Canada Reads

3 things that inspired Omar El Akkad's Canada Reads-contending novel, American War

The journalist and author shares the experiences that helped shape his debut novel, American War.
Omar El Akkad's debut novel is American War. (Peter Power/CBC)

Omar El Akkad's novel American War is set against the backdrop of a planet ravaged by the effects of global warming — and imagines a not-too-distant future version of the United States that is locked in a civil war over the use of fossil fuels. Though set in the future, the novel touches on themes that are eerily relevant to the world's current political climate.

American War is being defended by actor Tahmoh Penikett during Canada Reads 2018. The debates, which will be hosted by Ali Hassan, take place March 26-29, 2018. 

El Akkad spoke about the timeliness of his novel with CBC Afternoon Drive's Chris dela Torre. The full interview can be heard below.

1. His journalism experience

"Much of the superficial scenery is based on things I saw in places like Kandahar or Guantanamo Bay or even Cairo during the Arab Spring. It also informs the narrative in a sense of symmetry. I was a journalist for 10 years and I was tear-gassed when I covered the Arab Spring in Cairo and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Mo. And that's not to say that being in one of those places leads to a heightened understanding of the other, only that a lot of the the visual language was the same. There were echoes in the sense of this heavily militarized police presence and people who are so fed up with injustice that they were willing to face down this police presence. And since American War is very much concerned with the idea of symmetry and universality, those experiences definitely inform the writing of the book."

2. A very bad day

"I know a lot of very confident writers, but I wouldn't consider myself a confident writer. Writing for me is very much an act that's deeply tied to anxiety and self-doubt. I had one of those nights where I felt like I had no talent to speak of and I didn't have any right to be undertaking a project like this so I deleted it. Then I went out and took a long walk to the river here in Portland and realized that while it may be a very painful experience for me to write, it's a much more painful experience not to write. I came back home, I fished out an older version — I lost two chapters that night — but ultimately I got done with it."

3. Injustice around the world

"I wrote American War to talk about this idea of there being no such thing as a foreign kind of suffering, that the way we react to injustice is universal. We just happen to live in a relatively peaceful part of the world and so we have this privilege of assuming that those people all the way over there are behaving in some kind of fundamentally exotic way, and American War is a lot about this idea that that's simply not true, that we all react to injustice the same way."

Omar El Akkad's comments have been edited and condensed.

Omar El Akkad talks to Chris dela Torre about his Canada Reads shortlisted novel, American War.


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