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The Next American Civil War

In his critically acclaimed new novel, Omar El Akkad imagines battle lines drawn over fossil fuels.

Peter Rugh in conversation with Omar El Akkad May 1

Issue 224

“I’m not a very photogenic person,” Omar El Akkad warned me after we’d finished breakfast. I suspected as much looking at the photograph of the journalist-turned-author on the jacket of his moving and uncannily relevant first novel, American War.

Rightly or wrongly, we tend to want authors to give us something more of themselves, ungraspable in words, in their photographs — eyes and teeth that suggest expansive existential realms. But El Akkad perpetually bears the gaze of a person at once wincing down the barrel and peering through distant mist at some tumultuous nexus point of human struggle, violence and anguish — the likes of which we can only interpret through his fiction. 

American War is both a story of possible futures and of the present. “El Akkad has fashioned a surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a post-apocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in The Road, and as devastating a look at the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth did in The Plot Against America,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in his review for the New York Times.

Yet, there is little that occurs in El Akkad’s novel that is not happening on the globe right now — indiscriminate drone strikes, mass exoduses of climate refugees, perpetual civil war. We do not need to look 60 years ahead of ourselves to the era in which American War takes place to witness El Akkad’s vision.

Illustration by Lynn Foster.

Egyptian-born, Qatar-raised, a Canadian citizen living in the United States — El Akkad’s is a background that spells outsider, compounded by his years working as a globe-trotting reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail. He takes the scenes he saw and the people he met covering the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, poverty in Las Vegas and global climate change — phenomena Americans either tend to overlook or think of as far away and abstract — and places them in a future context centered on North America.

American readers will likely finish the novel with a Lacanian sense of the Real as Slavoj Žižek has described it: the inescapable reality beneath our country’s exceptionalist subterfuge. A broader reading sees American War as an international story of how anyone of us, subjected to enough injustice, can be transformed into one of the terrorists we see on the news. Unlike George Orwell’s 1984 — in which the concerted power of a totalitarian state triumphs over love, the strongest and most revered of human emotions — arbitrary violence manifested through war eviscerates innocence in American War, a drama we see play out within the novel’s heroine, Sarat Chestnut.

“Almost, everything in the book exists as a form of analogy,” Omar told me, in between bites of home fries at the exceedingly pretentious Midtown French restaurant where we met at his publicist’s suggestion. 

We could not have had such a leisurely conversation in American War’s setting. Vast-expanses and whole populations of the United States have succumbed to poisonous chemical weapon attacks. Larger regions still are submerged underwater due to climate change-induced sea level rise. You would be comfortable most days in a t-shirt in Alaska, where refugees arrive continuously seeking shelter from violent weather and the civil war underway between the North and South. America’s first civil war was fought over slavery and in this novel it is fought over just as intractable and destructive an economic staple: fossil fuel. El Akkad, might not be photogenic, but he has written a book that captures the multiple crises humans today face with crystal clarity.

Peter Rugh: Why did you write this story?

Omar El Akkad: All fiction, to a certain extent, has to do with an obsession of sorts, with problems that have no straightforward resolution. I’d spent years thinking about suffering, revenge and the ways these things can fundamentally transform a human being, so I started writing. A few months into that process, I began to see a world take shape, so I inhabited it.

How did it come about in your mind?

It started with the idea that there is no foreign kind of suffering. The assumption that the way someone in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere in the world reacts to being on the receiving end of warfare is fundamentally different from how you or I would react in this part of the world is plainly false. When I started writing American War, I was interested in recasting all the conflicts that have defined the world in my lifetime as elements of something very close to home. The idea was to explore the notion that, if all these faraway things happened not so far away, the results might not be so different.

It seemed that you were thinking about this idea of family in American War, where we draw the line of who’s on our side and who’s not.

When you first meet Sarat at the beginning of the book, her circle of trust is the entire world because all she knows of the world is that house by the Mississippi Sea, her family and a neighbor or two. She trusts the entirety of the world as family. As you progress through the book that circle closes and closes, until the only thing she really trusts is her sense of revenge. Nothing else. It doesn’t close because of her own volition, it closes because of the things that are done to her that force her inward, that force her to trust fewer and fewer people.

People often say, “power corrupts.” But we don’t often talk about happens when we lack power.

It’s about agency to me, it’s a sense about a basic human need to have some say over the things we do and the things that are done to us. Sarat slowly loses agency and has to find it by some other means. Inevitably, that turns into violence, the most immediate form of agency, the most direct way to find out that you’ve done something.

It was kind of amazing when Trump bombed Syria, watching all of these people that were critical of Trump suddenly get behind the bombing. Fareed Zakaria of CNN said it was “the day Trump became President.” Your book points out how we go into war with one attitude but then the consequences catch up.

Violence never really lies. There’s a straightforward aspect to it. I’m constantly amazed by just how many otherwise reasonable, thoughtful people, immediately fall in line when the specter of violence shows up and set aside all of their intellectual and moral issues. Those missiles caused zero change in the wider Syrian conflict. Yet all these people are suddenly standing in line cheering.

Was Donald Trump on your mind when you wrote the novel?

No, I started the novel in the summer of 2014 and I finished it a couple of weeks before Donald Trump announced he was running. If you had told me back then that we would be sitting here today talking about President Donald Trump…

If he was a fictional character he’d be unbelievable.

You could never get away with it, not with a single part of this administration. You would get kicked out of any publisher’s office. Even on the minor stuff. I mean that building that his son-in-law apparently got financed by the Chinese, the address is 666 Fifth Avenue. You could never get away with that in a work of fiction!

Illustration by David Hollenbach.

What do you make of the supposed Red State/Blue State divide in America today? In American War, the North and the South are literally two different countries.

The novel is a rejection of the Us-versus-Them binary that we’ve had to live with for the past 17 years. When you look at a granular level, conflicts are much more complex.

Race is in the background in American War. That would seem odd in a novel set in the present-day South.

Lots of people have said, “I find it unbelievable that race wouldn’t be a bigger factor in this kind of situation.” They are absolutely right.

Race is there by analogy. It’s there in the way that fuel is represented in the book. I knew that if I were to tackle race as a direct topic I would need to devote the entire book to it. Race in America is not something that you tackle with glancing blows. Race is part of two founding moments that America really needs to come to terms with; one being a genocidal population displacement, the other thing being the enslavement of an entire people based on the color of their skin.

The way I treated race in this story was through the idea of fuel, which came from the idea that in this country, for a very long time, that’s what minorities were treated as — they were treated as fuel. There are some who say, “They were treated as property.”  No, people like their property, people treat their property pretty well. They were used as fuel for a giant commercial machine that created more wealth than any commercial machine in human history.

Now, I’m working on another story, which is plainly concerned with the way the color of your skin or the accent with which you speak or your ethnicity defines you. That’s the entirety of the book.

I really appreciated the analogy between fossil fuels and slavery in American War.

I knew I wouldn’t find anything that met the level of basic human cruelty that the first Civil War was caused by. But many decades from now, when we’ve moved on to more efficient sources of fuel, it’s going to be very easy for somebody to stand up and say, “I can’t believe they didn’t understand how bad it was. If it was me back then, I would have stood up and said something.”

In fact, that’s probably not the case. We’re not just talking about a moral failing of a small group. We’re talking about the fuel that powers one of the biggest commercial empires in the world. And if you aren’t affected directly by it — it is very easy for you to just turn your head and benefit from the fruits of this thing. That seemed like a workable analogy.

Do you think it’s going take a social upheaval — maybe not a civil war, but some sort of massive change of trajectory — to get us off of fossil fuels?

We have very few places in our history as a species of dealing with problems whose worst effects are going to show up many, many years from now. Progress takes a really long time but you can move backwards in a second.

When you look at the amount of progress that we’ve had in the last two decades on environmental issues, it was really slow and grueling, but we finally got to the place of the Paris Accords. You finally get to that place and then, in a split second, the administration changes. Suddenly you have a head of the EPA who hates the EPA. I worry about that very asymmetrical rate of change.

I’ve read that you don’t consider American War realistic in terms of its timeline. But we do have this mounting problem of climate change.

The world of the novel is based on 60 meters of sea level rise. Of course, nobody knows what will happen between now and then, but for now it’s not realistic.

I did a lot of reporting on climate change and there were two things that scared me. The first was the extent to which people can’t think beyond their 30-year mortgage. And in terms of space, they think within the boundaries of their own property.

The other thing that scares me is that we have no idea how much worse climate change could be than what our current models project. Louisiana loses a football field worth of land every hour. That’s probably the biggest climate disaster in the United States today, and we’re not doing a damn thing about it.

Do you feel like the novel helps to clarify that for people?

I think that you’re in a very dangerous place anytime you need fiction to make things real for you, anytime novelists are being asked to provide answers.

You don’t believe that fiction can change people’s minds?

The most dangerous people on earth right now — or maybe it’s always been this way — are people who can’t differentiate between truth and what they’d like the truth to be. Someone who is readily willing to change their mind can be counted on to accept the better argument. That’s not a person you have to worry about. That’s a person we should all hope to be. But someone who thinks that changing their mind is a form of weakness is probably going to be unchanged by this book or by anything.

The far fringe of the Republican Party is famous for playing fast and loose with the truth.

You have an entire party that is more concerned with being on the right side of power than the right side of the issues. That’s a very dangerous thing to have in a ruling party. Certainly, the part of the world where I grew up provides plenty of evidence of what that looks like.

Why is dystopia so prevalent in the popular culture these days?

I think it has to do with anxiety. When things are going well — when peace prevails and the economy is humming and the political landscape is stable — there’s a natural complacency that sets in, a tendency to assume nothing will change. But in the opposite climate, change is all anyone can think about. That makes times of great negative upheaval a fertile ground for dystopians, because dystopians are concerned chiefly with the grotesque extrapolation of all that is wrong with the present.

Can we turn back from dystopia, or is it our inevitable fate?

There’s more good people in this world than bad, more kindness than cruelty. I don’t think the chief purpose of dystopic books is to describe the inevitable. The beating heart of any book isn’t concerned with prophecy, it’s concerned with empathy.