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Interview: 'American War' author Omar El Akkad

Literature as 'weaponized empathy'


Writers & Books' 2019 selection for its Rochester Reads series is "American War," the debut novel of Egyptian-Canadian investigative journalist Omar El Akkad. The work follows protagonist Sarat Chestnut, beginning in the year 2075, when the country is enmeshed in civil war, fossil fuels have been prohibited, and American citizens fear suicide bombers and take shelter in refugee camps. Sarat's development into a young woman is cultivated by the loss and trauma she endures during the war. El Akkad will be in town March 26 to March 29 for a series of readings, book signings, and book talks (more info at CITY spoke via phone with El Akkad in advance of his Rochester visit. An edited version of the interview follows.

CITY: How did investigative journalism influence your fiction or vice versa?

Omar El Akkad: Fiction was always my first home. I went to school for computer science which very quickly turned out to be a bad idea. I did discover the student newspaper and ended up applying for a position there, and spent the rest of my time at the university living at the student newspaper. Then I worked my way up to editor in chief and built my portfolio up so that I was able to apply for a job at a daily newspaper the year I graduated. I got very lucky and then got a full-time offer at the end of that internship. I was there for the next ten years.

So journalism afforded me a chance to make a living writing and the chance to get an education I would have never have gotten. I got to go to places like Guantanamo and Afghanistan and the Middle East. And I also got to work with some of the best editors in the country. In a sense, fiction was always my first love. I wrote three novels before I wrote "American War." In the 10 years that I was a journalist I wrote those, but I didn't try to publish them or try to show them to anybody. I saw them as sit-ups, working muscles. Many of the scenes in "American War" are influenced by what I saw as an investigative journalist. But also the writing itself was influenced by how writing at a newspaper sort of changes your view of getting ideas across in your writing.

There's evidence that shows that reading literary fiction can increase empathy in people. More than nonfiction. Is there a difference in responses to the different genres you write? Because in both cases, you point to the harrowing realities of the human condition.

Yeah, we used to say at the newspaper that journalism doesn't really tell you what to think, it tells you what to think about. And so we could write all the stories about the war in Afghanistan that we wanted and get people to think about the war and events, but couldn't tell them what to think or feel about them. But I think fiction does this to a certain extent. Fiction gets to the emotional core of things. And that's a place where it's much easier to start to have a conversation with the reader about why they think the things they do.

  • Omar El Akkad.

Journalism for me is very rational and fact-based -- if not objective then at least concerned with the factual events that it covers. In that sense it's a very rational art. If you've ever been in love, you know a lot of life is not rational. And fiction is the place to explore the irrational part of our existence. So I've had a lot of conversations with people who have had the privilege to not have to think about the things that are in this book. So a lot of people who have read the book have had to put themselves into that mindset. Where they go from there is less up to me, but I'm somewhat encouraged that, as a result of reading this book, they've gone to places they otherwise could have very happily and very comfortably have ignored.

What existing or potential policies could devastate the country into a state of civil war? The novel mentions fossil fuels, but is there anything else?

The book as I intended it was never about a literal American war. Or that if there were one, that it would ever go down like it does in the book. It's hard for me to conceive of a second civil war when there's so many signs across this country that the first one never really ended. So I think one of the side effects of this book coming out four months into the Trump administration is that it's much easier to make a sort of literal forecast when that wasn't the mindset I was in when I wrote it a couple of years earlier.

We talk about the notion of what policies could result in that kind of devastation. There are certain communities in this country that are already experiencing elements of that level of devastation -- they're just not communities that have much of a voice. When you talk about the criminal justice system for example, that's a very asymmetric system. It's just lives of people who don't have much of a voice. So, you know, my sense is that I don't think that we are that close to a moment where America turns its drones and heavy artillery on itself. But I do think of a much more, quieter, civil war that's been going on for decades. The victims are some of the most marginalized populations in this country.

What's the significance of the Bouazizi Empire -- which consists of North Africa and the Middle East -- becoming the new superpower, particularly in relation to the Fifth Spring that's mentioned?

The central trick in the book, which is not a particularly clever trick, is inversion. To flip things on their heads. And so at a time when the United States, which is now obviously the world's greatest empire, is in decline, I decided to create a sort of rival empire that was on the upswing. And so the empire's named the Bouazizi Empire, after Mohamad Bouazizi who was a fruit and vegetable stall owner, a Tunisian guy, who set himself on fire after being harassed by local police. And his death catalyzed the Arab Spring. He was a real guy, and so I had this empire that's now named after him.

I imagine that there's been one failed Arab Spring, and I imagine another four, and finally after the fifth one it's successful. When it came time to figure out how I was going to create this empire, all I did was take the creation story of the United States. So what you have is a group of people who come from different backgrounds, all rising up against tyranny, forcing a revolution, and many states creating a single empire. So really all I did was take the creation story of the United States and apply to the other side of the world. I wanted a story where the United States was the receiving empire of another's machination.

This idea of inversion is present in a couple of different ways in the novel. Religion plays a pretty large role in the story, specifically Catholicism. When you're talking about inversion does this apply to the idea of religious extremism as well?

One of the things I was trying to do was to get at the levers of extremism. To take someone to that place that otherwise you or I would not be inclined to go to. And religion seems to be one of those touchstones. Where if you could find someone who is apt to be manipulated that way, it becomes a really easy way to manipulate them. And so I was thinking about this because I spent a lot of time covering terrorism in journalism. And one of the things I would consistently come across was this notion of a kind of emotional lubricant. This thing that caused, or made it much easier, for someone to go down this road.

And religion was one of those things, but also one of many things. In some ways it was social isolation, which was a form of leverage. It's the same thing when you find someone who is religious but doesn't feel that they're doing right by their religion or feels insecure about their religion. So it's important for me to highlight that religion was one of those buttons that you could push to get someone to go down an ugly road. But it's not the only button. So that's one of the balancing acts of the book. If you focus exclusively on religion you get to a place where people think that's the only factor driving someone to extremism and I know from experience that that's not the case.

As for the sense of inversion with respect to the actual religion, when I first started, I was looking for analogs to the kind of religions that I saw in the Middle East, and I was thinking of ways to flip that, but then it occurred to me that I wouldn't have to think analogously about it. Because if you look at a place like Ireland, you'll see religious extremism very much based on a Christian worldview. So it wasn't nearly as analogous as I thought going into it. Because there are plenty of forms of religious extremism.

So with regard to this enthusiasm, can you talk a little bit about Simon's development into the Miracle Boy?

Yeah so midway through the book, Simon is pretty viciously injured during the massacre at Camp Patience. Camp Patience itself is based on a refugee camp in Lebanon called Sabra and Shatila. Sabra is the Arabic word for patience and that's where the name comes from. About 37 years ago, Sabra and Shatila was the site of a massacre where local militias killed...god knows how many people. They've never been able to get an accurate number on it. But a lot of the events that occur at Camp Patience are based very closely on that.

So Simon is wounded in such a way that nine times out of 10, he would've died. He survives with a very traumatic brain injury. But by virtue of having survived, he becomes a totem, a superstitious figure for people in his community. I was thinking about what it is you hold onto when you have nothing to hold onto. We were talking earlier about the thing Robert Gaines says, where he says: "What's the first thing you hold onto?" Your wealth. Well what if they take away your wealth? Family. Well what if they take away your family? And what happens when you get to the bottom of that list? So here you have all these people who have nothing to hold onto. Their side has lost the war. They have very little agency over their own lives. No prospect of going somewhere safer. But one of the things that nobody can take away from them is belief. And by virtue of Simon having survived, they imbued him with this kind of supernatural importance (which he doesn't have in any real sense). But they project onto him this thing that nobody can take away from them, which is belief.


Your work has been compared to some pretty big-name authors: Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth. Who are your literary influences?

I grew up in the Middle East in a country that had no library or access to uncensored work of any kind. Music, books. The first American author I got my hands on was Stephen King. And because his books were labeled by my school library as being for the older students only, I would try to get the older students to smuggle the books for me. I very quickly associated the idea of reading with stubbornness and a kind of resistance. So I read a lot of Stephen King. Once I moved to Canada, a million doors opened for me. Suddenly things weren't censored anymore. I just walked to the library and got whatever I wanted. And then I stumbled onto the work of Toni Morrison, who, in my opinion is the greatest living writer of the English language. "Beloved" and "Song of Solomon" were two works that really changed what I thought literature could be. In terms of my conception of what you could do as a writer.

There's a lot of Arab writers whose work I've read in translation, years later. The work was not available when I was younger. Naguib Mahfouz, who was the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. As far as contemporary writers, there's Basma Abdel Aziz, who writes dystopian, Kafkaesque fiction, whose work I'm a big fan of. There's a Syrian writer Khalid Khalifa who wrote "Death is Hard Work," the story of a family in the middle of the current civil war. It's written by somebody who still refuses to leave Syria despite being in incredible danger.

Those are some contemporary writers I think are really doing incredible stuff. There's also Ahmed Saadawi who wrote "Frankenstein of Baghdad" which is the story of Frankenstein recast in modern-day Baghdad. This time the monster is made up of the limbs of car bombing victims. It's another interesting inversion that I found well-done. My favorite novel of all time is "A Death in the Family" by James Agee. It's a gorgeous book, emotionally surgical and every sentence is beautiful.

In Rochester, our literary community is pretty unique in that it pays special focus to literature in translation. We have Open Letter Books, a press that publishes literature in translation. We've even hosted the American Literary Translation conference once and will be again this fall. So let me ask you: what's the importance of translated literature from your perspective?

I've done a lot of events and interviews for "American War" and a lot of those have been in the United States. And one of the things I often get is why the book is so relentlessly dark. And that's a valid question. But I also think it's a question very much based on perspective. A while back I did a Skype meeting with an Egyptian book club in Cairo and I got the opposite question, of why I toned it down. The perspective was very different.

When I think about reading literature in translation, I think of this notion of how oblivious we all are, across the world, to the existence of entirely different perspectives on the same situation. And you know, that difference is why I wrote "American War" in the first place. When I'm asked about literature in general, the thing I come back to is the notion that literature is a form of weaponized empathy. It's to say: look through these different pair of eyes even though you don't have to.

When we talk about translation, well, translation is a very asymmetric thing. A lot of English language literature is translated into another language. "American War" has been translated into, I think, thirteen different languages already. And it's not a huge blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination. But when you flip that around, very little foreign literature gets translated into English. And when it does, it very rarely makes a splash. Any effort to address that asymmetry is a fundamental fulfillment of literature's mission statement: to make you think about things you otherwise don't have to think about.

I want to bring us back to the novel for a minute, I'm curious about Sarat's development. As a child she has this visceral relationship to the soil. She's always digging in it, touching it, she's even buried in the mud at one point. She has a fascination with life: turtles, worms, plants. Then she turns into a violent woman who holds a gun and kills.

The book started with a kind of thesis statement. It started as an argument: there's no such thing as a foreign kind of suffering. Some of us just have the privilege of believing otherwise. But a novel isn't just a thesis statement. And one day this little girl shows up. The six year-old girl who pours honey into the knot of the wood on her porch -- that image shows up. And once it does, everything else takes a back seat. Her defining characteristics are a kind of endless, fearless curiosity. But also this trusting nature. She wants to know as much as she can about the world around her, but she also believes the things that people tell her.

As the book progresses, every time she's subjected to damage, her circle of trust closes a bit. When we first meet her, her circle of trust almost encompasses the entirety of the world. Then slowly it's just close friends and family. And then just certain members of friends and family. And then finally by the end of the book the only thing she trusts is her own sense of revenge. And that closing-in of things is kind of the central, emotional narrative of the book. The emotional arc of the book is how she responds to being damaged.

By the end of the book, I didn't want a character who people would apologize for, sympathize with, or even like. Sarat at the end of the book is not a character I like. The only thing I wanted was for people to understand how she gets to the place she ends up. Because when we talk about extremists or people who end up doing horrible things, we tend to only talk about the finish line, and American War is an attempt to show the rest of the race, leading up to it. You see the transition, the slowness, the meticulous nature of that transition.

As a journalist you covered the Black Lives Matter protests in the States, and you researched post-Katrina Louisiana. You seem to have a really good understanding of how disparity of wealth, platform, and voice function in America. Where is race in "American War"?

Almost everything in the book is a kind of analogy to something else. The America in which this book takes place is not a literal America, it's an analogous America. When I was trying to think of analogy to the first Civil War, I knew I wasn't going to find anything of the same level of sheer human brutality as the causes of the first. But climate change and fossil fuels seemed to work as an analogy to something that, in the future, we could point back to and say, "I can't believe how wrong they were back then. If it was me, I would've stood up and done something about it."

A lot of it, when I was dealing with issues with race, was the metaphorical and the negative space or the analogous. So a lot of times when I'm talking about climate change in the book I'm not really talking about climate change. But I completely failed to do this because no one has come up to me and said, "Oh, climate change is an analogy for race relations" -- that's not the failure of the reader, it's mine as a writer to not make that work.

The other side of it has to do with the notion of negative space. For example, with respect to Sarat's sexuality. She is who she is and she doesn't feel the need to justify it or talk about it. And I was thinking a lot, as somebody who's a brown immigrant in this country, about what I want my rights to be with respect to my identity. And what I want is the right to talk about -- or not talk about -- my identity as much as I want. And trying to get at that negative space, as a kind of right, is a difficult thing to do.

If I had written a book about a literal American civil war in which this United States was the center focus, I think almost the entirety of the book would have been concerned with race. That's not the book I was writing. The book I was writing was an inversion of something we see much more readily in another direction.

I think a lot of the issues of what is or isn't in the book, particularly with respect to race, boil down to the notion that America as an entity is largely ignored in this book -- which is a weird thing to say about a book called "American War" that takes place in the United States. If this were 100 years earlier I would have called it British War. What was important was to set this in the dominant empire.

The questions you say you're getting seem to be about the didactic, explicit talk about race. But you just mentioned negative space, and earlier you mentioned Toni Morrison. In "Playing in the Dark," Morrison talks about how we know whether a character is black or white in a novel: We know a character is black because it's said very plainly, we know a character is white because nothing is said at all. The silence presumes whiteness. It looks like there's something very clever about the inversion of silence or negative space. At what point to do we turn that around?

Yeah, I mean, I've been Arab all my life. I'd been Muslim pretty well all my life. But I wasn't brown until I came to this part of the world. You show up to this part of the world and there's an inversion of your default view of it. But what I realized becomes a more important part of the equation is what America thinks of me. And a big part of that is completely out of my hands. I still don't know what it means to be capital-B Brown. That's a terminology that is entirely new to me. It might be the case that I'm still coming to terms about how to think about that in a way that isn't just me reacting in a knee-jerk way. I want to retain that right to just be able to say: I have things to say about being an immigrant, I have things to say about being a Muslim, I have things to say about being an Arab, but I also have things to say about a lot of other things, too.