St. Mike’s Cosponsors Conversation with Novelist Omar el Akkad

By: Martyn Wendell Jones

American War, a novel by former Globe and Mail journalist Omar el Akkad, has met with international acclaim since its release in April. Set over fifty years in the future, the story involves a second civil war on United States soil fomented by the coastal ravages of climate change and a federal decision to ban the use of fossil fuels. El Akkad said one of his intentions with the book was to demonstrate that there is “no such thing as exotic suffering.”

At the Munk School of Global Affairs on Wednesday, November 8, El Akkad discussed the book with University of St. Michael’s College Principal and Vice President Randy Boyagoda as part of the CSUS and F. Ross Johnson Distinguished Speaker Series. The event was sponsored by the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters, the Centre for the Study of the United States and St. Michael’s.

Unavoidably, the larger context of the novel’s publication has determined its reception. Though El Akkad wrote his first draft before Donald Trump came down the escalator to announce his candidacy for the American presidency, the novel’s post-election release led to reviews in major publications that characterize the story as a “roadmap” of a possible future instead of the allegory that was intended. “I certainly did not intend to write for the Trump era,” the author said.

When asked whether the book does in fact represent a possible future, El Akkad replied, “Maybe—but it’s someone else’s present, and it’s someone else’s past.” The novelist suggested that using an “analogous America” to tell the stories of non-Americans is a largely untried method, as opposed to the more popular use of distant settings to tell stories about America. He found that European critics and reviewers were far more attentive to this aspect of the book than their counterparts in the States.

A number of the book’s vivid images and scenarios—families living in repurposed shipping containers, a detainment camp called “Sugarloaf”—derive from his experiences reporting for the Globe in places like Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. After being teargassed once in Cairo while covering the Arab Spring, El Akkad was teargassed again in Ferguson, Missouri, while covering the unrest that followed the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. The echo of the first experience in the second gave him a sense for how distant conflicts could be made to resonate in a much closer setting for American readers.

During an open Q&A and conversation period with attendees, El Akkad commented on the uses and risks of empathy as a means of understanding a character who adopts extreme views, discussed the tensions between the “thesis… built into the superstructure of the novel” and his obligations as a storyteller, and called out James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) as the book he found most useful while writing American War. Agee’s nonfiction account of Great Depression-era farm families offers a “masterclass in observing the tiniest details in a life that’s been overlooked,” the novelist said.

Martyn Wendell Jones is a writer in the Office of Communications at the University of St. Michael’s College.