The authors spoke Friday night as part of the Arts & Letters Live series at the Dallas Museum of Art. Both writers have new books to promote – Urrea’s Queen of America, the sequel to The Hummingbird’s Daughter that depicts Saint Teresita’s journey from revolutionary Mexico to the United States, and Akhtar’s debut novel, American Dervish, about a pre-teen boy discovering his Muslim faith.
The two were a study in contrasts. Urrea was full of energy, speaking with a big voice and sprinkling his stories with punchlines. Akhtar was more subdued, but he did draw laughs from the audience when he read an excerpt from his book and used an accent and feminine voice to play the mother.
Akhtar, who grew up in Wisconsin, said he had a clear intention: to write a book about what it was like to be Muslim in the United States. Most books about Islam were distant, he said, but his book is a coming of age story with a dysfunctional family and different points of view.
“I wanted the audience not to experience anything foreign,” he said.
Akhtar earned degrees in theater and film programs from Brown and Columbia, has written several plays and acted in the movie Too Big to Fail. Those experiences inspired him to write a movie in the form of a book.
“I’m a dramatic storyteller,” he said. “I don’t want the language to be in the way of the experience.”
His mother, who was American, read him Charles Dickens and Mark Twain books. He described her as someone who thought she was always in Vogue magazine, drinking from demitasse cups and calling him “dear boy” and “Louis.” His father was from Mexico and gave him The Iliad and The Odyssey in Spanish, but never found his place in the United States.
When a young Urrea was called a “greaser” and “wetback,” his father tried to convince him there were words of pride that Mexicans used to show off their prowess.
“I knew it was a lie,” Urrea said. But he knew his father had told a great story. “That may have the moment. It was so magical.”
Urrea became the first person in his family to attend college, but he did not know what he was going to do with his life. He soon became a translator for a preacher working in the slums of Tijuana. The preacher gave him some advice.
“You need to tell these stories for those who don’t have a voice,” his friend told him.
But, as Urrea noted earlier in his speech, his bi-cultural life served him well.
“We all have multiple personalities in a way,” he said. “I consider myself a theological writer. I write about the human spirit.”