is the author of a previous novel, American Dervish, and his play Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Earlier this month he was named the new president of PEN America. He recently spoke with Kirkus by Zoom from upstate New York; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The book reads almost like a memoir—the main character is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright with your name who grew up in Wisconsin. Why did you decide to present it as fiction?

It was clear what I [was writing] was substantially true and substantially concocted at the same time—that I was taking things that had happened [to me] and pointing them just a little bit further to sharpen the edge, so that the idea was clear. That meant rearranging the familial relationships just a little bit and reshifting some of the allegiances. It happened organically in the Overture, where on the one hand the father is this character who loves America and the mother is this character who has some real problems with America. And in between is that space [that] runs the gamut of Osama bin Laden to Donald Trump— the gray middle of late-20th-century and early-21st-century social politics.

Would you call it autofiction?

To me it’s not autofiction, because autofiction has a kind of inherent distance that the narrator has with the reader. There’s a kind of reserve. Here the book is trying to close that gap and ensnare the reader in this seduction, if you will. And that’s a lot closer to reality TV. It’s a kind of a literary version of a reality serial.

Appropriately for a book in which Donald Trump appears as a character. The father, who is a famous cardiologist, is called in to examine Trump in the early ’90s. Although their association is brief, he maintains an affection for—nearly an obsession with—Trump over the years. You liken it to an addiction—which might describe America’s own bizarre enthrallment with Trump.

One of the things that I’ve thought a lot about, having written the book, is what was guiding me—the intuitive thing that I was responding to. I would say it has something to do with a cognitive shift around [our] devices, on the one hand—the kind of neoreptilian, ever present now that’s moving from thing to thing every second but without a clear object, just a kind of sensation-seeking thrill—and on the other hand, the dominant mode of discourse and political representation, [which] is the self. It’s the story of, What am I? What’s in it for me? What do I deserve? Are people listening to me? I think that Trump is the embodiment of that phenomenon for us on a larger cultural level, both the self-staging and also the kind of pandering to the basest, most neoreptilian parts of us.

While the father character loves America and Trump, the mother is nostalgic for Pakistan—even though, as a child, she had witnessed the horrors of the India-Pakistan partition, when thousands were killed.

If I were drawing some conclusions from my own mother to create this mother, you know, my mother didn’t like the focus Americans had on trying to be happy. History was hard. I remember having a conversation with [a Jewish friend]. Her parents were Holocaust survivors, and there was a similar sense of keeping alive the suffering and not being too happy because of what had happened. And there is that parallel; one of the chapters talks about how the mother would get taciturn when Auschwitz came up. She felt a kinship but also felt alienated by the fact that everybody knew about [the Holocaust], but they didn’t know about what she’d been through.

An entire section, “Scranton Memoirs,” details an episode where the narrator’s car breaks down on the Pennsylvania interstate, leading to a series of fraught encounters with the local populace. Why did this relatively brief episode warrant an extended treatment?

That section is ultimately about the legacy of being a Muslim in America, in a Christian country. The four characters that [the narrator] meets are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All this subliminal Christian imagery is playing throughout as a commentary on how he is separated from the American experience, but that is happening against the backdrop of something we all know: the impoverishment of the Rust Belt, or Middle America, or really, America itself. The narrator’s epiphany is that he is Other in this country, not just because he is [made to feel] Other. He has chosen to identify as Other. Both things are working in tandem. That kind of self-questioning was so essential for me at the heart of the book. If I was going to address the nation, I couldn’t say, “Fellow citizens, this is your country. This is what you do to me.” That’s not the address I was looking for. I was looking for, “Look at what we have done to our country. What have we become?”

Money is a theme that runs through the novel—first the father’s ruinous foray into real estate investing in the 1980s, and then the narrator’s financial success, enabled by a Muslim hedge fund manager named Riaz Rind.

Riaz was a way to mirror and distill something about the experience of success and the particular embodiment of American success that seems to have the most lure, which is being rich—that’s really the essence of American accomplishment. I knew that in a book about debt—which is perhaps one of the two or three central themes of the book—I would need to immerse the reader in the specifics of the processes of debt and and how debt has transformed the society. I needed to set up some of those ideas in a way that was going to have resonance with the Trump story—Trump, the self-proclaimed king of debt. In a way, Trump’s advent is impossible to imagine without a society that has fully accepted the illusions of debt’s largesse. And we as a society did not accept that until the ’80s. The ’80s are what fundamentally changed our relationship with money in that respect. And we’re still living in that world.

Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.