Author Q&A: Omar El Akkad

By Anna Bowen, August 2018

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Author of American War, an apocalyptic novel in which the United States descends into civil war amidst the fallout from climate change, longtime journalist Omar El Akkad talks with us about empathy, exoticism and climate change. The book was written between the hours of midnight and 5 AM, as he told the CBC, and was actually erased in a moment of self-doubt before being published, becoming a contender for Canada Reads, and arguably setting the bar for North American post-apocalyptic fiction. The story follows Sarat as she grows up in the war-torn, climate-changed US fifty years from now and lets the reader taste what effect that might have on a child.

What was the moment you knew this was a book you wanted to write?

I have this vague recollection of watching an interview with a foreign affairs expert… in the immediate aftermath of protests that had been happening in Afghanistan–local villagers were protesting against the US military presence — and the question that was put to the gentleman was, why do they hate us so much? And part of his answer was that US special forces sometimes have to go into these villages and conduct nighttime raids, looking for insurgents, and when they do this they will often ransack the houses and hold the women and children at gunpoint – and he added, helpfully, that in Afghan culture that sort of thing is considered very offensive. And I thought, name me one culture on earth that wouldn’t consider this offensive?

That’s when I had the idea of taking the wars that have defined the world over my lifetime, and recast them as something immediate and close to home, and I couldn’t think of anything closer to home than a civil war.

The novel echoes many of the things you have witnessed as a journalist. What was the experience like of writing this into fiction?

There was an element of catharsis to it… journalism is concerned with answers, but there were many things I saw in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, in the Middle East, and in the United States, things that were open-ended questions that I couldn’t provide definite answers for…

American War is actually the fourth novel I’ve written. The first three weren’t very good so they haven’t left the hard drive… American War, I wasn’t going to show it to anyone either, [but] I had a bad day at the Globe, and I shipped it off to a literary agent who … was kind enough to take me on.

How did you decide to accelerate climate beyond the current projections for this novel which takes place fifty years from now?

Almost everything in the book is a deliberately grotesque extrapolation of things that either have happened or are happening… For a long time I had the story in my head but I didn’t know where I wanted to start it. Then I went down to Southernmost Louisiana. Southern Louisiana is disappearing at the rate of about a football field of land per hour — which sinks into the Gulf of Mexico every hour. It is one of the worst climate change disasters in the world and hardly anyone talks about it. All I did was extrapolate from that. I went to a research site that lets you visualize sea level rise and I turned it up to 60 meters of sea level rise. But again it was one of those things where casting forward, this was the only way I could get to a place where I could talk about the core of the thing… These days we talk about the periphery of climate change… but we rarely talk about the core of the thing – the disappearance of elements of memory. The idea that places where you grew up… that those places simply may not exist by the end of your life, and that memory becomes fragmentary as a result. I wanted to get at the core emotional component of these things that we generally look at in a cold and pragmatic sense.

A lot of people in order to survive people deflect this kind of knowledge, but clearly you had to let it sink in, let it get to you. How are you able to work creatively through that kind of reality?

I think one of the things I’ve discovered about myself is that … I have just enough talent that I can write about the things that feel necessary for me. And that usually correlates with things that make me angry. Which is to say when I was watching that interview, as if these Afghani people were some kind of exotic behavioral anomaly as if, if the same thing was happening in Norway they would act any differently. I try to remember that I am doing this because I feel it is necessary.

The way I provide myself with some armor against these things is to at least make sure at all times that I have a very good answer to the question “why are you doing this”?

So you wanted to debunk the idea held in the west or in Europe that people would act any differently here when confronted with the same violence. Was that part of the urgency?

I was reading an essay in the Paris Review about Dostoyevsky that relates to the origins of the word empathy that comes from the German word, einfühlung, which means to “feel into” and that for me is a profound way of describing empathy. A lot of writing, particularly fiction, is a kind of weaponized empathy. You’re grabbing the reader and you say, hey, look through these eyes…take on these other sets of experiences– and that was the driving force behind a lot of American War, this notion of taking something that we in this relatively peaceful part of the world can afford to ignore, and trying to bring it close to home.

How is the experience different when you are writing fiction as opposed to journalism, for instance writing the massacre that happens in the novel – is it something you need to step back from?

It’s almost the opposite – there’s a certain kind of distance you can maintain when you are writing journalistic nonfiction … but when you are writing fiction you are taking this on willingly and you are stepping close to it. So for example the massacre that takes place around the middle of the book in the refugee camp is very closely modeled on a massacre that took place at a refugee camp that happened in Sabra and Shatilla… that was something I first learned about in a very journalistic way. As a reader I was able to maintain a distance… but when I was writing this fictitious account that is based on it, I had to be close to what I was writing – and that’s a difficult thing but it also gets at the core of stepping around facts. Facts are vital, especially in this age we live in where so many of the people that make the decisions that dictate our lives are essentially liars… but the emotional component of the thing is an entirely different mechanism. That’s why I go to fiction, to explore the emotional side of things —  it demands a kind of nearness to whatever it is you are writing.

Omar was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up in the Middle East before moving to Canada. As a journalist for over ten years, he has reported on the war in Afghanistan, military trials in Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. He was awarded the National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting for his coverage of the “Toronto 18” terrorism arrests.

You can find Omar El Akkad reading from American War, on Sunday September 9, 2018 at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival.

This interview has been condensed. Find the full interview on our podcast.