Nothing Foreign about It: Talking with Omar El Akkad


The premise of Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, is arresting: Due to the earth’s warming, America in 2074 is amid a civil war.

It’s a conceit that would, in the hands of a lesser writer, collapse under the weight of extrapolation. But El Akkad, in his stunning and merciless debut, uses the Chestnut Family, Southern-born and tragedy-bound, as a prism through which to tell the dystopian story of America’s future. With domestic drone strikes, refugee camps, suicide bombings (in a rather shocking appropriation of the language of martyrdom), and a Guantanamo prison housing American-born Christians, El Akkad puts to use a career as a journalist to meticulously construct a future that feels both hellish and imminent. Over there becomes here.

The dystopia isn’t necessarily that our coasts as we know it have vanished, or the timestamp on the novel. It is the nightmare of American foreign policy exercised domestically. It’s the nightmare lived by those for whom the sky contains death, who count the hours in illegal captivity on an island off America’s coast. It’s the nightmare of refugee camps in the irriguous South, and foreign powers pushing and prodding at the affairs of our nation with equal parts misguidedness and malice.

In late May, over the phone, El Akkad and I discussed suicide terrorism, fossil fuels, and blankets.


The Rumpus: The Chestnuts are fascinating. The children seemed to identify very strongly with their identities as tied to the American South. When I first read of the North-South divide with regards to the term “civil war,” I figured I’d be reading a novel that centered white Americans. Was this a conscious decision to make the Chestnuts a family of color?

El Akkad: It was, and I think a lot about it now in terms of these things. There’s a distance between the person who writes the book and the person who talks about the book. It was a thirty-two-year-old who wrote the book, and it’s a thirty-five-year-old who’s thinking about it and talking about it. And when I start out writing, I don’t have much in common with the characters I write. That’s not the way I design my characters. The one thing that my central character in this book and the Chestnut family have in common with me is this sense of being somewhat unrooted. By which I mean that I’ve never had a particularly satisfying answer to the question of where I’m from.

I was born in Egypt and I lived there until I was five. And then I grew up in the Middle East, in Qatar, but I left there when I was sixteen. Canadian citizen, but I didn’t show up to Canada till I was sixteen. Now, I live in the United States. It’s my home right now, but I’ve never felt more alien in any country I’ve lived in. And so when I was thinking about the Chestnut family, there was this sense of not having a particularly easy or straightforward answer to that question. So they live isolated from the world.

Sarat, our [half-Mexican] protagonist, comes from two different backgrounds. That had to do with this idea of not having a very easy or straightforward path to knowing which stories you could take comfort in and which culture you could take comfort in. That was some of the thinking behind it. But in terms of the North and the South, I never really intended to write a story about America. It’s not a book about Northerners and Southerners. It happens to be set in that part of the world, but it’s sort of an allegorical setting or analogous setting. I get a lot of questions about the plausibility of whether the Second Civil War could really take place over fossil fuels, and plausible wasn’t what I was after.

Rumpus: You mentioned that this is very much an allegorical novel. And there are all these fascinating parallels or at least elements of things that are going on in other parts of the world turned inward on the United States. One that I found fascinating was this appropriation of the language of martyrdom. Very reminiscent of the notion of shaheed and then you have the farmer’s vests, and there’s this supplementary document in the novel that goes into detail about taking advantage of the impressionable or the mentally ill with regards to suicide terrorism. I was wondering if there was any sort of federal policy prescription with regards to the War on Terror here.

El Akkad: I started out as a journalist in 2006. I was hired that summer full-time. I started on Monday, and I think on that Friday, we had in Canada the biggest terrorism arrest in the country’s history, the Toronto 18 arrests. They arrested these eighteen kids who had all these grand plans of beheading the Prime Minister and storming Parliament Hill and, of course, they never achieved any of it. They’d been monitored by the cops the whole time. And I remember we got beat on the story. Three major newspapers in Canada, and we were the slowest.

I remember the Editor-in-Chief had an all-hands-on-deck meeting the following day, and he looked around for anybody who knew anything about Islam or the Middle East. He was basically looking for brown people. And he found two of us. Newspaper of nine hundred people, and he found two of us.

Rumpus: So you guys ended up being That Guy.

El Akkad: Yeah, it was me and the theater critic. So the next year and a half to two years of my life was on that story of trying to find out how these kids who were second-generation immigrants born in Canada, and sound the way I do, end up going to that place of wanting to blow up the public broadcast building, which necessitated learning a lot about recruiters. And in this case it was done mostly over the web—these random people who call themselves sheikhs and religious authorities, and they meet these kids online. So a lot of that fit into the notion of how somebody becomes radicalized. How you look for that particular weakness, that sense of alienation or that religious fervor that you can manipulate. And a lot of that worked its way into the narrative.

As for any policy prescriptions with respect to the War on Terror, it all goes back to the overriding theme of the book, which has to do with the notion of “pretend these people look and sound like you.” The conversation I have with a very particular kind of American, whose worldview necessitates thinking of a people way over there as being fundamentally foreign or being fundamentally alien or responding to having a drone destroy their house in some kind of way that we over here would never do, always comes back to this idea of “how would you address these problems if they were not happening in some place called Syria but if they were happening in Alabama.” So that was the central point of writing the book in the first place, and it’s what I go back to every time I have conversations about it. There’s nothing foreign about how these people are reacting. We just have the privilege of living in a part of the world where we don’t have to experience how we would react under similar conditions.

Rumpus: One of the first conversations between Sarat and Albert Gaines, her recruiter, concerns this mythology of the South. The South of Spanish moss and palmetto fronds, of unmatched generosity and jubilant excess. And there’s no mention of slavery or Jim Crow. And then later, during the peace negotiations, the South’s primary concern isn’t strategics; it’s phrasing and shaping the narrative. Could talk a bit about the notion of memory and narrative with regards to this book but also war in general?

El Akkad: Recently, I was doing the southern leg of the book tour and ended up in New Orleans. It was right around the time that they were getting ready to take down the Confederate monuments. And the city workers who were charged with taking these things down had to cover their faces, had to wear these ski-masks, because they were worried for their safety and the safety of their families.

I’m new to America. I’ve been here four years now. When you grow up in the Middle East, it’s impossible to ignore America. Everything that the country does, everything it exports, its culture, it’s at such a high volume. Then, of course, living in Canada afterwards, your next-door neighbor, it’s even closer. I had this sense that I knew what this country was about. And then I moved here. And realized that I had no idea. And to this day, I wake up every day and realize that I have no idea the magnitude of this country’s founding sins and the extent to which so much of the popular dialogue is dependent on a kind of act of forgetting. I think about that a lot. It’s not that it’s unique to this country. I come from a part of the world that actively forgets so much of its history. You go to Egypt, every bridge is named after a date. There’s the October 6 bridge, the May something bridge, and they’re all dates commemorating these famous victories in various wars, usually with Israel. There’s very few with dates commemorating the many, many losses. That doesn’t find its way into the popular culture.

What astounds me with the United States has to do with the sense of just how much effort needs to be exerted so as to avoid talking about the many, many ways in which one of the foundational sins of this country—the enslavement of a group of human beings based on the color of their skin so as to power one of the largest commercial enterprises in the world at the time—how much work it takes to actively forget that.

I live in a city where, three days ago, a white supremacist murdered two people who stood up and tried to stop him from bullying two Muslim women. It’s everywhere. And it’s overwhelming. And one of the reasons that I struggle with writing about it in any kind of direct way is that I’m not talented enough to possess that kind of alchemy that takes anger and turns it into a kind of precision, turns it into a kind of clarity. I’m never going to be James Baldwin. I think about my ability to continue living in this country and to continue seeing the many ways in which it denies its own history, and be able to function as a writer. That’s an open question for me, whether I can do that productively in the long run.

Rumpus: That’s a very pervasive viewpoint in these times of titanic and viscerally tangible polarization and partisanship and the very violent ways in which that becomes manifest. One of the things that I’ve appreciated about American War and dystopian fiction in general is the ability it has to operate as metaphor but also exist in its own reality. And one of the parallels that I found was this idea of fossil fuels and slavery having both been engines of Southern economy. It’s not necessarily just about enslavement, it’s also about a way of living and how that gets tied up into everything and how a lot of these places depend on this moral aberration to function.

El Akkad: Almost everything in the book lives with some kind of analogy. And when I was looking for an analogy to the causes of the first Civil War, I knew I was never going to find something that matched the sheer human cruelty of its cause. But as something that one day, many, many years from now when it’s safe to do so, everyone’s going to stand up and say “I can’t believe they didn’t realize how ruinous that was; if it was me I would have stood up against it.” The idea of fossil fuel started to reign in my mind, which is to say that one day, when there’s other ways of doing things, other ways of satisfying that need, when people have moved on to other forms of fuel, it’s going to be very easy to think of the time in which society used this fuel as a kind of temporary moral aberration. “They were wrong headed, then we saw the error of our ways, and we became better.” When, in fact, it wasn’t that at all. It was the fuel behind a massive commercial enterprise that made a lot of people very wealthy and, as a result, many people were willing to completely ignore the ruinous effects. And so I was thinking a lot about the idea of how, after the fact, we tend to compartmentalize these awful things we’ve done, and assign a temporary label to them. “Oh no, but we’re better than that now. We’ve learned, and it was just a temporary thing.” But it wasn’t. At all.

Rumpus: The legislation to combat that comes too late. There’s no Florida. The coastline’s gone. The idea of moving oneself to the right side of history is too little, too late.

El Akkad: Absolutely. The damage has been done. And yet there is still a significant portion of the country that would rather secede.

Rumpus: Cutting off the nose to spite the face. Holding on to this way of life. In Camp Patience, there’s talk about banning certain images, and this act of rebellion that exists in having images of the Texas pastoral on the inside of your tents. This appropriation of images as this act of rebellion and the idea of landscape and valorizing that landscape as a certain way of living, that struck really true for me.

El Akkad: I spent quite a bit of time in the South when I was researching the book. And also I was a journalist at the time. I wrote stories about land losses up in Louisiana, stuff in Florida and so on. And there is always that picturesque imagery that avoids wholly the topic at hand. I was driving around, looking for the area where you first meet the Chestnuts, and I ended up driving past one of these plantation mansions by the river. And I stopped to look around, and I guess they were starting the tour to show this house and the property. So I go on this walking tour, and it’s me and about five other people, one of whom is this gentleman who first catches my attention because he has a gun on a holster at his side. I guess it’s an open-carry state, which, when you come from Canada, it’s kind of surreal, because you haven’t seen that in a while. The tour guide is a black man who is describing, among other things, “Yes, we’re standing in the really nice house, but if you look down there, you’ll see the shacks where this family kept their slaves, and beyond that, you’ll see the remains of the graveyard in which the slaves were buried, which was untended for a long time. And because the river moves, the river moved over and decimated the graves and took the bodies from the earth.” And he’s describing the enslavement and immensely cruel mistreatment of human beings that made all of these pretty houses and all of these plantations possible, and the gentleman with the gun at his side keeps interrupting to say things like “Yeah, but they treated them well, though; they treated them okay.” And he keeps getting at this point, and after a while, I had to leave. I had trouble wrapping my mind around why it was so necessary for this man to believe that, “But after all, everything was okay. In the end, they did pretty well by them.” I’ve thought about that a lot, specifically when I was trying to come up with the pro-Southern imagery of the book, which was this idea of the rosiest possible view of what you come from and what it is your past says.

Rumpus: Not even just sanitation of a locale or a past or a situation, but this specific rose-tint that it gets cast through, and there’s this psychological compulsion to hold on to the pretty picture of it.

It’s very clear that a journalist wrote this book, because there are certain very specific details in it that very much seem pulled from real-life observation. And there’s one in particular that I wondered about. In Camp Patience, there’s this health worker that comes through, trying to figure out the ages of some of the children in the camp, and for those that don’t know their ages, she has them reach over their head and try to touch their left ear.

El Akkad: It was outright theft on my part. A long time ago, I was in Afghanistan. I was covering the war back when Canada still had a military presence there, and I went out with a UN vaccination team to the suburbs of Kandahar. They were administering the polio vaccine. The polio vaccine is useless after the age of five, I believe. And because nobody had any ID cards on them, any children they saw running around on the street, they would lure them over with candy, and then do that thing where they would put their arm over their head. And if your fingers went past your ear, then they figured you’re probably older than five years old. So all of that is stolen wholesale from an afternoon I spent with a vaccination team in Kandahar.

Rumpus: There’s a piece that I believe you wrote for The Globe and Mail where you describe a lot of the Guantanamo camps and the history of the naval base. And one of the supplemental documents is this letter from a Sugarloaf detainee that’s almost completely redacted, and that, to me, was one of the most chilling aspects of the novel. One of the things I found, with regards to the supplemental documents, was that not only did they supplement the narrative of the Chestnut family, but in my mind they became part and parcel of the story.

Did their purpose change throughout the course of the writing? At what point did you start writing them, and were they intended as supplements and turned into something else?

El Akkad: They started out as a crutch for me as a writer. I was trying to build this world that had a lot of moving parts, and I didn’t think I had the talent to keep it all together. So I started leaning on my journalism background and writing these fake historical documents as a way to keep track of the world and all the moving parts of this world. And since I was very well versed in those kinds of documents, it was easier for me to do that. It was only later on that I thought about inserting them into the book between the chapters as a way to get at things that would be very difficult for me to get at in a straight narrative. For me, they represent a kind of look at a very sort of sanitized world. When I think of the chapters from [US General Joseph] Weiland’s book, that’s a deliberately sanitized piece of writing. I was following the conventions of books I’ve read by politicians and people who planned on becoming politicians, which is very much a kind of exercise in stealth self-branding. And other documents. The one that stands out to me is the Guantanamo one, more than any of the others. It’s based on a number of things. It’s based on Guantanamo Diary, by a guy named Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was captive there for years and years and years and then his diaries were eventually published, but not before the censors got through with them. One of the really surreal experiences I had was reading that book and reading all of the footnotes on every page, which were footnotes written by his lawyers trying to guess what the blacked out areas were, and they have to guess because they can’t know, because they would be charged with crimes if they had access to the actual… [Laughs] So you get things like, “We believe this means that and that.” Sometimes they have to say “we believe” but it’s clear that they know exactly what it is because the censor made a mistake. At one point, the censor blacked out somebody’s name, but then they forgot to black out the same name a paragraph down. And it reminds you that, even though you think of it as a sort of bureaucratic machine that’s doing this, it’s actually human beings.

You would read a sentence like “And then blank entered the room and blank talked to me.” “And then blank entered the room and he talked to me, too.” And it would become very clear over time that what the censor was doing was only censoring the female pronouns, the she’s and the her’s, because they didn’t want to disclose that women were doing this, and so that worked its way in there. But to me, all of the source documents have to do with getting at the bureaucracy. The audiobook was read by a guy named Dion Graham, who’s one of the finest artists I’ve ever worked with. And when he gets to the Guantanamo letter, he just says the word “redacted” every time a blacked out sentence is on the page, so by the end of the segment he’s just saying the word redacted over and over again. It has this numbing quality to it.

Rumpus: When did Benjamin Chestnut become part of the narrative? Is he the collector and purveyor of all the source material?

El Akkad: The way the story was framed, the idea that it was being told by a relative who is now old and nearing the end of his life, was one of the earliest things that came to me. And I wanted to set it up that way. What’s strange to me is when my friends, who read far more of the reviews than I do—I can’t read the reviews, or else my anxiety kicks in—get really angry. They’ll say, “Can you believe this reviewer immediately spoiled it by saying she goes and kills everybody?” To me, I don’t care about that. It was never my intention to have a big twist ending where everybody dies. To me, the thing that is spoiled all of the time is that they’ll say “Narrated by Sarat’s nephew.” Let that one go! That one pissed me off a little bit. The reason I framed it the way I did—it’s a very contrived way of doing things—has to do with agency. That basic human desire to have some say over the things we do and the things that are done to us. In a sense, almost everything that Sarat does in her life—almost every transition in the way she transforms from this curious, trusting human being to a fundamentally evil person—has to do with agency. I knew early on Benjamin had to be the narrator because he was the example of the final taking away of agency. Discovering the truth of the story and the truth of what was done to you when, by definition, it’s too late to do anything about it. The people who’ve done this to you are gone. Your chance to have a say in the matter is gone. I don’t talk about it a lot in the book, but when I’m thinking about character motivation, it had to do with this idea of “this is why he became a historian.” He had been stripped of any agency or any say over the past back when it was still present. So now he digs into it with this kind of compulsion because that’s the closest he can come to having a say in the matter.

Rumpus: While the US is mired in this dystopian, “everything’s going wrong” situation, there’s a reunification going on in the Middle East. They go through a couple drafts of revolution, then the fifth one comes along, and there’s this reunification.

El Akkad: My hopelessly optimistic vision for the Middle East. When it came time to try and draw up that world, my template wasn’t that far removed from how this country was founded. You have a group of people from fairly disparate backgrounds who rise up against perceived tyranny, they have a revolution, and from many states, they create one. That was the foundation, which is stolen from this country. The behavior of the empire is also stolen from how the United States has behaved in the past. For example, the character of Joe or Yousef, the idea of the saboteur who’s helping prolong the quagmire, is based on American involvement in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. You see the rival empire has gotten itself into a sticky situation, and, from a distance and quite subtly, you do what you can to prolong that because if the rival empire’s failing, you’re succeeding. And if that means selling Stinger missiles to the mujahideen, so be it. When that comes back to haunt you, that’s gonna be somebody else’s problem. So that was the thinking of how that empire would interact with the United States, which is the empire on the decline. But in terms of it actually having any semblance of possibility these days, I look at places like Egypt, and I’m not particularly optimistic.

Rumpus: What’s interesting is seeing not just the military aspects of American foreign policy replicated abroad, but the occasionally wrong-footed humanitarian aspects. Camp Patience keeps getting these shipments of blankets. An overflow of blankets, many of which they don’t need. But they just keep getting these blankets!

El Akkad: Almost everywhere I went as a journalist, you see this wrong-headed desire to be helpful, and it has to do with the vast, vast difference between helping and knowing. These things are done from a great distance, a distance that is almost always necessary. It has a little bit to do with the founding idea of the book, which is the privilege of being able to assume that those people far away behave in some kind of fundamentally alien way. I go back a lot to the interview I was watching with this talking head—I forget if it’s CNN or not—who was being asked “why do they hate us so much.” Talking about protest against US military presence in Afghanistan. This gentleman responded—an expert or something of one of these think tanks—and he was talking about the idea that sometimes the US Special Forces have to go into these villages and conduct these nighttime raids. And when they do that, they’ll often hold the women and children at gunpoint and ransack the houses. And then he added, “And you know in Afghan culture, that sort of thing is considered very offensive.” Name me one culture on earth that wouldn’t consider these things offensive. The idea of all these blankets that keep showing up over and over again has to do with the privilege of being able to not have to put yourself in the shoes of these folks who are far away and happen to be on the losing side of a war.

Rumpus: Was that where the novel came from? This moment of watching these talking heads talk about Afghanistan as though there was no sense of universality of suffering?

El Akkad: I talk about that moment a lot. One of the fun things you get to do when you’re an author is pretend you have a very clean genesis moment. You know, this happened and eureka I wrote a book! Of course, that’s not the case. You’ve written a book; you know how messy these things are. It’s just a moment that I go back to a lot. And once I started seeing that, it was very hard to unsee it. A while back another think tank person had posted a link to a story about how the era of the nation-state was coming to an end in the Arab world, which is one of those high-minded things that—I honestly can’t tell you what the hell that means, I have no idea. But he was in agreement with this article, and he noted that in the Arabic language, there are different words for “nation” and “state.” As though it was only these exotic, faraway languages that had different words for “nation” and “state”! The lack of self-awareness in that statement was just baffling to me. Look at these exotic people whose language functions exactly the way ours does. Once you see these things, it’s very hard to unsee them. Although I don’t think about it as a book about America, it had to be set here. It had to be immediate, and it had to be close to home.

Rumpus: You spent this decade reporting, and so much of this makes it into the novel. One of the things I was wondering—and this is a question that I often go back to when speaking with journalists and reporters—what relationship is there between objectivity and truth?

El Akkad: I worked as a journalist for ten years, and I’ve seen objectivity used in some very subjective ways. And I’ve seen objectivity used to very clearly push a point of view from a place of very bad faith. It’s very possible with the selective use of statistics to push something that is not much more than an opinion. What journalism did for me, and what it continues to do for me, is provide a forum for answers. By definition, when you go out and you do reporting, you’re looking for answers. Where, what, who, when, how. That sort of thing. And especially now in a time when there’s a quasi-fascist administration running the most powerful nation on earth and very much unconcerned with the difference between the truth and what it would like the truth to be, answers are incredibly important. And the role that journalism has in providing answers could not be more important. But fiction for me is the flipside of that coin. Fiction allows me to ask questions. Fiction is concerned primarily with questions, in my mind. There are no answers in American War. But it’s a forum in which I’m able to ask questions and explore those questions in a way that I could never do in journalism.

The book contains so many flaws and so many areas that I look at now and I think “I wish I had done this better; I wish I had thought of this in a different way.” But fundamentally, the reason that I tried to publish this book and not any of the three other novels I wrote that are sitting on my hard drive, is that it felt like I was asking necessary questions. If the way I addressed them was ham-fisted or I got completely off track because they were bigger questions than I was able to handle, that’s one thing. But at least it felt like necessary questions to ask. That, to me, is the distinction between those two worlds.


Author photograph © Michael Lionstar.

Tochi Onyebuchi is a writer based out of CT. Much of his non-fiction can be found at "Boy Boxes Bear," and he has an M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. His debut young adult novel, BEASTS MADE OF NIGHT, will be published October 31, 2017 by Penguin Random House's Razorbill imprint. He tweets, on occasion, at @TochiTrueStory More from this author →