Whistler Writers Festival’s Alli Vail caught up with Omar El Akkad to talk about his book American War, and this year’s theme of the festival – Discourse. He’ll be appearing in the Saturday Night Gala, with author Maude Barlow Oct. 19.
Alli: American War was a 2018 CBC Canada Reads Selection, A Globe and Mail Best Book, on several “most anticipated” lists, Winner of the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Literary Fiction, shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Book of the Year, and the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction – as a debut novelist, what was that like for you?
Omar: When I was writing it, I didn’t have an agent or a book deal or any expectations that this thing would ever see the light of day. And so the fact that it exists in the world is endlessly astonishing to me. I think my reaction is not that different from most writers who have this particular stroke of luck, which is to say that I was deeply grateful for it and at the same time sort of cognizant of the very temporary nature of it. Books come out, they sell a few copies and then for the most part, unless you’ve written The Handmaid’s Tale or something, people don’t generally talk about it a couple years later. I was fortunate that American War had a fairly long life. It continues to every now and then pop up. Whenever there is talk of an actual second civil war in America I sell a few more copies, which is a very surreal experience. But I think it is important to keep in mind that … everything that isn’t the work isn’t the work. The literary festivals are great, the award nominations are great. This book has lost something like eleven awards, which must be a record of some sort. All of that stuff is fantastic and it’s an incredible experience and in the case of winning awards it’s a practical, positive thing in terms of [the fact] there’s award money. You get to pay the rent, that sort of thing … But at the end of the day, what matters is the work. Sitting down, putting words on paper. Anything that isn’t that is appreciated and I can be deeply grateful for it … but it’s secondary.
Alli: In your TED Talk, you discuss how you’d written American War about incidents or issues that had already happened around the world, but then the 2016 American presidential election happened and many people saw your book as prophetic. If you’d written this book earlier, or if the US election had gone a different way, do you think people would have made those connections to the past?
Omar: I think so. I think because of the title of the book and the overt storyline there was always going to be an element of interpretation that saw this book as purely about a future America. I think that’s natural given the subject matter. But I do think it would have been easier to convince people that something else was going on as well if we didn’t have Trump winning the election and if we didn’t have the situation where the prospect of [a] violently divided America in literal terms wasn’t so frequently talked about. So, you know, the way the election went and the way America has been going for the past two years, at least, has certainly helped book sales but it hasn’t made it easy for me to make the claim that this is anything other than a literal attempt to prophesize what second civil war would look like.
Alli: The first time I read the book I struggled because I was constantly trying to discern who the “good guys” were I needed to empathize with. By the end, I realized there were no good guys and no bad guys, just people being people. How do you walk the line while you’re writing to create empathetic, but flawed characters?
Omar: Going into the book I had no interest in creating ‘good’ characters and ‘bad’ characters and a chasm between them. I certainly didn’t want a central character that readers would apologize for, or sympathise with, or even really like. What I wanted was for readers to understand how this person becomes who they are at the end of the book. I wasn’t so much interested in the finish line as I was in the rest of the race. I wanted to see how someone progresses to a very dangerous and downright evil place. For many readers, I think there is something that is fundamentally unsatisfying about not having moral clarity with respect to who you can side with, but life isn’t like that. I didn’t want any characters in this book that the reader could side with and not assume some level of moral debt. It is a world populated by deeply compromised people which in war time is often the case.
Alli: Do you think it makes it harder or easier to write the story when there is no clear cut distinction between good and bad?
Omar: I think that it makes it harder to push the book in any kind of public way. I think there is a tendency for a lot of authors to stand by the correctness of the work after it’s gone out in the world. That’s harder to do when your work is full of ethically flexible and dubious human beings. In terms of the writing of it, the starting is always hardest when you have characters who are in a very grey world space. You don’t get along with them. I’m like most human beings in that I want to be around good people and for the two, two and half years that I was writing this book, I was not around good people. I was around very terrible, albeit fictional people. So it’s harder to get into that process. But once you’re there, and once you’re writing, it is easy to see what you’re drawing from in the real world. The real world is full of people who are morally ambiguous, who do terrible things and then do really good things. Who can be horrible humans beings who still love their kids. It’s full of those kinds of people. You can always tether the fictional world to the real world and that makes the process a little easier as you go forward. But starting out it is a little harder because you’re starting out with these people who you may not particularly like.
Alli: Sarat [American War’s protagonist] is heroic in some ways, or could be, depending on your perspective, but she does some unforgivable things. What about her character, in the process of writing her, surprised you?
Omar: She showed up fully formed. She’s the only character that has ever done that for me, in the sense that one day I had this image in my head of a young girl pouring honey in the knots of the wood on her front porch and that was the day Sarat showed up, and from the moment she showed up she took over the story. What I knew about her I knew about her younger self. Her younger self was incredibly intelligent, incredibly curious, but also incredibly trusting. The central tragedy of the book is how that trust is turned against her by people who use her for their own ends. I think what surprised me the most about her was the extent to which she deeply needed agency. She deeply needed to have control over the things she did and the things that were done to her. Throughout her life, every time agency was taken away from her, she became a worse and worse human being. Which I think a lot of people would. A lot of people, when they’re stripped of any say over their lives, are prone to become worse versions of themselves. So towards the end I don’t think of her as someone who’s taking sides per se; she doesn’t give a shit about the south or the north. She embraces something close to nihilism. But even though it’s a kind of emptiness, it’s an emptiness she can control. Her desire to have some control was what became her central character trait as the book progressed.
Alli: Why do you think readers are so drawn to dystopian novels?
Omar: My working theory is that it’s because it allows some breathing room. I think when things are particularly bad in the real world, there is something — in a perverse kind of way — there is something comforting about seeing an even worse extrapolation because it gives you the impression that there’s some breathing room between where you are and where you could be and that gives you some time to change things so you don’t get to that place. Certainly, when we talk about the pantheon of dystopian novels we talk about 1984, A Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, these are brilliant books, but they’re also books that are very easy to read as a kind of extrapolation. You take something awful about the present moment and you extrapolate it. And I think readers aren’t drawn to these novels because they’re sadistic or masochist. I think there is something inherently hopeful about reading dystopian fiction almost to the point of being overly optimistic. In the sense that ‘this is as bad as it could get, therefore I have some time to make sure it doesn’t get this bad.’
Alli: How do you think fiction set outside our immediate reality, like American War, or Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts about segregation and slavery on a spaceship, allow people to think or talk about challenging issues like climate change, war, and racism?
Omar: One of the liberating things about writing fiction is that there is no obligation to provide answers. I was a journalist for 10 years and every piece of journalism I ever wrote was by definition obligated to provide answers: who, what, where, when, how — all those questions had to be answered. Fiction is where you go to explore unanswerable questions. And I think if you can present that to people, essentially you are doing the single most important thing literature does, which is to tell the reader, ‘hey, think about this.’ A fictional setting provides for a kind of freedom that allows you to simply think about a thing and that effectively is … what I’m trying to do. There are no solutions in American War. There is no prescription in American War, no if we do this, everything will turn out okay. What I’m trying to do is to force people to think about certain things. How do we think about somebody who as a result of great injustice has become a fundamentally evil person? I don’t have an answer to that question. If you read American War, to a certain degree you’re forced to think about that … That’s the purpose of fiction, that’s the purpose of any kind of fiction. It forces you to think about things about things that otherwise you could get away with never thinking about because it’s wrapped up in a story and a story is a very powerful thing. A story is a very magnetic thing. Once you have somebody hooked in a story, you can get them to think about things that otherwise they would simply avoid.
What role can fiction, or should fiction, play in shaping conversations on social issues like race, climate change, sexism, identity and other important, immediate cultural moments?
I’m not sure there is a prescribed role. I think some writers go into a story with a polemic mind set. Some writers go into a story purely from a story-telling mind set. I think the one obligation which all stories fulfill by default is starting the conversation, even if that conversation is just between the reader and their own thoughts. What you provide is a spark. Beyond that, if the spark makes the reader very angry or if it makes them think in a different way about something, [about] a long held belief — whatever that spark is, is less important. Just generating that [spark], just getting the reader to that place, is the only obligation.
Alli: As a writer, what does discourse, which is the theme of the festival, mean to you?
Omar: I certainly believe that the solution to any problem begins with talking about it. And writers say that’s what we do. We say and we say into the permanent record. I think that there’s an element of that that is necessary at all times, but especially in this moment. I don’t think of talking about problems is a solution in of itself, but it’s the prerequisite for any solution. So in this moment in particular I think that’s very, very necessary.
Alli: There are times when society seems more polarized than ever. What can people do to find common ground or at least start talking when they are coming at opposite ends over things like climate change? Does a book help?
Omar: I’ve thought about this a lot. I think one of the things that’s important to establish is that compromise is not always the solution. Compromise is not always a good thing … We’re in a moment right now where a compromise sometimes is not fundamentally better than the worst solution. I live in a country right now where the government is actively building internment camps for refugee children. If the Republicans want to build 10 camps and the Democrats want no camps, five camps is not a good solution. I think we fall into this trap sometimes … I think it’s a very human position to take to try and find common ground. Sometimes the ground is not common. In those cases reality has to win out. I appreciate the sentiment of trying to bring people together, but my obligation is not to bring people together. My obligation, not only as a writer but as a human being, is to stand up for what I believe is right. And watering that down to placate somebody who in many cases might not even want me to exist in the first place is something I’m not prepared to do.
Alli: Climate change is a big issue in American War. Is there anything that gives you hope in real life that we can avoid an America like the one described in your novel?
Omar: A lot of the stuff about climate change in American War was related to stubbornness, to people who could see the ruinous effect of stuff they were doing but they keep doing it anyway because that’s how they’ve always done it. I think that’s a common theme across not just the United States, but everywhere on a number of issues, climate change being the most obvious. Louisiana is already disappearing. Southern Louisiana loses about a football field worth of land every hour. It’s one of the worst climate change disasters in the world and nobody really talks about it. What I hope that people take from this book, if anything, is a sense of how precious the moment is. By which I mean, there are entire cultures, entire places that are disappearing. If I live an average life span, the places I went to in southern Louisiana to research this book are not going to exist by the time I die. They will have washed into the Gulf of Mexico. And so I hope that readers get the sense of just how important this moment is and how fleeting this moment is and how little time we’ve got to do something. Not even to make things great, but to avoid the worst outcomes. I hope that the readers get that sense of urgency … That’s my hope.
Alli: What’s next for you?
Omar: A few months ago I sold a second novel. I’m in the middle of rewrites right now. It’s a very different kind of book. I have no idea how or even if it will resonate with readers but it’s what I needed to write. Right now, I’m just in rewrite hell. I’m just going through draft four or five and hoping the damn things gets better.
Alli: What are you reading?
Omar: I just finished a book called A Luminous Republic, which is by a writer named Andres Barba. It came out in Spanish recently and the English translation comes out April of next year so the publisher sent me an advance copy for a blurb. It’s this beautiful little book; not very long.
It’s basically an inverted Lord of the Flies. These feral kids show up in a town and it’s about how the town deals with it. Really, really beautiful book. Fairly disturbing but also very emotionally incisive.
Alli: What are you most looking forward to at the Whistler Writers Festival?
Omar: I rarely get a chance to be around other writers. It’s a very solitary pursuit for obvious reasons. It just so happens that a couple of people who are at the festival this year were on the circuit [with me] in 2017/2018 because our books came out at around the same time. Cherie Dimaline and I became really good friends because we ended up seeing each other at the literary festivals over and over again, so I’m looking forward to seeing her again. And getting away from the loneliness of writing and rewriting, which is what I’ve been doing for most of this year.
Omar El Akkad will be appearing at the Saturday Night Gala with Maude Barlow, Oct. 19, 8-10pm.
Alli Vail is a writer living in Vancouver and a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio Online program.