Queen’s alum Omar El Akkad brings American War to campus

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Author discusses acclaimed novel and journalism

Credit: 
Penguin Random House Canada

It’s 2074: half of Louisiana is underwater, the President of the United States has been assassinated, fossil fuels are banned and a second civil war is erupting as southern states break off to secure the remains of the coal industry.

Needless to say, Omar El Akkad’s American War isn’t a light read. A former Journal Editor in Chief and Queen’s alum, El Ekkad’s decade worth of experience reporting on climate change, conflict and disaster have found a home in the pages of his new novel.
 
It’s a harrowing book about the radicalization of protagonist Sarat Chestnut in a world where torture, terrorism and drone strikes are a new part of the American fabric.
 
For El Akkad, he was simply bringing the conflicts he witnessed home.

“How easy it is, when you’re living in a relatively peaceful part of the world, to ignore everything else,” El Akkad told The Journal. “If I’d written a novel, and set it in the Middle East or set it in Afghanistan or set in any of the places in which these wars are actually physically taking place, it would have suffered from the same problem of distance.”

“So I took everything that was happening over there and put it over here.”

The book’s real-world influences result in a jarringly realistic vision of the future, mostly because much of the subject matter has already happened. El Akkad offers no easy answers to his readers as they explore a narrative interwoven with news clippings, documents, memoirs and oral histories.

 It’s as dense as any existing conflict, and despite being created before Trump’s election announcement, is often prescient. As El Akkad notes, most of the book’s reception has referenced the US’ increasingly polarized political climate, counter to the book’s pre-Trump candidacy origins.

El Akkad explained the difficulties of releasing a book that wouldn’t be read outside of its context.

“It was difficult because this thing that had belonged to me for two years, belonged to me and nobody else, suddenly belonged to everyone but me, which is what happens when you publish a book, you lose all control over it,” he said. “And whatever interpretation the readers give it is the valid one. Yours no longer matters.”

“I have 350 pages of an alternate America, you throw enough darts at the board, eventually you hit a bulls-eye and effectively come true. But that’s not that impressive,” he added. He said the novel shouldn’t just be read as a roadmap for the future.

 El Akkad is actually looking forward to the day it can be discussed outside of today’s politics, saying “that [they] will also change, either because Trump will be gone or we’ll all be dead.”

(Penguin Random House Canada) 

Despite the discussion generated and a largely positive critical reception, El Akkad almost never completed the book. He’d already written three novels — which according to him will never see the light of day — and deleted American War during a particularly frustrating period of the writing process. He even took the time to empty the recycling bin.

“Usually the beginning is fine, and you get 50, 60 pages in and you realize your connective tissue isn’t working,” he said. “You have your ending. You have your mileposts. But you can’t quite get there. You have to rework and reworking is where the self-doubt creeps in because you can see the whole structure shaking. You think, is this thing ever going to stand on its own?”

After the deletion incident, El Akkad managed to find an earlier draft to work off of to complete the novel.

“What keeps me coming back is stubbornness,” he said, expanding that writing was one of the few things he returns to after experiencing challenges.

Fiction was El Akkad’s first love and, given the opportunity to pursue it, he had little choice not to, especially after feeling like it was time to move on from full-time journalism.

Still, his readers can see a common strain through his journalism and his fiction — a deep concern over the human face of conflict and a changing world. Even more so when it starts looking so plausible.

“Non-fiction journalism is by definition concerned with answers — where, when, how. The world’s not all answers,” El Akkad said. “Fiction’s the place where I go to explore questions to which I have no answers. American War provides no answers. It’s not what it’s there for. Fiction’s the underside of that coin. Both are valuable for interpreting the world.”

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