By Wes Cruse
What will America look like in the year 2074? Will the future be bright or bleak? In Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, 2074 is the year the Second American Civil War breaks out. Oil has been outlawed, rising sea levels have submerged the entire peninsula of Florida, and six year old Sarat Chesnut finds herself in the middle of this divided and ruinous world.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, El Akkad has spent most of his writing career as a journalist. For ten years, he worked for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail covering the War in Afghanistan, and in 2006 he won a National Newspaper Award for his investigative reporting. American War is his first novel and has achieved immense success as a bestseller, shortlisted for the 2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and for the 2018 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. El Akkad will be joining us on campus this Thursday, November 1st, for a Q&A from 4-5 pm in the Terrace Room and a lecture and reading from 7-8pm in BC Auditorium. You won’t want to miss hearing him!
What prompted you to write American War, your debut novel?
I was thinking a lot about the privilege of forgetting, the privilege of turning away from the suffering of millions of people on the other side of the planet. I decided to write a story that takes the hallmarks of the wars that have defined much of my lifetime – drone killings, refugee camps, “enhanced interrogation” – and recast them as something close to home, something from which it would be much more difficult for people in this part of the world to look away. And I couldn’t think of anything closer to home than a civil war, a war where you’re fighting yourself.
What are your inspirations for your writing?
I grew up reading mostly American authors (around the age of 12, I found copies of a half-dozen Stephen King books at my tiny high school library in the Middle East. It was those books that kickstarted my love of reading). American authors have been among my favorites ever since – chief among them Faulkner, Morrison, Baldwin and a slew of new writers such as Garth Greenwell. More recently, I’ve tried to read more authors from the part of the world in which I grew up. There are a number of Arab writers who, in my mind, are doing some of the most interesting work in literature – writers such as Basma Abdel Aziz, Khalid Khalifa and Ahmed Saadawi. All of these writers inspire me, but the predominant inspiration for my writing is a sense of urgency – I write about the things that I feel the most need to talk about, the things that make me angriest.
Which authors and literary works have been key sources of inspiration for you?
When I was writing American War, the book that inspired me the most is a work of non-fiction called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It’s a book by James Agee (whose novel A Death in the Family is perhaps my favorite work of fiction) that chronicles the lives of Southern sharecroppers during the depression era. Thematically and narratively it has almost nothing in common with American War, but it is the finest example I’ve ever read of detailing the intricacies of a quiet life.
What excites you about your work as a writer?
I derive a kind of joy from exploring questions to which I have no answers. Fiction is one of those creative spaces in which one can wander into the forest of a story with no map, no compass, no hint as to what might be the right direction. I enjoy that uncertainty, and the moments of serendipity that occasionally come with it – moments in which the writer moves outside themselves and finds something new, a different way of seeing the world.
What are some of your hobbies?
Besides reading and writing, I spend much of my free time rock-climbing. I’m also, for reasons I’ve never been able to adequately explain, a huge fan of TV shows about chefs and cooking (though I myself am a terrible, terrible cook).
What advice would you give to aspiring writers and authors?
Read, write and re-write. As much as you possibly can, do all three. The good writing lives beneath the bad writing, and so much of this craft is about peeling away the bad writing, draft after draft after draft. American War took 12 drafts to go from manuscript to finished form. The work of cleaning it up was tedious and sometimes joyless, but it was necessary.
You were a staff reporter for The Globe and Mail for ten years. How do you see telling a story in the mode of a novel as opposed to journalism? Pros and cons?
Journalism is, by definition, about answers – Who, what, where, when, how. Fiction is where I go to explore questions. In this way the two modes of writing are opposite sides of the same coin, and I don’t think I’ll ever abandon one for the other. I still practice journalism, though most of my efforts these days are focused on fiction.
Why did you choose to tell American War from the perspective of a female protagonist?
Of all the characters in the book, Sarat Chestnut is the only one who came to me fully formed. She arrived one day and, once she did, the story became hers. In much of my fiction, especially as I’ve grown older, the central character is a woman, and I suspect this has to do with the fact that virtually all my most complex and fulfilling emotional experiences have come from the women in my life. In the case of American War, which is in many ways a book about radicalization and extremism, I also wanted to explore those topics outside the male prism through which they are almost always portrayed. Whether I had any right to reach outside myself and write from the perspective of a different gender, and whether I managed to do it properly, are different questions. But in almost all my fiction I find myself most emotionally invested in the lives of my female characters.