Omar El Akkad on Charlottesville and American War
Charlottesville erupted after Omar El Akkad completed his prescient novel American War, yet like many speculative authors he was frighteningly accurate. He discusses with The Skinny the polarisation of, and battle lines running through, modern America
With each week bringing some fresh political cataclysm, many commenters have remarked that the current verve for dystopian fiction comes as no surprise. As power structures wobble, whole demographics swing recklessly right and world leaders hurl out hand grenades of mindless bigotry in the form of grammar-resistant Twitter dumps, the works of Atwood and Orwell have become the most obvious guiding light for many trying to understand how we got here. Literary heavyweights like The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four have rapidly gone from distant allegories to darkened reflections of reality and while their worst case scenarios might still remain at least a few dark moves away, Omar El Akkad’s debut novel American War outlines more clearly than ever before how we might get swept from here to there in the blink of an eye. Let's just remind ourselves that in Charlottesville, a cultural and political civil war is being fought over the removal of statues commemorating the actual American Civil War.
And so, as imagined by El Akkad: by 2074, America has once again been torn into North and South and open war rages across the once-united nation. If, at a glance, that premise sounds farfetched, El Akkad draws the path towards a second civil war with such meticulous care it quickly begins to seem more possible than any of us would like to imagine. A total ban on fossil fuels as part of an environmental Hail Mary re-opens America’s oldest wounds. The South, with its reliance upon the industries that have just been illegalised, once again finds itself bearing the brunt of decisions made miles away by politicians with no interest in the traditions, pride or struggles of its people. The North sees these protests as unbridled ignorance, dismissing them as the ignorable opinions of backwards people. In a flash both sides become irretrievably entrenched on their side of a cultural border. In another, that border becomes a battle line.
Once things are set in motion, all of the political and cultural complexities give way to the oldest of laws: an eye for an eye. More than anything else, this is the idea that drives El Akkad’s debut novel: “American War is a novel about the universality of suffering and the universality of revenge,” he explains, “It’s the story of Sarat Chestnut, a young girl in southernmost Louisiana whose life is upturned by the events of a second American civil war. The premise, and the book’s setting, is futuristic-sounding, but this isn’t a book about the future.” While it is set a few decades from now, every moment is grounded in today’s reality: “Almost everything that happened in the book has already happened – maybe not in the United States, but elsewhere in the world, usually to people who don’t have much of a voice with which to speak out. I certainly didn’t invent drones or waterboarding or refugee camps.”
The major dystopian works which have enjoyed a recent resurgence have proven to be impressively and alarmingly accurate in predictions made decades ago, but even in the short years since he began writing his own dark prophecy, El Akkad has watched life imitate his art in disturbing fashion. “I started the first draft in the summer of 2014, and finished it almost exactly a year later (a few weeks before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President),” he says. “When I started writing the novel, I was already aware that political polarization in America was about as extreme as it has been in many generations, if not since the Civil War. But I never anticipated that polarization leading to the election of someone like Trump, nor that things would get so bad that a work of dystopian fiction would start to be talked about in terms of its prescience.”
To make the world of his novel feel real, El Akkad employs a two-pronged technique, splitting the novel between the intimate, personal story of Sarat Chestnut and more empirical, historical documents which offer a wide-angle view of how the conflict unfolded. He is quick to admit that the latter started out as "a bit of a crutch". He says: "I was having trouble keeping track of all the moving parts of my invented future world. So, leaning on my decade of journalism experience, I started writing up fake historical documents to record the major events of this world. It was only later on that I thought about inserting them into the novel to break up the main narrative a bit, and I found that they lent a neat kind of textural quality to the book.” While the chapters which step away from Sarat are vital to fleshing out her world and providing a fuller view of the future American War describes, El Akkad is careful to always keep the reader closely tied to its protagonist. Explaining her vital role, he claims: “Sarat Chestnut is the only character in the book who came to me fully formed – everyone else in the novel was re-written time and time again, but Sarat remained the same. Once she showed up, the entire novel became hers, first and foremost.”
Not all of American War’s predictions are so damning: while America flounders, the Middle East is able to achieve stability as the newly formed Bouazizi Empire. “The Bouazizi Empire in the book is based in large part on the creation story of the United States – a group of people from different backgrounds rise up against perceived tyranny, eventually succeed, and from a number of different states create a single one,” says El Akkad, drawing attention to the way in which the fates of these two empires have remained continually intertwined.
“I think of all the geopolitical prerequisites for any part of the world to flourish, an absence of malicious outside interference is perhaps the most vital – and at least during my lifetime, American involvement in the Middle East has been the textbook example of how the opposite is also true. Of course, since this is a novel concerned with turnabout, now the Bouazizi Empire is the one maliciously inserting itself into American affairs.” This touches on one of the major challenges the novel confronts its readers with: how differently would you think of the world if the images on your TV screen occurred somewhere closer to home? The underlying truth of American War is that the distance between us and the horrors of dystopian fiction is best measured not in time but in miles.
The “turnabout” El Akkad talks about is vital to the novel’s central theme of revenge. Rather than relegating the process of radicalisation to a far off part of the world in the midst of an alien culture, his novel lets it play out in one more familiar, demonstrating the ease with which anyone could be morphed into someone capable of atrocity. “When we see extremists, or the people on whom we usually throw the label 'terrorist' we tend to see them at the finish line – when they’ve already committed whatever heinous act for which they will forever be known.” For El Akkad, this process is not only unjust but ineffective: “If we have some interest in truly combatting extremism, we should expend some effort on understanding everything that came before all that. Otherwise, we have no chance at breaking the cycle.”
That capacity to create empathy is a large part of why El Akkad chose to move from journalism to prose. “I don’t read novels to learn how to act, I read novels to remind myself about the importance of empathy,” he says. “To the extent that a novel might make its reader more willing to consider experiences outside their own, I think it can have a real impact on the world.” His journalism experience allowed him to write the grit and detail of the real world but his departure from it allowed him to go beyond the hard facts in which it deals: “Fiction was always my first home as a writer, the place where I felt most comfortable. Journalism for me has always been vital, but solely concerned with answers – who, what, where, etc. Fiction serves the opposite purpose; it’s where I go to explore questions.”
Reality seems to be catching up with El Akkad's fiction at an ever-increasing pace. With the Charlottesville attack seeming to confirm American War’s worst suspicions, it seems almost inevitable that things will have spiralled even further out of control by the time you read this article, but for now, El Akkad turns back to his journalist’s instincts once more to leave us with hard facts: “I've been thinking a lot about the lengths America will go to avoid a clear-eyed look in the mirror. The angry young racists who marched through Charlottesville didn't arrive in this country yesterday. The veins of hatred and white supremacy they tap date back to America's founding.
"There's an instinctual reaction among many Americans – almost a form of self-defence – to look at this current bout of ugliness and say, 'This is not who we are.' But that statement is plainly at odds with history. Whether the United States can survive this round of vitriol and violence – and a White House whose occupants clearly support its instigators – will depend entirely on the capacity of Americans to finally bridge the chasm between what this country is and what it pretends to be.”