The Next Chapter

How Omar El Akkad unintentionally mirrors the U.S. political climate in his new book

Set in the near future, Omar El Akkad's debut novel American War envisions a world where government restrictions on fossil fuels have sparked a second Civil War in the United States.
American War is Omar El Akkad's debut novel. (Michael Lionstar/McClelland & Stewart)

Set in the near future, Omar El Akkad's debut novel American War envisions a world where government restrictions on fossil fuels have sparked a second Civil War in the United States. Growing up in the midst of this conflict, Sarat Chestnut is shaped by violence and displacement in ways she could never have imagined. The novel came at a time when the future world it described — a divided America at war with itself — was unfolding in real-time after the election of Donald Trump as president.

American War was defended by Tahmoh Penikett on Canada Reads 2018. This segment originally aired on March 5, 2018.

On timing

"I finished the first draft of the manuscript a few weeks before Donald Trump announced he was running for president. The world described in the book is very much untouched by the current political moment. I think if I knew what was coming and tried to write a piece of fiction based on that, I don't think anybody would have bought it in 2015. They would have told me to tone it down because I'd be chasing a moving target. I live in the States right now and I couldn't tell you what new disaster is going to come tomorrow, let alone a month from now. It's a very hard thing to try and pin down."

On the surreal toll of climate change

"In the story, the United States is a very different place geographically. Rising sea levels and climate change have decimated the Eastern seaboard. Florida is underwater. About 100 million people have moved inland to avoid the storms and the rising seas. The union government decides to impose a prohibition on fossil fuels as a way to combat all of this. By this point in time most of the world has moved on to other sources of fuel, but a number of Southern states decide that they would rather secede than go along with this. So what follows is a second civil war."

On the notion of home

"I was thinking a lot about home when I was writing this story. I don't have a very good answer to the question, 'Where are you from?' I was born in one country, but I left it when I was five. I grew up in another country. But I could never be a citizen because they don't allow non-hereditary citizenship. I consider Canada my home, but I didn't come to Canada until I was 16 years old. And now I live in the United States, which I don't consider my home, but is physically my home for the time being. I was trying to deconstruct what home means and I came up with a hierarchy. The very bottom of which is just the right to live in peace and at the very top end of which is the right to fundamentally alter your surroundings. The book is concerned with this idea of home, not as a location, not even as a state of mind or an allegiance, but rather as trying to work your way up that hierarchy."

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