In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote: ‘The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.’ What made America great, what gave it such vitality, was its heterogeneous quality, the fact that it was, as Whitman saw it, ‘a teeming nation of nations’. For Ayad Akhtar, whose spirited autobiographical novel Homeland Elegies consciously invokes Whitman, the country has strayed from that ideal under Donald Trump. Where Whitman glorified multitudes and celebrated contradiction, the Trumpian right insists that to be American is to be one thing only. Far from making America great again, this undoes precisely what made the place exceptional.
Trump has interested many writers, but few have pursued their fascination to the point of enlisting him in an elaborate fictional conceit. Homeland Elegies depicts Trump as a one-time friend of Akhtar’s father, a Pakistani cardiologist in Milwaukee who treats the future president. Dr Akhtar becomes seduced by the art