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Writing in Pursuit of Meaning: Kaveh Akbar’s Journey from Poetry to Fiction


As humans, we find ourselves adrift in an ocean of uncertainties, constantly confronted with new questions as we seek answers to the old. Among these, existential inquiries like the meaning of life have captivated our minds since the dawn of civilization. Iranian American novelist and poet Kaveh Akbar delves into these profound mysteries in his new book, Martyr!, a thought-provoking exploration of how individuals seek meaning in their lives.

Kaveh Akbar’s Journey:

Akbar, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Iowa University, has garnered acclaim for his poetic prowess. His works, such as Pilgrim Bell and Calling a Wolf a Wolf, have garnered critical praise for their poignant reflections on life’s quandaries. As a poetry editor for The Nation magazine, he has nurtured the talents of literary luminaries like Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, and William Butler Yeats. Akbar’s passion for language and storytelling led him to venture into the realm of fiction, resulting in his debut novel, Martyr!

Martyr!: A Novel of Meaning-Seeking:

Martyr! introduces us to Cyrus Shams, an Iranian American poet grappling with the weight of addiction, loss, and existential despair. As Cyrus navigates the complexities of life, he stumbles upon a profound realization: by researching and writing about individuals who left an indelible mark on history, he can counter the inevitability of his own mortality. This quest for meaning takes him on a journey through time, examining the lives of historical figures who continue to inspire and intrigue long after their physical departure.

Writing Martyr!: The Process and Challenges:

Akbar’s writing process for Martyr! was far from glamorous. He meticulously crafted the narrative, hacking away at countless drafts until he arrived at a cohesive and compelling story. The novel’s deeply personal tone stems from Akbar’s own experiences, as he delves into themes of grief, loss, and the search for purpose. Martyr! is a testament to Akbar’s literary prowess, seamlessly blending fiction and autobiography to create a thought-provoking and emotionally resonant tale.

Advice for Aspiring Novelists:

For aspiring novelists, Akbar offers invaluable advice honed from his journey with Martyr!. He emphasizes the importance of patience and discipline, acknowledging that writing a novel is a labor of love that requires dedication and perseverance. Akbar also stresses the significance of cutting out unnecessary content, ensuring that the final product is concise and engaging. Additionally, he encourages aspiring writers to cultivate a love for reading, as great writers are also avid readers who immerse themselves in the works of others.

National Writers Series Event:

On February 7th, 2024, Kaveh Akbar will grace the stage of the City Opera House for a National Writers Series conversation. This event promises to be an illuminating exploration of Martyr! and Akbar’s unique perspective on the pursuit of meaning through fiction. Attendees will have the opportunity to engage in a thought-provoking dialogue with Akbar, gaining insights into his creative process and the themes that animate his writing. Live-stream and in-person viewing options will be available, providing literary enthusiasts with the chance to participate in this enriching conversation.


Kaveh Akbar’s journey from poetry to fiction is a testament to his exploration of life’s profound questions. Martyr! delves into the universal quest for meaning and purpose, resonating with readers on a deep level. Akbar’s advice for aspiring novelists provides valuable insights into the craft of writing, inspiring a new generation of literary voices to embark on their own journeys of discovery.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear Kaveh Akbar speak at the National Writers Series event on February 7th. Reserve your spot today!