About The Author
Omar El Akkad is an award-winning journalist and author who has travelled around the world to cover many of the most important news stories of the last decade. His reporting includes dispatches from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. He is a recipient of a National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting and the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honorable mentions. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
His debut novel, American War, paints a portrait of a devastated America in the wake of an environmental disaster and the subsequent Second American Civil War in 2074. When Sarat Chestnut and her family are forced into a refugee camp, she quickly begins to be shaped by her particular time and place until, through the influence of a mysterious functionary, she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. Telling her story is her nephew, now an old man confronting the dark secret of his past, his family's role in the conflict and, in particular, that of his aunt, a woman who saved his life while destroying untold others.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Omar about the universality of revenge, why it was important to make his protagonist soldier a woman and how a deficit of empathy is the biggest barrier to achieving peace.
Author photo © Michael Lionstar
Questions & Answers
Can you say something about the origins of the book?
I have a vague recollection of watching, many years ago, a TV news interview with a foreign affairs expert. This was near the beginning of the NATO-led invasion of Afghanistan, and he was asked why so many Afghan villagers hated American soldiers, the question seemingly predicated on the belief that these villagers should understand the soldiers were there to help them, after all. As part of his answer, the expert noted that sometimes the US soldiers have to conduct night-time raids in Afghan villages, looking for insurgents, and that during these raids, the soldiers will often ransack the villagers’ houses and hold local women and children at gunpoint. These things, the expert helpfully explained, are considered offensive in Afghan culture.
I remember thinking, name me one culture on Earth that wouldn’t consider these things offensive.
It was around that time I started thinking of writing a story in which the misery of warfare was transposed, in which the things we in this part of the world are used to seeing happen to other people are suddenly rendered up close and personal. I wanted to explore the idea that the human reaction to injustice is the same no matter where in the world you live, where you come from, so I took everything from drone killings to Guantanamo-style detention camps and I recast them as elements of a civil war. That’s how the book was born.
Do you think all the ingredients are already in place for the kind of devastation that occurs in the America you portray in 2074? Did you intend it as a wake-up call?
I honestly didn’t even intend for this book to be primarily about America. I set out to write a book about the universality of revenge, and I set it in America because the sort of things I wanted to talk about tend to happen far away from here, in some of the poorest and most war-torn places on the planet, and it felt necessary to make them happen close to home. But I never anticipated the chaos that now seems to consume this country, and I never thought a novel I intended to be allegorical in nature would suddenly be read as a kind of attempt at prophecy. I’m still hopeful that the US isn’t in the kind of existential tailspin that would render my novel non-fictional, but I’m less hopeful than I was a couple of years ago.
How close are the camps you depict to some of today’s camps for refugees and the displaced?
Very close, both in a superficial and thematic sense. The layout of the camps in the novel is based on the design of places like the NATO airfield in Kandahar and a tent city in Guantanamo Bay called 'Camp Justice.'. But many of the events that take place in the book’s refugee camp are also very much based on things that really took place in various real-world camps, such as Sabra and Shatila in the Middle East.
Why was it important to you that the soldier groomed by Albert Gaines should be a woman?
For a long time when I was writing this book I had a narrative but no central character. Then one day as I lay in bed thinking about the story, this image of a young girl sitting on the porch of her parents' home by the Mississippi came to me, and suddenly I was hooked. Over the next few months the trajectory of the book changed entirely – it was now first and foremost a story about this girl’s life, how the war changes her, turns her into someone else. I think there are elements of the book – for example, radicalisation and the way violence begets violence – that tend to be explored in fiction much more often through the lens of male protagonists, and so exploring them with a female character at the centre of the narrative allowed me to go somewhere new, think about things I hadn’t thought about before. But to be honest, Sarat Chestnut just showed up in my mind one day and from the moment she did the story became hers.
I could see how you might have written the archival documents first and then used them as a framework but is this how the novel actually came together?
For the most part. I started writing the archival documents to keep track of the world I was building, and it wasn’t until further along in the process that I decided to include them in the manuscript as standalone sections. At first, I thought it would be interesting for characters to reference them in passing, or maybe include a paragraph quoting some made-up government document somewhere, but I came to like the idea of simply letting them stand on their own. One of the more interesting challenges of doing this had to do with staying true to the nature of these kinds of things. Government documents tend to be incredibly, deliberately boring, and so I had to balance mimicking that dry bureaucratic language with not making the reader fall asleep while reading them (whether I succeeded or not is a different story).
Do you share Karina’s view that ‘Wartime was the only time the world became as simple and carnivorously liberating as it must exist all times in men’s minds.’
I used to. But it’s hard to live in America during the Trump era and not think that politics might sometimes be made to share those same characteristics.
Loyalty and vengeance are at the heart of the catastrophic events Sarat lives through and the theme is flagged up as early as the epigraph: ‘He who deserves punishment at your hands is the man who brings injury upon you.’ Is this belief the biggest barrier to achieving peace?
I think a deficit of empathy is the biggest barrier to achieving peace. I know novelists harp on endlessly about the extent to which literature nurtures empathy… but it’s true. I wrote American War in part to get at the idea that it’s possible, even necessary, to understand why somebody would do something terrible without taking their side in the process. Certainly, in the US, that notion of understanding without taking sides has been largely obliterated over the past 16 years. When we talk about radicalisation, violence, war, we tend to focus on the terminal state, the destructive conclusions. But we rarely spend as much time thinking about how and why people get to a place where they might support or even undertake such destruction. When I was writing American War, the final cataclysmic act that marks the end of the story was the least important part of the narrative. I wanted to focus instead on everything leading up to that moment: The How and the Why.
As a reporter who covered the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement and military trials at Guantanamo Bay, how far were you aware at the time that these experiences would inform your first novel?
I’ve been writing fiction since I first learned how to write, and American War is my fourth novel. It just happens that I didn’t think the first three were very good, and so never showed them to anyone or tried to get them published. But the process of writing each of those books always involved a cathartic type of letting go, of taking the things I’d absorbed during my life and unburdening myself of them by planting them in paper. Of the four novels I’ve written, American War is certainly the most obvious example of that. It contains slivers of experience from a decade of reporting. I think subconsciously I was always aware that the things I experienced during my time as a journalist would make their way into my fiction, but I never knew in what form. One of the strangest things about the book’s reception is the extent to which people have over-estimated the amount of direct journalistic references in the novel. It feels silly to say this about a work of fiction, but I really did make most of this stuff up.
Do you feel your voice as a novelist describing fictional events that are all too plausible might be more powerful than your journalistic voice, describing real contemporary horrors?
I don’t know if my voice as a novelist is more powerful, but it certainly will last longer. We’re living in an era right now where good journalism is vital, but we’re also living in a time of unprecedented news fatigue. Every new scandal, every new revelation instantly buries the old ones; we’ve become incredibly adept at forgetting, almost as though it were a survival mechanism. I’ve read countless amazing pieces of journalism this year that came out, caused a huge stir and were almost immediately overshadowed by the next day’s news. A novel, at least, lives a long life. Whether the things I had to say in American War resonate or not, at least the book will stick around for a while.
Are you more pessimistic or optimistic about the human race? Did the experience of writing the book change how you felt about the future?
I’m compelled to be optimistic, because the alternative is to accept a world in which our basest, most destructive and xenophobic impulses are increasingly normalised. I don’t want to live in a world like that. But I don’t think optimism entails an obligation to describe the world as rosier than it actually is. Writing American War didn’t change how I feel about the future because I never intended it to be about the future. I may have exaugurated or cast things through a deliberately grotesque lens, but in one form or another, most everything in this book has already happened.