2019 Rochester Reads 2019:
A Conversation with Omar El Akkad
Writers & Books: I understand you were an avid reader as a child. When did you start writing? What kinds of writing or authors or topics inspired you in the beginning? And how did you get into journalism?
Omar El Akkad: Growing up in the Middle East, I was living in Qatar, a country which essentially imported all its culture. All our television shows, music, movies—it all came in (heavily censored) from the West. As such, I grew up on a largely Western, and particularly American cultural diet. I remember the small library at my high school, where the librarian would mark the spine of every book with an orange dot (if it was suitable for all students to read) or a red dot (if only the upper-year students were allowed to read it). Out of pure spite, I made it my mission to read the red-dot books, and would continually bug my upper-year friends to loan them out for me. I quickly learned that there was no rhyme or reason as to which books got the red-dot treatment, beyond the fact that all of them seemed to have skulls or blood on the cover. As a result, at a fairly young age, I ended up reading just about everything Stephen King had ever written.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I was in college in Canada, that I started my journalism career. The truth is, I was doing a pretty miserable job academically (my degree is in computer science, of all things), and I stopped going to class. One day I picked up a copy of the student newspaper and saw that they were hiring. I applied, got the job, and spent the next four years working my way up to editor-in-chief. By the end of my time in college, I’d put together enough of a portfolio to be able to apply for internships at the big national newspapers, and I got very lucky and landed a job at one. It was a dream job for a while, because it offered me the opportunity to see the world, write every day, and get paid to do it. Fiction has always been my greatest love, but for a decade journalism gave me both an education and a paycheck.
W&B: You spent those next 10 years working around the world as a journalist so your published writings, before the publication of American War, had been exclusively in the nonfiction genre. What inspired you to move into fiction?
OEA: I’ve been writing fiction long before I ever got into journalism. Indeed, American War is my fourth novel. During my ten years as a journalist, I wrote fiction almost every day, and completed three novels before starting American War (they weren’t very good so I never showed them to anyone other than my best friend, but they made for good practice). I wasn’t going to show American War to anyone either, but then one day I had a bad day at work, and decided to roll the dice and show the manuscript to a literary agent I’d met years earlier. She was kind enough to read it, and a few months later she’d managed to sell it. I got very, very lucky.
W&B: In my conversation with 2017 Rochester Reads author Rene Denfeld, she said, “I think fiction can tell a much deeper truth…. In fiction we can truly immerse ourselves in the lives of others.” Several recent studies have also shown that people who read fiction demonstrate more empathy in their day-to-day lives. How do you feel about the power of fiction, having been a journalist covering some of the most prominent real-life conflicts of our time?
OEA: I’ve long viewed literature as a kind of weaponized empathy. To write a book is to create a different set of eyes for your reader to see through, a different reality for them to experience that they otherwise might have had the privilege to ignore. Journalism is built on a foundation of facts, and facts—especially in this age of rising fascism and the disdain for truth that invariably precedes fascism—are vital. But anyone who’s ever fallen in love or experienced loss or contended with the overwhelming emotional weight of simply being alive knows that there’s so much more to life than the factual. To be human is an unreasonable thing, and literature—the messiness of it, the ephemerality of it, the sheer unreasonableness of it—affords us a language by which to talk about the parts of us facts can’t explain.
W&B: How did the initial idea(s) for American War come about?
OEA: The story I always go back to is a vague recollection I have from more than 10 years ago of watching an interview on one of the major news networks. The interview subject was a foreign affairs expert, one of those people the news networks periodically bring in to explain the world. The interview was taking place in the aftermath of a set of protests in Afghanistan—local villagers were protesting the U.S. military presence—and the question put to this gentleman was something like, “Why do they hate us so much?” As part of his answer, the expert noted that sometimes the U.S. special forces conduct nighttime raids in these villages, looking for insurgents. During these raids, he said, the soldiers will sometimes ransack the villagers’ houses or hold the women and children at gunpoint. Then he helpfully added, “And you know in Afghan culture that sort of thing is considered very offensive.” I remember thinking, “Name me one culture on earth that wouldn’t consider this sort of thing offensive.” It was then I started thinking of taking the hallmarks of the wars that have defined the world in my lifetime—wars that, from an American perspective, have been fought largely in faraway places—and bring them close to home. That was the trail of thought that, many years later, formed the basis for American War.
W&B: At what point in your writing process did it become imperative that the protagonist be Sarat Chestnut, who is only six years old at the start of the book?
OEA: Of all the characters I’ve ever written, Sarat is the only one who just showed up. The six-year-old girl who we first meet pouring honey into the knots in the wood of her home’s front porch is a vision that simply arrived one day, and with it the whole book changed. What started out as a kind of philosophical or moral argument in the guise of a novel suddenly became, first and foremost, the story of this one person. I think Sarat’s transformation, the arc of her life, is the most important part of the novel, and it became clear very early on, once she arrived, that the book was going to be hers.
W&B: Sarat is a vibrant, complex character whose innate curiosity takes her from the innocence of childhood (in the book’s captivating opening scene she is pouring honey into the knots of a wood floor, as you mention) through a series of political and psychological manipulations that result in her becoming someone solely motivated by revenge. Did you imagine her trajectory from the start or did she evolve along with the narrative?
OEA: Sarat, or at least the Sarat that exists at the end of American War, is not a person I like, but she is a person I love, which is an odd relationship to have with anyone, fictional or not. I knew what her trajectory was going to be from the beginning, because I always knew how the book was going to end. As a result, I marched through the writing of the story with this kind of grim knowledge that I was taking this person for whom I cared deeply and leading her to ruin. But there was no way to write this story with a happy ending—it simply wouldn’t be the same book, it would be something completely different from what I felt I needed to write. That said, she did surprise me numerous times during the middle of the story. She did things I never expected, things that seemed to happen of their own volition (or of hers) mid-sentence.
W&B: You are Egyptian-Canadian with personal experience of exile and professional in-depth knowledge of war zones and refugee camps. The setting of the book is the U.S. (in the near future) and especially Southern culture. What kind of research did you do or what feedback did you seek in order to create a believable Southern culture?
OEA: I spent a lot of time in the South in the years I was researching and writing American War (and in the years since its publication). Sometimes I went on trips primarily to research the book, other times I was on assignment as a journalist, and other times I just went for fun—some parts of the South, such as southern Louisiana, are among my favorite places in the world. It was in Louisiana, for example, where I first figured out where the novel had to begin. I was on assignment there writing a story about land loss and climate change, and as soon as I arrived I knew this was where the Chestnuts needed to start their journey. In a book so concerned with things America was doing to the world, it seemed fitting to start in a place where the world, in the form of climate calamity, was doing something to America.
W&B: Sarat is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant father and an African American mother. Surprisingly for many readers, there is no evidence of racial animus in the world of American War, just two generations in the future. Do you envision that as a possibility in the U.S.?
OEA: I’m not sure America will ever be a county free of racial animus, and if I had set out to write a book about how I think a literal second civil war would play out, this country’s deep and overwhelming currents of racism would be the central element. But I never intended for this to be a novel about a literal American War, and almost everything that forms the book—including its setting—is an analogy to something else. That said, when I first envisioned climate change as the central cause of the war in the book, I was in many ways thinking about the ruinous, self-interested stubbornness that, in often racist forms, has so often fueled conflict and injustice not only in America, but everywhere in the world. Early on in the novel, a wealthy man comes across the river to see the Chestnuts. He’s living off inherited wealth, the wealth of his parents’ and grandparents’ fossil-fuel car dealerships, which have now been outlawed because of their ruinous effects, and yet the privilege they created has travelled down the generations unhindered. When I wrote portions of the book such as this one, I was mostly writing analogy.
W&B: How did you settle on which states would resist the ban on fossil fuels and ultimately secede from the union?
OEA: I looked for the most right-leaning states in the union in terms of everything from federal elections to public spending, and then I tried to form a cohesive whole. I needed a single landmass, and so I settled on Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and (to a lesser extent) South Carolina. In this future world, Texas is for the most part no longer in America, and Florida is underwater, so I had less of the country to work with.
W&B: That would be amusing if it weren’t so chilling. There is a distinct sense of place in the novel—even as the setting moves from Southern Louisiana to Camp Patience on the border of the North (as it is positioned in the novel’s narrative), for example. How did you try to balance each of these settings throughout the narrative?
OEA: The short answer is, I think I did it quite badly. There are some section breaks in the book where only a few months pass, and others where years and years go by unmentioned. I played fast and loose with timeframes throughout the story, but in every case I tried to make sure I had a very concrete sense of place. For each of the central locations in the story, I drew maps out by hand depicting the layout of places such as Camp Patience and the Augusta ports. Indeed, I spent so much time describing these places that, after I sold the novel, much of the editing work involved cutting this excessive description out. Some of the places in the book are heavily influenced by the places I grew up in and visited later as a journalist, and other places are entirely of my own invention, and some are a mix of both.
W&B: In the MAG (the “Free Southern State” comprised of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia), the global trend of regional insurgencies and civil wars comes home. But you also have created a new global political landscape. The Bouazizi Empire serves a function very similar to that which the U.S. and its allies play in Middle Eastern and other conflicts, with the Red Crescent acting much like Western NGOs and the UN refugee agency. The effect on an American reader is a combination of a better understanding of how these conflicts work and how outside interference influences them. The Bouazizi Empire describes itself as a democracy. Is it? Or is it one of those democracies in name only, like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Or, like in the U.S., is democracy—or even a true republican form of government—in conflict with empire, and in constant tension with oligarchy, plutocracy, and stratocracy (government by the military)?
OEA: I think of the Bouazizi Empire as, in almost every sense, an inversion of the United States. It is formed when a group of people from many different backgrounds rise up against tyranny and create, from a number of different states, a singular republic. It rises to the status of superpower at a time when other, older superpowers are failing, and in its own passive and subtle way, seeks to hasten that failure. And so I think of the Bouazizi Empire as a democracy in the same way the U.S. is a democracy—by way of mechanisms and systems that are at times deeply flawed and warped by national mythology. There may be no electoral college in the Bouazizi Empire, but the notion of longstanding regional disparity, cold political pragmatism, and systemic disenfranchisement is, I think, a hallmark of just about every superpower that has ever existed.
W&B: That is among one of many important, timely, global issues addressed in the narrative in American War. These also include climate change, depleted energy resources, drone warfare, suicide attacks, regionalism, and plague. You have said that virtually every element of devastation, terrorism, or violence in the book is taken from actual events you witnessed or reported on, that you took “conflicts that are very far away in which U.S. involvement has been indirect or at a great distance, and recast them as something very close to home.” One reviewer wrote that the novel shows us “the nightmare of American foreign policy exercised domestically.” Tell us why you focused on this strategy and what the result is for you.
OEA: I got tired of watching one of the central privileges of living in the West, which is the privilege of selective obliviousness. I got tired of listening to news outlets and public intellectuals and everyday conversation in this part of the world in which people on the other side of the planet were cast as fundamentally exotic, fundamentally alien. I’m of the belief that all of us react to injustice the same way; it just so happens that some of us have been lucky enough not to live for decades on the losing end of a war, on the receiving end of drones and missiles and wartime obliteration. And so I decided to invert things, to bring the faraway home. It’s not a particularly clever trick, but I think it was necessary to say what I felt I needed to with this book.
W&B: Regardless of the sources of your ideas, this book is a kind of world-building.
OEA: I spent a year putting the world together, and much of that work entailed deciding how much or how little of the real world I wanted to use as a basis, what sort of filters and transformations I wanted to subject reality to in order to design my fictional setting. It was one of the most difficult and creatively rewarding aspects of putting the novel together, and remains one of my favorite parts of writing. It brings me back to that kind of stress-free joy I experienced when I first started writing as a child—the joy of simply inventing a world.
W&B: Speaking of invention versus truth, many climate scientists and others have warned that rising temperatures mean risks to biodiversity, increased pollution and poverty, and potentially catastrophic ecological and climatological effects. Most recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released on October 8, 2018, warned of dire consequences if quick action is not taken. How did you settle on climate change being the main precipitating factor of the civil war in the novel? Do you see that as the likely source of increasing conflict around the world in the near future?
OEA: I chose climate change as the central cause of conflict in the book for a number of reasons. For one thing, it allowed me to speak about topics such as race in ways that were not overt. It’s also what I think is going to be the cause of the most devastating conflicts of the coming century, and certainly will be responsible for a massive refugee crisis as many of the poorest parts of the world become destabilized. But mostly I think it will become impossible to write fiction without tackling climate change in one way or another. The ways in which the world is changing around us are so fundamental, so increasingly cataclysmic, that no aspect of human life will be untouched. How can someone write about memory, for example, without tackling the reality that some parts of the world in which one’s childhood memories took place might no longer exist by the end of one’s lifetime, might have literally disappeared into the ocean? I don’t think of climate change as a topic so much as an overlay, a modification to the ways in which we think about every other aspect of life.
W&B: Did you research the likely effect of rising sea levels? In the novel, Florida, and many other coastal regions, are underwater, and the Chestnut family from Louisiana lives on what is now the “Mississippi Sea”—but there are no longer any fish.
OEA: I spent a lot of time reading climate science reports and predictions, many of which had much more than an academic impact on me. One report, for example, predicted that the part of the world in which I grew up, the Middle East, will become largely incompatible with human life in the coming decades because of rising temperatures. I also went to many of the places in which climate change is happening in the most overt and ruinous ways, such as southern Louisiana and Florida. I saw first-hand the places where the storms had inundated the land, or where the land itself had simply melted away. All of these experiences eventually found their way into the book—sometimes in overarching ways, sometimes in the form of single, passing sentences.
W&B: Even though the narrative takes place more than 50 years in the future, it seems quite contemporary and not futuristic. Can you share how you made the decision for the setting to be so generally recognizable today?
OEA: I was never interested in predicting the future, I was interested in transposing the present. One of the things I learned from covering conflict zones is that being on the losing end of a war is in many ways akin to moving backward in time—the destruction of infrastructure, the displacement of people, the extent to which age-old hatreds and superstitions become resurgent. And so from the beginning I set out to write a novel that completely ignored the widely accepted notion of progress—namely, this idea that things will always get better, faster, easier, more futuristic. Instead, I walked the world back in the opposite direction.
W&B: This might relate to author Nancy Kress stating that she believes that writing near-future science fiction is the most challenging genre to pull off. How did you decide which technologies and cultural traditions would continue, what would be lost or would drop away, and what would be developed over the half century between now and the beginning of the story?
OEA: I looked at other parts of the world, where warfare has rendered technology—and every aspect of life—as a function of survival. There’s a reason why Toyota Helix trucks or old Casio wristwatches or Nokia cell phones from 20 years ago are still ubiquitous across many of the poorest and most war-torn parts of the world—it’s because they work, even under the most extreme circumstances. I took that perspective when I was deciding what technology would remain and what technology would fail in this future world. I think that is true, in some respects, in the case of culture as well. When things start going wrong, only the most resilient cultural touchstones—family, community, God—survive.
W&B: How do you see this novel fitting in with other speculative fiction, or that of the dystopian or the fast-increasing post-apocalyptic fiction genres? Or even with what has become known as climate fiction (or cli-fi)?
OEA: I’m honestly not sure. I wrote the book at a time when I had no publisher, no agent, and no expectation that the novel would ever be read by anyone other than me, so I never spent much time thinking about what genre it belonged to or alongside which books it would sit. These days I tend to think of it as belonging (thematically, even if not of equal quality) to a family of new fiction focused on the repurposing of long-established forms to tell politically focused stories. I’m thinking primarily of novels by Arab writers, including such works as Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi and The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz. These are lesser-known works in this part of the world, but they represent a kind of storytelling that contends with the challenges of telling dangerous stories, and uses new interpretations of longstanding stylistic methods to do so.
W&B: The structure of the book is somewhat unusual. You begin with a scholarly narrator who frames the narrative, and then switch to an omniscient narrator, punctuated by historical documents including news reports, oral histories, letters, and school curricula that add texture to the narrative. This allows you to introduce the potentially awkward exposition of “historical” context. What other purposes do this framing and these occasional documents serve?
OEA: The fake source documents interspersed throughout the book started out as a means for me to keep track of the world I was building. Because there are so many moving parts in American War, I decided to write official-sounding documents to keep track of dates and key events. It was only much later in the game that I realized I could do things, both thematically and stylistically, with the documents that I couldn’t pull off in a straightforward narrative. I’m thinking, for example, of one such document, which is a letter written by a prison camp detainee. The letter, before it is made public, is censored by the government, and so when the reader sees it, it’s made up mostly of black bars—a negative space, a kind of linguistic and bureaucratic violence. I don’t think I could have done that sort of thing without using the document format.
The reason I decided to tell the story from the perspective of a narrator decades removed from the events of the book (but still deeply changed by those events) is because much of the story is about agency—that basic human need to have some say over our lives. I wanted the narrator to be someone who knew all that happened, but had no agency over any of it. I wanted someone who would have to contend with the fact that there’s nothing he can do to change things, which I think is a feeling that tends to mark many of the most traumatic moments in all our lives.
W&B: The audio book version of the novel’s redacted letter is perhaps especially effective as the narrator repeatedly says “redacted … redacted…” You have said many times that this novel is about the universality of revenge. You stated that “we all suffer the same way, and we become damaged by suffering in the same way, regardless of which part of the world we grew up in, or what we believe.” You also wrote, “I wanted to explore the idea that when people are broken by war, broken by injustice, broken by mistreatment, they become broken in the same way.” How does this connect current world affairs to the narrative in the novel, which takes place 50-plus years in the future?
OEA: I tend to say that all of the things in the book are based on things that already happened, they just happened to someone far away, someone easy to ignore. I think the same is true, in a sense, within the past and present of the U.S. We happen to live in a moment where the velocity of political scandal in this country appears to be at an all-time high. But in reality the systems of power in this country have waged war on myriad minority populations for centuries. It’s just that those populations were easy to ignore, their suffering easy to cast aside as hysterical, overblown, anomalous. It’s not just America that functions this way, it’s the entirety of the world—it has always been the case that the most powerless are expected to suffer quietly, and are punished mercilessly if they don’t.
W&B: To create a United States just after a Second Civil War, did you research the first American Civil War?
OEA: The first U.S. Civil War constituted a huge chunk of my research, because I went to high school in a British education system, and so learned very little about the war in my history classes. It was fascinating research, both in itself and because of what the war (and the very different ways in which the war was and continues to be interpreted) says about the nature of this country. There are myriad references to the Civil War in the book —for example Sarat Chestnut’s name, which is drawn from the names of two famous Marys of the Civil War—but for the most part I tried to keep from centering those references, because I didn’t want to center the Americanness of the novel. I wanted it to be something a little more universal.
W&B: Were you thinking of the current civil wars in Syria and Yemen, in particular?
OEA: I tend to write only about things that make me angry, and nothing in the past 15 years, save perhaps for the massacre currently underway in Yemen, has made me more angry than the utter devastation of Syria undertaken by its own government. I was thinking constantly about this—not about only the civil war, not about only the decimation of some of the oldest and most culturally significant cities in the world, but also about the massive refugee crisis this devastation caused, and the West’s relative indifference to it all—when I was writing American War. And I’m sure it influenced the construction of the book, but I tried to keep my feelings about that conflict separate from this project, because I wanted to write about it in and of itself, I wanted to face it directly.
W&B: There are several scenes of excruciating violence in the novel, ranging from the massacre at Camp Patience to the torture (which includes waterboarding) that Sarat endures during her seven years of incarceration. Some readers have expressed their concern with these graphic scenes. Did you hesitate to include these scenes or to the contrary, did you feel it necessary to show the kinds of violence and political suppression that occur on a regular basis in so many places around the world?
OEA: I understand how hypocritical this will sound, but I’m not generally a fan of violent stories. My distaste for violence as a storytelling tool is particularly acute in relation to North American popular culture, which so often and so heavily relies on the gun as a narrative propellant. But the book I set out to write when I started American War necessitated that I describe certain things—especially violence—as they exist in the world. The two sections you mention—the massacre at Patience and the waterboarding scene at the Sugarloaf detention camp—are the two sections I found most difficult to write, and the ones that most often disturb my readers. But these are also the sections where I did almost nothing to change events that have actually taken place. The massacre at Patience is very, very closely based—down to the dialogue—on a massacre that took place almost 40 years ago at a Lebanese refugee camp called Sabra and Shatila (“Sabr” is the Arabic word for Patience). And the waterboarding scene is based on how that practice is carried out by the United States and others. I could have toned these depictions down, and at times I very much wanted to, but that would have violated my mission statement—to describe these vicious acts as they have happened, are happening, and will almost certainly happen again.
W&B: As you note, you borrowed from critical contemporary global situations ranging from the refugee crisis to climate issues as foundational elements of American War. I know you had finished the novel before Donald Trump had even announced his candidacy. But did you feel you somehow tapped into the zeitgeist, the apparently not uncommon feelings of disenfranchisement that propelled Trump to the presidency?
OEA: I never thought Trump would win, and so it would be disingenuous of me to claim any foreknowledge of the state this country was in at the time I wrote American War. I think the book just happened to land at a time when the ugliness of the present political situation makes it very easy to read the novel as a novel of the moment. In truth, I intended it much more to be a critique of the warmongering Bush years and the pragmatic neoliberalism of the Obama years than as a prediction of whatever it is we end up calling the Trump era. If I tapped into any kind of disenfranchisement, it’s only because that disenfranchisement had been around long before Trump ever showed up—it’s just so, so much louder now.
W&B: During the war, as we touched on earlier, drones reign terror from the skies and later they hover and sometimes lose power and fall from the skies (but still elicit traumatic responses). How do you envision technology’s role in either war or peacekeeping in the 21st century?
OEA: I think the traditional—and most accurate—axis on which to measure technology’s relationship to warfare is one of size and scope. With terrifying consistency over millennia, human beings have gotten better and better at the industrialized murder of ourselves. But there is another axis on which to measure this relationship, and although it is of secondary importance, it was the one that was most on my mind when I wrote American War. That axis is distance. There was a time when technological progress brought citizens closer to the wars fought in their name. One need only look at the history of how American conflicts have been documented. We begin with spoken and written and painted depictions, then progress to photographs and, finally, the moving image. By the time the Vietnam War breaks out, Americans can see in visceral, full-color footage exactly what war looks like, the bloodiness of it, the horror of it. But then this trajectory suddenly changes. By the start of the first Gulf War, Americans for the most part are no longer seeing up-close footage on their television screens, but rather some grainy, night-vision scene of bombs falling over Baghdad. And by the start of the post-911 wars, the defining image of American warfare is the drone camera, a thing so digitally sanitized, so far removed from the carnage it depicts, it may as well be footage from a video game. This, I think, will be one of the defining roles of technology in the conflicts of the coming decades—besides inventing bigger and more omnicidal ways of killing each other, we will use technology to put more and more distance between ourselves and the reality of our wars. And in this way, we will create a preemptive balm for our conscience, a means to turn mass violence into an abstract thing. A means to avoid responsibility.
W&B: In the novel one of your characters says, “You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.” How do you see the power of storytelling in our political environment today?
OEA: I was a technology reporter for four years, and one of the most fascinating aspects of covering the Twitters and Facebooks of the world was this realization that, in the eyes of the people who run these companies, the only thing that matters is user base—how many people buy in to what you’re selling. It doesn’t matter whether your product is making money, it doesn’t matter whether your product is any good, it doesn’t even matter if your product is actively abetting evil—the only thing that matters is how many people buy in. I think the relationship technology companies have with user numbers is in many ways analogous to the relationship politics has with narrative. I say without hyperbole that much of the political power centers in this country (and in Brazil, and the Philippines, and so much of the world) are now run by men who deem any lie superior to the truth so long as more people believe it. This, more than any other aspect of modern political cynicism, is the most dangerous place in which any society can find itself. What we historically (and rightly) have labelled the worst of the human condition—our massacres, our needless wars, our genocides—have always been born of moments in which our leaders felt empowered to lie with impunity. That’s the moment we’re living through right now, and it scares me.
W&B: Has the experience of writing American War changed how you see the future of the United States?
OEA: Not really, to be honest. I continue to believe that this country will only achieve its highest ideals—and rid itself of its ugliest impulses—when it finally and fully acknowledges the depth and breadth of its two founding sins: a geographic expansion predicated on the genocide of the indigenous population, and an economic expansion predicated on the enslavement of the Black population. I still hold out hope for this country, and at its best it still continually amazes me, but I’ve stopped trying to predict where it’s headed. Ten years ago I would have laughed at the idea of Trump as President, and I’m sure if you told me now exactly where this country’s going to be in a decade, I’d be equally incredulous.
W&B: How has your own childhood, growing up in Egypt and Qatar (and eventually Canada), informed your writing, in fiction or nonfiction?
OEA: I’m one of those people who doesn’t have a particularly good answer to the question, “Where are you from?” I was born in one country, grew up in another, am a citizen of another and now live in another. I think my writing, in many ways, reflects this—it’s unanchored in the same way I often feel unanchored. Many of my favorite writers, such as the Egyptian giant Naguib Mahfouz, were people who marinated in a single place and understood it intimately. I’m not one of those writers. My fiction tends to have little respect for place as a sacrosanct thing, and certainly for national borders. I twist geography to fit my wandering view of the world in a way that I think many readers who haven’t had the same kind of upbringing find jarring. I often wish I had been anchored in a single place, and I think I would have been a very different writer as a result, but that’s not how my life turned out.
W&B: What brought you to live in the U.S.? How do you compare the attention (in the media or among private citizens) to such issues as climate change and partisan politics in the U.S. and Canada and by extension, how do these countries compare to the Middle East?
OEA: My wife and I ended up moving to the U.S. because she got a job offer here. So we are, technically, economic migrants (though that term, used almost universally in a derisive way, tends to be applied only to people who fall below a certain income bracket). I grew up on American culture, so I wasn’t unprepared for life here, although every day this country finds new ways to confuse and astound me. I tend to think of America as Canada without the floor or the ceiling—there’s no limit here on how high you can rise or how low you can fall. I think the attention America pays is overwhelmingly to itself, and so when issues of climate change or partisan politics or anything else are presented in that prism, they tend to garner immense attention (the extent to which climate change is going to decimate places such as Bangladesh, on the other hand, receives far less attention). In the Middle East, because of widespread government censorship, certain topics are simply not discussed at all (I still distinctly remember the pages of my high school history book dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being ripped out. We were simply not allowed to learn about the topic). In America, censorship takes a much less concrete form—it’s a censorship of narrative and attention, what things media outlets deem important, and the ways in which they talk about them.
W&B: Who is your ideal reader of American War? What do you hope for this book and its message(s)?
OEA: I have absolutely no ideal reader in mind, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I never thought the book would be published, and so when I wrote it I was writing for myself. I do hope readers take the book as a call to empathy, a defense of nuance and an argument in favor of the idea that you can take the time to understand why somebody does something—especially something horrible—without taking their side.
W&B: This comment speaks again to the potential of fiction to engender empathy in readers, and perhaps in writers, too. You have said that writing is difficult for you, even referring to the process of writing this novel as “a nightmare of self doubt.” Has the success of American War changed your writing process?
OEA: Not in the slightest. I don’t think I’ll ever be in a place where the act of writing is separable from self-doubt. There is a terribly concrete thing about putting words down on paper, a kind of infraction against time, and my insecurities will never recede to the point where I feel I have any natural right to do such a thing. But that’s how I want writing to feel. I don’t want it to be easy; I don’t want it to feel mechanical, routine. To say anything honest is difficult. I never want to finish a piece of writing and feel anything other than exhausted and terrified.
W&B: That seems such an honest statement about the challenges of creativity and truth-telling. What’s next for you?
OEA: I recently finished a very rough draft of what I hope will be my next novel, but I’m not sure if it’ll ever see the light of day. I also finished a screenplay I genuinely hope will never see the light of day. Most of my writing I don’t try to put out into the world. It’s much more cathartic for me to get these stories out of my head than it is to inflict them on anyone else.
W&B: Writing can be quite therapeutic, as many of us have experienced. And I know many readers have been inspired to engage in empathetic discussions after reading American War. Thank you, Omar. We are looking forward to your visit to Rochester next March and to continuing this rich conversation with you in person.
OEA: Thank you so much. I’m so honored to be part of this.