A Conversation with Omar El Akkad, Author, American War


Former journalist turned novelist Omar El Akkad’s new book is American War: a near-future narrative about a young woman caught up in the violence of a second civil war. We met up with El Akkad during his book tour to talk about American War, and its parallels with real world events.

Unbound Worlds: What is American War all about?

Omar El Akkad: It’s the story of the second American civil war, which takes place about five or six decades from now. The America of that time period is very different. The sea levels have risen, the coastlines are gone. Florida is gone. Southern Louisiana is about a hundred miles north of where it currently is, and the rest is underwater.

Long after it would do any good at all, the federal government decides to impose a prohibition on fossil fuels as a way to combat this. By this point in time, most of the world has moved on to other sources of fuel — other less ruinous fuels. Nonetheless, a number of southern states decide that they would rather than secede from the Union than go along with this. What follows is a civil war, the kinetic part of which lasts a very short time — the northern military wins that battle easily — but after that there is an insurgency that lasts for years and years.

The story follows the Chestnut family, who live in southernmost Louisiana, specifically Sarat Chestnut, the daughter in the family who is about six years-old when the book starts. It is essentially the story of her transformation at the hands of war, which begins when her family is forced to move into a refugee camp after the war comes to their doorstep. It’s a story of how this young girl who is curious, and trusting, and loving is transformed into a weapon.

UW: It occurred to me when I was reading the book that seemed like a mirror image of America’s experiences in the Middle East: a kind of explainer for how radicalization and insurgencies occur, and how it’s not so difficult to understand.

OEA: That was one of the central tricks of the book that I employed when I was writing it: the idea that there is no such thing as an exotic kind of suffering. There’s no such thing as the way they behave over there as opposed to the way we would behave over here. The privilege of assuming exotic motivations on to people who are far away is just that: It’s a privilege born of the fact that we don’t live in a part of the world that is on the losing end of a war.

What I wanted to do is to take these conflicts that are very far away in which US involvement has been indirect or at a great distance, and recast them as something very close to home, with the central thesis being that — and I think there’s a line in the book to this effect — “If it had been you then you’d have done no different”. That was what I was trying to get at. Whether I succeeded or failed is an entirely different story, but that was the motivation when I started writing.

UW: You focused on an area of the country that is traditionally more conservative, and using oil as a motivator in the battle. Why is that? Did you feel that it was especially important to work these factors in to try to make people understand what’s going on in another part of the world?

OEA: Almost everything in the book lives as some kind of analogy. For example, I don’t think of it as a book about America. I don’t think of it as a book about northerners and southerners. When it came time to think of a cause for the war, I wanted something that got at the idea that in many years time, when it is safe to do so, people will stand up and say, “I can’t believe that they didn’t realize how ruinous that was. I would have stood up and said no.”

It’s a much easier to do that when a lot of time has passed and there’s no risk involved in it, than to do in the current moment, because one day, the use of this fuel and the effect it has had on the world is going to be thought of as a temporary moral aberration: this thing that we got on and we moved on and learned the error of our ways and became better. That’s not entirely true: what it is the foundation of one of the largest commercial empires in the world, and something that makes all of our day to day lives easier, while ruining the lives of countless others.

That was the reason that I chose fossil fuels as the cause of the war, not so much that I wanted to make a direct statement about fossil fuel use, as I wanted to make a statement about this idea that we’ve always done it this way, so this is how we’re going to do it, and the kind of stubbornness and hubris that accompanies this. That was the thinking behind it.

UW: Let’s talk about the speculative element of the story. It is set in the future, and you’ve already taken a number of trends and accelerated them. How did you go about setting up the world of your novel? How did you make the choices that you did, and how did you push them forward? Were there any points at which you thought that you should scale something back or put something new in?

OEA: The way I went about it is to take a lot of stuff that is happening right now or has happened in my lifetime and pass it through a deliberately grotesque lens. For example, in the book there are the birds: They are drones, and the server farms that control them have been razed. They fly around and drop their payloads randomly. If you live in the South, you’re constantly looking up at the sky because you don’t know when the next bomb might fall. That is the experience of someone living in certain parts of Afghanistan, Yemen, or Libya, passed through a grotesque lens.

The same is true with destroying the coastlines, and putting Florida underwater. The sea level rise in the book is something along the lines of 60 meters, which is wildly more than almost any estimate there is. Again, a deliberately grotesque lens, but not that far removed from the experience of someone living in Fiji, or, in a few decades time, someone who is living in Bangladesh.

One of the very first things I do in all of my stories is try to figure out a way to get rid of everyone’s smart phones. It hurts the narrative if everyone can just look at the phones and just get out of whatever trouble they’re in. Even though the novel is set in the future, and it had to be because I needed some time for this world to marinate, it doesn’t feel like the future.

It is deliberately not futuristic in the South where the book is set, because the South has been on the losing end of a war. All of my experiences covering wars has led me to believe that to lose a war is to move backwards in time. I don’t think of this as a particularly futuristic book in that regard.

UW: I’m glad that you brought up your experiences as a reporter. There are some elements in the book that are epistolary: there are news clips, entries from reports, and excerpts from books about the war. You use these to frame the narrative. Why did you choose to develop these as part of the story, and what did your experience as a reporter bring to that?

OEA: It started as a crutch. I was trying to build this world with a lot of moving parts, and I’m not talented enough to keep track of all of them. I had all of these maps and drawings on my wall, and I started creating these fake historical documents — they’re only about a page long, each — as a way to keep track of the world and how it was shaping up. It was later on in the process that I realized that if I inserted them into the book between chapters that it would lend an element of texture that I couldn’t get through a straight narrative.

The one I always go back to is the letter from the Sugarloaf detainee, which is about two-thirds though the book. It is a letter from a detained southerner that has gone through the military censors, so the letter is mostly blacked out. In the audiobook version, Dion Graham, who is a tremendous reader, just says the word “redacted” over and over again, so when you get to the end of that particular segment, it has this incredible numbing effect of hearing someone repeat the word until it has no meaning.

That’s the way it started, but also, because I have 10 years of experience as a journalist, I also have experience with the language and style of these documents. I have received criticism that some of them are kind of stale or boring. It is a completely valid criticism, but that was the intention. If you have ever filed a Freedom of Information Act request and you get a document back, it is boring as hell. It was an act of mimicry on my part to try to get at this sort of officialdom and the stale, bureaucratic language of these kinds of documents, but yeah, it wasn’t intentional from the beginning. It wasn’t until later on that I realized that it made the book work better structurally than if I had not included them.

UW: You engaged the reader, though. You didn’t turn the book into a thinly disguised epistle on conflict in the Middle East.

OEA: What I was trying to do was not so much to force the reader to slog through a bunch of official sounding documents: That’s not fair to the reader, and it doesn’t accomplish anything from a narrative perspective. There’s nothing that I need to say that would force me to do that. What I wanted to get at was the way that these things are presented in a sanitized, empty, soulless way.

One of the documents in the book is a printout of a compensation agreement. A family has been involved in a massacre, and the federal government has decided to compensate them. This is based on NATO’s compensation schemes in places like Afghanistan. If you live in a village and they accidentally bomb your house, then you’re entitled to this much money and so on and so forth. That gave me a chance to talk about certain things that even if you missed them as a reader they didn’t change the book substantially.

I never make it clear in the book, but the names of all of the people in the book all have brackets next to them that say “pre-FA” or “FA”. FA stands for fighting age. It’s a reference to the increasing use of broad terms like “enemy combatant. if we accidentally bomb a place in Yemen, then any male between the ages of 16 and 65 is automatically classified as a fighter unless you can prove otherwise.

That’s the sort of stuff I wanted to get at: the reasoning behind why these documents are so stale. These make up our official history — these stale, boring documents — and we have an obligation to find out why the people we put in charge of our world are so desperate to keep it that way.

UW: You are Canadian-Egyptian. I was wondering how your experiences as a person of Middle Eastern descent has informed your novel, if at all.

OEA: The primary way in which they informed the novel was in a foundational sense. I don’t think of American War as a book about America or war, specifically. I do think of it as a fairly unrooted novel, in the sense that I feel unrooted. When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t known how to answer that question.

The place that I was born in was the place that I lived in until I was five years-old, and then I moved to another country and lived there for 11 years. Then I moved to Canada, and now I live in the United States.There’s a sense of not knowing where I belong and what stories I can take comfort in. The book carries some of that with it, plainly in the story of the main character, who lives in an isolated environment and comes from two different backgrounds. That sense of being unrooted is very central to the book.

The other way my experiences have influenced the book is in the sense of symmetry. I was a journalist for 10 years, and I got tear-gassed twice: once when I was covering the Arab Spring in Cairo, and again when I was covering Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson. That’s not to say that being in one of these places and covering one of these things implies an understanding of the other, or that the two of them are the same in any way, but the visual language of those two places are very similar: the heavily militarized police, and this ridiculous false equivalency between the destruction of property and the destruction of live as if those were two equal things.

All of that played into my sense that I could design a book like this, where I sort of turn the tables a little bit, because we’re used to the opposite of this, right? If you’ve ever watched a single James Bond movie, or Jason Bourne movie, then you’re used to the idea of the exotic location being Morocco, or Tunisia; of it being the setting for someone else’s story. We’re not used to our part of the world being an exotic locale for the telling of a different kind of story, but when you cover different parts of the world, or come from different parts of the world, you see the similarities in people’s reactions to terrible things happening to them, and it’s almost entirely the same.