Skip to main content


June 11, 2012

Ayad Akhtar on Speaking AMERICAN DERVISH

Ayad Akhtar earned a degree in Theater from Brown University and, after graduating, moved to Tuscany to work with world-renowned acting theorist and pioneer, Jerzy Grotowski (Towards a Poor Theater). He has been a New York City resident since the late nineties where he has taught acting on his own and alongside Andre Gregory (My Dinner With Andre, Vanya on 42nd St).
He is also the author of numerous screenplays. AMERICAN DERVISH, his first novel, was published in January 2012, and will be released in 22 languages worldwide.

I'm a playwright, an actor, a novelist, a filmmaker, and people often ask me what is the form that feels most comfortable to me as an artist. I always say:  It depends on the story I am telling. In the case of AMERICAN DERVISH, I would say that it was most suited to the form that it eventually found as an audio book. In writing the novel, I read every sentence aloud countless times before committing. I tested each chapter against the listening ears of friends and family. So much of the book's story is conveyed through dialogue, and as I was writing the novel, I inhabited the characters' voices, often setting up chairs with post-its to mark the place that a character was sitting. I spoke the scenes aloud, each character with his or her own inflection of a Pakistani or Arab accent. I strove to convey specific nuances of character through dialogue --- the playwright in me, no doubt, and the actor as well --- but I was never quite able to capture the nuance on the page that I could convey through speaking the dialogue.

So it'll probably make sense when I say:  It really was a dream come true to be the audio book narrator for American Dervish. And not only that. It was a revisiting of the creative process I had been through. For five days, seven hours each, I had the joy of losing myself in a story that I knew so well, but that was now coming to life again. And in a new way. In a way that felt even fuller than when I first wrote it. I think this had to do with the fact that I was now experiencing the book not only as its author, but as a listener, and as each of the characters as well. Through my voice, in my body, and with others --- my director Cheryl Smith, and the engineer Tommy Harron --- taking it all in on the other side of the studio glass.

At the end of the final day, I recall walking home from the studio with a sense of satisfaction I hadn't felt before. As if the whole process of writing the book --- giving it form, giving the world and the characters in it life --- as if this whole creative endeavor was finally complete, as if the ideal form of this story had finally been found. I felt so fortunate, so blessed to have had the chance to do it. And I have to say, the audio book version of Dervish may be the thing I am most proud of.