Debut Author Snapshot: Omar El Akkad

Posted by Goodreads on April 1, 2017

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American War tells the story of Sarat Chestnut, a child of the southern Louisiana coast, who grows up during a fictional second American Civil War. The war—fought between the Union and a group of southern states that refuse to abide by a fossil fuel prohibition—takes place about 50 years from now, in a country battered by the effects of climate change, with its coastal cities underwater. This debut novel follows Sarat's life and the way the violence of war transforms her from a loving, endlessly curious little girl into something much darker—a living weapon.

This dark American future sprang from the mind of Omar El Akkad, who was born in Egypt and lived in the Middle East until he was a teenager. He spent his next 15 years in Canada, where he worked for a decade as a reporter at the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he wrote his first novel. He talked to Goodreads about his inspiration for American War, political polarization, and the potential danger of stories we tell ourselves.

Goodreads: What led you to imagine a second Civil War? What were the factors that began the "what if" of your book?

Omar El Akkad: A long time ago, early on in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, I was watching an interview with a foreign affairs expert. The journalist asked the expert why anti-American sentiment ran so high among some Afghan villagers. In his answer the expert noted that sometimes U.S. troops have to conduct nighttime raids in these villages, and when they do this, they often will turn the houses upside down and hold the families up at gunpoint. In Afghan culture, the expert helpfully explained, that sort of thing is considered offensive. I remember thinking, "Name me one culture in the world that wouldn't consider that sort of thing offensive."

If American War has a genesis, that was it. I wanted to take all these wars that the United States has been involved in either indirectly or from a great distance—everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and recast them as elements of something immediate and nearby, something from which it was impossible to look away. The thesis of the book is that suffering is, regardless of ethnicity or culture or religion, universal.

GR: How did your experiences as a journalist inform writing American War? Also, can you give us a brief history of your work as a journalist?

OEA: Many of the locations in the novel are based on places I visited while on assignment in various parts of the world. For example, there's a refugee camp in the book called Camp Patience, whose physical description is based in large part on the NATO airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan. But beyond geography, my experiences as a reporter influenced the way I shaped some of the characters in the book. Early on in my career, I spent the better part of a year covering the "Toronto 18," a group of boys and men who were the subject of the most high-profile terrorism-related arrests in Canadian history. It was during that time that I started taking an interest in what exactly causes a seemingly well-adjusted person to become so radicalized as to want to unleash widespread carnage. A lot of what I learned about radicalization—and the way opportunists are able to radicalize the young, misguided, and insecure—eventually found its way into American War.

GR: Several reviewers of your book on Goodreads have called it a "timely" book. What do you think of that characterization?

OEA: I finished the first draft of the manuscript in the summer of 2015, a few weeks before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. It was clear by then, and had been for many years, that the United States was becoming more politically polarized than it has been since perhaps the Civil War. But I never saw the events of these past two years coming, and I never thought we'd reach a place of such overwhelming acrimony that a novel about a fictional second American Civil War would be considered timely. I wanted to write a book about the universal nature of suffering and revenge. I never set out to predict the future.

GR: In the book you write, "You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories." We also noticed that this quote is your pinned Tweet. Explain that sentence and its importance.

OEA: I was thinking a lot about the stories that so often precede and outlive the bloodiest wars, the things people tell themselves over and over, louder and louder, until it doesn't matter anymore whether they were ever true at all. I think all wars start as stories—stories about the superiority of Us and the inferiority of Them. And I think no war ever truly ends so long as the sanctity of those stories survives. I'm fascinated by that kind of unending quality of conflict: the guns being lowered but the stories persisting. And as long as a story persists, there will eventually come along someone willing to kill on its behalf.

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GR: Which writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves in American War?

OEA: I tend to gravitate almost exclusively toward two kinds of writing: gorgeous sentences and well-marinated worlds.

By the former I mean books such as Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, a tiny collection of interwoven stories where every paragraph radiates magic; or Tinkers by Paul Harding, a book as controlled and lyrical as it is devastating; or As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, which contains one of my favorite sentences: "It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That's how the world is going to end."

By the latter, I mean the work of masters such as Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison—writers who paint a place, time, or culture with strokes so fine, the work begins to step beyond the boundaries of fiction, begins to outshine reality.

One of the strangest books that had a profound influence on me when I was writing American War is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee. In 1936, the story goes, Agee and photographer Walker Evans took on a magazine assignment to head into the Dust Bowl and document the lives of sharecroppers. But instead of coming back with a magazine feature, Agee produced about a thousand pages of prose. The result is a doorstop of a book, borderline unreadable in parts, but stunning in its empathy and eye for detail. Anyone with the stamina and stubbornness to get through it will find a singular example in how to fully inhabit a world.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading American War?

OEA: I don't think an author's intent matters all that much once a novel enters the world, but I hope I've written a book that stands against the nihilism of continual war. I hope readers come away with the sense that there exists no special kind of evil, unique and confined to a certain culture or religion or state of mind. But more than that, I hope what remains in readers' minds is the story of Sarat Chestnut, her life and what becomes of it. This story belongs to her.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

OEA: I recently finished Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a beautiful book about a couple fleeing the violence that has infected their homeland and, in the process, wandering into the ethereal stream of the global refugee class. It's so wonderfully written, a meditation on how relationships—be they emotional or geographic—begin, evolve, and end.

I also just finished Sin, a short poetry collection by the late Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, masterfully translated by Sholeh Wolpe. It's hard to overstate the barriers this outstanding poet faced in her short life, both for her open discussion of sexuality and her status as one of Iran's first modernist poets. I'm always reluctant to recommend poetry in translation, but Wolpe does an outstanding job here, and the fire of the original work still burns.

Finally, I can't stop thinking about a book called Proxies by Brian Blanchfield. The premise sounds like a gimmick—a collection of "micro-essays," during the writing of which the author allows himself no use of any research tools but his own recollection (the last 20 pages or so are nothing but corrections, completed after the fact). But what lives in these essays is a dizzying virtuosity, swerving from high-minded, philosophical explorations of the self to raw, unvarnished anecdotes about growing up gay in the South. It's unlike anything else I've ever read.

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael Engel Right. This book, which received raves from the NY Times, is just what we need to cheer us up in these difficult times. What could possibly be the attraction? Do we really need more misery? The flood of dystopian fiction (and films) that has inundated our culture--and become so popular among young people--in recent years is a sad symptom of our social dysfunction.

message 2: by Nicola (new)

Nicola Jack Depends why you think we read, Michael. Obviously a publisher has to turn a profit.....but don't we engage with books for so many reasons? 'To cheer us up' is, as you suggest, one reason.....but what about rehearsal, affirmation, exploration, nostalgia etc.......I'm not sure that dystopian fiction is necessarily a signifier of social dis function.

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael Engel Well said. And I agree with your comment about dystopian fiction in general, and I certainly don't just read books that "cheer me up". I suppose I feel that times are dark enough without the endless stream of such works lately. The disproportionate amount of novels published lately that tell stories of individual, family, or societal dysfunction seems more a matter of literary fashion than literary quality. (Why else would "The Goldfinch" have won a Pulitzer? But that's another issue....)

message 4: by Patti (new)

Patti As stated in the article above, the author's intent was not simply to add to the stream of dystopian fiction, but to put what's happening far away in a context that helps people understand how these events are truly affecting people's lives.

message 5: by Michael (new)

Michael Rieman American War forces the reader into the world of someone who has been a victim of that conflict, and acts from that perspective. What has remained troubling for me, though, is that as a reader I cannot see the Blues as anything but oppressors. Similarly, the "official" government of the Free Southern States seems removed from the real plight of the victims of the struggle, concerned with appearances and getting the best deal for themselves, leaving the hardest hit people prey to the appeal of the militias and those "outsiders' like Gaines and "Joe" who have their own agendas. Is it possible that the Red position was flawed ? We have no chance to consider that because the North is viewed from a very limited perspective. The novel was extremely powerful, and I thank the author for having spoken about it in my community (Brooklyn,NY) but I felt I had to express my thought about this aspect of the novel.

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