For Omar El Akkad, journalism and fiction are ‘interlocking muscles’

Omar El Akkad. Photo: Michael Lionstar.

In Omar El Akkad’s 2017 novel, American War, the world as we know it has been flipped upside down. The year is 2074, and the United States is facing its second civil war. Fossil fuels are illegal, and Louisiana, where the story begins, is largely underwater. Camp Patience, a sprawling refugee camp near the Tennessee border, offers rudimentary shelter to citizens arriving from southern states who rely on scant rations and dubious shipments of aid. (The donated blankets keep arriving, though they do little good in the 130-degree heat.) Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Europe, citizens are fleeing a broken continent and seeking refuge in North Africa, now part of the Bouazizi Empire, the world’s new superpower.

During a recent interview in Vincennes, France, during the 2018 Festival America, a three-day biennial event celebrating North American literature and art, El Akkad, a journalist turned novelist, summed up the premise of his book: “I take things that happen over there and I make them happen over here,” he said, describing the book as a work of “dislocative” fiction. The novel, in large part inspired by El Akkad’s years as a foreign correspondent, aims to convey what he observed during his years reporting on conflict: “Our reaction to suffering is universal.”

After getting his start as an intern working for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in 2005, El Akkad went on to cover some of the biggest stories of the past decade for the newspaper: the war in Afghanistan, the American military tribunals at Guantánamo, the Arab Spring, and the protests of police brutality that rocked Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer 2014. That year he also covered the devastating land loss facing Louisiana amid the creeping spread of climate change. The state’s plight fascinated him and ultimately became the setting for his novel. “The book is concerned with so many things that America has done to the world, so it seemed fitting to start in a place where the world was doing something to America,” El Akkad says. “Literally, Louisiana is disappearing, at the rate of a football field every hour, and so it made sense to set it there.”

El Akkad’s reporting on Louisiana and his foreign coverage were high points in his journalism career, he says. “On assignments like that it felt like the greatest job on earth, and I remembered why I got into journalism.” But he also experienced some lows. “There were days when the business section would call and ask me to do a story on a pharmaceutical merger in Quebec, and I would think, ‘What am I doing?’”

One particularly bad day at work prompted El Akkad to send the manuscript that had been languishing on his hard drive for many months to a literary agent. It was the fourth novel he’d written and the first he’d shown to anyone apart from his best friend. “The first one was about a journalist in Toronto who hates his job—that was during my ‘write what you know’ phase. The second one was so abstract it was plotless. The third was supposed to be a comedy, but it was still depressing—half the people died,” he says. “What I said in American War felt a little more necessary than what I was saying in the other books. I think with the other books I liked the idea of being a writer, and with American War I had something to say.”

For El Akkad, journalism and fiction writing are not wholly disconnected but are different ways of exercising “two separate but interlocking muscles.” And though he still writes journalism, fiction is his first love. (Writing in any form, however, was not something El Akkad considered a viable career option growing up—his undergraduate degree is in computer science.) “I’m much more comfortable in the world of fiction than journalism, or any other style of writing or thought, because my defining characteristic as a human being is doubt,” he says, describing journalism as an endeavor that seeks to find answers and fiction as an exploration of questions—with less onus on arriving at some sort of truth. Fiction is constructed from “ephemeral material”: “When you construct a story in journalism you have the rebar; you have the foundations and they are very strong—they are facts, quotes and the things you’ve experienced. Fiction doesn’t allow you to do that.”

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El Akkad, born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, moved to Canada at the age of sixteen and now lives in Portland, Oregon. “Fiction is a good place for people like me because you get to define the contours of your world,” he says. “You get to push in any one direction you want to sort of make a mental landmass that fits your personality.”

Though it is difficult to pinpoint a precise genesis moment for the novel, much of its impetus was frustration about how the West persistently misunderstands other parts of the world. El Akkad remembers watching an interview with a foreign-affairs expert on TV several years ago, after a series of protests in Afghanistan by villagers who opposed the local foreign military presence. When asked about the motivation for the protests, the expert explained that villagers resented night raids during which women and children were held at gunpoint. “‘In Afghan culture that sort of thing is considered very offensive,’” El Akkad recalls the expert saying.

This experience, and several others like it, planted the seeds for American War. “Name me one culture on earth that wouldn’t find that offensive,” El Akkad says. “I got tired of the privilege of imposing exotic motivations and this notion that these people over there are behaving in some fundamentally different way than how you or I or anyone else would behave.”

With its descriptions of a catastrophically divided nation and the ravaging effects of climate change, many readers have interpreted El Akkad’s novel as an “attempt at prophecy”; The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani described it as “as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy [created] in The Road.” Yet he insists the book is not meant to be interpreted literally or as a work of speculative fiction. Much of the plot intended as allegory: critiques of the present rather than predictions for the future. Based on his own experience as a reader, El Akkad hopes the story will stay with readers long after they’ve arrived at the last page. “You learn a lot more from the non-fiction you read, but you remember the fiction.”

“You learn a lot more from the non-fiction you read, but you remember the fiction.”

Throughout the novel, El Akkad incorporates fictional primary sources in the form of news clippings and excerpts from oral histories and memoirs. Government documents also play a big role. “Initially it was a way to keep track of world I was building; they started as a crutch, and I didn’t have the intention of putting them in the book until I was about halfway through writing,” he says. “Because I had been working as a journalist, I was very familiar with these types of documents. Anyone who has filed an FOI [Freedom of Information Act request] knows about the violence of bureaucratic language and the entire infrastructure of human beings whose job is to use very big words to say as little as possible. The hardest part of writing those documents was making them realistic, based on my experience, without making them boring as hell.”

The expectations of a novelist are different than those facing a journalist, El Akkad says, and come with a certain amount of relief. “I feel no obligation to effect any change with my fiction, none whatsoever. I feel no obligation to provide answers or a way out,” he says. “And yet I find fiction to be an incredible agent of change, sometimes at the macro level—like what To Kill a Mockingbird did for race relations in the US—but much more often on an individual level, like, ‘Oh, OK, otherwise maybe I wouldn’t have thought of it this way.’ If you can get a book to do that, that’s great. That’s good enough.”

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Marie Doezema is a Paris correspondent for various international publications. She also serves as the head of the languages department at the Sorbonne's journalism and communications school.